“Let me carry your burden
If something's not right I will let you know
Like the paint that's drying on a heart that's poor
Let me carry your burden
Get you back on a high when you're feeling low
When the weight's too heavy but you won't let go.”
—Foy Vance, Burden
Last week my daughters and I traveled to the beautiful hills of Asheville, North Carolina to celebrate my precious parents’ 54th wedding anniversary. My younger daughter begged to room with my older sister, Rebecca. This meant my almost 13-year-old daughter, Natalie, and I would be roomies. Although I was thrilled for this sacred time with her, I knew this combination could mean trouble. The two of us are cut from the same ultra productive, list-checking, resistant-to-relax cloth and have the tendency to come alive at night. Whether it’s watching a show, organizing a closet, planning a project, or playing with our cat, we don’t wind down; we wind up. While it can feel like a good idea at the time, there is always a repercussion for sacrificing sacred sleeping hours. It doesn’t take long to see the telltale signs of sleep deprivation in my girl. Within a few days, there are dark circles underlined with irritability, forgetfulness, and distractibility. I can recognize these danger signs in my daughter because I spent two years denying them in myself.
Contained within the two-year period of my intentional sleep deprivation are some of my most painful and embarrassing memories. During that time, I smashed my husband’s coffee pot in anger. I blew through a red light while completely lost in thought, nearly hitting the driver of an oncoming truck. I screamed at my beautiful family one night and ran out to my car, pajamas clad and barefoot, thinking I might leave forever.
There are more stories, all equally difficult to type through blurry tears. But one can be certain my sleep deprivation stories all contain irrational thinking, poor decision making, overreaction, raised voices, and regret … lots and lots of regret.
Neglecting to give myself proper rest and self-care brought out the worst in me and contaminated the lives of everyone in my house. Although the connection between lack of sleep and my emotional deterioration took time to realize, increasing my sleep time produced immediate positive results.
Within a few days of getting seven hours of sleep a night, I could think more clearly and was able to understand a critical truth: My inner bully was dictating my thoughts and actions. That critical voice inside me was the one pushing me to stay up late to tackle multiple page to-do lists and appear to have it “all together” to the outside world. It was the same damaging voice that wracked me with guilt whenever I took time to nurture myself. I knew if I allowed my inner bully to continue making choices for me, I would shorten my life, but not before destroying my most precious relationships.
Through daily prayer and restorative walks in nature, I was given a three-word mantra to silence my inner critic and practice self-care: Only love today.
Whenever a critical thought came to my mind or my mouth, I would cut it off with the words: “Stop! Only love today.” Sometimes I said it one hundred times a day, but it worked. Only love today became a voice of grace in my head, in my heart, and in my home. Only love today inspired me to have meaningful connection time with my children every night at bedtime. No matter how many mistakes we’d made during the day, we were able to end the day on a positive, peaceful note. This time of connection was important for them, but it was critical for me. It became my signal to turn off my brain and body and give myself the rest and sleep it needed to thrive.
My older daughter Natalie was especially responsive to our nightly time together. For many years I thought it was simply because she liked this one on one time with me. It wasn’t until recently that I realized she actually needs it. She needs this time of stillness to settle her body and mind, just as I do. Sometimes Natalie and I listen to music. Other times we’ll look at pictures of cats or read our respective books, side by side. But no matter what, she always asks me to rub the top of her shoulders that become sore from swim team practice. That’s when she says, “Tell me a story, Mom.” It can be something that happened in the news, in my childhood, in her childhood, or even a make-believe story. The story doesn’t matter – it’s the sound of my voice that soothes her.
“I always have trouble sleeping in strange places,” she said as we unpacked our bags in our Asheville hotel room that first day. “But I won’t this time because you’re going to be right next to me.”
“We just have to be sure to go to bed at a decent time,” I said to her as much as to myself.
“Yeah, because we’re night owls,” she said with a sneaky smile.
I smiled back, thinking it was a good thing Natalie was aware of this tendency in herself so she could make better choices than I once did.
“But what if I can’t sleep at camp?” Natalie said worriedly. She’d been bringing up this particular concern since the day she decided to try sleep-away camp almost a year ago.
This, however, would be the first time I had a helpful response. It came to me suddenly as I stared at my mini-me, this girl who thrives on a plan.
“You know how you mentioned the other day that planning ahead helps you feel less anxious or nervous—and that is why you always have very detailed plans?” I asked.
“I think we should figure out some tools for falling asleep in an unfamiliar place. It could be your Sleep Plan for camp … and maybe for life.”
Her face immediately brightened—I was definitely talking her language. “Yes! I like that idea,” she said.
I told Natalie about a few of the sleep tools I’d been using from Arianna Huffington’s enlightening book The Sleep Revolution. Although naming all her blessings by using each letter of the alphabet had never worked for inducing sleep with Natalie, she decided one of these ideas might:
- Mind dump – Before bed, write down all the things you can think of that you need to do. This can empty your mind and reassure you that you don’t need to remember your tasks through the night—your to-do list will be waiting for you in the morning. Combining the mind dump with small transitions toward sleep (like taking a hot bath, changing into dedicated pajamas instead of sleeping in workout clothes, or drinking chamomile or lavender tea) can make the mind dump even more effective. “Think of each stage as designed to help you shed more of your stubborn daytime worries,” Arianna writes in her book.
- Envisioning worry as a pebble in a calm lake – When any thought, worry, or concern comes up, think of it as a stone dropping into the lake. There may be a ripple or two, but quickly the lake returns to its smoothness and calm. As more thoughts or worries or fears come up, let them drop like stones and let the lake return to its natural tranquility.
- Have a sleep talisman – Find an object that sends a clear signal to both your body and your mind that it’s time to slow down. Examples include: an old fashioned music box; a weighted eye pillow lightly scented with lavender; a special little pillow with an image or saying that resonates with you; a cozy robe or slippers. It could also be a photo of loved ones, pets, or a soothing landscape—anything that helps you exhale the tensions and incompletions of the day. (Combine this with shutting down electronic devices well before you hold or look at your sleep talisman to increase effectiveness.)
- Use your breath to relax – Breathe in and out while focusing on love, grace, peace, or joy. Relax your eyes, relax your jaw, drop your shoulders, and feel yourself floating on a bed of air. Imagine yourself drifting on a raft down the Mississippi or floating on your back in a calm sea, trusting the gentle waves to take you somewhere safe.
* these helpful sleep tools, among many others,
are found in great detail on pages 211-221 in The Sleep Revolution
Over the course of our three-night hotel stay, my daughter and I tried these tips and found all of them to be helpful in some way or another. Natalie’s favorite, which we used every night, was the mind dump with the stages towards sleep. In a journal that her dad got her on a recent trip to NYC, she wrote down the things she was worried about or felt like she needed to do in the days ahead. Then she put it in the drawer to forget about until the next day. She then filled the tub with warm water for us to soak our feet. She decided to add a little clementine-scented oil to the water to enhance the experience. We sat on the edge of the tub rubbing oil into our feet. Sometimes we talked, other times we simply sat in connective silence. After I would get out, Natalie would take a bath, her favorite bedtime ritual.
On the last night of the trip, she came out of the bathroom, her hair wrapped in a fluffy white towel. “I just had a great idea. If I’m not allowed to take a bath or a shower right before bed at camp, I know what I can do to relax,” she said excitedly. “I will wash my feet in the sink and rub a little clementine oil on them. It will trick my brain into thinking I’m back in this hotel room with you, and I am safe and sleepy.”
“That sounds like a wonderful plan,” I said, feeling hopeful for the first time in months that maybe Natalie wouldn’t lie awake for hours on a narrow camp bed praying for sleep.
Not surprisingly, it would be me who would wake up from a deep sleep a few hours later due to a bad dream. I’d been worried about making the long drive home (I’m directionally challenged even with navigation), and I needed to finish editing my third book, due to my publisher in five days.
“It’s just a bad dream, Mom,” Natalie’s calm voice assured me in the pitch dark hotel room as I struggled to catch my breath. “You are safe. Everything’s okay,” she said firmly.
“Thank you,” I replied, realizing where I was. “I am safe. The people I love are safe. Everything’s okay,” I whispered to myself.
I then took my traveling worry and imagined dropping it like a pebble into the lake and watched the ripples subside.
I then took that worry of not meeting my book deadline and I did the same thing.
As I watched the ripples dissipate in my mind’s eye, I noticed something about that lake I didn’t expect to see.
Sitting on the water’s edge was my beautiful almost thirteen-year-old daughter. She was wearing a camp t-shirt, and she was laughing with friends. Her eyes were bright and her smile was wide.
She looked rested … calm … happy … joyful … and fully alive.
She was away from home, but she was practicing self-love and self-care, the things we were learning together as she grows.
“Only love today,” the voice inside her said.
She'll be okay, I decided as my eyes grew tired … maybe even better than okay.
And with a good night’s sleep, I will be too.
Dear friends of the Hands Free Revolution, as mentioned in the post, Arianna Huffington has written a life-enhancing book about the importance of sleep and how to get it. When I asked Arianna if I could share a few of the book’s tips that were helping my family, she said I could use anything—anything I thought could help others was open to me. I feel so grateful to be able to pass this life-saving wisdom along because I know it could be the answer someone is looking for today. Please know I have only scratched the surface of this book’s offerings in today’s post. I strongly encourage you to read it or gift it to someone who is lacking the knowledge and tools for restorative and healthy slumber. With a few changes to improve your sleep habits, life as you know it can become happier, healthier, and more hopeful. Click here to order or learn more about The Sleep Revolution.
Thank you for being part of this supportive online community. As always, I welcome you to share your experiences or anything you feel might be helpful or hopeful to someone reading today. The comment section of this blog and our Facebook page are pure gold because of you. We learn so much from each other.
If the ONLY LOVE TODAY mantra resonates with you, please know there are beautiful ONLY LOVE TODAY bracelets in leather and non-leather options in a variety of colors available. There is also a gorgeous hand-lettered print to display in your home or workplace. Being added very soon to the Hands Free Shop are ONLY LOVE TODAY silver and bronze cuffs. Here's my younger daughter wearing one during our beautiful week in Asheville …