The idea of going to Paris, or really anywhere across so many time zones, scared me. I wanted to go on this trip to celebrate two milestones: Dennis and my 15th wedding anniversary in November and my upcoming 40th birthday on January 31st. It sounded fun, like something monumental. Plus, Sienna has been dreaming of visiting Paris for a while and we’d celebrate both hers and Mateo’s birthdays while on the trip. There were many reasons to go on this family adventure.
But, beneath the surface, I was terrified that this trip would trigger a bout of insomnia like the jet lag did in 2001 when I returned from Okinawa. I told myself that I was “accepting” my fear by not giving in to it. The very fact that I was going on the trip meant I was “facing the fear and doing it anyway” – right?
Looking back, I recognize that my fear kept me from engaging in the planning of this trip. My attempt at acceptance actually became repression of painful feelings which caused me to avoid deeply committing to the process of planning and dreaming about this adventure. Fear caused me to withdraw and go through the motions, without opening my heart to the experience.
Then, my worst fear came true. I laid awake for hours our first night in Paris. The second night was the same, though I finally crashed for several hours of interrupted sleep. The third night, I didn’t fall asleep at all. The anxiety was acute and I woke Dennis in the middle of the night to sob and seek comfort. He was loving and supportive, staying awake the rest of the early morning hours to keep me company. I finally called my sister at 4:30 a.m. local time (fortunately early in the night back in California) where she helped me recognize that my staunch refusal to take a sleep aid was actually a way of trying to control the situation.
I knew that acceptance of this situation would bring peace, but my struggle switch was firmly in the on position and I couldn’t release my need to fix what was happening. My mom, kids and me found a Pharmacie and purchased a sleep aid (basically Benadryl) to take the edge off my insomnia fear. That fourth night in Paris, I had to take multiple doses to finally rest, but somehow that night, acceptance slowly creeped in. I’d experienced three days of exploring this beautiful city and I had been present. Yes, there were painful feelings and nagging thoughts about this inability to sleep, but I was able to defuse them and refocus on the experience of being there, with my family, taking in these new sights.
Fear of not sleeping had been replaced with the actual experience of not sleeping. I could handle these feelings in the moment.
By the end of our trip, I slept a restorative 8 hours straight without a sleep aid. Acceptance brought peace and relief.
Coming back home, the nine hour time-change meant that we didn’t see daylight for 24 hours. My body clock was so thrown off and I felt the fear creep back in. As I laid awake the first night home, I kept telling myself that I would not take a sleep aid. I would not give in to the fear and try to fix the situation. No sleep came that night and my anxiety was again extremely high. I practiced my expansion skills observing the painful feelings in my body, breathing deeply, and giving the pain all the room is needed to move on. I prayed and found moments of peace. At one point, I thought, “Maybe it would be wise to take a sleep aid tomorrow night” and I felt such relief at this simple idea.
At Target the following day, I purchased a box of ZZZQuil, figuring it looked pretty basic and would do the trick. That night I took one dose and about ninety minutes later, a second dose. When I was still awake another hour later, I Googled the effectiveness of ZZZQuil and discovered a message board full of insomnia suffers claiming that ZZZQuil did nothing to help them sleep and in fact felt like a stimulant! It’s ironic how validating these strangers’ comments felt. I dug out a dose of trusty NyQuil and finally crashed that night.
I threw the box of ZZZQuil away the next day with a sense of satisfaction. There wasn’t some magic pill or solution to fix this deep fear. I felt so much closer to acceptance in that moment. In the end, taking or not taking a sleep aid was not the critical piece of this story. Sleep aids have their usefulness and are most effective when taking when a spirit of acceptance.
I struggle with wanting to control my feelings. I want to feel “positive” feelings and fuse with “positive thoughts”. This is the “Happiness Trap” – the idea that only “positive” feelings and thoughts are acceptable. The actual experience of lying in bed awake is not painful, it’s the feelings of anxiety and racing thoughts that tell me: “You’re broken” or “You should be able to control this” that cause me distress.
I’ve been through this pattern of insomnia fear and acceptance several times since my awakening in 2013. As such, I’d learned that true acceptance brought relief of fear and anxiety. Therefore, I started to tell myself that I “accepted” the feelings in an attempt to control my feelings. In The Happiness Trap, Dr. Russ Harris cautions readers again and again not to use acceptance techniques as control techniques because they will eventually fail. True acceptance means that you allow your feelings to be, without struggling to push them away or change them.
Another huge realization of my awakening was how frequently my mind creates dichotomies between good and bad, right and wrong. These judgments are another way of trying to control my thoughts and feelings. So, deciding that I “would not take a sleep aid” prior to the trip and again upon returning from Paris, I made a judgment that sleep aids indicated weakness and I shouldn’t need one. Acceptance could actually involve recognizing my body’s limitation and the impact that a 9 hour time change would have on it, and taking along a sleep aid in case it could be helpful.
This post describes an intense inner experience, that doesn’t come across in the sharing of vacation photos on Instagram and Facebook. It requires vulnerability to share the hard and painful parts of myself. All this to say, our trip was also fun, rewarding, full of good memories and new experiences. Life isn’t good or bad. Experiences are not completely highs or lows. They are a mix of both, all the time. Memories of feeling fear and anxiety will be there when I reflect back on our Paris trip. But so will memories of the places we saw and the experiences we had: moments of silliness, watching the kids taking photographs, and exploring a beautiful city with the people I love.
Growth for me involves not having to judge or label this trip as either good or bad. It was a great trip that also involved a lot of hard emotions for me. This is acceptance.