December 5, 2012

Insomnia and Jet Lag and "Meditation"

First, a confession: I planned to write this report on Monday and post it on Tuesday. But on Monday the temperature in D.C. soared to a December 3 record of 71 degrees: a delight after Iceland! And on Monday night the Redskins played (AND BEAT!) the New York Giants.

So I "worked" in the yard that afternoon. The "work" consisted mainly of watering my newly planted trees and shrubs, then sitting on the back porch. And I needn't tell you what I did Monday night. Hail to the Redskins!

I'm glad I stumbled upon the very moving Alzheimer's video for Tuesday's post.

Second, an explanation: Monday's piece about my back was mostly written before the Iceland trip and easily tweaked on jet-lag Sunday. But I quickly got an e-mail from a dear friend who said, "I don't give a damn about your bad back. I want to hear about Iceland!"

I'm putting off that report for a few days, since I was using a new camera that proved old dogs have trouble learning new tricks. My photos didn't do justice to the amazing landscape or my amazing family. So I've solicited their photos. I also want to gather my thoughts about Iceland and the trip.

Now on to the subject for today.

Jet Lag and Insomnia
I'm a lifelong traveler. For years, jet lag and insomnia inevitably accompanied the start and end of every trip, particularly during the past decade's travels to Nepal and SE Asia. I've used -- and abused -- Tylenol PM and Ambien to deal with the travel trauma.

Fortunately, I kept a journal during most trips. They reveal I increasingly relied on these sleep aids at the beginning and end of my travels, as one might expect from my history of addiction to alcohol and nicotine (and other things). Those journal entries also mention periods of depression, and speculation that they might be associated with the pills.

On a trip to Nepal in the spring of 2006, I used Ambien and Tylenol PM every day. I continued using both when I returned home, too, since the jet lag and insomnia were pretty bad. After a week, I experienced panic attacks and depression unlike anything I'd ever felt before.

I spent that "Summer from Hell" seeing a variety of doctors, shrinks, and sleep specialists. I told them all I thought the problem was related to the Ambien and Tylenol PM abuse. But they heard "depression," "panic attacks," and "insomnia" and reached for their prescription pads. I went through a half-dozen different prescribed meds. None helped, and my issues worsened.

One shrink, whose specialty was medication, finally said the meds weren't working and suggested I pursue holistic approaches. I tried acupuncture, hypnosis, herbs. I even went to NYC to get a brain-wave reading that led to the making of a "brain wave music" CD designed specifically for me. This therapy had been featured on The Today Show.

Nothing really helped, although my condition abated a little after the summer meds extravaganza. The depression and panic attacks went away, but I was still plagued by insomnia. Finally, I stumbled across The Insomnia Solution, a book that features meditation-like exercises and a (hokey alert!) "secret handshake."  I've described that in a prior post (with photos of the "secret handshake"!).

Slowly but surely, this new regimen brought results. Aside from a few unusual setbacks, I've been mostly insomnia free, after struggling with the condition for more than 15 years!

My meditation practice is always evolving, and I'm convinced it's a key contributor to the good quality of my life today.

My Insomnia-Free Iceland Trip
Four generations of the Schappi family made the trip to Iceland. From what I could see, the youngest generation -- one-year-old Kensie and six-year-old Kaylee -- dealt with the travel travails better than the rest of us. They were both amazingly happy and rarin' to go every day, though I suspect their parents might say it wasn't always as easy as it looked.

From breakfast conversations, I know several "grown-ups" were troubled with sleep deprivation. My travel pattern was little different from what I'm used to, which is seven or more hours of sleep, including the time spent meditating in the early morning.

I'll confess: I did use Tylenol PM on the first night in Iceland and the first night back home. I know it almost always gives me a solid night's sleep. (Tylenol PM includes the same sleep-inducing component as Benedryl, which many people use as a sleep aid.)

But -- based on past experience -- I don't use it except for the first night after a long flight. In a 2008 write-up I did  for myself on my insomnia, I found this notation:
An AARP newsletter warned of the adverse effects of Benadryl/Tylenol PM on older people. A doctor was quoted as saying that using these meds "is a horrible choice . . . I almost can't think of anything worse." He said that in the worst cases, it can cause delirium and hallucinations. Potential adverse effects include dizziness which increases risk of falls; drowsiness; bowel problems; dryness of mouth, nose or throat; nervousness; restlessness; irritability; and unusual excitement or nightmares. I've seen similar warnings in health newsletters I receive.
My "Meditation" Today
I include quotation marks, since meditation purists would probably not call what I do true meditation.

When I started with my "secret handshake" meditation, I tried the traditional meditation I'd attempted for years: focusing on my respiration as I took deep in-and-out breaths. I had much more success with this meditation because the instructions that accompanied the secret handshake had me squeeze the captured finger as I breathed in, counting to ten. Then I switch and do the same with the captured thumb on the other hand.

This process gave me something to focus on, and made it easier to get into meditation mode. After doing this before bedtime -- and also when I sometimes found myself wide awake in the middle of the night -- my chronic insomnia faded away.

I still felt a bit like a failure, since I thought successful meditation involved emptying the mind of random thoughts. I can't do that, hard as I try.

Then, as I began reading more about meditation, and experimenting further, I found that "mindfulness meditation" was a much better fit for me. Here's a standard definition:
mindfulness meditation: a form in which distracting thoughts and feelings are not ignored but instead acknowledged and observed nonjudgmentally as they arise in order to detach from them and gain insight and awareness.
I still use the secret handshake, beginning with the finger-thumb squeezes and counting in-and-out breaths just to get settled. Then I sit back and watch the thoughts come and go.

And I Never Know What Will Result from My Meditation
One of the thoughts that passed by a month or so ago was: "Nancy said she and Bill were going to Iceland to chase the Northern Lights.  Why don't I see if the family is interested in doing this?"

Last week in Iceland, the meditation thought parade include this: "When we were talking about Lance Armstrong,  Todd said he'd always wanted to see the Tour de France.  I've wanted to stay at the place Hugh recommended in Paris.  Wonder if Todd and Jill would like to join me in going to London and Paris in July?  Looks like we this?"

Alert to friends and family members who might be getting ideas:  It won't work.  I have a member of my extended family who keeps mentioning how much he'd love to have a Mercedes and/or a Harley-Davidson. That thought has never popped up in my meditation. 

1 comment:

Nancy Sedmak-Weiss said...

Too bad about the Mercedes, cause I could use one! LOL!!! Wonderful piece, and will share with my husband (we've been trying to get into meditation but haven't made much progress). We recently returned from Porto Alegre Brazil and had jet lag, disturbed sleep, and tiredness both to and from. This testimonial will give us additional incentive. Plus, can't wait to hear about Iceland.