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Mindful : December 2015
Joan Didion wrote in The White Album, “ We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” As she suggested, we search for the hidden kernel of mean- ing in the shifting phantasmagoria that is our life so we can make sense of what is so often senseless—random gunfire that takes the life of an inno- cent child, an earthquake that kills thousands, a medical diagnosis that rocks us to our core. But sometimes our stories become fixed, frozen, unchanging—even when change is both possible and desir- able—especially the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Here’s a story that until very recently I told myself about the insomnia that has plagued me for 30 years: “My body doesn’t know how to sleep. There’s obviously something very wrong with me. The only way I can fall asleep is to take a pill, and sometimes the only way to stay asleep is to take another pill. I hate how groggy the pills make me, but I am helpless and powerless to stop taking them. If I try, I’ll never sleep. I’ll be a complete wreck and fall apart and not be able to live up to my responsibili- ties. Sooner or later the lack of sleep will make me sick and die.” This was the story I told myself night after night under cover of dark- ness, believing it to be the absolute, immutable truth, not a made-up tale spinning in my mind. In the morning I’d tell myself another story, depend- ing on how many hours of sleep I’d Barbara Graham is an essayist, journalist, and playwright. She is author/editor of Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother. She is a contributing editor for Mindful. PHOTOGRAPHBYAYABRACKETT had, usually ranging from three or four on a bad night to sixish on a good one. Soon after I awoke, I’d feel the rumblings of anxiety about the night ahead. I’d try to calculate: How many Xanax—an anti-anxiety benzodiaz- epine, my drug of choice—would I need? One? One and a half? Or could I get by with just a half? The panic would build throughout the day and peak as bedtime neared. Like many stories of sleeplessness, mine began with a single incident. Though in childhood I’d had some anxiety about falling asleep, as an adult I was a pretty solid snoozer. That is, until I was 35 and a neurologist pre- scribed Inderal, a beta blocker, to treat my persistent migraines. The trouble was, beta blockers also lower heart rate and blood pressure—and my baseline for both was already low. Before long my usual vitality plummeted and → December 2015 mindful 43