Thanatophobia in 2021
'Wherever you are, be all there.'Jim Eliot
If you calculate how much sleep I’ve had in each year of my life, I am almost positive that I’ve never had less than I did last year.
Rest can mean a lot of things. It can be a nap. It can be a full 8 hours of sleep. It can be a movie or a bath or a yoga session. To me, rest is more about my state of mind while I'm doing something, not what I'm doing. Last year, I was so tired that I felt like I was losing my mind. I was so sleep-deprived that I had a cold every month. I was so tired that I lost my appetite. I was so tired that my eye wouldn't stop twitching. I was so tired that I was too exhausted to fall asleep. You only know what I'm saying if you've experienced it. Last year I had nightmares every night and panic attacks every day. Last year was the most restless year of my life.
This year my motto is quality over quantity. This year is about less. Less clutter, less spending, less travel, less sickness, less stress. My mantra for 2022 is a quote by Jim Eliot. “Wherever you are, be all there.” I am determined to be more present this year and to work on the deep guilt, panic, and fear that caused me so much pain last year. This year, I want to be all there. I might be one of the most restless people on the planet, so I know this won’t come easy. Sitting still physically hurts most of the time. I am always multitasking. I hate silence but I’m learning to embrace it.
A lot happened in 2021. The year somehow flew by but also felt like it would never end. In a way, I feel like my mental breakdown came out of nowhere. Now that I'm on the other side of it, I can see it's been building for a long time. The gravity of the pandemic didn't fully hit me in 2020. I was working at a pharmacy for the first half of the year and at a daycare for the rest. We never closed. I didn't have time to be scared or to let the pain sink in. In 2021, I went back to college for the first time in 5 years. My first semester went well, so I decided to take on more classes in the summer and fall, not knowing that my whole life was about to fall apart.
That summer, my husband and I had three back-to-back trips planned. Normally we both do well with traveling, together or apart, but this summer was different. We had both been battling depression, but he had reached the point of suicidal ideation, and it terrified me to be away from him. Some days I would come home to him laying on the floor, the weight of excruciating mental pain written on his face. All I could do most days was lay there with him in silence, praying it would pass. What would happen if I wasn't there with him? He traveled without me to Nashville, and I thought I would feel better knowing he was with friends, but my panic attacks didn’t get the memo.
The night he left in mid-July was the first of many sleepless nights. I lay in bed shaking and sweating; I called him to try to calm myself down. He told me he was doing fine, but my body couldn’t control the fear.
When he came back and it was my turn to leave, things got so much worse— partly because now he was home alone, partly because I was going home to Colorado. My trips home are always the least restful vacations possible. Every spare second is filled with visiting friends and family, and I am always booked from the moment I wake up until I crawl into bed. There is an ever-present pang of deep unresolved guilt if I don’t try to do everything and see everybody. I was in a full-on panic the entire week I was there. Something in my body felt unsettled and anxious no matter what I was doing. I had come for a friend’s wedding, but by the time that day came, I was so burnt out and sleep-deprived that the whole thing was a blur. I didn’t get to enjoy the delicious and expensive food because I had no appetite. I didn’t get to enjoy the free wine because I felt too terrible to drink. I didn’t get to be fully present with the friends I hadn’t seen in years. The wedding was lovely, but I wish I hadn’t been so burnt out by the time I got there.
Shortly after I got home, my husband and I left for another wedding in Indiana. Miraculously, I felt great that whole weekend. We stayed in a beautiful Airbnb next to one of the busiest streets in town and a very loud bar. Somehow, it was the best sleep I’d had in weeks.
As soon as we got home, my classes started. This was my first semester in my Kinesiology undergrad program and my first semester ever going full time, although I have been in college off and on for 10 years. I was terrified, but immediately fell in love. I couldn't believe I got to take these fascinating classes about exercise programming and the theory of strength training. Every assignment was exciting and stimulating. My teachers were kind and brilliant and funny. I made friends quickly, and we shared a lot of the same classes. I wondered, is the panic over? Will the heaviness stay away long enough for me to get a full week of sleep?
On the Thursday of my first week of school, I received a text from my mother. My father's house had burned down while he was inside. He was life-flighted to Denver and was in a coma. I felt instant panic, pain, and shock; I did not sleep at all that night. This news was especially complicated because I hardly speak to my father. He has a history of addiction and abuse. I love him deeply, I forgive him daily, but I've had to build up boundaries to keep my sanity. This text brought up so many emotions, and the heaviness came back with a few extra pounds.
The next week, my best friends’ dad passed away suddenly in a very traumatic way. It is not my story to tell, but I will say that this hurt for a lot of reasons. I hadn't often seen him since I moved away from Colorado, but there was a time in my life when their dad was around as often as my own. I've been lucky not to lose many loved ones yet in life, but the thought of him being gone so suddenly was a lot to grasp. Seeing my twin best friends grieve this loss broke my heart. I wanted to hug them and cook for them and make them laugh, but I was hundreds of miles away. It also forced me to face the reality of the situation that my own father was in. Someday, he will die. We all will. And sometimes you don't get to say goodbye. It happens in the time between one phone call where you say, "You'll get to talk to him soon, he just needs to rest" and another where she says, “He's gone. It happened so fast.”
Between my husband's progressing suicidal thoughts, my father on his deathbed, and my friends’ father already in heaven—my brain couldn't cope with all of the pain and trauma surrounding me. For a while I was spiraling, and then all of a sudden I was down without the strength to stand back up. I was consumed with a fear of death and sickness and aging, the all-consuming thought that time never stops passing. I'd be taking a shower one moment and the next I'd think, “What would I prefer, for me or my husband to die first?” Then I'd think, "I'm so lucky I have so many great loved ones to help me through this difficult time." Then I'd be hit with, "Everyone I know and love will die someday, and I don't think I can handle that loss." I'd be studying for a test and suddenly wonder, "Will our kids move away when they get older and not want to spend time with us? Will I get lonely and depressed and suicidal when I'm old?" I was approaching 30, and time suddenly felt so real.
I'd have nightmares of seeing my father's burns. I was tormented all night with the darkest thoughts I’d ever known. I'd lay in bed shaking, crying, praying, singing, and hoping I could survive until this passed. I was sick constantly because of the lack of sleep. Most days I could only eat one meal—stress stole my appetite and held it hostage for months. I was paralyzed by guilt and fear and felt like I was going to be stuck that way forever. I'd never sleep through the night again or enjoy a meal again or be present without the shadow of death. I was more mentally and physically exhausted than I'd ever felt in my life, but I couldn't sleep for more than 2 hours at a time. Sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture for a reason. It makes you lose your mind.
I wish I could tell you one thing I did to get better in case you've felt this same burden. It's not that simple, but I did get better. I went to therapy every week. We started EMDR to try to resolve my nightmares. I took medicine. Herbal, homeopathic, prescription, and everything you could imagine. I stayed active because sometimes the endorphins were better than all of my prescriptions combined. I called everyone I ever loved and told them with brutal honesty how badly I was doing. I prayed and worshiped a lot, even when I was mad at God and sick of church. I baked more cookies than a busy bakery and bought out all the butter and brown sugar at the store. I ate them guilt-free and let my belly feel the sweetness. Even though absolutely everything felt impossible, I kept going to things, I kept planning things, I gave myself things to look forward to. I fought like hell to have my sanity back.
There wasn't one special day where everything changed, but they had changed a lot by December. I felt like that guy who’s digging for diamonds in the comic. He’s been digging forever and it feels like he's getting nowhere, but the diamonds are right behind the next place he's going to dig. Eventually, I woke up and realized the dirt was behind me and the diamonds were in front of me. I didn’t know why, I was just thankful. 2021 was unexpectedly one of the most painful years of my life. I never want to feel that exhausted again, but I can't deny how much I learned from it all. I learned all at once how shockingly short life can be, and how important it is to enjoy it as much as possible. I genuinely didn’t know if I’d ever have another moment in life where I wasn’t consumed with the fear of sickness and death. Now that I’m on the other side, I want to enjoy the little things in life and take care of myself enough to make it to the big things. I learned on a completely new level how to prioritize rest and take care of myself.
Rest is so much more than a nap. Rest is calling your friends while you're having a panic attack so their familiar voice can guide you away from the cliff. Rest is showing up to therapy even though you're so sick of talking about your pain. Rest is going on a walk even though you're exhausted and letting the sunshine melt the marrow of your bones. Rest is taking your medicine and not feeling guilty about needing it. Rest is letting your mind be in just one place once in a while.
New Year’s Day felt extra special this year. I woke up feeling a deep sense of refreshment and a renewed joy about life. I called my dad and had one of the best talks we've ever had. I wandered around a bookstore and didn't feel rushed or frantic. I let myself be lazy. I let myself rest. I didn't feel guilty. I want to carry this feeling into the rest of my year. “Wherever you are, be all there.” The quality over quantity approach to life. This year, I am prioritizing less clutter, less spending, less but better food, more reading, less scrolling, more creating, more deep breaths, more investing in myself. This year, I promise to be all there.
About the author
I've loved reading and writing for as long as I can remember. I feel the most content holding a book while laying in the sun. I'm the author of a poetry collection 'Lungs Like Elephants'