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Compassion Is the Key to Overcoming Hardship (and Insomnia)

“You can never know how many lives you’ve touched, so just know it’s far more than you think. Even the tiniest acts of love, kindness, and compassion can have a massive ripple effect. You have made the world a better place, even if it doesn’t seem like it.” ~Lori Deschene

I never had trouble sleeping until I got divorced. I never had a nervous breakdown either. Bankruptcy, fighting for custody of my children, and losing my business and my home definitely pushed things over the edge.

What made matters worse is that unabated, stress-related sleep deprivation can lead to difficulty functioning, depression, and incredible self-loathing.

In other words, insomnia completely messes with your mind.

Having a psychiatrist in the family should have been helpful; at least he was well-intended. And, while it’s not exactly best practice to prescribe for a relative, I was literally frozen in my bed, eyes wide open for way too many nights in a row, with two small children to care for.

I was living in Las Vegas and desperate for help. He was in New York, near the rest of my family. Out of love and pity, he conceded.

We started with Ambien for the first few nights. Nothing. We tried Lunesta which made me more wakeful. I am pretty sure the move into Restoril is what made me break. 

According to rxlist.com, Restoril can “cause paranoid or suicidal ideation and impair memory, judgment, and coordination.  “

Taking Restoril did not restore my sleep. It caused me to temporarily lose my mind.

Lying in bed, my eyes were glued wide open in panic. I was convinced that my children would be taken away to be raised by their father and his girlfriend, while I would be locked up in some random psych ward, forever wearing a white hospital gown.

I would lose everything and bring complete shame to myself and my family.

What had gone wrong?

I was born happy and easygoing; nothing much ever fazed me. I was an independent, self-assured child who had grown into a strong, grateful woman. I was a free-spirited artist, always known for “looking on the bright side.”

Now, lying in sleepless wait, taking my own life frequently floated in and out of my extremely messed-up mind. Thankfully, I always concluded that I could never abandon my children or destroy my family.

Still, I was so completely traumatized that I literally could not move unless absolutely necessary. My meditation cushion was next to my bed; I had just started this practice and did not yet have strong skills. All I knew was that after I sat, I could gather myself enough to care for my sons.

I can’t recall if it was two or three weeks that passed in what I now refer to as my “psychotic break.”

I do remember my relative, the doctor, saying, “Elizabeth, I’ve given you enough sedatives and tranquilizers to take down an elephant, and you’re still not sleeping. There is a chance you are bipolar. It can have a very fast onset, and it runs in our family.”

Bipolar? Me? Little Miss Sunshine?? That was all I needed to hear.

I had started a business designing clothes that had taken off too quickly, requiring me to spend time in Los Angeles. Since my children were with their father two weeks of the month, I had rented a tiny studio in Topanga Canyon, a beautiful, peaceful, hippie enclave between the Valley and Malibu.

I knew my only hope for sanity was in that canyon, but my lease was up and I had no money. My mother, terrified for my sanity, gave me the last month’s rent.

I tossed out the meds, got into my car (against better judgment), and drove the four hours from Vegas to Topanga. On the way, I stopped at Whole Foods and bought at least three different natural sleep remedies with clear instructions on how to use them.

The first few nights I tossed, sweated, and pitched. My meditation cushion was the only place I could find relief, so I was sure to sit on and off, even just for a few minutes, whenever I could drag myself out of bed.

During the day, I forced myself to take short walks because I knew if I did things that were “normal,” eventually I would be.

After four days and nights detoxing, I finally slept. Not soundly and not all the way through, but the spell was clearly broken. I was taking Valerian, a remedy called “Calms,” and melatonin. 

By the end of the week, my nightmare seemed to be over.

Months later, I realized I’d had a nervous breakdown. My nervous system was shot, and I suffered tremendous repercussions for well over a year.

After that, my meditation practice grew stronger by the day. And, while my sleep improved, the rest of my life was still extremely challenged. My business failed badly. My former business partner sued me and put a lien on the house I had purchased with borrowed money. My ex-husband filed bankruptcy, which fell onto me.

With no business, no income, and no way to sell my house because of the lien, I was looking at huge debt plus a mortgage I had no way of paying. I had very little alimony or child support. The relationship with my ex had become a battleground, littered with the torn parts of our once happy life.

I had one choice: to step up or give up.

I remember wondering, if I was having such a hard time getting through a divorce, how did people overcome the worst things imaginable? 

How could a mother survive losing a child?

I made up my mind to find out that answer and share it with others.

I knew I could write but needed help with marketing. An ad on Craigslist led me to Angela Daffron, who ran a small marketing business. She was a stalking victim who had become an advocate for other victims.

Angela’s story was devastating, and she clearly had become empowered through helping others. But I needed to understand surviving pain on an even deeper level.

I tracked down Candace Lightner, whose fourteen-year-old daughter Cari was killed by a drunk driver with four prior convictions. Candace had led a one-woman, grassroots, pre-Internet crusade against drunk driving and founded MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). Today, MADD has been estimated to have saved close to 600,000 lives.

More recently, Candace had founded “We Save Lives,” another non-profit devoted to ending drugged, drunk, and distracted driving.

I needed to know how Candace got out of bed the day after Cari was killed.

I found her email online and reached out. Candace was incredibly generous with her time—that conversation was the first of many that evolved into a deep, lifelong friendship.

Keeping others safe on the highway was Candace’s life’s mission, and she let nothing get in her way.  Cari’s life had to serve a purpose; through that, Candace discovered a path through her pain.

I continued interviewing women who had been through hell and back, so I could learn. So I could share. So I could recover. A pattern emerged:

Mary Griffith’s son Bobby was gay, and Mary could not accept him. Bobby killed himself by jumping off an overpass into ongoing traffic.

Mary became one of the greatest LGBT advocates of her day.

Eva Eger had been forced to dance for famed SS leader Joseph Mengele in Auschwitz. She survived the Holocaust but lost her entire family.

Eva became a psychotherapist.

Deanne Breedlove’s son Ben passed from heart disease at just eighteen years old. Before he died, unbeknownst to anyone, Ben made a video that shared a near death experience with all of the peace, love, beauty, and angels that he experienced.

Ben passed on Christmas Day 2011. By the next morning, his video had gone viral around the world.

Deanne devoted her days to volunteering at Dell Children’s Hospital, where Ben had spent so much of his life. She offers love and support to parents with sick and dying children.

My learning continued. Writing stories about loss, rape, and homelessness with everything in-between, made it clear: Compassion was key to overcoming hardship.

And, it wasn’t necessary to write a book, change laws, or start a non-profit. Compassion could mean showing up for anyone in some small way… even if that “anyone” was you.

I became more compassionate. I meditated, spent more time in nature, and took better care of my body. I paid more attention to my roles as a daughter, sister, friend, and mother. I learned to pause and make sure that, if someone needed me, I was there.

I became a much better listener, especially with my children.

I was also fired up with the purpose of sharing what I had learned with others.

With all of these changes, my outer world hadn’t yet caught up with my inner world. My spirit was stronger, but I was still struggling financially and emotionally. I still could not reconcile the mess I had made of my life. 

I fell into the bad habit of continually beating myself up for my mistakes, spending sleepless nights doing the life review of all the ways I had messed up, over and over again.

I also did not know that the unconscious mind cannot differentiate the past and the present.  Somewhere deep in my psyche I believed that difficulty sleeping meant I would go off the deep end again.

The anxiety around sleep became worse than the insomnia itself.

I went to a sleep specialist to ensure there was nothing physically wrong. My internist prescribed medication for when insomnia hit really hard. I found a hypnotherapist who helped re-train my subconscious. When I woke in the night, I meditated so my body could find rest.

This time, sleep deprivation was not taking me down. 

I was referred to a website called WIFE.org, which stands for the Women’s Institute for Financial Education. WIFE was the nation’s longest running non-profit devoted to female financial literacy. On the home page, I saw that, for $1, I could order a bumper sticker that read, “A Man is Not a Financial Plan.”

In that moment, I understood that if I could personally help women through their divorces, I would survive.

Two days later, I landed on co-founder Candace’s Bahr’s doorstep. She and her partner, Ginita Wall, were two of the nation’s greatest advocates in helping women become financially literate. They had also been running a workshop called “Second Saturday: What Every Women Needs to Know About Divorce” for almost twenty-five years.

Second Saturday provided free legal, financial, and emotional advice for women in any stage of divorce, beginning with just thinking about it.

I let Candace and Ginita know I was going to advocate, volunteer, and work for them. I told them they were “never getting rid of me.” Within one year, I raised enough money to help them roll Second Saturday out nationally.

Three years later we had gone from two locations to over one hundred and twenty.

Every Second Saturday, I bared my soul and told my awful tale to groups of women in the most vulnerable possible way I could. Just as I had been, they were terrified. I wanted them to know that they were not alone, and they would survive.

I also wanted to let them know that their lives would unfold in remarkable ways.

In sharing my darkest moments, I helped them get through theirs. From that space, my true healing began.  

When I was helping others, I forgot my own pain. And, when I saw how my story helped others, my journey of forgiveness began, beginning with myself.

With all of this new awareness and an amazing, supportive community, my struggles had less and less impact. I continued working with Candace and Ginita, and slowly but surely, my outer life began to shift.  I made art to soothe my soul and created a program to share artmaking with other women.

My children were the true center of my world, and I made the most of every moment I had with them. I became more and more grateful for every part of my life, including—and especially—the struggles.

Had I not gone through a terrible divorce, I never would have met Candace Lightner, Mary Griffith, Eva Eger, Deanne Breedlove, Candace and Ginita, and so many other remarkable people.

I never would have helped thousands of women get through their own struggles.

I would never have understood that we are all born with infinite gifts that we were meant to share with others.

Insomnia had led to compassion and purpose.

Eventually, I fell in love and married again. This time with a man who supported every part of my being, including my artist’s soul. My purpose in helping others transformed to our joint purpose: sharing the healing benefits of art.

We founded “The Spread Your Wings Project,” a non-profit with a mission of being an uplifting response to the tragedies faced by our nation today. We are blessed to make massive pairs of angel wings in community with children.

We are humbled and grateful to have worked with Dell Children’s Hospital, and the city of Las Vegas, in honor of lives lost on 10/1/17.

Today, we are incredibly honored to be partnering with Dylan’s Wings of Change, a foundation borne of the Sandy Hook shooting. Ian Hockley lost his beautiful six-year-old Dylan on that tragic day. In Dylan’s honor, he founded DWC and “Wingman,” an educational curriculum that teaches children compassion, empathy, and inclusion.

What could be more important than that?

We are launching “Spread Your Wings with Wingman,” where we will build massive angel wings with schoolchildren across the country.

What an incredible gift for someone who believed her life was worthless!

Two weeks ago, I had a few rough nights. Instead of spiraling down the insanity vortex, my older, wiser self took over. I embraced my sleep struggles as a sign to practice more self-love.

I slowed down. I listened to the trees. I created more boundaries with people and technology. I counted my blessings that everyone I love is healthy and well, at least in this moment. I sent more prayers and gratitude to the amazing people who, through their stories, helped me re-write mine.

I dove into preparation for “Spread Your Wings with Wingman,” and remembered everything I learned, beginning with this:

Compassion—beginning with self-compassion—is the key to a good night’s sleep.

About Elizabeth Bryan-Jacobs

Elizabeth Bryan-Jacobs is an artist and bestselling author of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings and Soul Models: Transformative Stories of Courage and Compassion.  She founded “Creative Awakenings,” a transformational creativity program that she teaches nationally. She and her husband, artist Bobby Jacobs, founded “The Spread Your Wings Project,” a 501 (c) 3 to share the profound benefits of the arts and art therapy.  To learn more, visit  www.elizabethbryanjacobs.com and www.thespreadyourwingsproject.org.

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About Anas Alaoui

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