Fitbit, my sleep friend (Guest post)

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Guest blogger Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, who has written about her breast cancer and her love of aikido, is now in search of a better night’s sleep. 

I got a Fitbit Flex several weeks ago, mostly to track my daily steps, because I was concerned that I was sitting too much during the day. On the whole, I’ve been really happy with the basic model that I purchased – it does what I need it to do, which is track my steps.

But the nice thing about the Fitbit fitness tracker is that it can also track your sleeping patterns, spitting out reports like this one below. (As an aside, notice the time at the top of the screen shot. Yes, I started writing this blog post about insomnia…  while I had insomnia…)

The red areas indicate when you’re awake, and the light blue areas indicate when you’re restless. The device accurately plots both, and subtracts them from your total time in bed (as indicated by the time ranges beside each date).

I’m a bit of a numbers geek, so I’m fascinated by data like this. Over time, it helps explain a lot – like why I’m so exhausted, essentially.

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There are a few downsides to using Fitbit to track your sleep, though.

  • I’ve found it doesn’t do a super accurate job of knowing exactly when you’re awake. Some nights I when I know I’ve been awake for a while, it’s only registered that I’ve been restless (or conversely, it assumes I’m sleeping when I’m just motionless – like the nights when I used to watch movies on my phone!).
  • On the nights when I charge the Fitbit battery in the middle of the night, they only show up as nights when I’ve gotten a few hours of sleep (because I often put the charged device back on if I get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night). On the Tuesday night above, for example, I wasn’t wearing the device through the night, but put it back on to get one final bit of sleep before I got out of bed for the day.

On the whole, though, I love using the Fitbit to track my sleeping habits. I’m not sure I would be disciplined enough to keep such accurate records without the device automatically synching with my smartphone.

And as you can see from the report above, I still have a real sleep problem (although I’m convinced I’m finally on the right track with my current sleep program, which I’ll talk about in a couple of weeks). Most nights I’m getting between 6 – 6 1/2 hours of sleep, but some nights (like Thursday, above), I’m getting far less.

(Although you may also notice that I’m napping for 1 hour in the afternoon whenever I can – that’s actually an accepted part of my new sleep regime.)

This is the sixth in a series of posts about changing unhealthy sleep habits. Future posts will include:

  • White-knuckling the early morning hours without sleep aids
  • The sleep plan that finally worked

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Prioritizing sleep (Guest Post)

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Guest blogger Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, who has written about her breast cancer and her love of aikido, is now in search of a better night’s sleep. 

See that cute photo at the top of this post? That’s one of my two cats, peacefully slumbering. The way he and his brother do…  all the fricking time. (Except in the middle of the night, when this one wants to groom me during one of my hot flashes. Yeah. Fun.)

As much as I feel awful when I have a wakeful night, and as much as I say I want more sleep, it wasn’t until I recently read Arianna Huffington’s The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time that I finally identified one of the core issues that was corroding my sleep. And it wasn’t my age (mid-life), my breast cancer treatment (which is causing chemical menopause), or the chronic pain in my knees and ankles from sports injuries – although all three can definitely be major contributing factors to chronic insomnia.

I simply wasn’t valuing sleep enough.

Let me explain. In her book, Huffington spends quite some time talking about how North Americans pride themselves on their sleep deprivation, and devalue healthy sleeping habits, which include going to bed around the same time every night, avoiding the use of electronics / screens (including televisions) while in bed, and allowing yourself enough time in bed for a good night’s sleep.

I recognized that was failing big-time on all of these.

As much as I may have, in the past, said that I wanted a good night’s sleep, since my late teens I have been all-too-willing to sacrifice sleep to the “higher good” of productivity – be it studying for an exam, finishing an essay, or – once I started working in the nonprofit sector – finishing a project, meeting a grant deadline, or working on my own creative projects or volunteer work outside of my full-time job.

If I need to get something done by tomorrow, I will give up sleep to get it done. And feel smugly self-righteous about my choice. Look how hard I work! See how much I’ve accomplished?!

(I just remembered a compliment that my (Scottish) paternal grandmother once gave me. I had spent part of the summer between my first and second university degrees cooking for a tree-planting camp in Northern Alberta, waking up at 4:00 a.m. every other day to make the camp’s breakfast, and she told me that I “must be made of good stuff to get up that early in the morning.” Enough said.)

I also think nothing of staying up late to do something that I enjoy – be it finishing a good book, watching a movie on Netflix, or working on a new drawing or blog post. In fact, when my life is busy I feel downright cheated if I don’t have time to do the things that I love doing. Add to that the healthy dose of FOMO (fear of missing out) which fuels my social media activity, and it all equals a daily to-do list that requires 20 hours to fit everything in. No wonder I was only averaging four hours per night, and desperately napping during the day!

When I recently recommended Huffington’s book to a friend, she wondered if it said anything that she didn’t already know. I told her that for me, the solutions weren’t the point. The point was that Huffington scared me enough to seriously consider giving up all my guilty pleasures: watching Netflix and YouTube in bed, reading books on my Kindle late into the night, and doing my Facebooking and creative writing (in bed, on my iPhone) in the early morning hours when I couldn’t sleep. Scared me, by making me realize that the consequences of continuing these bad habits could be deadly.

So I vowed to try.

I set myself a “cut-off” time each night for my iPhone use. I set myself a regular bedtime – which meant I would be in bed, with the lights off, by that time. I wouldn’t pick up my phone in the middle of the night when I woke up. And I would use my brand new Fitbit to help me track my progress at getting a better night’s sleep.

That was the plan, anyhow.

This is the third in a series of posts about changing unhealthy sleep habits. Future posts will include:

  • Sorry, it’s past my bedtime
  • White-knuckling the early morning hours without sleep aids
  • Fitbit, my friend

___

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Photo: Cat napping, July 2016, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

The problem with sleep (Guest post)

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Guest blogger Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, who has written about her breast cancer and her love of aikido, is now in search of a better night’s sleep. 

The problem with sleep? There are a few problems, actually.

  1. I should be getting at least seven hours per night.
  2. I’m not.
  3. This has been going on for a long time.
  4. Cancer treatment and recovery? Not helping.

Here’s what my typical night looks like:

  • Into bed around 10 pm.
  • Watch a movie or some videos on Netflix until I fall asleep around 11.
  • If I don’t fall asleep, keep watching stuff or surfing the Internet until I fall asleep, midnight or later.
  • If I still don’t fall asleep, take a Gravol (or part of one) to make me sleepy.
  • Wake up at 2:30… Or 3:30… Or 4:30… Wide awake.
  • Think about some stuff. You know – friendly, cheerful stuff, like “how am I going to get all those projects done?” Or “what should I have done differently in that situation that went horribly wrong?” Or “what should I do to make that relationship better?” That stuff.
  • Pick up my phone when the cacophony inside my head becomes unbearable. Which is most of the time. Watch some more movies or surf the Internet. Catch up on my Pinterest.
  • Maybe fall back asleep, 10 minutes before my alarm goes off at 5:30.
  • Go back to bed after feeding my cats their pre-breakfast snack. (Cat owners will understand; the rest of you? Never mind…)
  • Maybe get another hour’s sleep before getting out of bed for good at 6:30.
  • Or, if I’m lucky and don’t have urgent work to finish, try to sleep for another hour.

Lather, rinse, repeat – pretty much 365 days of the year.

I know it’s a problem. I know I should be getting more sleep. (If you haven’t already heard, sleep impacts body weight, heart disease, cancer, work performance and ability to “operate large machinery,” i.e. drive cars safely – among other things.

My sleep has been like this for a while. (Here’s a humorous blog post that I wrote – wait for it – 9 years ago about my insomnia.)

It got really bad when I started working in the nonprofit sector, when I couldn’t turn of my mind at night from worrying about my overwhelming workload and task lists. On a good night, I will sleep between six and seven hours. On a bad night…  three or four.

I also know a lot of the things I could be doing to improve my sleep. (You probably know them too.) Like having a regular bedtime and wake-up time. Turning off my devices before bedtime, and making my bedroom an electronic-free zone. Keeping my bedroom dark and cool. Avoiding pharmaceutical assistance.

After my cancer treatment (during which time I let myself do whatever I wanted, because I could sleep around the clock if I needed to), I really struggled to regain a regular sleep schedule. And because my work schedule is currently quite flexible (I can get up and work at 4:00 if I can’t sleep, and then nap in the afternoon), it’s been harder to motivate myself to make the changes I need.

My worst sleep-depriving habit is my smartphone use all night long. I have an iPhone that I use for everything – email, social media, taking and editing photographs, reading (on my Kindle app), writing (I started the first draft of this blog post on my phone), podcasts, music, surfing the internet, watching YouTube and Netflix…

And most of those, I love to do in the middle of the night. Sometimes that’s the only time I have in my day to catch up on my reading or viewing. (Wah!)

But recently I felt like I was hitting rock bottom, and needed to do something to address my worsening sleep deficit and fatigue. I was dragging through my days, emotionally cranky and unhappy, and relying more and more on afternoon naps and weekend sleep-ins to take the edge off my fatigue.

I kept coming across references to Arianna Huffington’s book, The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time, and finally broke down and bought it because I knew that it would inspire me to change. Huffington is adamant about nixing nighttime electronics:

So I’ve begun to make some changes. I don’t like them, but hey – first-world problems. I really, really, really want better sleep.

This is the first in a series of posts about changing unhealthy sleep habits. Future posts will include:

  • Sorry, it’s past my bedtime
  • White-knuckling the early morning hours without sleep aids
  • Fitbit, my friend

___

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Illustration: Crayon and collage on paper, September 2005.

 

The solution to my long-term insomnia: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I)

Guest blogger Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, who has written about her breast cancer and her love of aikido, is now in search of a better night’s sleep. 

So…  After years of insomnia and half-hearted attempts at dealing with it, what finally worked for me? CBT-I (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia). (Which, by the way, is nothing like the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy you may have heard about in psychotherapy.)

CBT for insomnia is a program of retraining your body to sleep through the night, by keeping a sleep log, analysing your baseline sleep patterns, then establishing a fixed wake-up time and pushing back your bedtime until you’re dead tired – forcing your exhausted body to sleep through the night.

If you’re awake for more than 15 minutes in the middle of the night, you leave your bedroom and do quiet activities until you’re sleepy again. Your bedroom is for sleeping and sex only. Nothing else.

(For a much better description of CBT-I and how to implement it, see the book Sink Into Sleep: A Step-by-step Workbook for Reversing Insomnia by Judith R. Davidson.)

Well, it works. But based on my own experience, it’s brutal to implement. My first couple of weeks after my new bedtime of 11pm and wake-up time of 5:30 a.m., I mostly slept through the night. But the few nights I woke up, I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I was really sleep deprived – to the point where at least one friend was concerned about how fatigued I was during the day.

(On CBT-I you’re allowed a 1-hour nap between 1 and 4 pm, and you’d better believe I was taking full advantage of it.)

Once you’re sleeping through the night the majority of the time, you can try going to bed a little earlier, repeating the cycle until you’re getting as much sleep as you want, with good sleep quality.

That’s where my story would have ended, except I’m in the middle of planning a move later this month, and have been doing a lot of highway driving to my new home 1.75 hours away. I got really concerned that I would be driving while sleep deprived, so I’ve temporarily suspended the CBT-I regime until after my move, and now basically sleep whenever I’m tired. Thankfully I’m still getting more sleep through the night that I did during my chemo (the image below is a screen shot from my Fitbit app, which can track your sleep patterns) , and I’ve mostly avoided some of the worst of my bad sleep habits.

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On the whole, I’m really satisfied with the sleep I’m getting now – which is a huge change for me. Right at the moment I’m getting around 7 hours of sleep a night, which is a significant improvement. I’d highly recommend trying the CBT-I program if you have long-term insomnia that has been resistant to other treatments.

This is the last in a series of posts about changing unhealthy sleep habits. 

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

What to do when you wake up in the middle of the night (Guest post)

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Guest blogger Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, who has written about her breast cancer and her love of aikido, is now in search of a better night’s sleep. 

I rarely have trouble falling asleep, except maybe if I’ve stayed up too late and get restless leg syndrome. Normally I fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow…  or, in the days when I used to watch videos on my smartphone before bed, I would unintentionally fall asleep while watching something.

My problem is that most nights I would wake up in the middle of the night and be unable to get back to sleep.

Once I got serious about addressing my insomnia problem, I knew I had to make changes to my behaviour when I did wake up in the middle of the night. (It was my longstanding habit to pick up my phone and start surfing the Internet, which usually meant I didn’t get back to sleep again). So I made a point of not picking up my phone, but instead tried to keep a notebook and pen beside my bed to write down all the stray thoughts that were keeping me awake.

Since I’ve settled on my most recent insomnia solution (which I’ll write about next week), if I’m awake more than 15 minutes, I get up out of bed and leave my bedroom to do quiet activities somewhere else in my home.

Before I tried this strategy, I was really white-knuckling it through my wakeful periods with nothing to occupy my attention. I tried breathing exercises and mindfulness (noticing, but not engaging with, my thoughts), but neither seemed to work. And since I’d given up pharmaceutical sleep aids and smartphone use, it was a bit of a horrorshow.

The good news is, with my new sleep program I’m now sleeping through most nights, and I’m allowed a 1-hour nap in the afternoon, which helps if I do wake up in the middle of the night, and am awake for a while.

The early days of the new routine were incredibly unpleasant to live through, but I’m really satisfied with the results. More on that next time.

This is the seventh in a series of posts about changing unhealthy sleep habits. Future posts will include:

  • The sleep plan that finally worked

___

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Sorry, it’s past my bedtime (Guest post)

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Guest blogger Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, who has written about her breast cancer and her love of aikido, is now in search of a better night’s sleep. 

So after four blog posts about my insomnia problem, you’re probably as sick of my lack of sleep as I am. The good news is that now I’m going to talk about my recent sleep solutions. Experiments, if you will.

Many sleep books and articles recommend better sleep hygiene to address insomnia. You can probably list the rules as well as I can:

  • Go to bed around the same time every night.
  • Wake up around the same time every morning (no sleeping in – not even on weekends!).
  • Limit naps.
  • No screen time within an hour of bedtime – and throughout the rest of the night.
  • Avoid heavy exercise and caffeine late in the day.
  • Avoid alcohol before bed.
  • Sleep in a dark, cool room.
  • Only use your bed for sleeping (and sex).

You get the drift.

(Ugh, right?)

I was not thrilled about being more disciplined with my sleep hygiene. It seemed like giving up all the things I loved to do at night (watching movies on my smartphone in bed, doing social media in bed, reading on my smartphone in bed). Even though I craved better sleep, I wasn’t sure it was worth it.

But I tried. I made the following changes to my evening routine:

  • I set 10:00 p.m. as my “lights out” goal.
  • I made a point of putting down my smartphone at 9:00 p.m. every night. (I even set an alarm on the phone to remind me.) I mostly succeeded at this.
  • I enjoyed a leisurely, warm bath before bed.
  • I kept the lights dim in my apartment after 9:00 p.m.
  • I read paper books or my Kindle (on the lowest backlight setting) or did quiet, calming activities (like stretching and restorative yoga) before bed.
  • I kept a notebook and a flashlight beside my bed, for writing down all the random thoughts that wouldn’t stop, that kept me from sleeping.

The hardest part was giving up movies, TV shows on Netflix, and social media in the evening. I found myself cramming in as much smartphone use as I could before the 9:00 p.m. cutoff. (The screen time was even more precious because most nights I’m at aikido, and don’t get home until 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. So yeah, a big adjustment.)

I more-or-less resigned myself to the regimen, though. I wake up at 6:30 a.m., so a 10:00 p.m. bedtime was theoretically giving me at least 8 hours of sleep, depending on how quickly I nodded off.

I noticed that I became really intolerant of anything that disrupted my new evening routine. Like the networking event I went to, that went until nearly 10:00 p.m. It just got a lot easier to say, “Sorry, it’s past my bedtime,” to any invitations for late-night fun.

Too bad the new routine (and the enforced fun deprivation) didn’t really help, though. I still kept waking up (sometimes for several hours at a time) in the middle of the night.

This is the fifth in a series of posts about changing unhealthy sleep habits. Future posts will include:

  • White-knuckling the early morning hours without sleep aids
  • Fitbit, my friend
  • The sleep plan that finally worked

___

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Photo: Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, barn in the Niagara Region

Insomnia and emotional resilience (Guest post)

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Guest blogger Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, who has written about her breast cancer and her love of aikido, is now in search of a better night’s sleep. 

I’ve already written about my problem with sleep, the insomnia solutions I’ve tried that haven’t worked, and my recent resolve to make sleep time a priority over working or playing. This post was originally going to be about my experiences with regulating my bedtimes and waking times, but then a friend recently recommended Sink Into Sleep: A Step-by-step Workbook for Insomnia by Judith Davidson, and a paragraph from the book brought me another huge aha! moment about my own sleeping habits.

People with insomnia seem to be able to perform mundane tasks of daily living but they tend to have less enjoyment of their activities and show less “cognitive flexibility” – they tend to think more narrowly and less creatively – than people who sleep well. Although they are often able to perform work and other activities well, everything feels like it takes more effort. In sum, when people don’t sleep well for a long time, their mood, functioning, and quality of life are impaired.

It was the bit about cognitive flexibility. I suddenly realized (with an incredible amount of self-compassion) that in every instance that I can remember over the past 20 years, when I have felt most emotionally agitated and “fixed” in my thinking (read: frantic, defensive, and prey to “all-or-nothing” catastrophizing), I have also been extremely sleep deprived.

I can’t tell you what a huge realization (and relief!) this is for me. As someone who cares very much (maybe too much) about the feelings and opinions of others, I always strive to be even-keeled, understanding and flexible in my relationships. So I have quietly carried around a lot of shame regarding a handful of emotional reactions to difficult situations in my past, that have involved a difference of opinion with somebody else. Normally I’m quite logical, caring, and creative in my thinking – able to see many sides of an issue, and willing to be persuaded to change my own opinion by a compelling argument.

But a few times in my life, I have experienced what’s felt like an emotional “meltdown” that has taken me and the other person completely by surprise, because it’s so unlike my usual personality.

Seen through the lens of sleep deprivation, those meltdowns make so much sense now. It reminds me of little children who’ve been up way past their bedtimes. You know how they fuss and get all weepy and tantrum-y? That. I recognize that I’ve felt that. And all because of not enough sleep.

It’s not that I now think sleep deprivation excuses whatever I do or say while sleep deprived. I don’t. But in the future, when I know I haven’t been getting enough sleep and am likely sleep deprived, I can be more aware of my temporary lack of resilience, and take a step back from the emotional edge – maybe ask for a “time-out” or a temporary break from the discussion.

(And hopefully I can just plain avoid extreme sleep deprivation in the future!)

p.s. That book I mentioned above? I like it even better than the Ariana Huffington one – and I suspect that the CBT-I program it recommends is going to be my ultimate insomnia solution.

p.p.s. Being that this is a blog with a feminist lens, I feel compelled to add that when I’m talking about emotional meltdowns, I’m not talking about appropriate emotional responses to sexism and other oppressions, abuse, or the bad behaviour of others. There are times when it’s okay to feel hurt and angry, because someone is being hurtful or destructive.

This is the fourth in a series of posts about changing unhealthy sleep habits. Future posts will include:

  • Sorry, it’s past my bedtime
  • White-knuckling the early morning hours without sleep aids
  • Fitbit, my friend

___

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Image: art journal spread, wax crayon and pencil on paper, August and September 2005

Insomnia solutions I’ve tried (Guest post)

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Guest blogger Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, who has written about her breast cancer and her love of aikido, is now in search of a better night’s sleep. 

So I have chronic insomnia that’s lasted the better part of 10 years. What have I done about it?

Well, I can tell you what hasn’t worked.

(I was really touched to see that most of the comments on my last post about sleep deficit included suggestions for resolving insomnia, including meditation, books on tape, and limiting electronic screen time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m always open to hearing what works for people. It’s how we learn from each other. But please don’t think that I haven’t tried many of the things that people have suggested. I’ve been highly motivated to fix my sleeping problems over the years, because I’m definitely not a short sleeper. I really feel it when I don’t get enough sleep.)

So, some of the things I’ve tried:

Using a blackout curtain to darken my bedroom
For many years (from ages of 18 – 39 or so) I had heavy, pull-down blinds or metal mini-blinds covering my bedroom windows. They effectively blocked light from streetlights and the moon at night, making my bedrooms quite dark.

Then I moved into a studio apartment with a large window. My finances were limited, so I avoided purchasing any window coverings. There was a spotlight right outside my window, and it was quite bright inside my apartment at night. I lived (and tried to sleep) like that for a couple of years, and around this time my insomnia got quite bad. Not saying there’s necessarily a correlation, though.

Because at my next apartment (which had separate bedrooms), I made a heavy blackout curtain for myself out of black denim (and still use it in my bedroom today, one apartment later), and I still have sleeping problems.

Music, audio books, and guided medications
I started using all of these quite heavily in the bachelor apartment. I would play soothing music on a boom box near my bed at bedtime, but found I would wake up when the disc ended. (I still love this jazz first album by Pat Metheny, though, which was a bedtime staple during that period.)

I also tried soothing audio books like Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, which always put me to sleep, but again I would wake up periodically whenever the rhythm of his voice changed.

I tried a few guided meditations, same story. Sometimes the recordings worked, most times they didn’t. When I got a smartphone I even tried listening to timed recordings on my phone, but still found them unsuccessful at keeping me asleep. My favourite was an app called Sleep Machine Binaural Beats by SleepSoft, that produces great white noise if there’s something like a dog barking or a neighbour’s television that I want to block out.

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Herbal and dietary supplements
I’ve tried pretty much everything that’s recommended for sleep, including melatonin, kava, L-theanine, and 5-HTP – sometimes in combination.

I can’t say anything has really helped in the long term.

Pharmaceuticals
I’ve been really reluctant to go this route to solve my sleep problems, although near the beginning of my chemo I did ask for something from my family doctor, since I was still working full time and was worried about my work performance if I wasn’t sleeping well. She prescribed a very mild dose of the antidepressant trazodone, which I tried a couple of times without noticeable success.

Later when I was off work for the remainder of my chemo, I also tried Gravol and Benadryl to make me sleepy when my sleep schedule got seriously disrupted (I was napping all day and then awake most of each night). After a few nights each didn’t work as well, though.

It’s probably common sense, but all of the above, while having the potential to address symptoms, didn’t necessarily resolve the underlying problem – namely very, very poor “sleep hygiene”, i.e. bedtime habits that are non-conducive to a good night’s sleep. So that’s where I’m starting from at this point: changing my poor sleep habits – including the use of electronic devices in the bedroom.

This is the second in a series of posts about changing unhealthy sleep habits. Future posts will include:

  • Sorry, it’s past my bedtime
  • White-knuckling the early morning hours without sleep aids
  • Fitbit, my friend

___

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Photo: Cats napping, September 2011, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Fitness after chemotherapy (Guest post)

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This is a photo of me, on my first day back to aikido class after five months of chemotherapy for breast cancer. I look pretty happy, don’t I? Aikido classes are an important part of my life that I had to put on hold during my treatment. This blog post is about my personal experience getting back to aikido (and other physical activity) after chemo.

I have Sam to thank for introducing me to aikido. For a couple of years she kept suggesting that I come out to her dojo, and try this unusual Japanese martial art that focuses on self-defense. My only regret is that I waited so long. Aikido has become the central physical activity of my life, and I believe it has also helped me mentally and emotionally deal with my breast cancer diagnosis and fear of death from cancer.

After my double mastectomy, I rushed back to aikido as soon as humanly possible (after my surgeon gave me the okay, two weeks post-op). Aikido made me feel strong and centred, and connected to a community that I love. Being able to do aikido was healing for me.

So when my chemo started, it was really hard for me to come to terms with the fact that it was probably best for my health if I stopped attending classes until my chemo was over.

Chemo kills fast-growing cells like cancer, but it also attacks healthy fast-growing cells like hair follicles (leading to the hair loss typically associated with chemo) and bone marrow, where white blood cells are made. Low white blood cell counts then leave you vulnerable to germs and infections, and if you get an infection while your immunity is low on chemo, it could become a life-threatening emergency called febrile neutropenia.

My dojo is in a busy community centre full of families with kids coming and going, and I started chemo right at the beginning of flu and cold season. Yeah. Not a good combination. Add to that the fact that aikido involves close physical contact with several others during class, and two of our weekly adult classes are held immediately following children’s aikido classes…  You get the idea. So I reluctantly gave up aikido classes for the length of my chemotherapy treatment – 18 weeks in total.

Thankfully, a black belt friend of mine visited me at my home every few weeks during my chemo, when my blood cell counts were at their highest before each infusion, and marked through techniques with me for a few hours. (I also memorized the Japanese names of most of the common techniques during my practice with him – something that will be useful, since all of my future belt tests will be in Japanese.) Apart from those cherished days, however, I went into serious aikido withdrawal during chemo.

Why did I miss aikido so much? Most classes (which are one hour or one-and-a-half hours long) are a decent workout – lots of full-body movements, calisthenics, breakfall (rolling) practice, and technique practice, which involves being thrown to the ground and getting up over and over again. But aikido also engages me mentally, as I try to master and recall the Japanese names of the techniques, as well as the techniques themselves. There are so many tiny details to learn, which is why the study of aikido can take decades. There are hundreds or even thousands of possible combinations of attacks, controls and pins, and on top of that there’s an element of coordination and patience required to blend effectively with your opponent’s energy, and redirect it without using excess effort. Done well, aikido is like dancing, and makes me feel like I’m flying, both literally and figuratively.

I’ve written on this blog about some of the other ways that I exercised during my chemo treatment. Don’t think that I’m some sort of superwoman, though. I wrote that blog post half-way through the 18 weeks of chemo, and the final nine weeks were much more debilitating that I expected. By my last chemo infusion I was spending most of the first week following each infusion in bed, sleeping and feverish. Exercise was not a priority, except to increase my white blood cell counts. I tried doing gentle qigong exercises every day, and that was about it as far as exercise was concerned.

So when my chemo was finished, and my white blood cell counts were finally back to normal, I was on fire to get back to aikido again. My doctor gave me the okay on a Tuesday morning; Tuesday night, I was dressed in my uniform and ready to roll. Literally.

Don’t think that I immediately reached my pre-cancer fitness level, though. Aikido classes were actually a humbling measuring stick for my stamina, and I was surprised by how much strength and endurance I’d lost. That first class, I had to sit down after the warm-up and watch the rest of class. And for about three or four weeks I had to stop frequently during each class and rest before playing again.

I feel pretty lucky that I didn’t experience too much lasting fatigue from my chemo, but there’s definitely been some. (Thankfully I didn’t have radiation treatments, which can also increase fatigue.) As I write this, it’s been seven weeks since I’ve been back at aikido, and truthfully only in the last week or so has my endurance felt like it’s returned to my pre-cancer levels. I had several injuries (knees, right ankle, right wrist) that I was nursing before my cancer treatment; since going back to aikido, they’ve all been acting up again, which has also put the brakes on overdoing anything.

My dojo offers classes six days a week, and I attend them all. But right now I only get on the mat for three or four classes per week. The rest of the time I just watch. I have a belt test coming up (the same belt test that Sam did, here), and I’ve been focused on getting as much practice as I can without stressing my body too much.

In addition to time on the mat, I also help set up and put away our dojo mats for each class, which is a nice, light aerobic and weight training activity. And I’m still doing qigong as often as I can, which usually ends up being three or four times per week.

In my experience, if you’re facing chemotherapy and you’ve already been fairly active before your cancer diagnosis, using your favourite activities as rewards to look forward to at the end of your treatment can be a great way to stay motivated and quickly get back to movement after your chemo is done. I know that for me, aikido was definitely the carrot on the end of the stick that made chemo more bearable, and I’m positive that my quick recovery from chemo has been at least partly due to my regular aikido practice.

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You may also be interested in these blog posts by Michelle about her breast cancer experience:

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Why I’m happy about having a double mastectomy without reconstruction (Guest post)

woman's chest with healing words

I have breast cancer in my right breast, and in a week I’m undergoing a double mastectomy without reconstruction. I couldn’t be happier. Here’s why.

For many woman dealing with breast cancer, the thought of losing one or both breasts is terrifying. Often our sense of femininity, attractiveness and sexuality is tied up in having breasts, and we don’t want to imagine life without them.

A few weeks before I found a lump in my right breast, I came across this article from the Wall Street Journal, which reported on what doctors are calling an alarming trend of women choosing to have both breasts removed after being diagnosed with cancer in one breast (dubbed the “Angelina Effect” after actor Angelina Jolie, who had a highly publicized double mastectomy in 2013 after discovering she carried a genetic mutation that increased her odds of developing breast cancer to 85%). Only a tiny fraction of breast cancer patients carry a genetic mutation for breast cancer, and with survival rates for lumpectomy-with-radiation matching those for mastectomy, there is a concern that women are undergoing drastic surgeries for no good medical reason.

I found the article interesting, but I also knew without a doubt that if I were ever diagnosed with breast cancer, I would want both breasts removed. (It just so happens that, according to the article, I fit the demographic that is most often making this choice: educated, middle-class white women.)

Little did I know, however, that sh!t was about to get real.

Two or three days before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I watched the Netflix documentary Tig, about American comedian Tig Notaro. The documentary details her life in the year following her own breast cancer diagnosis.

Tig had cancer in both breasts, and a double mastectomy. She’s a small, slim lesbian with a boyish style, and as I watched the film I found myself envying her breastlessness. Knowing there was a possibility that I might have cancer myself, I thought about how great it would be to not have breasts anymore.

It was then that I decided that if my own breast biopsy came back positive, I would not only ask for a double mastectomy, but I would also forgo reconstruction (implanting artificial breasts in my chest). My biggest worry was that they would recommend a lumpectomy to try and preserve my right breast, which I didn’t want – or that they wouldn’t allow me to have a double mastectomy, leaving me stuck with one large breast and nothing on the other side.

I’ll be totally honest here: I’ve never really liked having breasts.

I’m a cis-gendered, heterosexual woman who loves being a woman, and enjoys being considered attractive and desirable… but for as long as I’ve had breasts, they’ve been really large. At age 12, they were 36C’s. A few months ago, before I started losing weight (on purpose, not due to my cancer), they were 36G’s. Do you know how hard it is to find bras that size? For years I’ve crammed my girls into 36D’s, with spillover at the top and sides that would make a bra fitter weep. The one time I did get a proper bra fitting, the store didn’t have any bras in stock in my size. Frustrating.

I became a teenager in 1980, when the ideal body in North America was Brooke Shields in a pair of Calvin Klein jeans. Shields was 15 at the time, and had a figure like a boy. Slim hips, flat chest. My 13-year-old-self felt like a freak by comparison, with rounded hips and full breasts.

This post isn’t about body bashing – as an adult woman I eventually learned to love and appreciate my curves – but about recognizing that I was living in a body that didn’t match the cultural ideal, and moreover felt limiting to me.

I danced a lot as a teenager – my high school even offered proper dance classes as an alternative to Phys. Ed. – and my large breasts needed extra support for all that leaping around. By university, when I took daily fitness classes at the university community centre and was trying to become a jogger, I resorted to wearing two bras at a time when I worked out, in order to keep my breasts from bouncing too much.

(This blog has published all sorts of posts about the challenge of finding good sports bras, here.)

Big breasts were a barrier to many of the physical activities I enjoyed. I was a lifeguard in my teens and early 20s, at a time when shelf bras in women’s Speedos were unheard of. I longed for small breasts that didn’t jiggle and bounce when I walked around the pool deck.

As I’ve aged, my breasts have headed south towards my waist, and actually ache when they aren’t bound by a bra, especially at night when I’m lying down and trying to sleep.

When I started aikido a year-and-a-half ago, I had to experiment with a number of bra configurations so that I could run without bouncing (we’re expected to move quickly when called upon in class), as well as roll and flip upside down without popping out the top of my bra.

I currently wear two bras at aikido – an underwire bra underneath, that separates my breasts and prevents “uni-boob”, along with an inexpensive, too-small sports bra on top, to keep everything motionless when I run on the mat, and safely contained when I flip upside down. (I’ve noticed with a thrill of recognition that Ronda Rousey and other female MMA fighters use a similar configuration when they’re working out and fighting.)

So when I met with my surgeon after my diagnosis, my only worry was about whether she would entertain my double-mastectomy wishes. In the end, a double mastectomy actually makes medical sense for me. Turns out lumpectomy is not a medically recommended option for my cancer. Thankfully my left breast is currently clear, but the cancer in my right breast is such an unusual presentation (with a possible genetic mutation like Angelina Jolie’s, which I’ll be tested for later this year) that my surgeon tells me I’m at higher risk of getting cancer in my left breast. This makes preventive mastectomy of my left breast a sensible choice. If I wanted to keep my left breast, I’d be facing annual MRIs and the increased worry of a recurrence for the rest of my life.

I don’t have a partner to consider. I’m at an age where breastfeeding is not in my future. And while I love being a woman, I’m not afraid to look boyish. I’ve had 36 years of being voluptuous, and an eye-magnet for men and women who like large breasts. I’m ready for freedom from that kind of gaze and attention, and freedom to move my body the way I want to move my body. I anticipate “living flat” for the rest of my life, and likely going without prosthetics, too.

One of the benefits of forgoing reconstructive surgery is that my recovery should be much faster than if I’d chosen reconstruction at the time of mastectomy. I’m looking forward to getting back to my regular life as soon as humanly possible.

My only hesitation is that I feel guilty for not wanting my breasts anymore. I feel like I’m betraying a part of myself. So I’ve been spending a lot of time during my breasts’ final days trying to celebrate them. I’ve also been preparing myself for the huge visual change there will soon be in my figure whenever I look in the mirror. While my femininity isn’t tied to my breasts, I recognize that it may be for others. So I’m making plans to cut and colour my hair in a “pretty” style, and wear clothes and jewelry after surgery that make me feel and look feminine.

But honestly? I’m so excited about my upcoming breast removal. And the interesting thing is, whenever I’ve talked about it with other naturally large-breasted women, they totally get it, and tell me they would make the same choice.

This is the second of a three-part series on breast cancer, sports and body image.
Part 1: What martial arts taught me about fighting breast cancer
Part 3: My pre-surgery boudoir photo shoot

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You may also be interested in these blog posts by Michelle about her breast cancer experience:

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.