I sat in his office and told him my problems. All of them. And I understood why people go to psychiatrists.
The walls were solid bookshelves. I skimmed some titles: Teen Suicide; Studies in Human Behavior; and the Holy Bible.
Two days before, I'd tried to anonymously book an appointment with him. After my roommate was out of the dorm room, I'd nervously dialed the Psychology Department.
"Um, I'd like an appointment with Dr. Z."
"OK. Is this regarding a class you're taking from him?" It was a student reader. Maybe she knew me.
"N-no. I-I just want to talk to him about . . . something," I stammered.
So, kindly, she had made an appointment. And, kindly, Dr. Z, chair of the college Psychology Department, had kept the appointment.
"Dr. Z," I began, after he invited me into his office, "I took General Psychology from you last year. And I needed someone to talk to."
"You see, I'm a college sophomore, and I don't think I'm ever going to sleep again. I can't sleep at night. I haven't slept in four nights."
I guess I expected him to look shocked at this point. To call the ambulance, to say I'd better quit school, to send me to a sanitarium in Switzerland.
But he didn't. He just listened, attentively, expressionless.
I repeated my point. "I haven't slept in days."
"Every night I go to bed, and I just lie there . . . Don't people go crazy if they don't sleep? Look at my bloodshot eyes. What's going to happen to me? I can't just not sleep." I laughed. (When you haven't slept in 96 hours, you tend to laugh at the wrong things.)
Dr. Z paused. Then he talked to me about what was happening in my life. I told him about all the rough things-didn't even try to be optimistic or strong. In fact, I made things as bad as they seemed every night.
He asked about my schoolwork. I'd just changed majors again-I loved my new major, but my schedule was packed. I had two speech classes. I had to come up with talks every other day and get up in front of people and give them, and how could I concentrate if I didn't sleep? Laughter. My roommate had problems I felt I couldn't help her with. My dad had just gotten a job transfer, so my parents were moving. My dog had died a few weeks ago. Laughter. I was writing for the newspaper and tutoring students in English. The dorm was noisy. Our room was always messy. Laughter. I was homesick. My last haircut wasn't working. I could never get any time alone. The desk monitor pulled the perfume sample out of my magazine before I got the chance to smell it.
Not sleeping was the last straw. The final blow from life. I mean, what do you have when your days are bad, and then they go on for 24 hours?
"I'm going to go crazy," I concluded. "My body needs sleep."
Dr. Z leaned forward and spoke kindly. He told me that if my body really needed sleep that much, it would take it. "Remember when you've been very, very tired?" he asked. "Remember that you couldn't keep your eyes open, that you couldn't stay awake no matter how much you wanted to? When your body reaches exhaustion, it will take sleep."
Well, that was a relief. "You can put worries and pressures at the back of your mind all day when you're busy," he explained. "But when you get in bed at night, when it's dark and you're still, those things come to the surface. Your mind is just trying to work through them. It hasn't had time during the day. If you can't sleep, you probably have more mental stress than physical stress."
"The last thing you need to do is worry about not sleeping. Here's what you can do . . .? And he began to outline strategies. And what was so wonderful is that they sounded like fun things to do:
"Relax and enjoy food . . . Pick an exercise you enjoy-swimming, biking, jogging-and do it regularly . . . Take some time during each day to kick back and think . . . Have a relaxation routine to do regularly before bed. Wash your face, brush your teeth, turn down your bed, listen to a song you like, kneel and say good night to God. After a while this routine will start relaxing you and relieving the stress of the day . . . Pick a book you've wanted to read and set it by your bed. When you can't sleep, you can use a small light and read in bed. Instead of thinking, Everyone's asleep, and I have to lie here worrying and tossing, you should think, While everyone's asleep, I get to stay up and read."
I left Dr. Z's office committed to trying his strategies. He wanted me to come back to tell him how it was going.
And so I tried them. At base, stress-reducing strategies require you to value order and discipline. They also involve pampering yourself, relaxing and setting priorities, enjoying and respecting the things God has made (including yourself), and depending on His help.
And I slept.
Lori Peckham is editor of Women of Spirit.
How to Cope With Stress
These are the strategies Dr. Z shared with me, as well as some others I've heard, read, or tried. Give them a try yourself-and sweet dreams!
1 Don't just let things slide. Indecision and procrastination eventually create added stress.
2 Pace yourself. Avoid the impossible fight.
3 Mix work and play. Keep a balance in your life. Take fun breaks and vacations.
4 Take care of your body. Get enough exercise-something you enjoy. Eat a balanced diet. Learn to relax on a daily basis.
5 Prioritize the things you have to accomplish. Then do one at a time, starting with the hardest or most important.
6 Be willing to compromise when you can.
7 Accept yourself. Realize that you aren't perfect and can't do everything perfectly.
8 Pick friends who won't criticize or cut you down. Avoid irritating, over-competitive people.
9 Learn to listen to people. When others are talking, be still and concentrate on what they are saying. Don't think only about what you are going to say next.
10 Readand not only light reading but concentrated reading.
11 Take time for humor.
12 Do something for someone else. It will get your mind off your own worries.
13 Do what's morally right. Cheating, lying, and immorality create guilt and tension. Admit your sins to God, and ask Him for help in living right.
14 Slow down. Take time to savor food, to visit with friends, to do your work, to get where you're going, etc. And do only one thing at a time. Don't try to eat and talk on the phone, watch TV and pay your bills.
15 Pray about the pressures in your life. Ask God to help you recognize the symptoms and causes of your stress, and to sort out the unnecessary tensions and accept the things you can?t change. Depend on His promises.