Soon after leaving the abuser I acquired a bad case of busy brain – my term for racing or spinning thoughts that I can’t seem to stop.
While still in the abusive relationship, my mind was relatively quiet, almost numb. I’m sure sleep deprivation contributed to the numbness. He conned me into completing time-consuming tasks to show that I was invested in the relationship, leaving me little time for sleep. He’d initiate conversations just as I was falling asleep, giving the ultimatum, “You will not be sleeping until this is resolved.”
If I tried to nap during the day, he’d wake me and criticize me for my laziness. Adding gaslighting, regular criticism, and occasional physical violence to my sleepless state, my thoughts were reduced to a foggy stupor. Because the fog was familiar, I didn’t recognize it was there. I was so grateful for uninterrupted sleep, that when he’d allow it, I’d fall asleep immediately and sleep soundly.
In the weeks before my escape from the abuser, however, my brain started to awaken. Day and night, I planned logistics, calculated options, and dreaded the consequences of failure. Even though my brain was still fogged, the intensity of planning my escape allowed me to pierce through it like a lighthouse beam.
Recovering from abuse meant I had to manage the busy brain episodes. During the day, I could stop the spinning by engaging in a different activity, especially something physically demanding. But, nights remain a challenge. Wouldn’t you know that now that I can sleep whenever I want, I have trouble sleeping. Sometimes a nightmare about the abuser jolts me awake, and sometimes it’s just the normal overthinking that prevents me from falling asleep or staying asleep more than a few hours.
I’ve heard enough abuse survivors describe a similar experience that I expect it’s a normal part of recovering from an abusive relationship. A friend deftly described it as having trouble getting the committee to adjourn.
Here’s a typical busy brain episode. I wake up suddenly from a dream where the abuser is blaming me for making his life miserable. While I recognize it was only a dream, the residual feelings of guilt persist. My breath is shallow, my jaw and major muscle groups are tense, and adrenaline is pumping. My guilt and discomfort remind me of a conversation I had yesterday where I may have said something insensitive. I review all of the alternatives for better handling the situation and reproach myself for my clumsiness. I’m reminded of an upcoming event and project forward my perceived failure from yesterday’s interaction. When I consider how I might improve, I’m reminded of the abuser lecturing that I never learn and never change for the better. I vividly recall the look in his eye and disgust in his voice, convincing me that failure is imminent. I shake off the image and remind myself that I am not who he said I was. But, another example from the previous week haunts me when I was insensitive to someone else. My mind spins off into another round of reviewing alternatives and feeling regret.
Awareness of my busy brain pattern and telling myself to stop doesn’t help. I’ve made a little progress by controlling environmental factors: reducing caffeine and alcohol intake, avoiding certain prescription and over-the-counter drugs, exercising regularly, getting afternoon sun exposure, and darkening the bedroom. But even with the mitigation, the pattern persists. So far, I’ve made more progress by guiding my thoughts instead of fighting them. It might take a few hours to return to sleep, but it’s better than getting frustrated.
When I suddenly wake up, I now try to feed the analytical beast by overloading it. I’ll get up and read highly technical information or something that requires intense problem solving. Spy novels, history books, puzzles, anything that forces the analytical side of the brain to work hard. Sometimes that tires the beast enough to let me fall asleep.
If that doesn’t work, I’ll have a cup of herbal tea and continue reading. If that isn’t working, I’ll try awakening my brain’s creative and visual side. I’ll imagine places I‘ve seen in photographs but have never visited – a virtual reality tour. While there, I’ll imagine healing beams of light brightening my soul and relaxing my body. Starting at the toes, I’ll progressively relax each body part until reaching the top of my head. I’m also ready to accept defeat. If I’m going to get only a few hours of sleep, I celebrate that I’ll probably sleep very well the next night.
One sure thing is that after I’ve gotten up in the morning, the terrible outcomes I imagined during busy brain episodes are much less ominous. I’ve made a rule for myself that I won’t allow myself to act on any ideas hatched during the crazy hours (between midnight and 6 AM) without mulling them over for a few hours during the day. Busy brains do not produce reliable conclusions.