I didn’t know I was having a stroke.
One afternoon I was home alone writing an email when suddenly my keyboard started swaying from left to right. When I stood up, the room was spinning. Violently. Somehow, I grabbed my phone from my desk before collapsing and dialed for help.
A dark truth would hit me years later. I’d fallen victim to a silent sleep epidemic which was also affecting a number of my colleagues and friends.
More than a third of American adults fail to obtain the CDC’s recommended seven or more hours of sleep each night. Dr. Wendy Troxel states in her book, “Our culture is steeped in this entrenched belief that more work is always better and that sacrificing sleep is a necessary, even noble feat in the pursuit of personal betterment and success.” This belief is “mortally misinformed,” she states, as insufficient sleep increases the likelihood of heart disease, stroke, weight gain, depression, amongst many other physical and mental issues.
“Sleep, unfortunately, is not an optional lifestyle luxury. Sleep is a non-negotiable biological necessity. It is your life support system” according to Dr. Matthew Walker. Research shows that not getting enough rest and having too much stress are risk factors for stroke and other forms of heart disease.
I hadn’t been getting adequate sleep for years and wound myself into a ticking time bomb that went off.
As I fought to recover, a paradox kept gnawing at me. If I was a young, healthy, and fit woman, how could I have had a stroke?
It was eleven years ago when my husband and I had moved to Switzerland for work. We were 30-something year olds from NYC excited for this next chapter in our careers and lives. Then I hit a wall.
During the weeks I was admitted to the stroke unit in the local Swiss hospital, a team of medical experts cared for and performed tests on me. I’d get the good news that, despite the debilitating side effects of my stroke which left me weak and struggling to stand, balance, and walk, I was in “perfect” health! I didn’t have a history of high cholesterol, hypertension, or diabetes; wasn’t overweight, didn’t smoke, or drink excessively. I ate well and exercised.
While my “perfect” health helped, my stroke recovery was still intense, physically and mentally. Mentally, I went into a self-preservation mindset. While loved ones worried about me, I had no time to mourn my situation. I was focused on getting my health and life back.
From my hospital bed, I’d dream about doing ordinary things again such as going for a walk in the park with my husband. Visualization inspired me to set “mini goals,” one of which was to get better at breath control to manage through nausea and balance issues. Each “mini goal” I met served as fuel to keep fighting and as a positive signal that recovery was possible.
I was so determined to return to my “dream career” that when I interviewed for jobs, I’d sometimes have to cover when I felt too weak to get up by remaining seated. It wasn’t until after countless days, nights, and weekends working and traveling for work that it occurred to me that I’d never been asked about my sleep. To the credit of my doctors and specialists, I was admitted for a stroke, not a sleeping disorder.
A few years later, I found myself back in my doctor’s office. He said bluntly, “I see a lot of go-getters like you who push themselves at all hours of the day. My question for you to answer is this: what is YOUR ambition FOR life?” That was the watershed moment for me. I sat speechless and stared at him, uselessly trying to hold back tears. I thought, “keep compromising my sleep, and I might not get another chance.”
I made some fundamental lifestyle changes, starting with sleep and managing work stress.
Many people neither survive a stroke nor return to full function after one. I went right back to grinding it out professionally to prove to myself I wasn’t “damaged,” only to find myself unwell and in my doctor’s office. It felt like a brutal kick in the stomach to realize my lifestyle may have contributed to my stroke.
I now purposefully:
- Prioritize: we all get 24 hours a day. I get 7-8 hours of sleep on a consistent schedule. For the other 16-17 hours, I focus on my top priorities. This approach helps me focus on what truly matters.
- Unplug: beyond sleep, we need times during the day to “unplug” from our devices and professional commitments. My favorite ways are to exercise, take a walk, golf, and catch up with family and friends. Learning how to golf later in life – besides being incredibly humbling – has actually unlocked a new source of creative thinking for me!
- Follow a sleep ritual: ever since living in a hospital under cold bright lights, I’ve preferred soft lighting, particularly before bed. This has naturally become part of my sleep ritual. Research suggests that our circadian rhythms take cues from the intensity and timing of light to help us sleep and wake up. I also limit device time before sleep. A stack of want-to-read books on my nightstand serves as a reminder.
It feels like nothing short of a miracle that I survived and am thriving after making improvements to my lifestyle.
My journey taught me that sleep is equally imperative for our lives as food and water. I know many food enthusiasts and drink enthusiasts. I am with great pride, joy, and gratitude, a sleep enthusiast, and I invite you to join me.
Thanks to Thrive Global for inviting me to share my story about the life-saving importance and beauty of sleep, and to you for reading to the end.