Hypnic Jerks: Not Just for Sleeping Anymore

Does it really matter? I blurted out this question in the middle of a school equity team meeting. We were discussing how teachers approached dress code issues and the usual example of saggy pants, underwear on display. The discussion was focused on how not to handle the situation punitively, but rather provide some guidance and instruction to the child to understand what was appropriate in the classroom.

This question about what matters has been cropping up repeatedly in my head. It’s not a flippant attitude – it’s an awakening. I thought getting a tattoo and quitting my job to pursue writing were the markers of middle age and time a-creeping away. But the red convertible is happening in my head. Trying to sort out what is worth spending my emotional and intellectual energy on is the greater challenge.

For much of the first half of my life, I have been disciplined, strict with my personal expectations and intensely goal-oriented, which often rolled into critical judgment of others. Conservative in my personal conduct, but growing increasingly liberal in my thinking, I wonder about the evolution we often see in humans throughout their lifetimes. This is the path – a shifting, winding path that one hopes is progressive and enlightening.

canstockphoto10767838I have dreams about mortality, waking up, afraid that I’ve wasted so much time doing very little. What neural pathways are now ruts? Can I change? What would I change? When will all that past emotional masochism, not to mention smoking and drinking, catch up to my body? I am not a nervous, anxious person as a matter of practice, but occasionally my mind goes into free fall. I catch myself, like that startling, semiconscious moment before sleep when you feel like you’re falling.

I’m experiencing a metaphorical hypnic jerk, startled by how many years have gone by, how long it has taken me to learn how to take care of myself, how to love others with my whole heart. It has taken me so much time to come to terms with the past and to learn to be present. And everything has to constantly be revisited in order to hold onto those lessons.

I’ve always had the sense that being a survivor was the holy grail, but I’ve been there, done that. It feels like greed to want more, to want to live a life not just in resistance to failure. A friend asked me why I felt like it was selfish to want to be happy. I don’t know what happiness looks like and what it would look like for me. Maybe it’s here and the skill I lack is being able to see that, without feeling like the other shoe is going to drop.

The motto repeated in my family was “Prepare for the worst, hope for the canstockphoto12691940best.” It sounds nice and pat, but it’s a dichotomous edict, to continually try to imagine the worst thing that could happen while remaining optimistic. I’ve often been called a pessimist, but I secretly (perhaps wrongly) believe that I’m an advanced optimist – I recognize the 15 million ways things can go haywire, but I’m always willing to try, to move forward, to apply myself.

I fear becoming rigid and brittle and hardhearted as I go through life. I see it in others. The fear of loss hardens their outer shell. They become less forgiving, less kind, less adaptable. They forget to question their beliefs and habits. Nothing new is allowed to enter. They live, but in a shrunken, isolated prison of their own design. The fragility of body accompanied by less and less neural plasticity.

canstockphoto7379441Epiphany is sometimes represented as a one-time fork in the road. But change is a choice that has to be made repeatedly and likely does not lie in picking a specific road, but in how one decides to travel. It’s hard to leave the preconceived notions and the well-trodden paths of the past. Each time I think I have a grasp on the journey, I get startled into some new awareness. I realize how little I know, how much there is to learn and how this anticipation of more knowledge is exactly what happiness looks like for me.

21 Comments on “Hypnic Jerks: Not Just for Sleeping Anymore

  1. I don’t think I’d ever heard of a hypnic jerk until a couple of days ago in a Google session when I was looking for an explanation beyond “guardian angel” or “near-death experience” for something that happened. When I found the description of hypnic jerk, and was satisfied that there was a physiological explanation, I also got to thinking that there is a corresponding metaphorical process going on, too. And…boom…two days later your post appeared in my reader. This rises to the top of my list of bizarre blog synchronicities. 🙂

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    • The linguaphile in me was so delighted to find that phrase and to discover it was a real “thing”! Of course, the more I read up on it and saw the correlations with anxiety and sleep issues, I was a little less delighted. Sound sleep seems to be a fleeting thing these days!

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  2. Nice post, Michelle. The good old hypnic jerk: a perfect image for life gut check and, I’ve found, mortal dread. Thanks, John

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    • Thanks for the comment, John. I haven’t been blogging much lately and that first one out of the gate tends to be quite awkward and a bit of a ramble. It’s a quiet weekend in blog-land, so a good time to get back in the water. Hope you are having a lovely one!

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  3. I think there comes a point in our lives when we realize our mortality. That’s the point when we ask ourselves if this is all there is. We either get depressed and accept that life is over for us, or we get off our butts and realize we still have a lot of living to do. I read somewhere that happiness is the journey, not the destination, and that we are so often too busy pursuing what we think is happiness to realize it’s right here with us.

    I have learned that nothing is certain in this life and I have also learned that it’s up to me what I do with my time here. I choose to live as long as I am physically able, and to enjoy whatever time I have left. None of us know how long we have; we don’t know our expiration date.

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    • I’m sure this is something you’ve given great thought to over the last months. Several years ago, after getting called back in following an irregular mammogram, I had this moment when everything fell away and all I could think about was leaving my daughter without a mother. Moments like that and a few random news stories here and there are all it takes to jerk me awake. Unfortunately, I think it’s human nature to lose that sense of mindfulness. I have a tough time staying in the moment, but I keep practicing the habit.

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  4. I think most people go one way or the other as they age- they either become more open or more closed. I feel like I’m definitely becoming more kind, more forgiving, and way more likely to let things go. I shudder to think of the person I used to be, the small things that I got worked up about, the judgements I made about people.
    I love the moments of sudden awareness, and I try to keep moving forward from that place of new insight.

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    • I think I’m of the “3 steps forward, 2 steps back” ilk. I’m often at odds with the person in me who wants to do things right versus the idealist who recognizes that not everything is black and white. It requires learning how to become comfortable with the gray areas and not applying generalizations to humans. I like your perspective – the idea of moving forward from a new insight. I suppose the trick is being open to those moments and not fearing the unfamiliar.

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  5. Discovering what happiness looks like for you is no mean feat!

    As someone often accused of pessimism, my advanced optimism hope was that I actually could a better state and wasn’t settling for the inferior status quo. The jury is still out …

    Great opening. How could someone not keep reading.

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    • Even if progress is slow, I’m hopeful that I’m better as a human than even a year ago. As you say, the jury might be out on that one. I think recognizing there is so much to still learn, that even deeply-rooted beliefs are still worth questioning, is a good approach. Maybe, too, I finally get that Socrates quote about a life unexamined not being worth living.

      Thanks for the compliment on the opening and taking the time to read and comment, Lyle.

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  6. This whole dang business of Life is Practice. I’m seeing that my Holy Grails are illusions. They’re fine as potential destinations, but my journey might lead to other lands I haven’t imagined yet. Part of the Practice is to say “Yes” to these little trails and stay open to what treasures I might find.

    Your family motto reminded me of my family’s “I Forgive but I don’t Forget.” Which is really not forgiving at all. Hardened hearts are a learned trait.

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    • I think that’s what I’m finally realizing – the holy grails, the goals, these are likely not about happiness and more about unrealistic expectations. And this practice thing is exhausting!

      Yes, there are few family mottos that have emerged from the dysfunctional miasma that could be called healthy. That’s been a big part of my learning curve, uprooting foundational beliefs that are clearly not working for me.

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  7. Losing my youngest dog recently and now getting sick and not knowing yet what this mass is on my pancreas has made it more clear than ever that my past habit of thinking too much about things that don’t matter has been such a waste of time. It might sound selfish to others, but my life goal now is to bring happiness into my life as much as I can. Your family situation sounds very like what mine was like. Children need to be equipped to see and experience joy, not wait for the worst thing.

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    • You have a lot on your plate right now. My dog died 11 years ago and I still can get choked up thinking about him. I’m so sorry you now have to deal with medical issues as well. I hope for the best possible outcome for you.
      I think that’s a huge issue for many people (and anecdotally seems to be an issue for women) that being happy, self-care, etc. somehow seems selfish. I have to keep reminding myself that a miserable, self-sacrificing, unhealthy person does no one any good, much less being an example to my daughter. Taking care of yourself sounds like exactly what you need to do.

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  8. Great post again Michelle. I’ve had a few of those jerks in my life. Seeing new things, reflecting on them and hopefully learning. I see more of that happening now that I’m not in a rush all the time.

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  9. What a brilliant and thoughtful post. I’m not sure if you’re an optimist or pessimist–maybe a realist?

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    • Wow, thanks for the compliment, Luanne. I used to say that I was a realist, but I’ve learned how different reality looks to each person. With that in mind, it sounded a little too dogmatic! I think one can be an optimist while still being grounded in critical thinking. Unfettered optimism seems as mindless as thinking that everything will go wrong. I will cop to being a cynic, though!

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  10. If one labelled a post with the category “Philosophy”, the only way you’d get me near it would be by dragging me hog-tied, kicking and screaming. This because my college experience of the great philosophers of history convinced me that these consisted primarily of a bunch of men doing a meaning-lite circle jerk being in turn admired by a bunch of other men doing a meaning-lite-r spin-off series of self-congratulatory circle jerks.

    Your posts clearly fall into the Philosophy category, but are content rich, and present this content engagingly–gracefully.

    Thank you, Michelle.

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    • You’re so kind – thanks! And I love the multiple meanings of jerk you’ve added to the conversation – such a useful word. When I write a post like this, it means I’ve spent many hours working in the garden, churning thoughts over in my head.

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