92: The Bedtime Ritual that Changed My Life

92: The Bedtime Ritual that Changed My Life

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reboot Your Life

The Bedtime Ritual that Changed My Life

Gratitude is an opener of locked-up blessings.

~Marianne Williamson

My first semester of graduate school was the busiest, most stressful time of my life. In addition to moving across the country, finding an apartment, learning to navigate a new city, trying to meet people and make new friends, and taking literature and fiction-writing courses, I was also thrown into teaching an undergraduate writing class five days a week.

Other than leading occasional creative writing workshops for middle school and high school students, this was my first time teaching. I was overwhelmed, to put it mildly. I cobbled together a syllabus and class rules from what I remembered of courses I took in college. Still, I had problems with students texting and talking during class. Up in front of the class, I felt overdressed and stiff. I was terrified my students would call me out as a fraud, sensing I had never done this before. I imagined them thinking “What right do you have to be teaching us? You’re not a real professor — you’re just a grad student.”

One of the courses I was taking was a fiction-writing seminar. We each took turns sharing our work with the class, receiving feedback from fellow grad students. The night before my first story went up for critique, I had a panic attack. I could not fall asleep. My heart raced, and it felt like a 400-pound grizzly bear was sitting on my chest. I made it through the critique, but my anxiety remained.

That first semester, living on my own in a one-bedroom apartment, I often felt lonely. Anxiety, however, was my near-constant companion. I worried about not being a good teacher. I stressed out over my ever-growing pile of books to read and schoolwork to complete. I felt nervous in social situations — awkward, not myself. I wondered when it had become so hard for me to make friends. All of this caused my anxiety to fester and grow, its weight pressing down heavier and heavier on my chest.

In October, my dad came to visit. Having him around was like a fresh breeze sweeping into my life and airing out everything. He helped me see the beauty and fun in my new surroundings, things I had been missing when my vision was blurred by an anxious haze. We discovered an amazing hole-in-the-wall restaurant a few blocks from my apartment. We took walks on a trail beside the river. We even wandered through Indiana’s largest corn maze. My dad took pictures of the autumn foliage and exclaimed over the fresh produce at the farmer’s market. “If your mom and I lived here, we’d come here every week!” he said, hefting a large pumpkin into the trunk of my car. “What a neat place to live, Dal. You are so lucky!”

Lucky. It was a word I hadn’t used to describe myself in a while. But, deep down, I knew my dad was right. I was lucky be in a graduate program, pursuing my dreams. I was lucky to be getting experience teaching. I was lucky to spend every day reading and writing and growing and learning, lucky I got to explore a new part of the country that I had never lived in before.

At the end of the week, I dropped my dad off at the airport. Walking back to my car, I wiped away my tears and resolved to take charge of my life and my health, to conquer the ache of loneliness and stress that had cast a shadow over the first half of the semester.

“Lucky.” The word ran through my mind the entire drive home. I was indeed lucky. My dad had helped me see it. But how could I make sure I remembered it?

I thought back to a piece of advice my grandma once gave me: fall asleep counting your blessings. So that’s what I did. I climbed into bed that night feeling an all-too-familiar tightness in my chest — a signal of anxiety brewing for the busy week ahead. But I focused my thoughts on all that I had to be grateful for in my life: a comfy bed, a roof over my head, enough food to eat, warm clothes. I thought about my friends and family back home and all the love I had in my life. Even if I felt far from home at times, I knew I was always loved. I was never truly alone.

Rather than tossing and turning for hours, I fell asleep quickly. I woke up feeling more optimistic than I had felt in a long time. It was a start.

From then on, counting my blessings became my nighttime ritual. It was amazing how many things I found to be grateful for once I took the time to look. Gradually, my list of blessings included specific events and details from my new life: the nice e-mail from a student thanking me for the comments on her paper, the smile from a fellow grad student in the school hallway, the cozy hum of the radiator heating my apartment in the morning, a seat saved for me on the bus to campus, the smell of my first attempt at pumpkin pie baking in the oven, the comfort of a mug of chai tea on a snowy day.

As I became more grateful for my life, my anxiety loosened its grip. I grew more comfortable in my new surroundings, more able to be myself around new people, and I found it easier to make friends. Before long, I was looking forward to dinner every Friday evening with a nice group of friends I’d made in the English department.

I was less anxious teaching, too. As I became more confident in myself, I felt more empowered in my role as a teacher. I focused on what I could bring to the classroom as a young, enthusiastic new teacher, rather than worrying about the reasons I should feel daunted or overwhelmed. I channeled my energy into being the best teacher I could be — inspiring my students and helping them succeed. When the semester drew to a close, I was honored with an award for teaching excellence based on student evaluations of my course.

As the winter chill and shorter days set in, and final exams and grading loomed ahead, my anxiety sometimes reared its ugly head again. Even today, more than a year later, it still does. But I now have a tool to combat my anxiety: gratitude. By focusing on the many blessings in my life, I remind myself what is truly important. No longer am I worried about surviving the stresses of daily life. I know I can thrive no matter what circumstances arise.

~Dallas Woodburn

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