Labor Day is an odd holiday for me. When I was married, I did the typical American thing and participated in a family gathering that took place every year in northeastern Ohio. But those days have long passed, so I’m left with a long weekend with little to do. And this past year, that was a good thing.
The Saturday before Labor Day this past year, I was fiddling in the garage. I had planned to go to Swapper’s Day – which is quite possibly the biggest yard sale in the midwest – but I decided I ought not tempt myself to spend any money. So instead of spending money, I tried to make some. The old lawn mower that used to belong to my Pappa was sitting in the corner of the garage. It’s an ancient Lawn Boy that I would be extremely attached to had I not thrown out the original engine during a moment of silliness many years ago. I’d not used the old Boy for nearly two years, and as such, I decided it was time to let it go. And since Sunbury is yard-sale central over holiday weekends, I decided I’d roll it out to the street and put a For Sale sign on it. But rather than move everything out of the way to fetch it, I thought I’d just lift it out of the corner. It’s got a light magnesium deck. I’d lifted it many times before. But that afternoon I did something wrong.
My back has probably been bad for the majority of my life. But it wasn’t until I was out of college that I was finally diagnosed with scoliosis. It’s not the worst case, but it’s also not the most mild either. I’ve grown used to the odd feeling it produces, so on an average day, it doesn’t bother me hardly at all. But what it has done is greatly reduced my ability to lift things. And stubborn, farm-raised boy that I am, I sometimes overlook this. So I yanked up on the mower. And I felt something give in my back.
This wasn’t the first time I’d hurt my back, but it’s by far the worst. I rolled the mower to the street and hobbled to the couch. And that’s where I stayed largely for three solid days. For the remainder of the first day, I couldn’t walk, crawl, sit…heck, move at all, without immense pain. In fact, the pain was great enough that I almost threw up just crawling to the bathroom. I called one of my neighbors and asked if he could bring me supper (which he sent by means of his wife), and I stayed planted on the couch. Within my reach were my TV and stereo remote controls, my work-owned laptop computer, my phone, my Bible, and a pitcher of water. And that was really all I needed. But that had an odd effect on the outcome of the weekend.
The previous Thursday, I was making up my typical Wednesday bike ride with my friend Dave when I suggested we get some food afterwards. We hadn’t done so in quite some time, so we settled on a hometown favorite, City BBQ. We both ate until we were stuffed. And as we often do, we hung out and chatted until it was quite late. And I drank sweet tea the entire time. By the time I got home at 11:30 pm, I was in no condition to sleep. I don’t typically have any difficulty sleeping (or so I thought), but on this particular night, I got no more than 3 hours worth. And that, my friends, does not work for me. The following day I was absolutely exhausted, and I decided that caffeine that late at night was most definitely not smart. But what I didn’t decide was that caffeine was bad for me. God decided that for me.
As I mentioned earlier, I grew up on a farm. And as such, I grew up drinking sweet tea. In fact, from a certain age, I had it virtually every meal (after my milk, of course). I was probably in first grade when I had my first Mountain Dew. And at the time, that was absolutely the best drink on earth. There was a period during high school when my mom started making decaffeinated tea. But since that time, I’ll bet I hadn’t gone more than a day or two at most without caffeine. And that was over 20 years ago.
It’s not that I drank a lot of caffeine. I typically didn’t. And it’s not like I got awful headaches on days that I skipped. That didn’t happen either. But I was notably drowsy if I didn’t have a cup of tea in the morning, and I would typically drink sweet tea or a Coke in the afternoons to keep me going as well. Over the past decade or so, I thought the amount of sleep I required kept going up. Unless I got a solid 9 hours of sleep, I was simply going to feel tired the next day. And let me tell you, 9 hours a night just didn’t happen except on the rarest of occasions. And anyone who really knows me knows that when I’m tired, I’m grouchy. And so to combat the grouchiness, my caffeine intake increased over time. But as it turns out, that was completely counterproductive.
Being couch-bound over Labor Day weekend did two things. First, it gave me opportunity to sleep. And that I did. In fact, I slept 12, 11, and 10 hours the three nights. But more importantly, it weaned me off caffeine. I simply couldn’t get up to make any tea. And my neighbors were kind enough to bring me home-cooked food rather than restaurant food, which didn’t include any caffeinated beverages. Without the caffeine, I was obviously exhausted, thus the extreme amounts of sleep. But each day since has been absolutely amazing.
I was reading about caffeine after my fateful City BBQ evening, and it turns out that among other things, caffeine inhibits the depth of sleep. Essentially, it lowers the quality of sleep. Aside from nights when I stupidly drank caffeinated beverages late, I never had a problem sleeping. I knew that caffeine stayed in the body for many hours, but because I could sleep, I assumed I was fine. But that was far from the truth.
I used to dream a lot. But over the past decade or more, the amount of dreams I’ve had has steadily decreased. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing as of late, I thought, since many of my dreams have been tortuous since my unwanted divorce. But dreams are a good sign that the body is getting the quality of sleep it needs. And dreams are part of the brain’s process of making sense of and filing away memories. And I was missing both.
Since Labor Day weekend, I have dreamed every single night. I can’t remember this ever happening before. If it has, I was very young. And more importantly, I haven’t felt this awake in as long as I can remember. I’ve been able to get up on time in the morning, I’ve been alert all morning and afternoon, and at no point prior to bedtime have I felt sleepy or in a fog – which is something I had long ago grown accustomed to. Being up in the mornings has allowed time to read my Bible, eat breakfast and exercise. Being alert in the mornings and afternoons has made me more productive at work and allowed me to more clearly hear the Spirit. And not feeling drowsy in the evenings has allowed me to have more enjoyable times with the Lord, have better conversations with my children, and find joy in reading and writing again. And I’ve been able to make better decisions in general. I can’t emphasis enough how much of a difference getting real, solid sleep has made over the past two weeks. It could be absolutely life-changing. And it’s all because I hurt my back.
God rarely works in the way we expect him to. Since our Lord is never-changing, and since we have a record of many of his interactions with humanity throughout history in the Bible, you’d think we’d be able to predict what he’ll do next. But God cannot be pigeonholed. He’s far smarter, far wiser and far more loving than we can possibly know. And he sees what we can’t. When I hurt my back nearly two weeks ago, I thought it meant a lot of pain and a wasted weekend. But God had a better plan. Maybe I hurt myself because I was being careless. Or maybe God twisted my back when I picked up that lawn mower. But either way, God used that time while I was incapacitated in order to greatly improve my life. Time will tell as to whether this will be a long-lasting improvement or whether I’ll be like a dog who returns to his own vomit. But at this moment, I feel better than I have in years. And I am so thankful.