Sleep. Night time. I hate it. I love it. I want to move someplace where it is always day, I want to transform the world into night the way I see it so that maybe people will understand. Every time I shut my eyes it’s like sitting in a planetarium, neck bent so far back it’s almost at the breaking point, staring up at this unsettling dome. Everyone else ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as the secrets of the sky are revealed but I’m just terrified about the atmosphere giving way and being sucked into the vacuum of space, Sandra Bullock-style.
“You sleep angry,” said my friend Alex. “You sleep HARD, like--” she pulls her face into a tough, close-eyed grimace. “It’s like it’s a contest and you are going to WIN!” She makes the tough-guy face again. Apparently when I sleep, I look like Al Capone.
“Why are you watching me sleep anyway?” I ask wryly.
“Shut up,” she says as I laugh. I know she’s right. I sleep like a furious Superman. So I guess, I sleep like Batman. I’m on my stomach, one leg pulled up, the other out behind me. I keep one arm at my side, the other is thrust out above my head under the pillow. I’m asleep in mid-furious flight.
I remember being small and in awe of just how easy it was for my mother to fall asleep. Give her an instant and she would escape to this place where nothing could get to her. I wanted to go there too. I still do when I see her sleeping, lines from the pillow on her face, hair cockatiel-ing off the top of her head. Bed was her happy place. She had this soft fluffy robe called her snuggie-wuggie. She would sit in bed under the covers reading and drinking coffee in the morning and I would plop down between her knees. I called it my nest.
Sleepy people smell different than wide-eyed-awake people. Lean in towards a person sleeping and you’ll catch a whiff. Sure, it’s just brewing mouth bacteria and sweat and laundry detergent and drool but there’s something magical about it. It’s enough to make you believe that when you sleep you go someplace else. I watch other people sleeping (in a non-Red Dragon kind of way) and I’ve never ached to travel as much as I do then.
My nights aren’t really escapes. They are wars. The stakes may not actually be that high, but each night for me there is a life on the line. It’s like playing a game of RISK while delusional. I feel like an old-time general with a handlebar moustache moving out troops with strategy and circumspection. Everyone else trots off to the land of Nod, and while I might fall asleep quickly, I don’t stay that way. If I do, I find myself in a place I’d rather not be.
The only thing worse than a nightmare is waking up surrounded by happy sleeping people. You hear everyone breathe and your throat gets tight and sad because you are missing out. Your brain is making you miss out. It’s like anxiety has made you eight years old again, forced to go to bed early while your parents host a fancy dinner party. You want to go downstairs eat artichokes dipped in hollandaise -- but you aren’t allowed.
The first panic attack I remember having wasn’t at my house. We were at my mom’s parents’ place in Baltimore. I’ve talked about it here before. I have tried over the years to do a lot of things to, I would say, bring me back to myself. Because at the height of my panic, I am disconnected from my body and solely in tune with the reality that I’m going to die. This means a chomp to my own mouth, a slap to my own face, a scream that makes my throat feel like it’s bleeding. It’s never been prayer, not even when I believed in the reality of God as unequivocally as I believed in the sureness and power of death.
“Think of heaven. Think of a table full of all the food you can eat surrounded by people you love. Now, go to bed and let me worry about my soul.” In my family, a deep and restful and intense sleep -- that’s a passion we all share. When I was a child it was my dad who managed to break the spell of hysteria when it hit me hardest. His faith is unwavering and sure. Dying? That’s just another step.
“Let me worry about my soul,” he says with a smile and rolls over and goes back to sleep. The other person who's always been able to bring me back is my sister. She didn’t talk to me about heaven or God or souls. I would creep into her bed, feel the warm sleepiness enveloping the bed, smell her sleep-tousled hair. “You okay?” she said. I’d say, “I’ll be fine,” and she then she’d smack her lips contentedly, just like my dad, rolling over and back to sleep.
I remember once talking to my dad about these panic attacks -- “my death thing” -- as we drove home from a bookstore when I was a teenager. I don’t remember how I phrased it, but I know I asked him if he’d never been afraid of dying. He thought about it for a second.
“There was a sunset I saw once when I was younger that made me choke up once,” he said. “I was sad by the notion that there would come a time when I wouldn’t see another.”
I am lying awake in my bed and thinking about what peace feels like. I am lying awake and my throat is tight. “Let me worry about my soul,” he said. The tight fluttering panicked thing inside, is that what it is? Then I’m crying, because I don’t know, and then, suddenly and without thought or fighting, I am asleep.