The sleep story

Mukesh Kumar
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The sleep story

Insomnia runs in my family, afflicting both sides of it with equal intensity. That’s nearly four centuries of Mexican tossing and Italian turning, with fits of German cursing and crying in between. A long heritage of discomfort, and, according to family gossip, one that has only been interrupted by the rotting medicines that tempt anyone who’s had to put up with an extended period of lost sleep – drugs, alcohol, compulsive anger, and every possible combination of the three. With the advent of psychotherapy, and the discovery that trauma is an actual illness and not a defect of character, many of us have learned to deal with insomnia in less destructive ways.

In 2010, my father was prescribed a small dose of the sleep aid Zolpidem, brand name Ambien, by his psychiatrist – a neat, gentle little drug that has chemical kinship with tranquilizers like Valium and Xanax, but without their addictive and narcotic qualities. To my dad, who had long suffered from sleepless nights and long days spent dragging himself through his work as an electrician, this was the answer to all of his prayers. After his inaugural dose, he smiled and drifted off into what I’m sure was the finest sleep he’d had in decades. I’m also sure this is all he remembers of that first night, and he’s better off for it. Zolpidem has a blackout effect on the mind, like a drinking binge without the hangover. My mother and I recall it in deeper, less relaxing ways. For her, it brought on the uncomfortable squeeze of an abused past, and, for me, it brought forth the very shadow of death. It was an alien shape seen in my peripheral vision that night. We all have to see that shape at least once in our lives. Knowing I’ll have to see it twice frightens me. 

 Watching my dad’s face slacken at the dinner table after taking his first dose was distressing. It bore the stamp of deep intoxication, and it was immediate, without any intervening period of jollity or talkativeness. No time to acclimate to it. Only a high-school junior at the time, I was unfamiliar with the actual sensation of being drunk, but I would later come to know it well as a solitary confinement for the soul.

In certain quantities, liquor utterly disables your ability to step outside yourself. For the constructive drinker, often an artist, leaving this ability behind is useful and focusing, like a monk retreating into his cell to pray. Booze simply becomes a chemical means of getting to that same, isolated room. For the drunk however, who often harbors a deep hatred for what he sees in the mirror, this blind isolation is an addictive, absolute deliverance, and an absolute terror for those around him. There are few things in this world as wonderful as being drunk, and even fewer as awful as seeing someone else drunk. (This is why I’ve always thought of the designated-driver concept as something nice in theory and unimaginable in practice. Drunk people are only bearable when you’re also drunk, and being sober among drinkers has the same world-shattering effect as catching a glimpse of yourself having sex. “Is this what it really looks like when I do this?”) Blissfully sliding about inside his cell without mirrors, or even the faint reflectivity of a window, it becomes nearly impossible for anyone to make the drunk see that he is trapped, or that there is a world outside. My mother watched helplessly from outside like this for most of her childhood as my grandfather, Andrew, committed himself to this living death, dumping frightening amounts of alcohol into himself and raging as if there were no one else in the room. My dad’s face that night, so relaxed it might have melted right off of his skull, brought these times closer to her than she’d felt in years.

By the time I began to know him, Andrew had long been sober, and the sleep story he told me when I was seven was an isolated horror from an age so far away I could barely imagine it. I had no idea that he was, in his own way, doing a dry run of the apology he would never get to make to his own children. A veteran of the Battle of Iwo Jima, the Second World War’s bloodiest passage in the Pacific, and the first and only battle in which American casualties exceeded the Japanese, he recalled trying to sleep in the rare moments between fighting, curled up against the black volcanic dust that blankets the island like a mourning veil. This dust is soft and pliant, and might have been comfortable for him to lay on, drawing him down into sleep for seconds so split they barely existed. The Japanese had dug a vast network of bunkers and tunnels through the island before he arrived, and he would wake up again, and again, and again, to their muffled voices only a few feet underneath him. Imagine drifting off to the sounds of men planning how best to kill you. It’s the boogeyman in the childhood closet made real. It’s the suppressed nightmare of ancient humanity, resting in caves and clearings while hungry beasts waited behind the trees. Who wouldn’t try to drink until they’d totally drowned such a memory?

Some, but not all, of these thoughts were with me as my dad began to nod off over his unfinished dinner. The absent ones, the adult ones, the ones I’ve laid down here, made themselves known that night as a warm tightness in my chest, my body figuring things out for me long before my brain did. My mother and I woke him up with a gentle shake and told him it was time for bed, but he simply hovered above his seat for a moment and plopped back down under the weight of his medication. We approached him, realizing we would have to actually walk him to his bedroom, but before we arrived, he pointed across the table and into the kitchen, calmly informing us there was a little girl standing in front of our refrigerator.

I once saw a production of The Crucible in Austin, Texas, and at a climax in the play, one of the bewitched girls feigned seeing a demonic bird perched just beyond the tribunal. The actress pointed to it, and roughly half the audience turned around in their seats to look where she had pointed. I looked at them looking, and silently judged them fools. It was only a play. Did they really expect something to be there? I can’t remember if either one of us turned around to see the little girl. Such a decision, to look or not to look, is the whole ancient struggle with the material world in embryo, and it is too freighted with pride for me to remember it accurately. I’d like to say I didn’t look, my refusal a harbinger of the staunch atheism that would eventually develop out of my catholic upbringing, but that’s just wishful thinking.

If my mother and I had bothered to read the literature that came with my dad’s prescription, we would have known that hallucinations are a common accessory in Zolpidem’s package deal of side effects, especially upon its first dose. This harmless hiccup in my father’s nervous system nonetheless had a chilling effect on us, and we quickly gathered him up from his chair and into bed, where he curled up and left us to stew in our thoughts. Here is where I must speculate entirely, because, after my dad fell asleep, there is a patch of nothing in my head that looks to be about the length of an hour. Guided by my current habits, I can safely assume that, in my distress, I listened to an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on my iPhone while I milled around the kitchen, munching on a hastily stacked turkey sandwich, the kind where the lunch meat is constantly sliding out from between the bread on a slick of mustard. There was a threat in the air that I had to escape. Birds come down onto branches and stay put before a thunderstorm, and cows lay down to sleep. I should have just stayed in the kitchen.

My memory picks up again as I cross from the kitchen into the dining room, feeling in the corner of my eye the tall window that looks out onto the lawn. A warm flood light brightens the first few feet of our concrete driveway and the right edge of our boxwood hedge. Beyond that is total darkness after nine P.M, and nothing can be seen for twenty yards except the neighbors’ porchlights across the street. Although small and narrow, it is a picture window in the most wonderful sense. At any time of night, you can see raccoons, opossums, squirrels, cats, dogs, and all manner of mammalian life slinking by to sniff and enjoy the food and water we leave out for the neighborhood strays. Sometimes, an enormous moth of exquisite pattern will flutter over and land with a thump on the glass, allowing anyone who happens to be in the dining room to admire it for hours. It’s like our own private zoo. But that night, there wasn’t a creature stirring anywhere. No crickets, no thumping moths, no hideously sleek roaches trying to get inside – a bad stillness that made me want to look away from the window as I sat down at the table to finish my sandwich.

But it still beckoned my gaze, pulling my eyes towards it like a private letter left open on someone’s desk, and, as I looked up from my sandwich, the little girl my father had seen passed by the window. I remember snapping my head back towards the kitchen, thinking my mother had come into the dining room and that I was seeing her reflection, but I was alone. When I looked back, the little girl was gone, but I was sure I had seen a tan, diaphanous dress, fluttering in the humid summer air, and young skin on a solid face, free of any adolescent blemish, shining in the porch light as thick and alive as my own. I can still see the turn-of-the-century brocade of her outfit, and the unsettling way she quickly floated by the window, as if on roller skates.

A trick of the light no doubt, primed for a ghostly vision by my father’s hallucination, could easily explain away what I saw that night. But, in my memory, I can feel the weight of that girl’s body. Her reality is indisputable for me, but reality has shrunk for me as I write this. All of us are pining for physical connection like we’ve never done before. The world we miss, the one we think will finally satisfy us, is the unmasked closeness of parties and movie theaters and sex that we once knew without limit. Perhaps, for the first time in history, we wish that this really was all that there is. Hamlet’s terrifying assertion that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy has only been sharpened in the meantime, and our reunion with material life will find us totally unequipped, or, worse, totally unwilling, to confront it.

I still don’t believe in ghosts, or gods, or prayers, or blessings and mystical vibrations, or any of the lies people tell themselves and their children so that life doesn’t seem like a succession of random cruelties. This is a function of privilege. I’ve never really known the dire, physical desperation that is a rule for most of the proletariat world – desperation for food, for shelter, for a face that doesn’t regard you as an obstacle, for a day spent without the wounding anxiety of poverty and parenthood. My worries have been wholly neurotic. There’s no inherent honor or intelligence in being worried about death and the process of dying. It’s a cheap anxiety that everyone buys the moment they are born, and it’s most sharp for me whenever I’m falling asleep. It’s how I react to this fear, when I’m clamped inside the space between consciousness and sleep, between life and death, that seems most important to me now. My generation likes to sneer at the ones that came before it. They were all asleep at the wheel of history and willing to take whatever heinous orders they were given to preserve their sense of security, but us millennials are still utterly unable to be alone with our thoughts. Sensing the responsibility we carry as stewards of a rapidly crumbling world, we search for disciplines that will show us the way forward, and healthier ways of beating back the impish mental chatter that comes for us when all the lights are off and there’s no one to talk to – meditation, exercise, natural supplements like melatonin and valerian root, soothing whispers and roleplays – but, come morning, we still find ourselves upright and emptyhanded, like every generation before us.

I still do believe that my father’s drug, by bringing him closer to real sleep, brought him closer to death, and that this closeness allowed death to bleed into my waking life. It doesn’t matter if what I saw was real in the supernatural sense, and I don’t claim to have a better grasp on my own life because of it. Cigarettes, Benadryl, booze, and my phone are still the only ways I can get to sleep, and I remain as slavishly dependent upon artificial tranquilizers for comfort as any child with his favorite blanket. What matters is the telling of this sleep story. What matters is that I don’t keep what I saw to myself and pridefully let the strain of keeping it a secret rot my insides and emaciate my conscience until I start denying that it ever happened. What matters is that we take pride in our collective heritage of insomnia, and recognize our resistance to sleep as an impulse against death and towards life, as if the history of every society’s struggle against its own demise were being recapitulated every time we close our eyes. This is what distinguishes us from the birds and the cows that land and lay down in the face of extinction.

As I finish typing this story, there is a pleasant drowsiness tugging at my eyes. I hope that as I fall asleep tonight, no matter how drugged or drunk or distracted I am, I will try and feel myself sink into it, fighting all the time while knowing I am, like everyone, destined to lose. I hope my sleep is long and restoring, and that I lift myself up in the morning like a wiser, stronger generation, knowing the enemy better and ready to face it in the light of the new day.

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