I’m envious of good sleepers, those fresh-faced, sleep-anywhere blessed, for whom merely putting their head to the horizontal is like the closing of a laptop screen. I’ve never been good at it, and I blame my moth-eaten memory on this inability. It wasn’t always a hindrance though. I used to love my bed-at-12/wake-at-6 rhythm, not because I was a zealot for productivity but because it seemed obvious that there were better ways to waste time than being unconscious. I can still think of better things to do, but I’d take six uninterrupted hours if I could get them.
Everyone has tussled with insomnia, mostly of the stress-induced kind. After happily procrastinating through an entire day in the superficial bliss of pretend ignorance, your mind suddenly erupts into a blaze of flash and bang thoughts, like Sydney Harbour Bridge on New Year’s Eve. Or like that Spanish tomato festival, all chaos and squashed fruit and uninvited hands. No period of my life was as replete with such nights as my Honours year. As the months dwindled into weeks until submission and I still hadn’t begun writing, going to bed meant sidling onto the sliver of mattress that remained uncovered by books and then just waiting until the Sun came up. You make a lot of deals with yourself while lying there, spooning dusty tomes and receiving an angular caress to the eyeball from a book corner whose name you don’t know.
You promise that tomorrow will be different, that you’ll be better, a new man, that you’ll live up to all the inspirational quotes you’ve scrawled on sheets of paper and stuck to the walls, guilt-inducing nuggets that you’re forced to look at because you’ve unplugged the television, turned it 180 degrees and given the remote to a friend. A tomorrow in which your weaknesses suddenly evaporate, you work non-stop, do the dishes, go for a run, make a dentist appointment and probably grow a centimetre or two as well. I’ve been waiting for that tomorrow my whole life.
Obviously I survived those few weeks, and experienced the singularly wonderful relief of handing in that bloody thesis. I felt dizzy and light-headed and put this down to pride and a sense of victory over my inherent procrastinatory being, rather than a serious vitamin D deficiency, or scurvy, or caffeine overdose, or all of those signs of a person struggling to play the game of Being An Adult. Ever a difficult game, that one.
Anyway, that sleep-abating ruminating is not the only sleep stealer out there. You may fear going to bed because of it, but the longing for sleep endures. Another type of insomnia is an entirely different foe: being afraid to sleep for fear of waking. Bad dreams, nightmares, night terrors, time and again pulled up through the Inception-like layers of dream and traumatised anew every other night. Sometimes though, the terror is waiting for you when you wake up.
I was never afraid to sleep until two years ago. I was living alone in a small city in Switzerland called Winterthur, in the European summer of 2014. Most of my friends were interlopers like me, but they’d loped in from nearby countries rather than nearby hemispheres and could easily vanish back to their homelands for those months. My days were very groundhoggy, usually beginning with my waking up clothed and confused on my couch and ending clothed and confused on my couch. There may have been a measure or two of beer thrown in there too. Once, I woke up to discover that a pot of water intended for the cooking of pasta had boiled dry and was slowly turning black; evidently I had fallen asleep awaiting its heating. Surveying the scene as my self-respect eked away, I found a new respect for Ikea kitchenware, the pot being the only victim of five hours of high heating. I got lucky, and learnt a valuable lesson. Probably.
On this particular night however, I had deliberately, adult-like, ‘gone to bed’. It was a low-to-the-ground double bed in the centre of a reasonably large bedroom, minimally furnished. A small white rug covered a portion of the wooden floorboards and clothes sat on open steel-grey shelves or hung on a rack in a corner. No desk but a square, squat block of bookshelf, topped with a dodgy old stereo system and a festival of dust befitting this picture of failing-bachelor homeliness. I’ve been single ever since, can you believe it?
I’d been becoming a lighter and lighter sleeper for some time, so it was not unusual to wake up in the middle of the night. What was different, and alarming, was what else was there when I awoke. Now, I’ve never had much time for the spiritual dimension, and traditionally have had to summon all my patience to be empathetic and smirk-less when someone confided their ghostly fears to me. I do try to not be an asshole, in general. And I do believe what I experienced that night was a figment of my subconscious, a lurker of the dream world escaped into the real, but that doesn’t render it any less terrifying.
It was like this: face down and akimbo, my preferred sleeping position, I stirred into consciousness. Moonlight sloped in through unshuttered windows and across my sparse room; all was not in total darkness. Instantly I felt a presence, but not a ghost, or monster, or anything recognisably nightmarish. Simply, a formless blackness. Heavy it was, and malevolent. It crept up over my ankles, and I perceived it the way you would if you thought a spider had dropped down the back of your shirt. Quickly it had spread itself entirely over me, and I felt it crushing me into the mattress. I can’t recall screaming; it seems to have been a silent struggle. I thrashed and writhed, panic rising as I tried to fling this void off my back. Eventually I succeeded or it acquiesced, somehow slinking into the corner, in amongst the shelves and the hanging clothes.
After a short time, now very much awake and aware of the shadow unlit by the silver light, I decided to get up and out of the bedroom. Despite my racing mind I didn’t run as I made for the door, but nearing the threshold I felt the darkness lunge, rushing up behind me like a gust chasing a train, and moving in a whirl I slammed the door behind me and dived for the bathroom and its normally ungenerous white light. Never was it more welcome.
Eventually I calmed down, and my lifelong scepticism placated my adrenal gland. Now, as then, I don’t believe I experienced some kind of nefarious phenomenon, but I did earn a new understanding of how the supernatural grew in the human psyche and how people can believe it. About a year later I had a similar experience, this time waking on my stomach to find two infant gargoyles perched either side of my head. As I roused they leapt onto my shoulders, attempting to hold me facedown in the pillow. Again, a struggle, and again, for the ensuing nights, a complete reluctance to fall asleep. It may only be a figment of my imagination, but its sleep-depriving effects are real enough.
I haven’t woken to a presence like that since, but did recently have the traditional trauma of waking up to a bad dream. I won’t tell you about it, because I’ve long thought telling people your dreams is pointless and inexpressibly dull. Recurring bad dreams probably have some significance, but ordinary old mind-flushing dreams? It’s like saying to someone ‘hey, my imaginary friend had a really fantastic day yesterday, want me to tell you about it?’ Um nope, no thanks. It would be a bitter hypocrisy to now do that to you.
More than the hypocrisy though, I won’t tell you because it was upsetting and relevant, and more personal than I wish to be here (I don’t mind telling old horror stories about myself but should maintain the possibility in your mind that I subsequently turned my life around. Everyone likes a mystery). It did make me fear sleep again, or more precisely, dreaming. I can’t stand dreams, and certainly don’t want to chase any. To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub.
Oh no. Identifying with Hamlet cannot be a good thing, but his reasoning as to why ‘not to be’ is probably worse than ‘to be’ seems right on. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come. Exactly. And yet, how oddly life-affirming. I guess I should be grateful next time I wake to these baby demon or shapeless visitors, the slings and arrows of my subconscious. Maybe they just want to be my imaginary friends.