There were times as a little girl when I could hear the blood rushing in my ears while I lay in bed at night. I remember it sounded like soldiers marching. These were the nights that I associated with the worst nightmares, and so I would try to stay awake as long as I could, sitting up reading, or writing, or drawing. Anything to keep myself from falling asleep. I wondered why I was so afraid of them, and the fact of it all is that I was afraid of being afraid. On the nights when my nocturnal activities were found out, my parents would tell me to go to sleep, and turn out my lights, and I’d lay in bed, holding my breath, because I believed that the noise of my own breathing would interfere with my ability to hear someone sneaking into my room.
One time, my father tried to help me with my sleeplessness by telling me to just concentrate on relaxing one muscle at a time, starting with my toes and moving slowly up to my head. I tried, I really did, but the act of willing my muscles to relax was so strange to me that it felt like a tickling feeling, and it would just make me laugh and I’d have to start over again.
Most nights, though, after my parents made to turn out the lights, I’d lay ramrod straight under the covers with my back pressed into the mattress so that I could see the entire room, and wait for the sun to come up, or for those few hours of sleep. Sometimes I’d sneak into my little brother’s room and sleep on the floor with a blanket; he was the only one in the house that I felt I could count on as a protector. My mother’s neglect, and after the onset of puberty, her hostility, were so complete that the thought of her as a source of security did not occur to me.
When morning came, the fear evaporated and I knew I could get a nap in before my father came in to wake me for school. It was the early sun in the summer, or the sounds and smells of the household waking up in the winter, since on Anchorage winter mornings it would sometimes remain dark until ten, that signaled morning to me… the sound of the shower, the smell of coffee or of bacon frying. Even on weekends, my father did not easily tolerate us sleeping late. He would flip on the lights and shout, “Get up, get up, the day’s a-wastin’!” Or sometimes, “you’re burning daylight!”
On a few occasions, starting as a teenager, I would experience sleep paralysis; the phenomenon in which the sleeper is awakened, and can see as well as the very slightly parted eyelids would allow, but is unable to move. During these instances, the sound of the blood in my ears was so loud that it sounded like hands clapping in time to music that wasn’t there. I don’t know why it seemed so much louder; maybe it was the fright of being aware of my surroundings and unable to move, helpless there in my bed.
I still have occasional nightmares, and occasional evenings of sleeplessness. I still have a habit of holding my breath, a habit that I engage in without thinking about it. The nightmares don’t bother me the way that they used to. I have kicked bed mates before, and I am told that I’ve screamed in my sleep, and although the dreams do wake me, I am no longer kept awake by the fear of them. Once awakened, I write down what I dreamed about and go back to sleep. I find that without this, I lay awake for hours, just thinking about it.
The insomnia itself is sporadic, and is generally caused by worry, though I am sometimes kept awake these days by the complaints of a slowly aging body… a neck poorly supported by a worn out pillow, knees that ache in the rain, and a general inability to find a comfortable way to position myself on the mattress. Sometimes I find myself overwhelmed with concern about where to place an arm, or a leg, or even whether I’m lying in a way that might look strange to an onlooker.
As an adult, I do find myself fighting sleep in some cases, trying not to stay awake, exactly, but to remain in that soft state of hypnogogia, where you can only slightly feel your body, and everything seems warm and comfortable, and the dreamy visions are benign and even enjoyable. I find that as an adult, the occasional hypnopompic states of my youth are gone; the warm, comfortable, happy unfolding of sleep from around the body is replaced by a near-painful wakefulness so unpleasant that I am not compelled to spend more time in bed, but get up and even in a state so clumsy and sleep-sodden that I bump the walls of the hallway with my shoulders as I walk, go about starting my day.
When sleep comes easily, I will sleep for anywhere between four and seven hours a night, before waking up on my own. When sleep is hard-won, I sometimes have as few as two hours in a night. There are those occasional nights where I sleep for eight or ten hours at a stretch… catch up days. Sleep itself, however, has never been a respite for me as an adult. It is a task usually approached with the kind of annoyance reserved for a thing that must be done, but at which I am not naturally inclined to do well.