Excuse the title, which is the most clickbaity shit you’ll get from a personal essay. Yep, this is about sleep — its necessity and its sexual and spiritual significance and my own psyche.
My relationship to sleep — much like my relationship to food, but that’s for another essay — is a pretty secure attachment. Sleep has got me through a lot of tough times. Heck, I wonder if it’s what keeps me from getting sick that often. I may get less sleep, hours-spent-in-my-bed-wise, but I am asleep the minute my head hits the pillow, so it probably evens out to the same amount as someone who gets 8 hours but lies awake thinking for a bit before drifting off slowly.
I fit the symptoms of a type 2 narcoleptic, because I can fall asleep, almost on cue, anywhere as long as I’m sitting and not extremely emotionally stimulated. This has gotten me into a bit of hot water at times when I slept in class, but it doesn’t take me much to close my eyes and just drift off.
People find this puzzling, because I’m also extremely energetic all of the time even at late hours without alcohol or drugs involved and you’d have no idea my level of tiredness. Sleep feels like a tool rather than a necessity. Yes, I do get sleepy like most people, but it doesn’t manifest itself in a subdued manner. I can be perky one minute but easily sleep, anywhere anytime.
I have a theory for why I sleep: I need it when I feel overwhelmed from the weight of living. Maybe the times I fall asleep on the spot are because my spirit has had enough of just, you know, the burden of life.
I view life as a continuum. I rarely get up and think, “today is a new day!” I view it as a new installment. So because I never think of days as segmented periods, I think of sleep as what marks commercial breaks in the laughless and endless sitcom that is life. You can get up, take your figurative drink of water, use the bathroom, still halfway listen to some pointless infomercial, and enjoy being ducked out of the intensity of the show until it’s time to tune back in.
Sleep makes me feel like I have control of the goddamn remote when really, there is no way to control the sequence of events that is life. I can’t pause anything; it’s great scheduled programming, but it doesn’t stop. But sleep means for a bit, I get to relax. My brain is constantly on guard against everything. I have trouble just existing.
Sometime around 6th grade, I started sleeping more. Since age 12, I haven’t had a wink of insomnia. It’s a great way to avoid said weight of living. In fact, it’s been the only way I probably have avoided fully living.
A brief overview of my life that’d make Freud fucking proud:
I was 9 and a half when I got my period. At the time I confessed to Mom that I’d been just randomly bleeding after enduring it for two months. She just handed me a pad and said I was a big girl now, with a half-assed explanation in Mandarin that she didn’t realize was too complex for me at the time. I wondered if she was trying to make my death easier by lying that this always happened to everyone.
My earliest memories of elementary school were swinging on the swings, crying because my friend had moved away without telling me after a summer of no contact because there were no Internet or cellular phones yet. And then life threw me a life-changing whammy: I started wearing diapers and not being able to go to swim lessons or wear dresses once a month. Health class had not yet taught me that it was typical for little girls to bleed out of their pee-pee areas, so that means I literally spent 7 months believing I was dying before I learned the truth later that spring.
That probably got to me.When you’re 9, 7 months of feeling like that does more to form your worldview because that’s a smaller fraction of your life. I continuously felt like nothing I did had a point because I was, well, about to die anyway.
Thus I was kind of a downer. Too bad I wasn’t old enough to comprehend Nietzsche or learn to live for the moment or employ Zen Buddhistic stoicism, so the dread of dying began to eat at me. Most people didn’t like being around a depressed 4th grader.
Subsequently I felt bullied a lot for a few years. Keyword, “felt.” Whether I was or not is maybe important to me, but not to anyone else. My interpretation was I experienced the passive-aggressive kind that women do to one another, even now in adulthood, that’s almost worse than physical aggression. It’s the earliest version of gaslighting — where you’re never 100% sure that it’s happening, but you can point to what has happened and what you do know but only as your subjective reality. This is where I learned to distrust objective reality, because it never seemed to add up to mine no matter how many details I shared. There was not enough evidence to indict those bitches, or maybe it was that there were more social stakes to examine.
So yeah. You’re at the mercy of people who are not self-actualized, tearing at your own un-self-actualized self, with their passivity that starts to feel monstrous.
Girls, — “no, we’re still friends!” — no, you’re just ‘girls to me’ because true friends would never get defensive about being friends and you’re a horrible excuse for a friend — find some obscure reason to get up from the lunch table when you bring your tray over. Their smiles seem more plastered on when they look at you. There’s a lot of whispering and stolen glances. Complaints that you “talk only about yourself, etc.” make it through the grapevine, but none of it seems to make sense. Soon you learn it’s not so much that you’re not allowed to talk about yourself, but that the transaction is that you have to visibly give a shit about other people. And that means you have to take time out of your day to really sit and have a good long think about other people to give that shit when it is hard to not give a shit about anyone but yourself that must be prioritized. Which is hard when you can barely give enough of a shit about yourself to be alone with your feelings and not treat them like intruders.
The thing I realized years later was it wasn’t really anyone’s fault, or my fault — it was a time where everything felt confusing, and an early puberty and a general reluctance to accept I was growing up and taking responsibility meant I took it out on others.
Throughout my adolescence, I learned that everyone cares about your feelings so long as they don’t have any of their own. And sharing your feelings means people grow feelings, about you, and also about themselves. And that means instead of spending your life feeling bad for yourself and blaming others, you try to wrap your head around the idea that people care but it’s their right to leave for their own. Then you get creative about all of that alone time, and feel exhausted from brainstorming all the time.
And when do you get to stop being creative and be ordinary? When you sleep. Like everyone else, you’re together with the sleeping.
Existential dread feels spliced into the DNA of my thought patterns. Talk about being dealt a weird hand — I don’t know anyone who got their period at an age earlier than mine. Regardless, growing up feeling attacked — by life — meant I craved my bed. I began anticipating the end of the day in the morning, after only an hour of living it. When that end finally came, I would be able to crawl into my covers, bury my head in my pillow, and have by choice get to be alone with my dreams. I always get extra mad if someone keeps me up against my will because sleep’s my time to be alone and process everything annoyed, fucked up or incredibly inspiring that happened that day.
It’s those big chunks of time too. Napping wasn’t that fun because it felt like a small tease of a commercial break — like a tangential-but-still-relevant-to-the-plot aside in an episode of Family Guy, as opposed to a full-on time for you to get up and move around and stretch or whatever.
Toppling the safety of sleep:
And then, the deaths hit.
July 30. October 27. November 6. January 14. All days these past few months that lived in infamy for my subconscious.
I started waking up with, not a sense of dread from leaving the world of sleep, but a piercing, sharp knowing. People I’d been close to no longer walked this earth.
I’d never felt more alive than knowing I needed to live. Slowly, sleep became less of an escape, for my dreams were also gradually haunted with memories of the passed. My narcolepsy faded away as fear started having a tangible feeling. Extreme emotions displaced the general existential dread that prompted me to seek sleep’s solace.
You could argue it was a good thing. Now I had to pay more attention. Focus on what I was running from — life itself?
Now, abstractions about spending the night:
People in college teased me about being a tease, but I think the main reason I didn’t want to commit to dating anyone was because I wanted my goddamn bed to myself. The hallmark of college relationships was sleepovers, which I thought sounded cool because there’s something to be said about how other people furnish their beds and rooms. But when I found myself really, really making a subconscious concentrated effort to avoid going home with people, I realized it wasn’t that appealing. I was always more comfortable observing a bed and a room detachedly, without committing to being in it. So the one night stand wasn’t really my thing. I strung myself tightly with an awareness that most people didn’t catch: the most unappealing part of intimacy was the idea of letting someone into my sacred space where I got to be safe from the world. But that probably goes hand in hand with my never trusting anyone enough to even let them into my heart all the way, much less my bed, the one place I could relax. I could never imagine it either.
I’ve always disdained that quote: “you can’t fall asleep because reality is better than your dreams.” Reality has rarely been better than my dreams! The world is exciting but predictable in its unpredictability. I am on guard from living, so I have never had trouble falling asleep. I’ve tired myself out intuitively, and my reward is to shut it out for a second.
Then one winter night — in a place that by all accounts resembled a seasonless dream — I found myself an insomniac for the first time in god knows how long.
It was almost relieving, to know sleep could still elude me. I previously believed I’d forgotten how to lie awake. I was staring at the ceiling, a window above my head illuminating the truth while “I don’t want to miss a thing” ironically played in my head.
Rain fell, washing away the feeling of euphoria I’d had earlier that night from feeling my heart, mind, soul at ease. I’d spilled my guts, let myself be leveled with a gaze, like that quote from Good Will Hunting —
Thus I blamed rain for that amnesia, how I temporarily forgot the clues that might have told me why I couldn’t fall asleep. I believed I wanted to sleep, confused about the possibility that I didn’t want to because I wanted to cherish this moment, lying there — when had I ever wanted that before? My magic sleep function was magically broken. I felt giddy and terrified of being giddy. Not blinking. Paralyzed by delight and, the layer beneath that, fear of that delight.
Relax? I had been perfectly still, controlling my breathing, and somehow —
Okay, maybe my spirit wasn’t relaxed, but how the fuck had that been apparent?
Now I couldn’t fall asleep because I was in shock from being leveled again. I’ve heard people stay up because their thoughts are racing. For me, it was really one question boring into my being: how is this feeling I’m experiencing even possible?
Nothing conscious surfaced. I would close my eyes to analyze an answer, and instead get intense visions of things I never thought I’d want from anyone. I’d open my eyes and see that feather and of course then hear Robin Williams say something about an angel on earth just for you, and believed he was right, and then I wondered if that’s why I couldn’t sleep. I was being watched, by God, closely, because this happened, and I could not escape.
And I woke up the next day worrying about the point of being awake. I stood in the shower and let the water surround me, my brain drifting off once my body was up, latent anxiety swirling, wishing I could leave without doing the proper emotional due diligence. I saw myself fearfully listless, warmth in my face gone, going through the motions of smiling and sharing yourself through the last of closed mouth niceties, staring out the window in the car back because my entire body was on fire.
Desire. The extreme emotions of loss were quickly replaced with one scarier: gain.
For once, it had been more pleasurable to be awake and sharing my soul nakedly and intimately, even though I should’ve been exhausted from not being able to close my eyes all night. And I am not someone who usually lives life finding more pleasure in the waking world than the dreaming world.
It wasn’t unpleasant. I just reacted to letting my guard down being alarmingly unfamiliar. By the time I inched through the door to my home a week later, I felt myself away still in that foreign mental space, my ego wanting so bad to be numb, to not care —
A month later, I just gave up analyzing. I gave in instead, to feeling the premature stirrings of love.
I’ll admit — did I mention how sleep is haunted by dreams of the passed? Ever since January, sleep is also haunted by dreams of the living, of the serious life I want with a white picket fence and happy kids and inspired, glad forehead kisses and all sorts of weird, heightened standards for a life with an incredible self. It’s a ways off, but I’m trying, desperately, to not make an excuse now. To not bolt. To not sleep.
Meanwhile, college sleep is losing its appeal. It feels like one long big nap now. I’m not too sure if I want to keep at it much longer, which is good, because I’m about to wake the hell up.
This semester sleep hasn’t felt deserved. I began wanting to punish myself for wanting it, like eating the same shitty pizza endlessly knowing it won’t fully satiate you. In reverse, I started staying up later than I ever have, more miserable than I’ve ever been. I force myself to starve the need until it was unbearable. Until I could fully appreciate it.
I’ve learned that I can’t escape from life, and not even sleep can grant me that. Sleep now feels like a cop out. Escape is no longer acceptable.
Sleep isn’t going to be my crutch; it’s going to be just another, ordinary state. When my spirit slips away for a second but comes back ready to fight. I am my own goddamn remote control, and I promote my own programming!
Ready to not sleep, so I can graduate, work, fall in love, call my family, do everything I decided to stop avoiding.
My relationship to sleep — much like my relationship to food, but that’s for another essay — is a pretty secure attachment. But in this life, let’s refrain from not getting too attached to anything.