Something Good #61: Light Sleeper
For as long as I can remember I have been pursued by a demon.
I’ve always put off bedtime for as long as possible. For most of my adult life, until the exigencies of parenthood intervened, my typical sleeping hours were something like 2am to 9am.
I used to live across the street from a late-night Greek restaurant, the neon lights of which would illuminate my bedroom; when they shut off and I would notice that my room was no longer glowing blue, I knew it was time to pack it in.
I still struggle with this dumb habit of nightly procrastination. It doesn’t matter if I’m not having fun or even enjoying being conscious.
The truth is this: I am… not good at being asleep. The problem isn’t so much getting to sleep; it’s staying there. This goes back forever. As a young boy, I had a recurring habit of waking up at 2 or 3 in the morning and finding it frustratingly impossible to get back to sleep again. I don’t know how long this period lasted but it was an unhappy time. I remember watching Nightmare on Elm Street, illicitly, at a friend’s birthday party (the friend later got in trouble for showing this to a bunch of impressionable munchkins), and relating strongly to the endangered teens’ increasingly desperate attempts to stay awake and away from the horrors in their dreams.
As an adult, these nocturnal awakenings became more and more common.
I have a lot of weird body things: my teeth clench, my knees are messed up for no real reason anyone can think of, I am ridiculously double-jointed. I used to be able to pull my thumb all the way back to the top of my forearm. I’ve got mysteriously loose joints. A physiotherapist once told me that I have “a dancer’s body.” (This is a very funny thing to say about me.)
The weirdest, though, may be a problem that haunted my sleep for years. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s called sleep paralysis.
What happens to the sufferer is that they wake up from sleep but find they are unable to move. In some cases, they sense a malign, lurking presence in the room with them, or pressing down on their chest. They can’t breathe. It is truly a living nightmare.
For years, on and off, it’s happened to me. It’s really hard to explain how fucking awful it is. I wake up completely immobilized. I’m totally conscious, or at least I think I am. I know I cannot breathe (I’ve never been able to establish whether that sensation is delusional or real; either way it feels like I’m dying.) The only way I’m able to re-establish some control is by starting at the very end of my body. I begin by trying to wiggle my toes—which takes an almost unendurable effort— and then work my way up. Finally, I can move again.
I’m not alone in this. In 1753, a doctor by the name of John Bond wrote a long pamphlet on the subject, An essay on the incubus, or Night-mare. (The incubus, or succubus, is a mythological nocturnal demon that preys on sleepers—some have attributed this archetype to the “lurkers” sensed by many sleep paralysis sufferers.)
Thankfully, I’m not haunted by those fearful room-lurking incubi. At least not in my moments of paralysis.
But there is a demon.
For most of my life I’ve had this recurring dream. Actually, it’s not so much a recurring dream—I’ve never actually had one of those—as a recurring dream character.
What will happen is that I’ll be having some sort of mundane dream of me doing some mundane activity. The most recent one I can remember, I was talking to a teacher in a school gym. At some point, I’ll notice that the person I’m talking to has changed in some way—almost like they’ve been possessed by some menacing new personality.
This entity is evil, mocking. He grabs hold of me, and—this happens every time—starts kicking me furiously in the marbles.
I seize up in pain, unable to even take a breath.
I awake terrified, but, thankfully, and so far, unharmed.
Recently I went in for testing at a sleep clinic. I brought home this whole apparatus, all wires and tubes—a big sensor strapped to my chest, a pulse oximeter on my finger, clear plastic tubing up my nostrils—and tried to sleep normally, despite feeling like a cyborg.
A week later I got this report:
We have received your results for your sleep apnea test. You have an AHI of 17.6, which indicates you have 17.6 respiratory obstructions per hour. This falls into the moderate category for sleep apnea and therefore confirms a diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).
Sleep apnea, for those lucky enough not to be acquainted with it, is a disorder in which your breathing stops and starts throughout the night. It is associated with frequent awakenings and vivid nightmares.
Once one is available (supply chain crisis!) I will be acquiring a CPAP machine, which will force pressurized air into my face and—hopefully—banish my paralysis and my cackling, kicking demon forever.
And as, when heavy sleep has clos'd the sight,
The sickly fancy labors in the night;
We seem to run; and, destitute of force,
Our sinking limbs forsake us in the course:
In vain we heave for breath; in vain we cry;
The nerves, unbrac'd, their usual strength deny;
And on the tongue the falt'ring accents die
Virgil, The Aeneid xii
Bay Area friends, I’m happy to announce that You Can Live Forever will be playing as part of the historic Frameline film festival. More info and a very nice write-up here.
New York friends, there are still tickets available for the June 11, 12 and 14 screenings of You Can Live Forever; get them here.
Coming very soon: a trailer.
Do you suffer from sleep apnea? Are you menaced by incubi and succubi? Share your experiences with me in the comments or by email. If you like Something Good, please tell a friend and/or subscribe below.