Sleepwalking in Search of Order

canstockphoto2651860I was a sleepwalker for a good portion of my early childhood. My family life was chaotic and stressful, made more so by the fact that I would get up to sit in the bathtub in the middle of the night or put on six layers of clothes and stand over my brother’s bed swaying slightly. It was creepy. He might have some sleep issues now, too.

Sleepwalking is frightening, especially in the face of an angry, confused parent who doesn’t understand why you have decided to pee in the kitchen garbage can. You are woken up, with no idea of where you are or how you got there and then sent abruptly to bed. You begin to wonder what else you might have done or what you will do the next time you fall asleep. You don’t trust yourself.

When I was six and my mother was in the hospital having my second brother, my other brother and I stayed with an elderly lady who babysat us. We were put into a room on cots. It was dark and cold. My brother fell asleep immediately, but I lay awake, listening to the strange noises of an unfamiliar house.

In the morning, I was bathed in warm light. I woke up in a big comfortable bed covered in a pink lacy, puffed-up comforter. It was like falling asleep in a dungeon and waking up a princess in a castle. I had no idea where I was, but it was so wonderful that I burrowed down into the covers and went back to sleep. I found out at breakfast time that I had gotten up in the middle of the night and shoved a 70 year old woman out of her bed.

I didn’t sleepwalk every night, but with the potential that I might, falling asleep felt like a gamble. I remember trying to keep myself awake, not realizing that exhaustion itself was a precursor to many incidents.

The last time I remember sleepwalking was when I was 11, on a camping trip with my church group. The leader of the group had a Great Dane named Treasure Lee, who was tied up outside her tent ostensibly to keep guard. The entire camp was awoken at 1am by Treasure Lee’s barking. And there I was, standing in my long johns, two feet in front of this manic dog, undisturbed by the barking or the voices around me. I casually turned around, went into my tent, crawled into my sleeping bag and went to sleep, long before the rest of the camp would return to theirs.

My distrust of myself in a sleeping state accompanied me well into my twenties. I dreamed that I walked into a neighbor’s apartment, had an entire conversation with him (his side was the repetition of a question – “what are you doing here?”) and then went back to my apartment. To this day, I don’t know if it was a dream or if I’d completely freaked some dude out. I’m only grateful that I’m not a nude sleeper (for this very reason).

These days, I’m too damned tired to worry if I’m making the neighborhood rounds in my jammies. I’ve gone from sleepwalking to snoring like a freight train and finally admit that I’m a bit of a sleep-disordered person. Having a baby turned me into a light sleeper and now middle-aged hormones complicate the picture, since I can enjoy random night sweats. It’s a damned party and a long night’s sleep is an elusive creature.

I try to see a pattern and the one that emerges is all about change and chaos. Different environments, circumstances, stress levels have an impact. Whereas I’m generally a calm, focused person during a crisis in the light of day, at 3am my body and mind say “yeah, we helped keep things calm for you, but um, we have a few issues to work out right now“.

I often find myself writing at 3am now, having given up any pretensions to sleep. I’ve become a productive writer on and offline. My body and mind now tell me “you’ve bottled up shit for years, we’re going to work this out right now.” I wonder, once I’ve done all the therapeutic writing, finished my novel about a dysfunctional family, blabbed about all my weirdness and occasional misery, if I’ll sleep. And then I imagine a sleep so deep, so warm and welcoming, that I might never want to wake up.

Fighting Sheep

I’ve been trying to post consistently every few days, but I had to let things go a bit this week. We’ve gotten our first round of colds for the season. My daughter has one of those nighttime coughs that no amount of vaporizers, syrups or slanted mattresses can help. Fine during the day, but her lungs rebel at the horizontal position and she hacks the night away.

I’ve been a light sleeper since having a baby and the onset of unreliable hormones. It means that any little noise, off-schedule caffeine, creak in the floorboards, keeps me awake. I am chronically sleep-deprived, propping myself up with caffeine and snarls throughout the day. When I do sleep, it’s heavy, with a horrible middle aged snore that inevitably leads to me sleeping on the couch. I always volunteer to move first, since my husband has to stay awake in an office all day long.

As I’ve gotten older, I realize how critical sleep is to my mood and brain functions. Entire days have passed by and I cannot recollect a single detail. On the occasion when I get a good night’s sleep, I have to re-check all of my paid work to make sure there are no errors. I have to reacquaint myself with my family. I have to apologize to friends for rambling phone calls in which I’ve completely forgotten dates and times of get-togethers. I have to apologize to my body for eating my way through exhaustion and not getting in a workout.

There are a lot of factors to getting a good night’s sleep and it seems if only one thing is off balance, I will awaken, startled in the night, wondering if I cancelled the dentist appointment or if the cats have been fed. On especially awful nights, I hear prowlers and potential kidnappers on the stairs, wrestling with windows, shimmying down drainpipes. I lay tense, thinking about all the objects in the room that could be weapons, in addition to the wooden T-ball bat next to the bed. I imagine that I would kill an intruder and not for just being an intruder, but for waking me up. Again.

When I hit the wall, which is right about yesterday, I have to scale back on the caffeine, stop working, writing or eating into the late hours and force myself to bed. The first night of enforced rest I bitterly resent myself, tossing and turning and bemoaning my every ache and pain. By night two, I get the hang of things. By nights three and four, I start to get cocky. I stay up with a book, get into some show on Netflix, write like a mad journalist on deadline or eat my way through the cupboards. I think that I can resolve some software glitch I’ve been wrestling with for months or write a really great schedule for tomorrow, all the while ensuring that I will have no energy to follow said schedule.

Tonight is a re-set night. There will be lotion on my feet. I will have flossed. My bed will be warmed with a lavender heat wrap. And I will lie there, resentful and self-pitying until blissful sleep overrides my bad decisions.

Back-to-School Special: The AB…ZZZZZZZZZs

Like many parents who have spent the summer with their children, I’m counting down the hours before the start of school. I will also be participating in a school of sorts. Next week, I start a writers’ workshop that runs for a couple of months. I’ve attended writers’ workshops before and have a pronounced aversion to them.

The Loft Literary Center has, with a sheer stroke of agoraphobic genius (and for those of us who loathe trying to find parking downtown), added online workshops to its curriculum. No more trying to avert my eyes while listening to Lonely Dude’s awkward porn (did I date you?). No need to doodle while Ms. Trivial Pursuit details her pedicure and why it makes her feel oh so pretty. No more gritting teeth through “foreshadowing that solves your mystery on the first page” mysteries. I have to admit, I’m a really unhelpful workshop colleague. I have a problem that has plagued me most of my life. The human voice puts me to sleep. And when I must stay awake against my natural inclination to snooze, I get downright mean.

I have never been a particularly good student. When I started college after my Army stint, I was determined to be the student I thought I should be, but it only took one professor to put me into a coma. He was about 400 years old and read his lecture from a binder while sitting at a desk. His notes made a crinkly sound, dried from age and repeated use. It was Ancient Near Eastern History loaded up with Sobekhoteps and Mentuhoteps, so my class notes were neatly written for about half a notebook page before a single line slid down to the bottom of the page, ending with a spot of drool, like the period on an exclamation point.

Even in classes with charismatic teachers, it was only guaranteed that I would finish one page of notes before spending the rest of the time fidgeting, prying my eyelids open and imagining what various pairings of classmates would look like if they were to have sex. Hey – I’d rather be a mental perv than snort myself awake to an entire classroom of people staring at me. My fear was not exaggerated – it really happened to me. Twice.

My nodding off has not been limited to the academic world. I headed off into the business world engaged and enthused until the very first meeting – company orientation. I stayed focused long enough to figure out when I would get paid and where the table with the bagels was located. I dread meetings around conference tables, where everyone can see my head lolling and then snapping to attention as I try to keep myself awake. It’s sheer torture.

The only theory that I have about this problem, is that I like to fall asleep listening to books on tape and sometimes news on the radio. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, when I would hoard a little transistor under my pillow. As an adult, I listen to anything read by Jim Dale (the Harry Potter audiobook reader) or the news on NPR and I conk out. I’m no good in churches, concerts where there’s too much verbal “fill”, plays that don’t do frequent scenery changes and technology discussions with my husband (okay, that might be about the subject matter). I can read for hours on end, but read to me and you’ve got a small window before my nose starts softly whistling and my head flops forward.

Sometimes you just have to embrace your limitations and find solutions to work around them. The online forum might very well be the place I learn best. At the very least, I’m hoping to be a kinder, more professional workshop classmate. Just don’t expect me at any of your readings.