Sleep has always been hard for me. My very first memory is being in my bed at the age of five, cuddling with my mother, while we were surrounded by a chilly, damp fog. The doctors had told my parents I needed a cold humidifier to treat my asthma, which now seems like the last thing I’d want since I’m most comfortable in a warm, dry room.
I never wanted to go to sleep, even as a kid. I remember my brother, who was 12 at the time, would voluntarily put himself to bed at an appropriate time while I, an 8 year old, would fight tooth and nail to stay up late. It wasn’t about watching TV — our only television was in my mother’s bedroom and Irish channels all went off the air late at night, anyway. It wasn’t about being scared, either (that came later). It was about enjoying the witching hour; wanting to listen to more music, read more books, write more poems…
A few years later, while visiting my father in America, I discovered MTV. It was one of my first addictions. I remember the physical excitement I had waiting for the next video to start. A breathless anticipation. It was like a gambler who just keeps putting the money down, hoping the next hand will be a winner. If I didn’t know the band, I couldn’t tear myself away because what if the next video is a good one?? Night after night, I would stay awake until the sun came up. It was my secret life: the thrill of not living a normal routine, of being alone and able to do anything. There was always a disappointment when the windows grew lighter. My father got up very early for work and I was always scared that he would catch me, black circles and spiral-eyed, glued to the television at 6 in the morning. When I heard his footsteps upstairs in the morning, I would silently slink up to my bedroom and go to sleep. A few times, I didn’t hear him until he came downstairs and, quick as a ninja, I would have the TV off and lie down in a convincing position to make it look like I’d fallen asleep on the couch. My brother, as usual, had gone to bed at a decent hour, even during the summer holidays.
One time I woke up to a sound in my bedroom: a zippery repetitive sound, and, when I opened my eyes, I saw the glow of a flame under a ghoul’s face. Then the flame went out and I heard the zipper sound again and the flame came back. It was a man at the foot of my bed, holding a cigarette lighter, lighting it over and over in the dark. It scared the shit out of me. Those seconds, while my sleep-slogged brain tried to wrap itself around this scene and comprehend what was happening, seemed very long …and have never left me. It turned out, it was a drunk friend of my cousin looking for the toilet. He’d somehow managed to find his way down the stairs to the basement and through two closed doors into my pitch-black room.
I don’t know if my nightmares started before or after that. They weren’t chronic and didn’t concern me too much, but, when they happened, it was memorable. I would wake up screaming or yelling or arguing. I would sleep walk and sleep talk. They were mostly obvious stress nightmares: dreaming I’d fail exams when I had exams coming up, dreaming I couldn’t get to all the tables and I was the only server in the restaurant, that sort of thing.
At some stage, I began sleeping very lightly. It was more or less a conscious decision. We had a few break-ins in my house and I conditioned myself to be on high alert, even while I slept. I wanted to know if anyone came in my room. I would awaken to any odd sound, even faint, and, once I became a self-conscious teenager, I could never sleep properly at friends’ houses or on planes or anywhere visible because I didn’t want to be seen drooling and slack-jawed.
Once I got dogs, my sleep became even lighter. I wanted to be able to hear my kids in distress since my husband sleeps through everything. In the first few years of their lives, there was a lot of needing to pee in the night and puking in the early mornings and injuries that required nocturnal consoling. And I can’t discount the sleep interruptions caused by 185 pounds of snoring husband and 175 pounds of scratching, licking, readjusting dog in the bed beside me.
Just as I can count on one had the memorable, incredible meals in my life, there are a few memorable, incredible sleeps of my life. One was in Germany, the first night I was there as an exchange student. The room was silent and had heavy metal shades on the outside of the window that you lowered with a crank on the inside. The door was solid and soundproof. It was like being shut into a dark, silent prison cell and I slept like I never remember sleeping before. Of course, for days afterwards, the family with whom I was living made fun of how late I got up, so I never again during my stay let myself sink that deeply asleep.
Another time, I was visiting my oldest brother in Tennessee. I had just arrived from Ireland and he put me in the spare room and said, “Rack hard, Elizabeth.” That was a term they used in the Air Force, I guess. There was something about his permission — his COMMAND — to sleep long and hard and, also, the knowledge that my two family members that were there — my brother and mother — routinely slept 10+ hours, so they wouldn’t judge, that allowed me to let go into blissful slumber. Their plush bed probably helped, too.
As an adult, working in bars and restaurants, I never, ever went to sleep before 3am and regularly stayed up until daylight. These were the heady years of booze and fun. I could drink and talk all night. One night when I had just met my husband, we were staying up late, listening to music and talking — sharing really important stuff like you do with a new love — and he fell asleep mid-conversation. I was aghast. How rude! And who wants to stop the revelry before sun-up (or before the wine runs out)? What a weirdo. But, it’s one of the reasons he will never have ME. He has an off-switch. Another reason is, he’s not a Type A perfectionist the way I am. I was always pretty obsessive about succeeding, but, once I quit drinking and became a full-blown workaholic, sleep got worse. I worked late, wound down from work even later and got up early to do, go, be… In between, I had responsibility-laden, over-achiever stress dreams.
But nothing… none of it compared to what happened when I got sick with ME. Night terrors are very different to nightmares. Not sleeping much when you’re healthy doesn’t come close to a the lack of sleep caused by a broken immune system and a poisoned body. You’ve heard about it ad nauseum in this blog, so I won’t bore you more. All of this is just to set the stage to explain the incomparable joy of the last few months. I’ve been sleeping. I’ve been closing my eyes, falling asleep within minutes and not having conscious thought again for 7 hours, sometimes more. I haven’t wanted to shout it from the blog rooftops for fear of jinxing myself, but this is big. This is healing. This feels like what a normal person must experience. I’m still suffering from the lack of circulation, pain and nightmares, but it’s SO MUCH BETTER. I still don’t feel recovered in the mornings, but there’s SO MUCH HOPE. Every time I look at the clock and see 9am or later and my body is dry and soft and the last thing I remember is turning out the light the night before — no waking panting, heart-hammering, no drenching, trembling sweats, no full-body muscle spasms that twist my neck and crack my jaw — I break out in a shit-eating grin. Pure celebratory joy. A feeling I want to bottle and carry around with me. A swig here and there of rested jubilance.
My top tips for making some headway in this area: Feeling safe in your home, sleeping alone, never drinking so much before bed that you’ll have to get up to go to the loo in the night, balancing hormones (really, this may all be a consequence of topical progesterone and pregnenolone), and good ear plugs (life changing).
Also, when you have felt that you truly might die, every day afterwards is gravy. Going to bed excited that you got another day and you get another one tomorrow — but not so excited that your nervous system is jazzed up — that’s the key.