This is my seventeenth straight day without sleep.
I’m not talking about insomnia. I know what insomnia is. I had something like it in college―something like it because I’m not sure that what I had then was exactly the same as what people refer to as insomnia. I suppose a doctor could have told me. But I didn’t see a doctor. I knew it wouldn’t do any good. Not that I had any reason to think so. Call it woman’s intuition―I just felt they couldn’t help me. So I didn’t see a doctor, and I didn’t say anything to my parents or friends, because I knew that that was exactly what they would tell me to do.
Back then, my “something like insomnia” went on for a month. I never really got to sleep that entire time. I’d go to bed at night and say to myself, “All right now, time for some sleep.” That was all it took to wake me up. It was instantaneous – like a conditioned reflex. The harder I worked at sleeping, the wider awake I became. I tried alcohol, I tried sleeping pills, but they had absolutely no effect.
Finally, as the sky began to grow light in the morning, I’d feel that I might be drifting off. But this wasn’t sleep. My fingertips were just barely brushing against the outermost edge of sleep. And all the while my mind was wide-awake. I would feel a hint of drowsiness, but my mind was there, in its own room, on the other side of a transparent wall, watching me. My physical self was drifting through the feeble morning light, and all the while I could feel my mind staring, breathing, close beside it. I was both a body on the verge of sleep and a mind determined to stay awake.
This incomplete drowsiness would continue on and off all day. My head was always foggy. I couldn’t get an accurate fix on the things around me―their distance or mass or tenure. The drowsiness would overtake me at regular, wavelike intervals: on the subway, in the classroom, at the dinner table. My mind would slip away from my body. The world would sway soundlessly. I would drop things. My pencil or my purse or my fork would clatter to the floor. All I wanted was to throw myself down and sleep. But I couldn’t. The wakefulness was always there beside me. I could feel its chilling shadow. It was the shadow of myself. Weird, I would think as the drowsiness overtook me, I’m in my own shadow. I would walk and eat and talk to people inside my drowsiness. And the strangest thing was that no one noticed. I lost fifteen pounds that month, and no one noticed. No one in my family, not one of my friends or classmates realized that I was going through life asleep.
It was literally true: I was going through life asleep. My body had no more feeling than a drowned corpse. My very existence, my life in the world, seemed like a hallucination. A strong wind would make me think my body was about to be blown to the end of the earth, to some land I had never seen or heard of, where my mind and body would separate forever. “Hold tight,” I would tell myself, but there was nothing for me to hold on to.
And then, when night came, the intense wakefulness would return. I was powerless to resist it. I was locked in its core by an enormous force. All I could do was stay awake until morning, eyes wide open in the dark. I couldn’t even think. As I lay there, listening to the clock tick off the seconds, I did nothing but stare at the darkness as it slowly deepened and slowly diminished.
And then one day it ended, without warning, without any external cause. I started to lose consciousness at the breakfast table. I stood up without saying anything. I may have knocked something off the table. I think someone spoke to me. But I can’t be sure. I staggered to my room, crawled into bed in my clothes, and fell fast asleep. I stayed that way for twenty-seven hours. My mother became alarmed and tried to shake me out of it. She actually slapped my cheek. But I went on sleeping for twenty-seven hours without a break. And when I finally did awaken, I was my old self again. Probably.
I have no idea why I became an insomniac then nor why the condition suddenly cured itself. It was like a thick, black cloud brought from somewhere by the wind, a cloud crammed full of ominous things I have no knowledge of. No one knows where such a thing comes from or where it goes. I can only be sure that it did descend on me for a time, and then departed.