When I was a kid and imagined how I would be as an adult, I always pictured myself as tall, thin, gaunt, with blond hair and always dressed in black from head to toe – looking a way I could never possibly look. But unfailingly this was how I imagined myself.
As I got older, I thought less about the future as a separate realm of possibility, or at least less like I realm where I would be dramatically different than who I was at the moment I was imagining it. The future contracts, or recedes into a certain level of abstraction that can’t contain anything solider than hopes and fears, which are two equivalent fuels for anxiety.
My sleeping/waking schedule, immediately canted under the hammerblow of the pandemic, continues to grow more and more eccentric, like someone living for decades in a house by themselves with only warped old phonograph records to listen to. Today I woke up at 11 o’clock. I probably won’t go to bed until after 2 am. 2 am is a blighted hour. It’s not as cursed as 3 am, it does retain a vestige of sanity, but like 3 am it’s an hour of demons and unfathomably strange thoughts, impulses and despairing fantasies.
2 am: and, insomniatic, you stare with dry eyes at whatever you have on the TV. The volume is too low to hear what anybody is saying, but it doesn’t matter: the moving images tether your thoughts so they can only drift so far and, like a dog leashed to a pole, eventually wear themselves out with running. Your blinks are dry, they burn. Time crawls like a penitent to some holy city. Each waking minute lived through like a feels like a transgression: furtive, shameful. You want desperately someone to talk to, some fellow criminal, another raccoon padding on soft gloved feet through these indecent hours on their own unimaginable errands. But maybe it’s better that you aren’t kept up, because your mind is in a tremulous state and would route an unnecessary amount of energy into a conversation; the sheer adrenaline of not being alone would probably propel you right through until the actual morning, where sleep would become a certainty and a kind of comfort, but also an embarrassment, like applying for bankruptcy.
Sometimes, even in daylit regular life, you think maybe that there is some force looking down on you, some column of light turning you into a beacon for – what? – to find, or to mark you out for other forces. But when you can’t sleep this column feels like a prison being turned over top of you, to suffocate you like a bug being trapped under a glass.
You have the lamp on on your nightstand, and like all artificial light it feels incorrect at this hour, blasphemous and absurd. You know you can’t sleep with it on, but you have this sensation of incomplete ritual, that certain steps have not been taken and, without completing them, sleep will elude you even with the light out. But the steps you feel you must take elude you even though you know what they are; you’re stuck on some shallow plane of your own mind, and everything deeper below is inaccessible.
You’re not under the covers. You’re worried that maybe the sheet and the blanket on top of it are misaligned, so that if you did sleep under the covers, you would feel around your feet or ankles the place where the sheet and the blanket don’t match up, and in the final darkness of thought that precedes a plunge into sleep, where, perversely, even though your sensory world is circumscribed only to the places your body touches in physical space, every sensation is intensely heightened, you’ll notice this discrepancy and be unable to sleep until you get out of bed and fix it: taking off the blanket, taking off the pillows, and spreading the sheet out, then the blanket on top of it, and then folding the top of both back back before putting the pillows into place again; by which time you’ve your mind is racing breathlessly through the sleepless labyrinth again from all the input.
So to stop this from happening you sleep on top of the covers. You’re bundled up in a hoodie and heavy socks that someone who used to love you made you, and your hands are tucked into the pockets of your pajama pants. Eventually, although nothing has been changed or remembered, it feels right to turn off the light. So you do, and you put a sleep timer on the TV because these days you find it hard to sleep in total darkness. You have the screen dimmed but still, when your eyes are closed you can the light through the membranous skin of your lids, and feel its weightless touch on your face like the sun on a hot day. You realized that your mind, under some compulsion, is raising all your perceptions to this heightened degree, as if it were separate from you and wanted to e cruel. You don’t realize you’re nearing sleep because you’re wondering instead (for the thousandth time) whether your mind will ever go back to its daylit normalcy again, even when the night is over.
And it’s at this point, just beyond despair and before your mind has registered any other sensation or thought, that you find the doorway into sleep, without even knowing it; the door is so small that you don’t feel your passing between insomnia and the addled, lead-heavy, burning-lidded sleep that follows it.
In the morning (11 am), this whole process will seem impossibly distant. You’re unliminal again, far removed from the impossible abstraction that you felt during the night.
But the next time you can’t sleep, when that hateful fucking black candle is lit up in your head again, you’ll remember this and every other time you couldn’t sleep, because the arcana of sleeplessness is part of our human heritage, as ancient as the reverence of flame.