5 months ago

Girl Offline: A Year of Sleep Paralysis Means I Value Rest More Than I Can Say


It’s almost hard to reckon with the fact that I was away for a month – and somewhere, trailing behind my sense of ‘Where did January go? Are we in March already?’ my body is dragging itself along behind my bleary head. Jetlag is weird. It makes the world strange, focus elusive, sleep impossible. I am, at this stage, convinced that it actually distorts the light – especially around mid-afternoon. I’m firmly, also, sick of it.

I’ve struggled my entire adult life with sleep problems: I developed regular sleep paralysis during 2015 and 16, and chronic insomnia as a result. It wasn’t the first time I’d come nose to nose with something that I believed would undo me, but in the grand scheme of things, it was probably the most frightening. I began to pass out at my work desk, my short term memory was blown out, I was angry and irritable – my entire personhood reduced to an absence of sleep. How are you? Awake. Always, awake. I would lie in bed at night, emulating rest, feeling my body edge close to shut-down, but without fail, time and time again, enter that dark sensation of paralysis. It sounds like a generalisation to say everyone experiences it at least once in their life: the deadening of the body while your brain realises that nothing else can move. You’re trapped, awake, while your body thinks it’s sleeping. The awareness of your breath is very profound: how deliberate each one is, how too-heavy, how too-slow. A year of nights, lost to this. My husband would check on my heaving body and rouse me, and if I think about it a little I can still feel the weight of his hand on my shoulder, his soft ‘hey, shhhh,’ in the dark, pulling me back up from under the surface.

It culminated in delightful spells of falling asleep on my desk, jolting out of reality for moments of a time. It was frightening to become so disconnected from rest: to always be operating in a state of alertness, or brief flashes of deadness. My doctor suggested that I get another job. At the time I was, as usual, working a dozen jobs. There was no another job. I had roadied, I was completing my first novel, I was freelancing, giving performances – there didn’t seem like an alternative. The shape of my life then is not dissimilar to the shape of my life now: though slower paced, and getting slower. Since that period I value my sleep more than I can say, I treasure it, waking up rested. Any phase of sleeplessness disturbs me more than I can say because it brings me directly back to that strange awake year and all I lost in the bizarre mire of not having a single clue of what was going on, of being afraid all the time, of tiredness so acute that it felt almost nothing like general sleepiness or even exhaustion does now.

Since that period I value my sleep more than I can say, I treasure it, waking up rested. 

And here I am, jetlagged, frustrated, freaked out. My circadian rhythm belongs to a different continent – and in the last month has belonged to three different continents – and this is, bluntly, beyond first world problems. It’s an earned discomfort: one that I could have easily evaded if I just stayed home. I’m not necessarily complaining, more fascinated by how weird it feels to be still out of sync with the daytime and nighttime a week after getting home. I lost five whole days from my time in San Francisco from confusion, a disconnectedness from reality. My body was nighttime, my body was yesterday, but there I was standing in the street in the daytime, pupils wide, probably looking like I was in as much distress as I felt.

All of this goes to say that I slept today until eleven am. And did the same on Wednesday. And I was mortified at first, having cracked the world at 7am like an adult, like a real person, then begged five more minutes only to steal nearer five more hours. The deathly shame that falls over you when you realise you’ve lost half a day is like nothing else: I remember it so clearly from college, sleeping through lectures and rolling to Spar for a box of wedges at one in the afternoon, mortified at myself. And here I am grown, working, and unconscious from time-poison until the middle of the day. I can’t wait for it to settle, though settling is, somewhat aptly, just a matter of waiting. And kind of make peace with it, honestly.

I believe, having lived through periods of life without sleep, that when sleep rises to meet you, lie down into it. When your body needs to sleep, give it the sleep – though it may take you by surprise, though it may be frustrating to lose half a day – you are gaining something. In a world that demands we are always on, always performing, always moving, to switch off, physically, is vital. So while I’m losing time, I’m gaining something else – maybe minutes that dissolved in the long awake stretches of 2015. So if needs be, rest up reader. Sleep it off. The waking world will still be there when you come around.


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