// preface –
The past three years of my life was a matter of symptoms, occasionally peaking out to say hello, like little demons.
This year was a matter of diagnoses, like waging war.
Here is “rest in peace”, a 2-part series of selected memories, depicting my struggle against insomnia.
Read pt. i first, here.
// part ii – pomatophobia
“How long can you hold your breath underwater? How much can your body take before you lose your mind?”
On average, it takes anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours for me to fall asleep. Some nights, I don’t sleep.
And by the sound of it, neither does the hive of horny geckos living under our floorboards.
We have all sorts of alarm clocks here, like stray cats and dogs, dysentery, and 5-inch behemoth cockroaches that manage to find their way into our mosquito net.
Bangkok summer nights are unforgiving. And sticky.
I roll over on our thinly-padded concrete mattress and look at Tony. He is asleep. I glance over at Daa’s bed and hear his labored breathing. Out.
I am envious, but happy for them.
Today, I make it my resolve to fight for my sleep. Maybe I can cheat my way to the Fall. Trick myself into sleep.
“I’m gonna count to ten. And once I get to ten, you will fall asleep.”
You can feel it already, the tiredness descending on you like a thick blanket.
Your breathing is slowing down.
You can hear your heart beat but it’s getting slower and slower.
Everything is slow motion.
Now your eyes are getting heavy.
Your heart is beating slower still, but you can’t tell anymore.
Your mind is getting numb.
Everything is… fuzzy. And really, really soft.
Thoughts gently come and go, like a slideshow that you didn’t make. So you just watch.
Your eyes are getting very heavy.
So, so heavy…
You aren’t even thinking of what you’re seeing anymore, so you close them.
It is dark.
Everything is fuzzy.
You hear some noise in the background. But you pay no mind because you are hypnotized.
Your head is so numb that it feels like you are floating.
Your mind drifts and drifts…
You are flying now, even though you feel like sinking.
Time is slowing down but it is okay because so are you.
You are sinking – so, so heavy, like lead weights, that you cannot move anymore.
Muffled sounds echo in the background like they’re coming from far, far away… but you pay no mind because you are here, just floating.
All you need to do is lie down and let yourself drift,
on and on,
– I snap awake, startled by the sound of coughing.
I am drenched with sweat.
I hear loud choking from Daa’s corner of the room. After a brief fit, he turns his body over to his side and resumes sleeping.
Everything is loud now. Stray cats. Mating geckos.
I take a deep breath, and start over.
After a couple of tries, I get the hang of it. I don’t even know if it works but I figure that as long as I pretend that it works, it works.
I have no bed, I have no air conditioning, but I found sleep medicine. Placebo or not, I’ll take it.
Meds don’t turn off alarm clocks though and we discover a new one – Daa’s coughing.
“Must be sleep apnea”, Tony figures after a week of consecutive nights of coughing fits.
So every night, we prayed for Daa’s breathing. I don’t think it worked but I found my first doorway to compassion for the man.
A few more weeks of trauma and sleepless nights, and we are back home.
My trip to Thailand messes me up in all sorts of ways.
Like, the sort of way that you don’t realize how bad it is –
until you are 8,000 miles away,
14 hours behind,
and 2 months out,
from the carnage.
Weeks pass and you realize it’s not just the jet lag.
Months pass and you realize being home doesn’t stop the pain, because you don’t know what home means anymore.
One night, I cannot sleep.
And the sting only intensifies throughout the night, to the point where it’s not just my heart anymore. My body tenses up as I feel something pierce my insides and now I’m thinking about knives.
Everything is sharp.
I check my phone and scroll through my contacts to see who I can call.
Wait, no. Evelyn.
But… it’s late. She’s probably asleep by now.
What about Jeremy? And Erin?
They’re probably too busy. They’re always too busy anyways.
But my heart only beats faster, so I yank out my earphones, lock my phone, and it is dark again.
No one is here. I am alone.
Wait, that’s not true.
I look over at Tony’s bed and he is asleep already.
I am envious, but happy for him.
I shouldn’t wake him up. He’s tired.
My body is shaking at this point.
I glance over at Tony’s bed again and that’s when I see Him. Only, He’s not the Laughing Man. He is a silent man, with pale skin where his mouth should be.
Standing alone in the corner. Looking at me.
I scramble for my phone and find Evelyn’s number but right before I call, I freeze.
She’s sleeping. She’s tired. Don’t wake her up.
Wait what, don’t be ridiculous. Just call her.
I continue staring at the screen.
Until it dims and shuts off, and it is dark again.
This is a different breed of paralysis.
I look back at the Man with No Mouth.
He cannot laugh at me but he still mocks me.
“Help me”, I scream silently, as the Man in the corner continues to stare at me.
Unable to speak. Unable to communicate.
“I… I – I need help.”
Tony fixes his eyes on me, I avert my gaze.
“What’s wrong, buddy?”
“I… couldn’t sleep last night”, I tell him with shaky breath and explain what happened. I feel a chill wash over me as I realize that it wasn’t so much what happened last night that was so haunting, but that what happened last night was how I’ve been feeling every single day.
Alone. Paralyzed. Mouthless.
“You know that whole River thing?”
“Well, last night was like a whirlpool. Or like a black hole. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t escape. After a certain point, the gravity is too strong.”
Our conversation sways towards the topic of finding me help, like the no-joke, professional kind of help. Usually, I am skeptical but after last night, I am willing to try anything.
“What about sleeping?”
“I don’t know, man. Alcohol usually makes me drowsy but that hasn’t but working lately.”
“Have you tried medication?”
I think about it for a minute. I don’t like the idea of becoming dependent on pills.
“What about it?”
“That counting thing I did.”
“Oh yeah… Think it’ll work?”
“You know, I didn’t just make that up. That was actually one of my earliest memories. My mom used to count us to sleep.”
“It doesn’t have to work.”
“As long as you pretend it works…”
It does not take long for me to suffer relapse. Just three nights later, the Man with No Mouth pays another visit.
After a week or so, I figure my life is just a game of survival now – trying to navigate through a labyrinth of black holes. One wrong move was a step into quicksand, triggering a dark episode of isolation and spiraling in slow motion.
Everyday is warfare, and all I am equipped with is 1-hour combat training sessions once a week.
Treatment begins, and I am medicated with sugar pills. Some use Ambien, or a glass of wine, but my weapon of choice is memory. A fuzzy one.
But the wonderful thing is that it works, or at least I believe that it does. After a couple of tries, I get the hang of it.
Meds don’t turn off alarm clocks though and I discover a new one.
One night, I decide to take a shot and begin the counting process.
“You can already feel the tiredness descending on you, like a blanket.”
I keep counting and everything gets very fuzzy.
I get to around Eight or Nine, the part where you are flying in space but sinking at the same time.
Sounds are muffled, time is slowing down, and everything is so, so heavy.
I drift and drift, readying myself for the Fall, when suddenly the sounds are not so muffled anymore and I snap awake to the sound of coughing.
My body rolls over, drenched with sweat.
Without thinking, I blurt out, “Daa??”
Being tired is one thing. Being tired of being tired is something else entirely.
Everyday is warfare and I decide that survival is not the only game I want to play. So I run away.
Tony asks me right as I’m about to leave, “Hey man, where you going?”
“Like 100 miles far. San Diego.”
He thinks about it for a minute.
“Can I come?”
I smile and a piece of my heart melts.
There is much caffeine, heart-to-heart storytelling, and stupid fun. Before the day is over, I already get the feeling that this is my favorite day of the semester.
Two pounds of burritos and two hours of freestyle rapping later, we get home and I accidentally step into quicksand.
I feel myself sinking slowly into a black hole of isolation.
Everything is sharp.
No, not this again.
I close my eyes and start counting.
“The tiredness is descending on you…”
But my heart continues to beat faster. I can’t breathe.
What do I do.
Remember your combat training.
I glance at a piece of paper titled “Grounding Techniques” on my desk.
Okay. We’re gonna do this. We’re gonna get out of here.
“God?”, I say out loud.
“I don’t know if you’re there but I’m gonna tell you about my day, okay?”
I start muttering under my shaky breath. Waves threaten to swallow me in their ebb and flow and I struggle to stay afloat. I fight to stay alive, and I fight for the will to keep fighting, with memory as my weapon of choice.
I end up whispering to God – or myself, I don’t know – for the next hour straight, occasionally pausing to ask myself, “Am I going crazy?”
I fall asleep that night.
And while I may have been totally crazy, this was a victory.
Because finally, for the first time in far too long,
I opened my mouth.
After a while, swimming through black holes becomes a thing I can somewhat get the hang of. Combat training gets more interesting, because I’m learning to fight for things other than waking up, showing up to social functions, and eating.
The Man with No Mouth stops showing up at night.
If depression is a storm, I had looked into its eye and seen it pass.
For once, life was more than struggling to keep my head afloat.
For once, I was not drowning.
Before I know it, I’m hearing my therapist’s last words. My combat training is complete and her job is done, at least for now.
I pick up a habit of opening my mouth before going to bed each night. Some nights, I talk with Tony, or I text Evelyn. Other nights, I whisper to God, or myself, like a crazy person.
Sleep isn’t a thing I need to fight for anymore. I remember the peacefulness of floating on my back and allowing the lazy river’s current carry me to my dreams. I remember looking up in the sky and wondering if I’m floating in water or floating in space.
The River is not such a terrifying place anymore.
I can sleep soundly, and the Dark Things decide that this just will not do.
One night, I am floating on my back and gazing at the stars, when they swim up to me and tilt my body to its side.
But I am drifting off so I do not notice.
Half my mouth and nose is submerged.
My heart beats faster and faster.
My lungs are filling up.
But I pay no mind. I am hypnotized.
The current picks up and the sound of rushing water crescendos, as does my heart beat.
Wake up, my body attempts to warn me.
But I’m trained to tune out voices now. All sounds are muffled at this point.
Everything is fuzzy.
Drifting on and on,
my head is so numb that it feels like I am flying,
in slow motion,
because everything is so, so heavy,
like lead weights,
that I cannot breathe anymore,
closer and closer,
– I snap awake to the sound of coughing.
My body rolls over, drenched.
Today, I opened my journal and wrote with shaky hands,
“How long can you hold your breath underwater? How much can your body take before you lose your mind?
I’m starting to believe that my body and my soul have a much closer relationship than I had previously assumed. They should be working in sync to each other, but some connection, some cable between the two has snapped inside me.
My mind wakes up before my body does and I see things no one should ever see. Like when the anesthetics fail to kick in, and glitch during surgery.
Now, parts of my body that aren’t ever supposed fall asleep are doing just that.
My body is suffering from a severe drought of rest, and I’m starting to wonder how much more it can take before I lose my mind, too.
That perhaps, this insomnia is not just a beast of the flesh.”
– I put my pen down.
Tony is already asleep and I am envious, yet happy for him.
I turn off the alarm app and throw my phone across the room.
I look over at the box of Ambien sitting on my nightstand for a good minute or two, then throw the box across the room, too.
I turn my body to its side and put a pillow behind my back to keep myself from rolling over during the night.
I start counting.
You can already feel the tiredness descending on you, like a blanket…
// pt ii – pomatophobia
**Tony and Evelyn are real person(s), given aliases for storytelling and privacy purposes.