rest in peace, pt ii – pomatophobia

// 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.”

One.

You can feel it already, the tiredness descending on you like a thick blanket.

Two.

Your breathing is slowing down.

You can hear your heart beat but it’s getting slower and slower.

Everything is slow motion.

Three.

Now your eyes are getting heavy.

Your heart is beating slower still, but you can’t tell anymore.

Four.

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.

Five.

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.

Six.

Everything is fuzzy.

You hear some noise in the background. But you pay no mind because you are hypnotized.

Seven.

Your head is so numb that it feels like you are floating.

Your mind drifts and drifts…

Eight.

You are flying now, even though you feel like sinking.

Fuzzy.

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.

Nine.

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,

until,

– 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.

Dammit.

I take a deep breath, and start over.

One.

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.

No one.

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.

Chris Tomlin.
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.

No one.
Knives.

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.

Alone.

Knives.

“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?”

He nods.

“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.”

“Like quicksand.”

“Yeah.”

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.

“Remember Thailand?”

“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.”

I pause.

“It doesn’t have to work.”

“As long as you pretend it works…”

I nod.

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.

One.

“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.

Air.

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?”

“Far away.”

“How far?”

“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.

Oh no.
No, not this again.

I close my eyes and start counting.

One.

“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.

One.

But I am drifting off so I do not notice.

Half my mouth and nose is submerged.

Two.

My heart beats faster and faster.

My lungs are filling up.

Three.

But I pay no mind. I am hypnotized.

Four.

The current picks up and the sound of rushing water crescendos, as does my heart beat.

Five.

Wake up, my body attempts to warn me.

Six.

But I’m trained to tune out voices now. All sounds are muffled at this point.

Everything is fuzzy.

Seven.

Drifting on and on,

my head is so numb that it feels like I am flying,

Eight.

yet sinking,

in slow motion,

Nine.

because everything is so, so heavy,

like lead weights,

that I cannot breathe anymore,

closer and closer,

until,

– I snap awake to the sound of coughing.

Air.

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.

One.

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.

help[less]

I always knew it would come to this.
From the start, our relationship was on a timer.

Last week, my therapist and I began asking the question –
“Do I need therapy anymore?”

So we dug into the soil of memory. We dug and dug, until we got lost in the labyrinth of tunnels. We found pieces of my childhood, fossilized stories of family.

I saw my dad’s face, though it was blurry like a faded polaroid.
I could never see too clearly in class and I didn’t get glasses until the 8th grade. But it mattered not. I had to pay attention, just in case I missed something. Just in case I messed up.

My dad was a sensei.
And, I, his apprentice. Being lectured and trained to survive the “real world”.

But I never learned much anyways.
I was always too slow.

I saw my mother’s face.
It was hazy from the sheer speed she traveled at, trying to take care of all of our family’s needs. All but her own.

She was everywhere and she was nowhere.

I’d catch a cold and her motherly instincts would kick into overdrive. There would never be a shortage of warm fluids and freshly-cut fruit. Her love language tasted like rice porridge and Korean pears.

My mom was a superhero.

Then I’d recover, but she kept cooking porridge and buying fruit. Taking care of needs that were not there.

She couldn’t switch off.

I never really figured out how to talk to them, or hold a friendship.
But they taught me a lot of things. And took care of me.

She sat across the room from me but we were always in the same group. She essentially saved me from flunking the first test, so naturally, I hung out with her.

Eventually, we developed a rhythm of meeting up after school every Monday by the blue lunch tables.
Then every Wednesday.
Then every Thursday.

Then almost every day.

I told my parents I had to see a tutor. A new after-school program. They bought it.

She was someone special to me.

Some days, we’d actually talk about english homework.

Other days, we’d talk about life, when life was not school and writing essays. We’d talk about things that made us feel alive, when studying made us feel empty, like robots. We’d talk about things we actually nerded out over, when it wasn’t chemistry and calculus.

In a hollow, ruthlessly competitive environment that seemed to value numbers more than people, I felt that someone actually cared about me. Saw me for who I was beyond my grades.

In a place so cold and lifeless, she made me feel understood. Known.

Warm.

“I’m not sure where to begin.”

“Well, why did you pick up the phone and call in the first place?”

“Because.. I needed help. Professional help. I needed someone to save me.”

“From what?”

“From destroying myself.”

“Mm. Tell me more about that.”

“Well.. I went to Thailand last summer on a mission trip. Little did I know I would meet my long-lost childhood tormentor. When I came back, the demons followed me home.”

“Which ones?”

“The ones that ridicule me. The ones that tell me I’m not enough. And call me B̂ā.”

B̂ā?”

“Means ‘stupid’ in Thai. Or ‘mentally retarded’, to be more specific.”

“He did all that to you?”

I nodded grimly at her.

“I’m so sorry.”

“Every day, he would teach us his way doing things around the house. Like how to wash the dishes. Or laundry. Things like that. And whenever I messed up, he would beat me with his words.”

“My goodness.. That must have been so painful.”

“The problem was, in his eyes, I was always doing it wrong. No matter how hard I tried, I could never get it right.”

She paused. Sorted through the soil.

“He was the sensei.”

I nodded.

“And I was his failed apprentice.”

The bell rang and the daily exodus of pubescent teenagers formed towards the door.

I headed towards her desk.

“Hey.”

“Hey! What did you think?”

“It was hard”, I lied. “Should have just slept.”

“Wanna meet after school? Maybe I can work my magic.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Lunch tables?”

“Sounds good.”

She smiled.

I think I liked her but I didn’t know what that meant yet.

I would probably not retain anything she taught me but she meant something special to me.

So I went to the blue lunch tables every week. Perfect attendance.

One day, my parents caught on that my afternoon “tutoring activities” weren’t actually raising my grades.

Maybe this one will work instead, they thought, and promptly signed me up for yet another after-school program.

I could not fight back. Because that would unveil the beautiful lie I had spent the past couple months fabricating. Because that would make me a worse son than I already was.

So I found other ways of lashing out. Like yelling at them. Closing the door to the office den I worked in. Closing other, more important doors.

Shutting them out of my life.

We saw each other less and less.

We were not in the same friend group to begin with, and high school has a petty way of handling friendship. Now, the only space we shared – blue lunch tables after school – was taken from us.

Our meetings became shorter and shorter. Less and less often.
Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, some weeks, if we were lucky,
then Wednesdays and Fridays,
then only Wednesdays.

Then nothing.

She became a senior and I jumped off the edge to college.

I spent many of my afternoons staring off into the crayon-vandalized walls of my new after-school institution.

I don’t think I ever properly mourned
her disappearance
my disappearance
from each other’s lives.

I did not know how. So into space I stared. Like a trauma victim in comatose. So much for raising grades.

I wondered what became of our friendship.
How did we get here? If I didn’t have her, did I have friends at all? Or were they all just robots?

I wondered if she found out about my affections for her.

Or if she found out that I actually had a thing for English and literature. That I tried my hand at creative writing and was actually pretty good at it.

That I didn’t need her help anymore.

I wondered if she found out what I had turned her into.

One time, I got sick. And her motherly instincts kicked into overdrive.

Freshly-cooked, warm rice porridge. Honey lemon tea. Korean pears.

Then, I got better.
But I stayed in bed. Told her that my throat still burned.

Just a little while longer.

At the moment, I didn’t really know why I did that.

But I think about how she made me feel in those moments – cared for and seen.

That in the coldest of colds, she made me feel warm.

I think about who she was, what she meant to me. She was a caretaker. A superhero.

My mom was also a superhero.
And I liked being rescued.

“Justin, you’re not just living.
You’re thriving.”

I looked at her, my mouth agape. Not because it wasn’t true but because it had been so long. Did I even believe her?

I sat on the couch, my butt on the very edge, staring into my favorite blank space on the wall of the warmly-lit room.

It was April and I sat on the very edge of a cliff, on the verge of transition. The verge of graduation, and “real life”, whatever that is. Adult things, like finding a job, paying my own bills, and waking up early.

Becoming self-sufficient. Buying my own rice porridge and Korean pears. Terrifying things of that nature.

I sat on the edge of a new chapter of relationship. I looked at the cliff and wondered which friendships would survive the fall when I jumped.

I always knew it would come to this.
From the start, our relationship was on a timer.

She spoke, snapping me out of my state of wall-staring rumination.

“So. What do you think? What would it look like for us to finish well?”

We spoke of seeing each other less. Twice, maybe even once a month.

Always Wednesdays. Always one hour, exactly.

But less and less.

Until nothing.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………

I pulled out my weapon of choice and started writing –
“This is not a goodbye letter.

It is a bizarre thing, talking with your friends about how to be friends to each other. But sometimes, it is what we must do.

You walked in at a curious time of my life.
I was not entirely myself, and yet, I was more myself than I had ever been. And perhaps, it was the same for you. Funny how suffering does that to people.

I often wonder who you are to me.
Sometimes, I say friend. Other times, I do not know.

I think about the ways you’ve helped me through some of the most difficult and important times of my life. I remember the ways you comforted me and saved me from destroying myself.

In the darkest and loneliest moments, you made me feel like someone actually cared about me.
In the coldest and most lifeless times, you made me feel understood. Known. Warm.

Now that things are not so dark, now that life is not so cold, I think about that more than ever – who you are to me.

And the thought terrifies me. I fear I might lose you somehow. That as I sit on the edge of transition, maybe our relationship will not survive the fall.

Because,

Who are you if I don’t need you?
What is our relationship if I don’t need saving anymore?

I turned you into something you’re not. I made myself into someone I’m not.

I turned you into a superhero.
And I wanted to be rescued.

But I was never meant to need you.

I don’t want to be your friend because you can meet my needs, or because you can make me feel a certain way. Even if you are uncannily good at it.

I want to be your friend because you are uniquely and flavorfully you.

So I guess this is me saying,
I don’t need you anymore.

And that is a beautiful thing.

“grounding” || the art of presence

“I’m in a third-wave coffee shop, drinking dope-ass coffee with Paul and it’s a fuckin awesome time right now. I’m so productive.”

transcribed from personal notes [December 14th, 2016]

“Walking is controlled falling.”

Why am I running?

I’ve forgotten the way back home. I’ve wandered around for so long and I’m having one of those “how-did-I-get-here” moments. Retracing my steps won’t be as easy as it once was.

It seems that I can navigate through the past and the future with ease, with finesse, but I can’t do anything in between. Like a space explorer who’s lost his way in his travels. Too many wormholes. I’ve gone astray and forgotten my way back to the present.

Granted, the journey has been rocky, to put it lightly. We did go through black holes, after all.

The turbulence was disorienting – it will take time to regain my bearings on reality and… well, everything else. Our compasses don’t work the same anymore.

“When the memories you’ve tried your hardest to bury begin to surface, you run. The places we run to may differ but we all run somewhere.”

For me, it was time.
I ran to the past. I escaped to my fantasy of the future.

I crafted a future I could imagine myself actually living in. It was fucking gorgeous. When I had no other place or time to run to, I would invent one myself. I designed my own world in this invisible pocket of space-time, making frequent excuses to visit. Each time I went, I would paint in more details. Fill in the blanks. Sometimes I would stay the night. Or a couple.

I recount writing semi-sarcastically in a previous, un-published post, “Maybe my new canine companion will be some sort of remedy for my heart’s agonies. I set my heart on the days ahead when midnight strolls on Telegraph Avenue with Husky Doge will somehow seal and consummate all the difficult heart change I’ve been enduring for the past five-plus months.” –Operation Husky Doge, December 24th, 2016

I held onto memories of better times. Past joys, past friendships, past romances, past dreams, even past sorrows. But the harder I clung to this past life, the deeper the sinking feeling when I found the only truth I wanted to forget. That the past life was nothing but that. Past.

Alas, our avenues of escapism can only serve us for so long before they inevitably betray us. They stab us in the back, like love affairs. We somehow already knew of their disloyalties, that they would become traitors – yet we still befriended them.

Every drug carries its side effects. Every substance has a backlash.
Even time travel.

I ran to the past and the future because the present was unbearable. I could not stand living in the present any longer. So I left.

I’d become more familiar with who I was and who I could be than who I am. I’d become so afraid that I covered my footprints.

It dawned on me that the more I fantasized about my future, the more I fabricated a time that the present could never dream of becoming. It was like a treasure that only went deeper into the earth the more I dug. It was like chasing after a mirage.

The more I hid in my memories, the fewer memories I would have because I was always absent from the true atelier of memories: the present. It was not just nostalgia. It was poison.

How does one find his way back into the present?
I’m no expert but I suspect it to resemble something a little like falling. Surrendering to the gravity you’ve tried so hard to defy.

Scary as hell, but I suppose you can’t travel in space forever.

Praying that the parachutes work, I’m currently trying to figure out this whole ‘controlled-falling’ thing.

I’m plummeting hard in this nauseating nose-dive back down to the earth.

To real time. Whatever that means.

“I am spending my Friday morning writing some genius insight into my new Canson notebook at The Night Owl, a humble coffeeshop in Downtown Fullerton that plays classic hip hop beats. I indulge in my particularly strong macchiato and the company of an old friend.

I am here. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

transcribed from personal notes [December 23rd, 2016]