I always worry that death will be a restless sleep, that there won’t be peace, but a constant tossing and turning trying to find something that’s always out of my capacity to achieve.
I’ve had sleeping difficulties all my adult life, so when I wake now, I’m unsurprised. I don’t know the time. My clock radio has an LCD display – I bought it years ago for specifically that reason: LCD numbers don’t glow in the dark, and don’t remind me of the time. That’s just one of the sleep strategies I’ve learned. Most of them don’t work. Nothing works for everybody, and, for various reasons, my head’s particularly resistant.
It feels like 2.00am. That’s what time’s like – it has a feel, although I’m sure most would just say it’s a reflection of our internal chronometer. But maybe times have meaning, and all that’s different is the context – the way our prejudices shape it.
The early morning sounds creep in: there are the inane sounds, like the rustle of this new pillow – it’s comfortable but squelches whenever I move my head; the whir of the fridge from the kitchen, funneling through the hallway into my bedroom. But then there are the more dominant sounds, like the ringing in my ears that’s been there for as long as I can remember, and sometimes grows so loud it’s maddening. Computers and gaming consoles have a whir whenever they’re running. Maybe the tinnitus is the sound of my head working.
I listen, trying to isolate if something specific woke me, trying to hear if there’s anything outside of the sounds that have become white noise at this time, try to hear past the ringing, try to hear something until I’m sure I might just manufacture it.
I wait, and when I’m confident that nothing woke me – at least nothing external – I try to relax, although it’s hard to deescalate the dread that comes with waking unexpectedly in my two-bedroom flat while the whole neighborhood around me sleeps.
That’s impossible for me – whatever the time it is, I don’t feel tired.
I should, but I don’t.
Years ago, during one of my many insomnia episodes, a doctor gave me a book about sleep hygiene. One of its strategies was that if you can’t sleep, you should get out of bed and do something, like read a little. You shouldn’t stay in bed, because that teaches you to associate bed with sleeplessness. After a while, all these strategies become gimmicks – or, at the very least, gimmicky.
Distraction. That’s not a strategy but a recourse – get my mind off my inability to sleep.
I think about work tomorrow, and which clients I need to attend. I work at a small, hybrid publisher, with multiple books marching obliviously to different deadlines. There’s also tasks I have to assign the interns. And then there’s the housekeeping I need to attend. Lots of it’s a jumble, so I try to find the order in that. Order presents the illusion of control and gives my head something to do.
I’ll walk tomorrow – there’s something that jags in. I’ve been walking as much as I can – it’s about twenty minutes to work, and forty minutes home as I take a roundabout route. Besides being good exercise (and my one facility to try lose the weight I put on in lockdown), it’s meant to tire me.
The new neighbour. When I walk, I have to leave earlier, which must coincide when she goes to work. She’s odd – maybe around my age at fifty with an accent I don’t recognize – and inscrutable. She’s been living to the left of me for only a month or so and I still don’t know what to make her. The neighbour to my right (my flat is sandwiched between two others) is a charming single mother.
Thoughts that began with some purpose, which have disarmed my anxiousness, devolve into a flutter of random inanities that lull me back toward sleep.
And that’s when I hear the voice.