Sleeping Wide Awake


It’s not my friend’s voice I hear.

It’s male –  nasal, but sharp, like an electrical current that has been shaped into language, but also reverberating in a filter to produce a tight echo. And low. It might be coming from my left shoulder, but directed into my ear, worming into my head, startling me not just because they’re words in the middle of the night, but because they grate. I can’t process this the way I would other words. They have a serrated quality that saws through my mind.

There are so many things the voice sounds like, so many things it can be, but none of these descriptions entirely do it justice because it’s beyond my abilities of language and articulation. Some things exist beyond encapsulation – like losing a loved one. We understand the concept, we know it’s going to happen at some point in our lives, but we struggle to process, integrate, and express the experience.

If I understand the words, I lose track of them when I wake abruptly, sure that the voice has been cut off mid-sentence. There’s neither a syllable I can recall, nor a general meaning. But I’m unsettled. It’s a voice that woke me just as I was drifting off. Voices in the night are going to be alarming.

There are scientific explanations.

Decades ago (in my early twenties), I experienced something similar. Worried – I’d already had mental health issues earlier, and a psychiatrist who’d prejudiced me (when I was just 19) to think I just might hear voices (and I was too callow to understand that wasn’t a symptom of my issues) – I saw my GP. With a history of anxiety and other stuff, I thought these might be a continuing devolution into some realm of madness that lay just beyond my neuroses. My GP wasn’t concerned. He explained the symptoms I was describing were “hypnagogic hallucinations”.

In layman’s terms, you don’t just fall asleep immediately. There are different levels of consciousness you pass through. In the middle levels, you’re still conscious enough that you think you might be awake, but sleeping enough that the mind can start projecting dream imagery. You can experience these (going the other way) as you’re waking – in that case they’re called “hypnapompic hallucinations”.

So I’ve dealt with these things intermittently, and now, as I lie awake, I try to assure myself with the medical diagnosis, but this feels different because all those other times have been internal, playing out in my head, whereas I’m sure this was external – or that it at least began external, before it creeped into the pit of my brain, as if it was finding a place to cocoon.

I lie there, waiting for another voice, for another word, for even a breath.

The ringing in my ears drones on.

The night continues.