“So, I hear you don’t want to take your meds anymore,” she said. Her face contorted with equal measures of disbelieve and ridicule. I explained I hadn’t been sleeping. “No one can go that long without sleep,” she said. I hadn’t said that I had gone six days without sleep. I had specifically said that I was getting sleep. I was getting abbreviated cat naps, ten minutes here, fifteen minutes there. I had even suggested that I might be getting as much as an hour or more at night. “How do you know that?” she asked. And when I explained that I looked at the clock, the sleep hygiene police poured out of her eyeballs and tried to take me captive. I persevered. I explained that I had other symptoms and pushed my opinion that my meds were the culprit. I insisted an hour or two of sleep a day is a form of torture. She looked at me, pursed her lips, and informed me that “The military has tortured people with sleep deprivation, and no one has gone as long as you claim.” Then she started snapping notes down on her computer. The doctor’s office filled with clicking and pecking sounds as she stuck the keys. I crossed my legs and briefly wondered what the point of seeking medical help was if your doctor doesn’t believe you. She continued hammering on the keyboard; I felt for certain she was typing f-a-k-e-r and l-i-a-r. The steady rhythm weaponized my opinion. She had never smiled, ever, but showed her teeth like sticky stalactites, calcifying minerals into longer and longer fangs. Her face, after years and decades of being in a foul mood had congealed into a buttery display of offended conniption.
Then she wanted to know what I wanted to do about my insomnia. I didn’t know. Of course, I didn’t know. People have been falling asleep for a long time, and if they suddenly just forget, it isn’t like they can make themselves remember. It occurred to me to tell her as much, but it felt as though her only advice and treatment would be for me to stop bullshitting. She decided to give me a day to think about my medicine and whether or not I wanted to make a change, the same way a parent sends a child to a room to think about his behavior. I left her medical office with no prescription, no readjusted medicine, no advice except that I should exercise more.
But that wasn’t exactly true. She did give me something. Something far more beneficial than a change of medication or sleep hygiene advice. Walking to my truck, it dawned on me that she wasn’t a good doctor. And she certainly wasn’t someone who should have undeserved authority over me, gaslighting me with it isn’t as bad as you say, now is it. What she gave me was simply this: a revelation. Any disinterested observer of the situation would say I had a serious sleep problem, escorted with a variety of other symptoms. That same person would see that I went to the doctor, received no help, left feeling dismissed, patronized, and even accused. These are facts. Any rational, disinterested person would interpret these facts and conclude that I should get a new doctor. This may not sound like a huge revelation, a no brainer, but when you’ve spent large percentages of your life having people minimize your feelings or dismiss them or have them say, “you’re just too sensitive,” you learn that your feelings don’t count. Or, what’s maybe worse, your feelings are wrong. What seems like a problem to you, you beginning to think, is never a problem for anyone else. Buck up, man. Put your big-boy britches; it’s time to sit at the grown ups’ table.
This meeting, this revelation was the postlude to Charleston.
My insomnia had started a week earlier. I wasn’t anxious. I didn’t have a lot on my mind. There was no external event that triggered this bout of sleeplessness. One day without sleep, though, isn’t a crisis. One day turned into two days. Then three. Three days without sleep is a crisis.
I have an exacting itinerary for sleep, detailed down to the smallest pre-sleep positions. First, I take the dogs out. Then I get into sleep clothes – which usually means putting on sleep pants – and take my meds. Then, I play some games on my phone while watching an episode from the Star Trek universe. Then the lights go out. I start by facing west. Then, I get up and go to the bathroom (I could go earlier, of course, but that’s not the routine.) And finally, I face east and fall asleep. This habit is every bit as essential for good sleep as any prescription medicine. This week, though, failed to produce any quality of sleep. And those brief snippets of sleep ended with soaking wet clothes, muscle cramps, and splitting headaches. Whatever was going on with me wasn’t a product of my imagination. I suspected my meds.
I had recently started a higher dose of antipsychotic, the sort of mood stabilizer that is supposed to help the mentally diverse community that I get to claim as my own. I did what everyone does when they can’t sleep. I got in bed, tossed and turned, rolled over and back again, and ended up on the sofa reading for hours. Each night when it was time for bed, an increasingly high level of anxiety came over me, the weight of my meds against the need for sleep. The dread of knowing I wouldn’t sleep; the helplessness of maintaining my diet of pharmaceuticals. Finally, Friday arrived. My wife and I were going out of town for a weekend. I felt for sure that a change of environment could only help.
Charleston, South Carolina is an old town. The oldest in the state. It is about a three to four hour south of my house but only requires three turns from my neighborhood to the historic downtown. We pulled in not long after dark with the windshield wipers sprinting to keep up with the rain. We checked into our hotel and dined on baked lobster and heavily garnished oyster burgers at one of those swanky restaurants that evinces regional fare. Opulence feels like an appropriate word to describe the place. When asked if we had a reservation and we said, “no,” we were seated at the oyster bar, which was a converted countertop from when the building had been a bank. Behind the bar was an oyster chef – if that’s a real thing – and six or seven different kinds of oysters from up and down the East Coast. Behind the chef was the two-foot thick, vault door where one could go into the kitchen, which, I supposed, was appropriate given that’s the site of the treasures. (A dinner roll cost five dollars.)
Angela and I decided that we couldn’t sit at the oyster bar, talk with the oyster chef, and claim to have an authentic culinary experience without trying a raw oyster. Angela further decided that she would experience authenticity vicariously. So, it was up to me. While the rest of the esculent connoisseurs ordered dozens of sundry plattered oysters, I ordered one. A single, iced, raw oyster was fetched and gilded on splashy porcelain. Our waitress explained at length how one, with reserved dignity, slurps down something with the texture of a wet booger. I sniffed the oyster, looked around the restaurant and was glad to see no one was looking at me. I sniffed it again. The faint smell of seawater repulsed me.
This is it, I thought, this will be the magic sleeping pill. If I just swallow the oyster, I will go to sleep. Maybe I was just wishing for the best, but oysters, I had read somewhere, are packed with magnesium, which is thought to help persuade long, peaceful sleep. My doctors and therapists will be pleased, I thought, that I had found a natural means of getting rest.
The oyster freely slid into my mouth, swashed around a bit like nasal drainage, and went down the hatch. Immediately I was concerned about the sanity of everyone in the restaurant spending hundreds of dollars on these lumps of mucus. The oyster really did have the texture of something that comes out of your nose, and it tasted exactly like seawater. But, I thought, it will help me sleep.
We left the restaurant a couple hundred dollars poorer and slowly traipsed back to the hotel. I dreaded going to bed that evening. But surely, I would sleep; I swallowed a raw oyster. Three days without good rest, a four-hour drive, and some exercise, I had done everything I knew to bring on sleep. Plus, I ate a raw oyster. (Did I mention that?) The placebo effect alone from the oyster should put me in a mild coma.
But it wasn’t to be. With foreboding submission, I took my meds and tossed and turned. The only thought I had was: why can’t I sleep? I took a hot shower. Turned on the TV and watched The Empire Strikes Back, which was on TBS or TNT or some other Ted Turner-like channel. After Luke got his arm chopped off and Darth Vader had the infamous father-son talk, The Return of The Jedi came on. So, I watched it too. Most people don’t think of Star Wars as being about a positive father-son dynamic. And, well, it’s true that for the most part Vader tried to kill Luke, and Luke tried to kill his dad. But think of all the affirmative things Vader says to Luke: “Luke, you do not realize your importance. You’ve only begun to discover your power!” Vader went on to say, “Luke you can destroy the Emperor.” Talk about a heavy compliment. Okay, so Vader may have expected a little too much from his son. After all, Luke had barely picked up a lightsaber when the movie started, and now he wants his son to defeat someone Master Yoda failed to vanquish. That’s sort of like the dad who tells his elementary school aged son that he better win the super bowl. But Vader has confidence in his son. He really believes what he’s saying. And Luke tries to convert his dad back to the good side because his feelings tell him his father could be saved. Can you believe that? Luke defied Obi Wan and Master Yoda and risked his own life because of his feelings, his gut, a sort of intuition that had to be heeded. And when it is all said and done, the father-son relationship was reconciled with Vader saying, “You were right Luke. Tell your sister… you were right.” Aha, yes, the ultimate compliment a parent can give to a child; the undoing of years and years of I told you so’s, “You were right Luke. Tell your sister…you were right.” Your feelings matter.
Then it was five in the morning. Time for coffee. Time to read. I went to the hotel lobby. The hotel restaurant didn’t open for another hour but there was no door blocking anyone from just going in; so, I sat at the bar and started reading, John Kaag’s Hiking with Nietzsche. A waitress coming into to work found me reading and took pity on me. Before the restaurant opened, she brought me a large carafe of perfect coffee. I drank and read for hours. Pages before the book ends, Kaag reflects on a book by Hermann Hesse. A fellow by the name of Haller has killed the only person he has ever loved, and all he anticipated was the death-dealing justice he deserved, dreamless sleep, to rest forever. But the judge had a different idea. He condemned the killer to life, to live until he has learned to laugh. And then Haller says something that caught my attention. He said, “I would traverse not once more, but often, the hell of my inner being.”
I put the book down, declined another carafe of coffee, and thought about my inner being. Is that why I can’t sleep? Am I condemned to wakefulness until I listen to that impulse telling me the very thing that I am taking for a better life is getting in the way of a better life? Is the topography of my soul nothing more than a steady decline down and inward until all I desire is the “forever sleep” Master Yoda told Luke about? I understood the desire to escape the corporeality of this body, the materiality of this world. I understood, in my sleep deprivation, why the Gnostics claimed the body evil and sought salvation through escape. Yoda was right, I thought, when he pinched Luke’s shoulder and said, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” The sleep deprived mind cannot justify experience. It suffers no obligation to find meaning, save the frustrated meaning of dreams and somnolent thoughts. And when that is stripped away, drudgery and anxiety convalesce in that artless decline, down, down, down where the newly myopic soul regards the world senselessly.
Angela is not what we would call an early riser. In fact, she is barely a riser. Some distant day when she arrives at the pearly gates, if there isn’t sleep in the afterlife, she may well install a suggestion box in heaven. So, I was a little surprised when I returned to the room around nine o’clock and found her dressed and ready to go.
Stepping out of the hotel, a wall of cold penetrated every layer. We headed towards the battery on Meeting Street. I stopped to photograph a drinking fountain in a park. There was nothing remarkable about the shot, and I had to goad myself into my photographer’s mind. Sleep deprivation is life deprivation. I took the shot, taking zero satisfaction in the small accomplishment. Only later will I think of the water fountain as a monument. Only later will it occur to me that a public drinking fountain in a public park in the South is an historical achievement, a middle finger to all the Confederate statues.
Late morning evolved into early afternoon, then early evening. We had walked along the waterfront, scooted through passageways separating two-hundred-year-old houses, and started making our way back to the hotel along King Street. I had wanted to feel the history of the town, to walk in its memory. But my foot was hurting from walking miles in a bad pair of tennis shoes. All I wanted to do was lie down, to close my eyes, to drift away to the ethereal netherworld of hibernating paradise.
But no matter how bad I wanted sleep, no matter how much my body required sleep, I was up. I had taken my meds because people had told me I had to take them. I had taken a hot shower. I had done my sleeping ritual. But I had forgotten myself. I was a zombie, a wandering soul in that in between space that separates sleep from the waking world. I was neither there nor here. The world was forgotten; sleep was forgotten. I had planted pharmaceuticals in the soil of my gut, and they sprouted strychnine. I was reminded of a poem by Kathleen Raine. “The soundless voice of memory speaks no more/That used to tell us, over and over, /The healing words: ‘Let not your hearts be troubled.”’ My heart was troubled, and my mind had tattered.
We returned home from Charleston. It was time for bed, again. I was beginning to think of this spat of insomnia as being some part of me, something restless, inconsolable, near panic but full of energy and drive. There were things I wanted to do, things I could busy these newly vacant hours of my life. But the surge of fatigue bloomed a facile melancholy, a suggestion of hopelessness.
Maybe the insomnia was in my head. Maybe it had nothing to do with my meds. Maybe this bout of agitation had to do with something much deeper, a crippling bout of self-doubt. Other people were telling me to take my meds. I had taken them and continued to take them long after I had come to suspect them toxic. Three times a week I’m asked if I’m taking my meds as prescribed. Three times a week I had said that I was. My meds can’t have anything to do with insomnia. But I felt differently. It was time to trust myself, trust my gut, trust my body. This night I would break my routine. I would try something different. I would break the most prominent rule of mental illness. I would go to bed without taking my meds. I would trust myself. I left the pills in the pillbox and turned out the lights. And I slept. I slept the entire night. I woke up the next morning and remembered my dreams.
The next morning, I waited in the doctor’s office for no reason.
** Congratulations, you made down here. Listen, a point for clarification. This essay is not about the dangers of meds or why we shouldn't take them. Far from it. If you are like me and deal with mental illness, you need to take your meds. If they are not doing what they are supposed to be doing, work out a new plan with your doctor.
As always I invite you to share this blog/essay with whomever you wish and invite you to repost it to the social media site of your choice. If you have not already subscribed to The Hungry Pelican, that is, my website, feel free to do so at the top of this page where it asks for your email address. That way, whenever I post a new set of photos and long-winded thoughts you can have it delivered to your email.