Some of my earliest memories are of lost sleep, of the circadian disruption of fluorescent lights in a hospital hallway, of the clutching fear of knowing that my chest would soon be cut open, my heart stopped, by blood given over to a lifeless machine. The constancy of the needles and the nurses' cold hands brought me back to where I was: alive and awake, always awake. A few years later, a leg injury put me traction for weeks, the days punctuated by the taste of cherry Jell-O, not cherry at all but the chemical burn of the fake stuff, the scent of which I burped all night long as I watched the merry-go-round of locally made airplanes whirl away the hours atop the restaurant next door.
In my life after, sleep was disrupted by nightmares of being trapped, of wandering those hospital halls unable to escape, dreams of not breathing, of being breathed for by the machines. It's hard to sleep when the landscape of slumber is full of such terrors.
The news, now, is full of studies on the ways sleeplessness kills: both fast in accidents and slow in chronic health problems: heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, cancer, dementia. The irony in my case is that the very invasive surgery that fixed the heart condition I was born with set the sleep cycles that, 45 years later, will potentially wreck my heart.
What cures also kills.
Aside from shift work, there are not many jobs someone who is more awake at 3:00 a.m. than at 3:00 p.m. can successfully pursue. I've managed to manipulate academe to offer up enough flexibility for an afternoon nap, but being assigned an evening class just exacerbates the problem. Getting used to even less sleep is possible, though the TV doctors don't recommend it.
I've stopped talking to my GP about my lack of sleep. She's recommended melatonin, and, from a medical perspective, I'm sure she isn't wrong.
When Frost wrote that he was "acquainted with the night," he was writing what he knew, but he was also writing about an alternative way of knowing. Certainly, we can read that poem as addressing depression, but it's also about the way the night and darkness reorient us toward our inner lives. The darkness reminds us that we have one and that it does more emotional an even intellectual work than we're generally aware of.
The brash, daytime world is for extroverts, and there's part of me that's ready to let them have it. It's full or aggression and bad driving, thoughtlessness and acting for the sake of action. When I hear the coyotes bray in the nature park nearby, I'm slightly frightened, as any human might be, but I'm also sympathetic: yes, brothers, yes. I understand the longing in your keening lamentation.