I open my eyes and I’m not in bed. I’ve got a dark road in front of me, fields on either side, red, white and blue lights throwing shadows across the tarmac as they flash. My hands jerk on the steering wheel. My mouth tastes like death and regular Coke. “Shit. Shane? Shane? Where are we?”
My paramedic’s annoyed, barely awake himself, but he tells me where we’re going, where we are, where to turn. I get us there all right, followed by a drive down to the hospital at a much saner speed. The call’s a non-specific abdominal pain, everyone’s favorite. (Not.)The whole way, I see shadows move along the side of the road, keeping pace with the ambulance, black dogs and man-shaped things. I know better than to look directly at them now.
It sounds like a horror story, right? The start of a cheesy-ass horror story, which is honestly the only kind I’m capable of writing. It’s not. It’s a thing that happened to me. It was 2004, and I stopped sleeping for over a year.
No, that sounds too dramatic. I didn’t quite stop sleeping. I just stopped sleeping normally. Two or three hours a night at most, snatches during the day when I sat down for more than five minutes. I fell asleep at my desk at work. I fell asleep standing up as I leaned one shoulder against the wall.
At first, for a few weeks, I just felt cranky and exhausted. Then I felt strangely okay, like I’d hit some kind of point where I didn’t really need to sleep, except I’d close my eyes for long, dizzying blinks. Then I felt like I lived in a different layer of reality than everyone else, sometimes floating, sometimes crashing. That was how it felt, like being mentally untethered.
It’s strange the things I can remember from that year, because most of it is a blur and what I recall best is being constantly hungry, cold, and nauseated. I’d sit at my desk and shiver, and I was so hungry all the time I ate nearly everything in sight to the point that it made my stomach hurt. I particularly craved deep fried things, which then made me feel sick, so I’d shiver and think about vomiting. I packed on weight at a shocking pace. I felt dizzy, light headed, and completely disconnected from my body. I tried to exercise but had no energy. My eyes were always tired and heavy, itching.
I felt like I had been scrubbed raw, inside and out.
Some things I remember are like the incident above. I remember them because they frightened me into momentary, true wakefulness. I recall my boss catching me falling asleep at my desk. She called me into her office (well… cubicle) and told me as kindly as she could that I needed to make myself uncomfortable enough to stay awake or I was going to get in a lot of trouble. I remember hitting my head on my desk once because I started falling out of my chair. Several times I somehow got myself from a friends house or work to home with no memory of how I got there, just opening my eyes in the parking spot by my house. I remember laying under three or four blankets and shivering violently, unable to warm myself.
That’s really what I remember most vividly: never feeling warm no matter what I did.
The other memories I have from that time, I don’t trust. I had conversations that no one else remembered later. Friends would say things to me and I couldn’t understand the words. I watched television shows that didn’t exist. I saw black dogs whenever I drove. I glimpsed people and cats out of the corner of my eye and found nothing there when I turned to look, startled. I have several notebooks of half-paragraphs I wrote, which don’t make sense when I go back and look them over again. I hallucinated. I know I hallucinated, and that makes me doubt even the things I’ve already told you.
At the time, I couldn’t really say why I stopped sleeping. I liked to blame it on the EMT work, which was bullshit. I only did between four and six night shifts a month, and the busy nights were rare. It was a load of stress, but I was maintaining all right. I just couldn’t ever fall asleep. I must have just been one of those people who naturally go to bed late and can’t get up early. (That is bullshit, by the way. I am more of a night person, but these days I manage to get in bed and sleep by midnight, and I get up by seven, no problems.)
And I didn’t tell anyone. Because I had everything going for me, right? I had a great job for someone with only a high school diploma. Sure, I was working sixty hour weeks, but I was making bank. I owned a house at the age of 23 and lived independently. I had money to throw around. And weren’t we all burning the candle at both ends? I had a busy social life, most of it centered around roleplaying and board games. If I wasn’t sleeping enough, boo fucking hoo. Catch up on the weekend. Everyone else was short on sleep too.
I was just too much of a pussy to handle a little sleep dep.
I started sleeping again suddenly, a few days after I learned I was going to be laid off, after the initial shock had worn away and I realized that my job really did have a set expiration date. That probably should have been my biggest clue. It wasn’t until years later that I was doing some research on depression and realized that might have been the reason behind my year of no sleep.
I was working sixty hours a week at a job I hated but was too afraid to leave because I feared losing the money. In one sense, I stopped sleeping because I knew that if I went to bed, I’d have to get up in the morning and go to work. It wasn’t until the end was in sight and I knew I’d be free of it–as terrifying as that was–that I started sleeping again.
It’s taken years for my ability to sleep to recover. It took years to get rid of all the weight I gained when I was trying to compensate for lack of sleep and emotional distress by eating. It took years to shake the unhealthy habits I learned during that time, and even today I still sometimes overeat to the point that it makes me sick. It took years to regain my ability to exercise.
Sometimes you don’t have choices about your job. You have to eat. You have to keep body and soul together. But one of the biggest lessons I learned from this experience was that if it’s a choice between a job you like and a job you hate that makes a ton of money, take the job you like. I know I did some good shit with my money in 2004, some stuff that I probably enjoyed at the time. Fucked if I can remember it now, because my brain was so completely fried by lack of sleep.
I think the more important lesson is that some things, you can’t just try to bull through and pretend that everything is okay. I don’t know how things might have gone differently, if I’d actually told someone how completely fucked up I felt. I can’t even really guess. But I like to think I could have arrested my slow-motion physical self-destruction.
I’ve never felt anything like it since, and I hope that I never will again. I hate the idea of anyone else feeling the way I did. It was, quite literally, a waking nightmare, one that I couldn’t escape because the line between waking and sleeping had blurred past all recognition.
And I want you to know if you’re going through something similar, it’s not just you going crazy or “not being able to hack it” whatever the fuck that means. It happened to me. I want you to know it’s okay to reach out for help. That you should reach out for help. And I want you to know that it can and will get better.