CW: Discussion of mental health disorders and death
I had a phase when I was about 6 years old of being incredibly scared of dying. My mum had to calm me down before sleeping, to make me at peace with its silent and dark qualities. I wasn’t taught about heaven, so I imagined death to be like sleeping forever and the stillness of it all terrified me.
One day, my primary school put on a ‘book-swap’ event, and I found a book called A Story For Hippo and mum picked it up for me. Searching this book online now, I realise it’s actually designed to teach young children about loss, and it makes a lot of sense why I found such comfort in it. My mum would read it to me every time I got scared about people, or myself, leaving the world. The book explains how even when loved ones are no longer with us, they live on in memories. As long as we can keep telling their stories, they never truly leave us.
Whilst this book still remains a milestone for me in regards to getting through nighttimes, I have always had difficulty sleeping. If it’s not the silence of it all, it’s the miles of black space where my thoughts solidify into worries. I have had, like most people, periods in my life where I simply am too anxious to sleep. The most prominent was actually at the end of my first year of sixth form, I went four days with absolutely zero sleep. I had obsessive health anxiety at the time, and became obsessed with the idea I might die once my eyes were closed. My dad, bless him, lay on the floor next to my bed to keep me from ringing A&E. He took me on long walks in the morning to try and bring some kind of body-clock back into myself, and he made sure I ate enough during the day. I finally managed to get a couple of hours of rest a night, and eventually once I returned to college, I was fatigued enough by school work to get back to a normal sleep schedule.
I came to rely on my parents a lot more in the next few years than I ever had before, and embarrassing as it may be, I still need them sometimes in order to help me sleep. The need for company in the dark is something sacred, it stops me interacting with the shadowy corners of my mind.
At university the dependency on my parents was obviously disrupted. I had to look for alternative coping mechanisms, one of which was propranolol. I remember when the doctor recommended it, he said he ‘prescribe[d] this more often then the contraceptive pill’, which I took to be a comforting statement. Propranolol is commonly prescribed for physical anxiety symptoms, including difficulty sleeping. Whilst it certainly calmed my evening palpitations, it came with an ugly side effect: nightmares. I began having very violent and vivid dreams, and would often wake up sweating and short of breath. My dreams felt so intrusive that I thought they made me a bad person. Soon enough, I began to hate everything about going to bed and would delay it happening for as long as possible. My boyfriend at the time would let me keep him on the phone until I ‘fell asleep’ (I often pretended because I felt so bad), something I thought I needed but turned out to be extremely unhealthy in the long term.
Between fatigue from lack of sleep and constant adrenaline from my anxiety disorder, my sense of reality became distorted. I often felt like I could hear a voice in my head, aggressively real yet not my own and outside of my control. The welfare team at my college recommended sleeping with the light on, which was helpful until I started feeling guilty about the planet. The other thing was, of course, meditation, but sitting still and trying not to have thoughts was just impossible. Eventually I closed my eyes at random points in the day when I simply had to, and woke up confused and probably missing a lecture.
For the next few months of my life, now deposited back home, I barely let myself be in darkness. I learnt to fall asleep by having Friends play on my phone, the easiest (and funniest) way to distract myself. I also spent a lot of time in nature, appreciating how plants were smart enough to not worry about bedtimes. But most important of all, I went back to the words of A Story For Hippo: I learnt again how not to be afraid of dying.
I tried once more to see life like a story, filled with unexpected narratives and humorous characters. How the darkness and silence is an inevitable part of everyone’s journey, but how everyone lives on as long as some part of them is retold. I took this fear of sleep, or death, or whatever its name is, and tried to think of it like an adventure.
Now, instead of recalling the early hours as dreaded silence, I think of a fox dancing its way across the road at 3 A.M. The trees are looking at me like friendly ghosts, and the moon is cold and beautiful and full of secrets. In these moments, nighttimes are nothing more than stories. They feel like safe, empty roads; a girl twirling under a lamp post, or the memories I made dancing in a club. Like most stories there is kindness in there somewhere, and the more I think about this the more I realise I’m no longer awake.