Ad Somnum, Ad Somnium: a Requiem.

Hey, y’all. I’m almost out of my last week of school. Three more days till I’m home!! Craziness. Anyway, I’ve been in a class called Reading and Writing Creative Non-Fiction all quarter, which basically means I’m writing personal essays, a.k.a. perfect blog material. I just finished editing my final personal essays for my portfolio, so to celebrate, I’m going to post my personal research below. It’s my favorite of the three I wrote–a combination of a lot of stuff I’m really interested in, like God and mythology and narcolepsy and dreams–plus there’s a personal interview with a friend (her name has been changed) in there that’s about her struggle with a sleep disorder and how she’s trusted God through it. It’s super encouraging. The essay is not a typical research essay, I promise. The format is broken up a lot and it’s definitely more creative than a typical paper, and I think, more fun to read. Hope you like it! I’ll definitely be posting more before I head to Ocean City on Tuesday! Only six more days.

Okay, here you go.

Ad Somnum, Ad Somnium: a Requiem

The Dreamtime is when before all things were made and all things were born and it will always just be, ebbing and flowing like space and time. The Rainbow Serpent and all the other totem animals and you and me were all there, are there, eternally forever after. The spirit-child exists in the Dreaming before and after the body, and the where it is born determines whether it does Kangaroo Dreaming or Honey Ant Dreaming. Because you see, in the Aboriginal Motherland, your Dreaming is the name for your faith. And your faith is your land. It is how you sing and how you live and walkabout. It is how the sun was made, and how you come into creation and be.

***

I first become fascinated with narcolepsy when I hear the Ben Folds Five song named for the condition itself. It starts, “I should warn you, I go to sleep/I know you don’t know what I mean/Yet.” I do not know what he means, but I want to. The piano sounds marvelous. He sings on. “I know it seems that I don’t care/But something in me does, I swear/I don’t remember all last year/I left you awake to cry the tears/While I was dreaming/Oh I’m drowning, save me, wake me up.” No, Ben Folds is not a narcoleptic. He just knows what it is like to witness his own life pass before his eyes without being emotionally capable of participating in it. But I am enthralled by the waking dream—I am hungry for more. What is this nameless, faceless shadow that crosses over our eyelids and bids us sleep, but not rest?

***

The last stage of the five-stage human sleep cycle is called Rapid Eye Movement. For people who sleep normally, the REM stage occurs at anywhere from the 80th minute to the 100th minute of a 100-minute sleep cycle. The eyes move back and forth in response to active dreaming, which begins in this stage. For anywhere from a single minute to 20 minutes, the brain falls for its own delusions, and then the cycle starts over again, usually giving us nearly an hour and a half of dreamless, restful sleep until the dreams begin once more.

***

But my friend, Savannah Leung, the only person I know diagnosed with narcolepsy, told me she took a sleep study once, and it turns out that her REM cycle functions much differently. “It’s a two day test. They give you five opportunities to nap during the day. They hook you up with cords and figure out how long it takes you to get to sleep. When I got the results back—I slept during all five of the naps—it said the time I took to fall asleep [to get to REM stage] on average was two and-a-half minutes.”

***

In the Christian tradition, sleeping is a spiritual act, for within the dreams that come through sleep, God may reveal Himself. He can heal, giving new life on the unconscious plane. Sleep disturbances interrupt this process, causing distress to fester in our wakeful world. And so the narcoleptic remains restless, the wind moving over the waters.

***

I have never had a sleep disorder. Sleep feels wonderful, when I can get it. I suppose it is odd that I perceive a certain romance in lack of sleep, though. Dark circles and husky voices act as either the badges of martyrdom or marks of creative genius for the 27% of American college students who have a sleeping disorder. But it is not all glamour—the dreams of the narcoleptics like Savannah are quite literally deferred. Not the sleeping dreams, but the dreams one has of achievement, of success. Of staying awake for longer than four hours at a time. Of ever being able to live a normal life.

***

Morpheus, the eldest son of Hypnos, floating under doors and hovering in shadows. In his truest state, he is formless, this god of forms, exhaling dreams for us, giving them shape and vivid color. Most of the time, Morpheus appears as a man—someone you might vaguely recall from a dream.

***

There are three classic symptoms of narcolepsy. The first is cataplexy—in an instant, the muscles lose their tone, collapsing. It ranges from the neck sagging backward or the mouth drooping open to the entire body crumbling and hitting the floor with a solid thud. These episodes may be triggered by laughter, by anger, by fright, by anything, really, and the person remains conscious the entire time. Imagine having your eyes open and your mind awake as your body falls to the ground, and not being able to do a single thing to stop it.

***

Savannah also tells me that you can basically liken narcolepsy to being drunk all the time. “You can’t think rationally. Any sense of your typical judgment and your ability to express yourself is gone. You become very emotional. I become super happy and don’t have a care in the world and can’t think at all, or I become really reflective…almost existential. I’m like, what’s the point of this? What am I doing? Honestly, I’m still trying to figure out how to live a normal life.”

***

On Wednesdays I wake up at 8:30 and have my Yeats class from 9:30-11. Work at the Center for Talent Development from 11-1. Lunch from 1-1:30. Creative Non-Fiction from 2-3. Meeting with my discipler from 3:30-5. Dinner from 5:15-5:45. Weekly PR meeting at JJ Java from 6-7. My church Bible study from 7-9. A cappella rehearsal from 9-11. Homework until 2 am. What does it mean to rest? I’m not sure I know anymore. God help me.

***

Job 4:13-14 says, “Amid disquieting dreams in the night, when deep sleep falls on people, fear and trembling seized me and made all my bones shake.” Like Savannah, Job probably knew what it was like to never rest—the torture of his these strange dreams must have been agonizing. But then again, if you had to wake up and remember that you were a poor leper whose house crushed and killed his children, maybe you’d prefer the dreaming.

***

The second symptom of narcolepsy is the hypnagogic hallucinations—hallucinations with an auditory dimension. Savannah experiences these often: “It is—crazy. A lot of them, they’re so vivid that I can’t even separate what happened in real life…Some of my dreams…I feel like they actually happened…The weird thing is I am aware that I’m dreaming—it’s lucid…It’s like you’re sleeping, and you know you’re sleeping. It’s like being in between dreaming and wakefulness. And you try to tell yourself to wake up…” she says, sitting up on my roommate’s bed and tugging at her long black hair. Once, Savannah thought she saw her roommate, Katie, come into her room to tell her hi while she was doing homework. Savannah saw her, heard her. Katie came home later—she had been in class all day.

***

Aengus dreams of his true a love, an Irish faery princess so fair that when he awakens, he becomes lovesick. After years of searching, on Samhain Eve, Aengus, the love god, finds her chained with 150 other maidens around the lake of the Dragon’s Mouth, where once a year, they turn from human to swan and back again. But he is told that he may only take her for his bride if he can recognize her as a swan—and so, he waits for an agonizing year until she turns back into her animal form. Waits. And waits. And finally, on Samhain Eve the next year, he returns for her. He recognizes her immediately. She is white, and glistening. He takes her away, and in his joy, turns into a swan himself, flying into the night and singing a song so enchanting that all who hear it sleep for three days. His bride’s name is Caer, and she is the goddess of sleep and dreams.

***

It is nearly impossible for me to sleep during the day, thanks to my ADD medication, which is a stimulant. Like speed. I am constantly alert, focusing on the ticking of the clock, the sound of a lawnmower outside. It is certainly a curse. Sometimes I wish God hadn’t made me this way, needing medicine. There is an upside, though—I can hold off my tiredness, delay it for my own convenience in order to finish what needs to be done, and something always needs to be done. I cannot be tired. I do not have time to be tired. “I’m going to bed,” my roommate tells me. “You should too.” I tell her I will sleep when I’m dead. I’m only half-kidding. Lack of time to sleep is the one nightmare that I cannot wake up from.

***

Savannah told me that the term ‘nightmare’ originated in the Middle Ages. People used it to describe sleep paralysis, the last classic symptom—the temporary inability to move when moving in and out of sleep. The body paralyzes itself during the REM stage, but the body and the mind of the narcoleptic have different sleep schedules, and occasionally the mind will wake up before the body is ready. Your muscles feel like a thousand pounds of sand and your breathing is shallow, constrained. Like a horse, a mare, is sitting on your chest.

***

It is strange for her, not having control over sleep, but over dreams. “One day I was like, ‘Wait, if I know I’m sleeping, maybe I can control the subject matter of my dreams.’ Because I’m like, ‘Hey. If I’m going to be stuck with this all the time, I might as well make it fun for myself.’ So I made myself dream that I was flying…” Savannah smiles and closes her eyes.

***

Hypnos lies prone in his shadowy cave, the patron saint of ebony and opium, stupor and smoke. The dark, blurry bed seems to shift from the rippling of the River Lethe. Soundlessly slipping to and fro, his three sons wait on him in his Hadean dwelling, which has no door, no creaking hinges with which to disturb his slumber.

***

As a preschooler, I would refuse to nap. I just never felt tired. Who had time for sleep when there were so many things to think about and read? Try as she might, my teacher could never force me to go lay down on my blue plastic cot like all the other kids. So she set me by the bookshelf instead, and I would wait while everyone else fell asleep, and then I would read as many books as I could until one by one, the drowsy-soft eyelids of my peers would flutter open. Once, I tried to take a nap like all the others around me. I even asked to be moved away from the bookshelf, even though the teacher said that once I moved, I couldn’t move back. I wanted to be like everyone else. What resulted was not a nap, but hot tears sliding down my face when I realized I couldn’t sleep, and there were no books nearby to comfort me.

***

She sighs, and her voice becomes soft. “I don’t know what this means for my relationship with God…I think you go through all the stages of grief…denial…I was bitter and angry towards God. Coming into Northwestern, I felt like a lot of my potential, a lot of my dreams were put on hold… I was angry towards God for taking that away. I had really wanted to go to law school…I was focused on academics, keeping a perfect GPA. But I couldn’t anymore. Part of me thought, is this God’s way of telling me to stop, to go back to Him? Is it because of my sin?” Savannah’s dark almond-shaped eyes turn upward, as if she will find the answer there.

***

“The biggest thing is trusting that God was in control, that He had a plan and purpose for this, because the sleeping thing was the last thing that I had planned on my college agenda. It came out of nowhere, really. Reconciling the fact that this is part of my life, and that God is good in spite of that, was something I really had to learn.”

***

Most people with narcolepsy sleep considerably longer than eight and-a-half hours a night, often accidentally falling asleep for up to 30 minutes in low-stimulation environments during the day. Because they go almost immediately into REM stage and come out of it so quickly, they often cannot distinguish reality from the dreams occurring during these naps. It is as if the narcoleptic inhabits his or her very own enchanted Athenian woodland, walking around, unsuspecting and drunk with sleep, while Puck and his potion of delirium lie in wait for Demetrius, Lysander and the fairy queen, Titania, napping under the boughs of magic trees… If we shadows have offended,/Think but this, and all is mended:/That you have but slumbered here,/While these visions did appear.

***

A few nights ago. Before I go to bed, I walk in the woods around the lake. The night and the shadows of crooked trees encircle me like a flood, willing my deliriously tired body to float up, to defy my heavy consciousness, which is paralyzingly alert. My only visible sources of comfort in the unfamiliar well of the sky wink down at me, pinpoints of light holding steadily to their course. God is constant. He is with me.  I exhale when I finally emerge from the woods. The coals on the fire have died down now. It is 3:30 a.m.

***

“When I sleep, I think of our spiritual death—you don’t know what’s going on. You’re so lost, all alone. And God changes you. You’re redeemed, you’re refreshed, you’re alive again! I just think, if I can’t stand this physical sense of being lost, imagine people who are spiritually lost…God does everything for our good. It’s for a reason. And ultimately, it’s going to be for my good and His glory.” It is a mystery, and every day leads her closer to its core.

***

The Hindu goddess Nidra came forth on the waves of the Great Churning of the Ocean. Brahma, the god of creation, calls her forth to awaken the blue-skinned Vishnu from his slumber on the couch of infinity. This couch floats on the ocean of pure consciousness. She takes two small steps, her warm brown feet remembering the waters from whence she came.

***

My dress is the color of an eggshell. I don’t quite remember where I got it, or how I got here. Sand ripples under my feet, and the clearest water I have ever seen stretches out before me under a golden sky, vast and teeming. I can taste it on the soles of my feet, sweet and clean, vital. The sun is warm here, and I feel a hand in mine. His hand. We walk forward, steadily, together, until the water caresses my neck, and I am frightened because I almost drowned once when I was three. But I feel a squeeze of my hand, a whispered breath in my ear: “Don’t be afraid.” I keep my eyes open. And suddenly the water rises, and now we are standing together in a field of wheat. It is Paradise. He looks at me and smiles, tenderly kisses my forehead. I take a step, and I am awake, baptized in the Eternal Summer.

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