My partner gently snores beside me. Five minutes ago they whispered, “good night” to me in the darkness, and then faded away into deep, longing rest. They sleep. They breathe. They dream.
I wish sometimes that I could sleep like that. In our nearly 11 years of marriage I have sometimes resented their ability to just close their eyes and give way to exhaustion. I have struggled with this whole concept of sleep for most of my life but especially the last 15 years. My mind is most awake, most clear, and most creative at night. Maybe the quiet gets to me. Maybe living in a small town gets to me. Maybe this lazy neighborhood with its elderly residents who tuck in no later than 8pm gets to me.
I’m so tired but I don’t sleep. I lie awake and my mind runs a marathon. This is no race to a pre-determined finish line. My mind takes its time sinking each foot onto the squishy cerebral pavement because it doesn’t necessarily have to get there, wherever there is, anytime soon. It pounds along, leaving indentations on my grey matter, sweat slipping down it’s lower back.
Pound, pound. “Can we afford a full set of new tires this paycheck?”
Pound, pound. “Have I volunteered myself for too much?”
Pound, pound. “Will we make it through the holidays in one piece?”
Pound, pound. “Am I going to have a breakdown again this year?”
It pounds away and I grow increasingly weary under the massive weight of it all, my mental muscles thoroughly spent and sore from the plethora of what-if’s. And while my mind runs this nightly marathon, they sleep.
My partner snores more loudly now. They’re laying on their back and in a moment I’ll need to push them off to one side so they can breathe more properly. Before I can however, they start to scream. The night terrors are back, although they’re never really gone. Most often they scream out, “no!” and “help me!” Sometimes they remember what they’re running from, but usually they don’t.
I roll towards them, lay my hands on them, and then start shaking them and calling their name. I’ve tried different approaches to waking them from the night terrors and I hate this particular one because it is so jarring for them to be awakened this way, but it’s the most effective. If I don’t physically push them out of the nightmare, they can’t get out of it. So, I shake and I yell out to them in their darkness.
I give them a command to make sure they’re fully awake too, because if I don’t make extra sure they’re really awake, they’ll lapse right back into the terror, even if they’re answering questions or responding to me.
“Take a drink of water.”
“Flip your pillow.”
They’re disgruntled, disoriented, and afraid. Usually they fight me. They don’t mean to, but they do.
“Drink the water, J.”
“No, stop it.”
“Sit up and take a drink of water.”
“It’s okay. Just take a drink of water.”
They eventually relent because I refuse to. They reach for their water, take several sips, and finally separate themselves from their nightmare and reaclimate to their reality. The belligerence fades and gives way to whimpering. Sometimes they turn right back over and go back to sleep. Most times they reach for me and curl up into a fetal position, wondering if the nightmares are waiting for them.
“It’s okay. I’m right here. I’ll wake you up if it happens again. It’s okay. You’re safe.”
And in five minutes or less, they are again asleep, and I am again awake, lying in bed next to J, who can fall asleep so easily and quickly, but even in their sleep is denied real rest.
I do not know which is worse: being unable to sleep, or being asleep but unable to rest because of constant night terrors. I don’t know if the two can even be compared but for my part I know which I prefer: the insomnia.
So, I don’t sleep. Instead, I stand guard between J and their night terrors, and when they need me, I will be here. I will shake them back to safety and then hold them as they slip away again. I will be their safe harbor. I will wait in the darkness for them. And they will not be alone.