Diary

John Burnside

‘I’m sorry, but you have to leave now.’ I am in a café. I don’t know the name, I just walked in and found a place to sit down, tired from an afternoon of traipsing around a city that has always been a bit much for me: too polluted, too noisy, too crowded. Now, however, that fatigue is turning into an inexplicable but near overwhelming lethargy, and I am trying to stay, or at least look, awake for whoever is speaking. I labour to keep my head up, my body tenses against the seemingly irresistible onset of sleep, I try to focus on the voice I hear. I don’t know how successful I am being in this; all I know is that, already, I cannot speak and, now that I have stopped walking, my body is turning to lead in my chair.

The speaker tries again, his voice very even. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says, ‘but my manager says you have to leave.’ I notice the hint of an accent, but I can’t place it. What I can place is the form of the request: the standard apology, which is not an apology at all, but a challenge; the displacing of guilt onto a higher power who probably doesn’t exist. I still cannot speak, or even look at the waiter directly, but he continues as if I had protested in some way. ‘You can’t stay here,’ he says. ‘You’ve had too much to drink, and you have to go.’

This is grossly unfair, though even if I could speak, I couldn’t deny the charge altogether. I had a pint of IPA at lunchtime, but I have never become inebriated on one pint of beer and it’s really not the alcohol that is making me sleepy. What is happening isn’t even sleepiness exactly, more a minor existential crisis. Still, I suppose the assumption is fair, given the smell on my breath – and this is enough to get me moving. The process is slow and painfully deliberate, but after a moment of supreme effort I eventually, miraculously, get to my feet. I am large and heavy and I sense the speaker stepping away from my wobbling bulk, as if afraid that I might fall on him. I want to say something – anything. Not to explain, I know I don’t have the resources for that, but just to put him at ease, to say that I am going quietly. I would also very much like him to know that I am not drunk, not from any sense of propriety, but because it would be satisfying to set the record straight. It’s too late for that, however. I need all the energy I can muster to get myself out into the darkening street and make my way, very slowly, to the park opposite, where I manage to find a bench and sit down, just moments before I lose all mobility.

Later, when I fit this incident into the overall pattern of what I will come to call my sleep condition (though it is clearly a number of conditions operating as one), I will wonder how I made it so far without collapsing (subsequent attacks were not so lenient). Was it pride, or willpower, or anger that I had been misjudged, that bore me on? I have no idea. All I know is that I am sitting on a bench in a London park in the late afternoon, the air growing dark around me, my body incapable of further motion, yet fully conscious, unable to see anything but sharply aware of every sound, however small. Voices pass, steps, someone hesitates then continues. I don’t know whether people are looking at me, ignoring me, or smirking with their friends. For several minutes, there is near silence, and I sense no one is close. What if a policeman comes? What if somebody tries to assist me? Worst of all, what if somebody were to decide, say, to rob me? I would be powerless to defend myself or cry out for help – and, stupidly, far too slowly, but with a growing sense of terror, I realise that I have no idea how long this is going to last or if, in fact, it will ever end.

That first attack continued for something like forty minutes, perhaps more, possibly less. I was not arrested or robbed, and when my body slowly began to loosen up and I was able to lift my head, move my arms and legs and, finally, stagger to my feet, my vision gradually returning, I felt a huge relief. I also wanted to be gone, to hurry away like any other shopper heading home as evening settled in, but my body was still leaden and I was obliged to move slowly – which I then decided was a good thing, as it would have seemed more natural to anybody watching. Later, that thought was to recur, when this symptom of my sleep condition hit me again: somebody was watching, I was not alone and this was more than a little unsettling. At the time, though, I just wanted to get back to my hotel, shut myself in my room, be unseen. Most of all, I wanted to be able to prove to myself that this attack of what I now know to be a form of narcolepsy would not happen again, not just because it had all been so frightening, but for a variety of conflicting reasons. Fear, of course. Dread of something happening while I was unable to protect or explain myself.

But there had also been something else at play during that strange bout of paralysis, something I couldn’t name, or adequately describe, but would come to know, over the next few months as ‘the fascination’. That sounds melodramatic, self-indulgent, but it was the word that came to mind then and as time went by it seemed more accurate than anything else. Somewhere, at the core of this terrifying paralysis and helplessness, there was a fascination, a taste, not of death, exactly, but of absence. Of coming to the very point of not being and teetering there, like a flame in a sudden draught that almost but doesn’t quite go out, before rekindling to brightness again. Perhaps because all the attacks that followed happened in private spaces (my own home, a hotel room, watching a movie with my sons in the concealing darkness of a Dundee multiplex) this sense of a rekindling was stronger, and the fascination more vivid, with each new incident. At the same time, they were just as frightening as on the first occasion; though not now because I was physically exposed, but because it felt, for as long as I sat or lay there, that each breath could quite easily be my last.

The next incident happened about a week later, but this time I was not alone. It lasted for a full three hours. This is odd, I am told, as non-hypnagogic paralysis (an attack that does not happen in the run-up to the sleep state) is usually said to last for around ten to twenty minutes. I remember clearly the growing panic as my body ceased to function, followed by an odd detachment, a neutrality – a sense that there was nothing to be done, a relief that it was happening in a safe place this time, a totally unfounded conviction that it would all be over soon. Almost inquisitively, I tried to move – my arm, my foot, my fingers. Remotely, under a kind of numbness, I could sense the energy I was exerting, but there was no movement. Again, I could hear, but I couldn’t see. My sons were with me (we had planned to watch a DVD) and I tried to summon up the power to speak to them, but it was hopeless. I was unable to move in any way. Used to me falling asleep whenever I wasn’t working, the boys were unconcerned and watched the film (they were astonished when I quoted whole lines to them, pretty much verbatim, when I finally ‘awoke’, a good while after it ended).

On this occasion, it took a while for the fascination to come. I have always had a difficult relationship with sleep; a lifelong and impatient insomniac, I have spent whole nights not even trying to rest, but reading, watching films, or going for long walks. When I did sleep, my dreams would be vivid, memorable, sometimes horrific, and occasionally so beautiful that I would wake up in tears, simply because I had been obliged to leave a place where I had finally been unconditionally happy. Later in life, after I had lost people I loved, whether to death or contingency, I would be reunited with them in such dreams, then painfully wrenched away – anyone who has known such experiences will also know, not just the regret of having loved and lost all over again, but the bitterness and guilt that come of having to go back to the inadequate souls who populate the ‘real world’.

‘There is between sleep and us something like a pact,’ Maurice Blanchot says, ‘a treaty with no secret clauses, and according to this convention it is agreed that, far from being a dangerous, bewitching force, sleep will become domesticated and serve as an instrument of our power to act. We surrender to sleep, but in the way that the master entrusts himself to the slave who serves him.’ I can see this is the way it might be for some, but for me, sleep had always been exactly the dangerous bewitching force that Blanchot discounts. Now, it felt as if that force, that féerique energy, had been turned inside out, and I had been replaced by my changeling self, awake and aware in one world, but suspended helplessly in another, where anything might come and find me out.

After that second attack, I went to a doctor. A series of tests was proposed, the root problem identified as hormonal. One of those mysterious, pointless glands that show up in anatomy books was no doubt to blame. The thalamus. The pineal. I had no idea what any of them did, but that didn’t matter, because all the tests came back negative. Stress was discussed, my extensive history of drugs and alcohol skirted around. Oddly, it was a while before sleep apnoea was mentioned – a condition where the patient stops breathing while asleep, then starts awake and desperately gasps in some air, before settling down again, all in a matter of seconds. Amazingly, and drastic as this sounds, the sleeper remembers none of this and, as I was to discover, the cycle can repeat over and over, sometimes hundreds of times a night. I suppose my hypertension should have been a clue that I might be prone to apnoea (the body showers itself with adrenalin, naturally, during this unconscious panic attack) and it did help to confirm the diagnosis when my doctor found my blood pressure was much higher at night than by day. Finally, after a visit to a sleep clinic, with dramatic results showing on my graph, I was given a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine and told my troubles would soon be over. Case closed. In fact, my troubles were just about to get very much worse.

*

A Catholic priest once told me how Thomas à Kempis, author of The Imitation of Christ, was removed from the roll of prospective saints after his disinterment in 1672, when church authorities discovered, not only that he had been buried alive, but that the lid of his coffin had been raked and gouged with desperate clawing fingernails, as he fought to escape the dark confines of a premature grave. At the time there were no doubt some who found all this darkly amusing – a spiteful God having the last laugh on a man who, having proposed a life in imitation of the Messiah, wasn’t quite up to the showstopping tour de force of a resurrection. For most, however, Thomas’s attempt to escape the cruellest of fates would have seemed natural, even when they took into account the fact that, according to contemporary records, he was more than ninety years old at the time of his too hasty burial. He had been a devout man, who had seemed, according to his companions, to be ‘filled with a Divine energy. As he prayed and meditated, only the tips of his toes touched the floor; the rest of his body lifted towards Heaven. He was always the first to enter the choir and always the last one to leave, because he had a very great love for the Divine worship, and all the services of the Church.’ It was also said that miracles had happened at the site of his original interment. Sadly, the Vatican was unimpressed, indeed, positively unforgiving. After the evidence of Thomas’s predicament was presented to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (the committee that decides who is worthy of canonisation, and why), it was decreed that he should not be elevated to the sainthood. The reason given, it seems, was the Congregation’s conviction that, by struggling so violently to escape his grisly fate, Thomas had wilfully refused to accede to the will of a God who had buried him alive for a reason – perhaps as a test of his faith – and this failure of stoicism proved that, pious as he may have been, Thomas was also as venal, thankless and unsaintly as the rest of us. (I should say that I recount this tale here, not for grisly entertainment so much as to suggest possible subjects to avoid dwelling on, should the reader ever fall victim to an attack of so-called sleep paralysis.)

The CPAP machine works by puffing air, through a mask, into the nose of a ‘sleeping’ patient, so he or she may continue on undisturbed. I am told it can be very effective; it certainly helped me when I paid my first visit to the sleep clinic. At home, though, it was less reliable, possibly because I couldn’t seem to calibrate it properly. Sometimes it offered a much needed three or four-hour spell of continuous sleep (it may not sound like much, but it’s gold dust for the sleepless); sometimes it not only did nothing, but caused new and unexpected problems (difficulty in breathing, nosebleeds, a raspingly dry throat, sinus pain, even toothache). Sometimes I woke to find that I had pulled off the mask in a panic a short time after I’d fallen asleep; sometimes I had those magical few hours of rest.

Rest, however, was to become a problem in itself. Now, when I did sleep, I had terrifying, and very vivid nightmares about suffocating, sinking into mud or quicksand, or feeling my body decay into the place where I was lying, now no longer a bed but a fetid swamp or primeval midden. Now and then, I had excruciatingly happy dreams, but this was as poignant as it was pleasing, for the experience was rarely repeated two nights in a row. Meanwhile, I was still suffering from bouts of sleep paralysis/narcolepsy during the day. All at once, as if somebody had thrown a switch, I would drop off at my desk. I ‘fell asleep’ on trains and aeroplanes, or while discussing American poetry or Arne Naess with a student; once I ‘came to’ in the hairdresser’s chair, face to face with a well-groomed stranger. At times, I would hit the ground hard, spectacles and book flying, forehead or coccyx banging on the floor. When this happened, I would only be ‘gone’ for a few seconds and then would be able to hear again, immobilised, silent, helpless. By now, however, the fascination was gone; I felt desperate, vulnerable, gripped in the vice of my darkest imaginings, including the sensation that somebody might come to the house and attack my family while I was unable to protect them (the mind terrorises itself with a dark glee). These hallucinations and fantasies fostered a lingering sense of well-nigh unbearable dread – and it is this lingering dread that has most damaged my long-term morale.

Sometimes, the attacks seemed to strike when I was going to sleep or waking up. Other attacks, innocent of imaginary though wholly convincing horrors, seemed almost benign by comparison, as long as they did not come on in a public arena. These non-hypnagogic spells have lasted from twenty minutes to three and a half hours. While they last, the sense of descent into the swamp is wholly absent, there is no night hag, no succubus. I am simply rendered immobile. Paralysed, but almost fiercely conscious. I think clearly; in fact, I think with a lucidity, and sometimes a creativity, that has become increasingly rare in my ‘normal’ waking condition, when long-running exhaustion plays tricks with my memory, muddles my thinking and more and more frequently leads me into errors that I try hard not to find painfully embarrassing. It should go without saying that this condition of permanent fatigue and frequent muddle exacerbates my usual tendency to avoid social situations. I have always felt easiest in my own company; now, with the possibility that I might fall asleep halfway through a conversation (or worse, the soup course), I find social situations almost unbearable.

If I do go out, however, I find that I want to talk about sleep all the time, rudely quizzing my fellow guests on how well they sleep and how elegantly they dream. There is no bore quite like the chronic invalid who has no story to tell other than a never-ending account of his own malaise; but then, there is no greater solitude, in this life, than that of the narcoleptic. It has even been suggested that the demons and succubae we meet in the dark are terrifying playmates, conjured up to fill what would otherwise be a deafeningly silent void. Sometimes, in company, I have found myself talking only for the evidence a captive audience provides that I am still present and accounted for. In the suspended state endured by the sleeper who, neglected by his personal sandman, never quite reaches the blissful state of REM, it will sometimes feel that any meaningful self has dissipated altogether, leaving nothing but a handful of stale and unenchanted dust.

*

I visited my doctor again this morning, not only because my symptoms have become more difficult to cope with in recent months, but also because this is still an unresolved case, CPAP notwithstanding. Over the last couple of years what started as sleep-related hypertension has become a set of respiratory and cardiac problems (exhaustion, frequent shortness of breath, occasional collapse) that could become, and perhaps already are, life-threatening. Over the last two years, as my GP notes, I have aged considerably. My weight has risen to around 120 kg; I cannot walk to the café near my office without pausing for breath; I often lose my grip on a kettle or a saucepan and stand helpless as it splashes noisily across the kitchen floor. Over the last few months, I’ve had periods when I’ve spent 60 to 70 per cent of any one day in the off-state, usually in bed, often for several days running, drifting in and out of sleep, yet never feeling entirely rested. When I started suffering from cataplectic fits – in which the muscles seem suddenly to fail all at once and the whole body topples to the floor like one of those collapsing wooden toys that used to be in vogue – I thought I was experiencing a new symptom, until I remembered an incident at school when, aged around 15, I got into a fight with another boy after he insulted my favourite teacher. The teacher, Mr Edmunds, sent me away quickly, but halfway along the corridor to French class I had a falling down fit, which I now know was a cataplectic incident. This led to further recollections of physical collapse during sudden surges of extreme and barely justifiable anger on my part. Afterwards I would feel deep shame. Finally, I started to retrieve other memories still: anecdotes in which my sister or my mother claimed to have seen me sleepwalking (having no memory of this, I had simply rejected their testimony); long periods of insomnia when I sat up all night, gazing out at the industrial night above our steel-town estate; an incident when, during a stay in a hotel in Portsmouth, I ‘woke’ to find myself in the bathroom, blood running down my cheek. What was happening? Was my sleep condition a lifelong malaise that had taken different forms over the years, and might still be capable of terrifying and inexplicable transformations? Was this all physical, or was some of it psychosomatic (and was that even a valid distinction)?

Any illness can lead us into superstition and magical thinking if it is not explained, or cured, in a reasonable timeframe. And I would not argue too strenuously if someone were to tell me that what I am about to say, by way of a working conclusion to this still unfinished case-study, sounds like mumbo-jumbo. I will, however, say it, and have done. It is both an unscientific and avowedly fanciful proposal, but I am obliged, by all that I know about myself, to point out that the one great wish I had as a child, my one overwhelming desire, was to disappear. To vanish, quite literally, into thin air. I am not sure why, or on whose behalf, I formed that longing, nor am I sure whether I was thinking about such an event from a worldly point of view (in which I ceased to be present in the realm of others) or from my own perspective (in which ‘I’ carried on in some way, only not as a presence). It may seem fanciful, but this was a strong, genuine and sincere wish that I carried with me for years, even decades, and I thought about it often, but I had no idea how I might accomplish the trick. (It is vital to note here that I am not talking about suicide, which only makes the presence of the deceased heavier and more imposing than before; whatever else it may be, death is not a disappearing act.) All I knew was that to vanish would be to enter another space, another world that was both wildly féerique and palpably real, a realm untroubled by contingency, shame and the pettiness of others. A state of grace.

As I say, mumbo-jumbo – for isn’t this state of grace, this respite from the world, this vanishing, exactly what the sandman is supposed to offer?