The only recurring dream I remember having as a kid was of my house burning down in the middle of the night. In the dream I would wake to flames all around my bedroom window, and firefighters would carry me out of the house with me balancing in the middle of my mattress. I was, quite simply, afraid of large fires, and also of sleeping. I think the idea of sleep causes most children a bit of anxiety, which is why our parents, grandparents, and babysitters read bedtime stories and tuck us in and check for monsters and kiss us goodnight as we clutch our stuffed animals and blankets and do anything to make the ritual easier. Sleep has the potential to bring dreams and sometimes nightmares, neither of which are within our control. I remember sleep causing me a great deal of anxiety as a kid. And with the addition of the typical Texas storms that haunted the otherwise silent nighttime six months out of the year, the whole process was futile.
Luckily, I had an older sister just down the hallway from me who rarely resisted a Sister Sleepover, which almost always included a few rounds of Guess Which Song I’m Humming, a game I remember losing more often than winning. But on nights when I was on my own, I would watch the alarm clock on my bedside table for hours, the neon numbers that glowed onto the lenses of my purple frames. The time passing made me nervous, but I remember taking comfort in the fact that the time seemed to pass slowly late at night as I watched the geometric shapes shift from sixes to sevens and eights and so on until the patterns reset and repeated. And when I think about being a kid, I feel like I was afraid of everything. Sometimes I still feel I am.
I remember my mother recommending various tactics that occasionally helped (I did some serious counting, folks). But at some point, I took matters in my own hands and developed a way of pausing my neurosis just long enough to fall asleep. I would take my pillows, place them where my feet were supposed to be, untuck all of the sheets and covers, and I would sleep backwards on my bed. Maybe someone taught me this and I’m claiming as my own childhood brilliance now. Maybe everyone did this, but I saved if for the most dire of situations, when midnight would turn to 1 AM and my necessary-eight-hours-of-sleep opportunity had long passed. For whatever reason, this usually worked. And when I think about this strange habit now, I imagine it had a lot to do with control; it was something I could alter, something I could change.
The most overwhelming heightened moments of anxiety I’ve experienced in the last couple of years as a young adult align well with the experiences I had as a kid trying to get to sleep at night. And what all of those recent instances had in common was they occurred precisely at a moment in which I completely surrendered control, and the outcome of that moment I irrationally perceived as necessarily dreadful or threatening, when that wasn’t the case at all in the end. As a kid, I would always wake up the next day with no justification for my obsessive anxiety from the night before. But the cycle would often repeat.
As an adult, the fix may not be a simple one, and it may not be a complete fix at all. But I guess all I can do is try to make sense of the mess.
I’ll start small. I’ll place my pillows at the foot of my bed. I’ll rest easily. I’ll be OK. We’ll be OK.