Night of the living dread
When I was 16 or so, our high school sent the students from my year level to a motivational presentation in a nearby town. (Some of my former classmates may remember this; it was in Bairnsdale, next to the big church)
Their message seemed to be “live life to fullest and put yourself out there”. Cos, you know, hormone-charged teenagers are known for living life in the slow lane. The first thing they did was ask if somebody wanted to come up in front of everyone to dance. I was the sole volunteer; everyone already knew I was nuts, so I had no dignity to bruise, and I figured it might be fun. If you’ve never seen me dance, imagine a guy trying to swat away a swarm of mosquitoes while having a live wire stuck up his bum. Or one of those flailing inflatable tube men they put outside car dealerships. The guy presenting said “he’s a terrible dancer, but at least he had a go.” Well, Mr Mystery Man, I’ll have you know that dancing won me awards, notoriety, free drinks and makeouts at University. Checkmate, good sir.
Later, however, in an attempt to impress upon us our mortality and how every day is precious, he told us a story about a friend of his, whose 16 year old healthy son died in his sleep. It still blows my mind that they thought this would be a good idea, as I’m sure I’m not the only one who didn’t sleep that night.
Problem was, it didn’t stop there. That was 9 years ago, and not a single night has passed since then that I haven’t been at least a little frightened of going to sleep, for fear that I won’t wake up. See, the thing about OCD and autism is that they’re like mischievous little brats, always looking for some way to cause trouble. Any little thing my brain could use to frighten me, it latched onto, like the brain of a Uni student latching onto ways to procrastinate.
The situation took a nosedive after my Dad passed away in his sleep when I was 19. This seemed to validate my fears, transforming them from theoretical to terrifyingly real. For the next year after that, which was my first year at University, I don’t think a single night passed without me having to call Mum before bed so she could assure me that no, I was not going to die in my sleep, no, my stomach ache was not an imminent heart attack, and no, my headache wasn’t a precursor to a stroke.
Being terrified of sleeping makes keeping a regular daily schedule rather difficult. Because it took me so long to get to sleep every night, I would frequently sleep in and miss classes and lectures. I would try to get by on as little sleep as possible, only for fatigue to make my waking hours miserable, and eventually cause me to burn out and end up sleeping for twelve hours straight.
It wasn’t just fear of heart attacks or stroke either; I checked if my door was locked a dozen times before bed, imagining some murderer breaking in and going Jack the Ripper on me.
What scared me was that if something happened while I was awake, I could do something about it. Sleep, however, meant hours on end of being helpless and vulnerable; anything could happen.
Thankfully, over the last few years, I’ve gotten more experienced at coping with my OCD, which in combination with improved treatment has significantly loosened its hold on me.
As a result, I’ve been able to dam the nightly flood of terror, reducing it to more of a trickling anxiety that only occasionally overflows. I’ve weaned myself out of the habit of having to phone my mother every night before bed, and besides a few hiccups I’ve managed to keep to regular sleep cycle for several months now, though I still set my alarm for a few hours before I have to get up, just so I won’t be asleep for too long at a time. OCD habits die hard.
Will the fear ever go away completely? I don’t know. What I do know is that its been declining for the last 5 years. In 2009 there was nothing that scared me more; now, most days, it ranks just above “are we out of toilet paper?” and “did my save file on Donkey Kong Country get deleted?”