Lived Through This

Counting Wolves as Sheep

Insomnia, panic, and salvation through poetry

May 3

You finally make it home from work. Something’s wrong and you have no idea what it is. The only way you know how to describe it is that you felt your soul slide halfway out of your body and get stuck there during lunch. To pull it back was impossible. To push it out meant death. Your co-worker didn’t notice, too busy teaching a master class in complaining about his job. The air around you vanished and darkness closed in, as relentless and inescapable as a flood. You would drown if you stayed there, so you excused yourself and walked to the exit while trying to keep it together. You counted your steps to normalize your gait, swinging your arms at the same arc and frequency, keeping your head straight with a phony smile and a cheerful nod to no one and everyone.

Outside, you walked to the nature trail near the building and then ran until your legs ached. Sweat seeped through your starched shirt, turning it patchy with spots two shades darker than the rest. You ran until the darkness receded and you could breathe again. You celebrated how you outran it with a throaty release of exhaustion and fear. You couldn’t tell if it was a laugh or a scream.

Back inside, you learned to avoid elevators and stairwells and small conference rooms. That’s where the shadow people live. They surround you and steal your air. No one else can see them.

At home, your wife asks about your day. You say it was fine. You say you’re not feeling well and have to lie down. You lie awake in bed with your eyes closed for five hours.

May 4

12:30 a.m. You wake and jump out of bed. Something is chasing you. Nothing is chasing you. You sit on the edge of the bed as your chest freezes solid. Your heart still beats in a frenzy, threatening to shatter its enclosure. The coldness creeps down your legs, deadening your nerves. Your wife sleeps peacefully beside you as your bedroom fills with water. It rises and covers her as she sleeps. There is nothing you can do to save her. You can barely save yourself. You leave her to die and run outside. The fresh air helps. The pressure of the water that tried to crush your rib cage subsides. You will not die tonight. You won’t sleep either. You return home hours later.

May 6

You’ve slept 15 minutes in the last three nights. You need a shower, but acute claustrophobia keeps you from stepping into the stall. You cover yourself with cologne and go to work without bathing. Body odor is the least of your concerns.

It takes you 15 minutes to talk yourself into your car. You drive to work over roads you know as well as your own face, but you somehow get lost. You come upon a traffic jam due to construction and it evokes feelings you’d expect if your family was murdered in front of you. This is the worst day of your life. The traffic won’t move. You haven’t prayed in years, but you pray to God for help. You pull into a stranger’s driveway and leave your car. You run for your life. You almost wish wild dogs chased you to justify the feelings. You stop next to a tree and sob uncontrollably. Your chest rises and falls, heaving with convulsions. The emotional release is enough to get you back to your car and you drive the rest of the way to work. No one at work knows what you’ve been through today and they never will.

May 9

Nighttime brings a host of phobias, and sleep is the thing you now fear most. You fear not being able to sleep, and you greet its expected arrival like the final girl would greet the killer in a slasher film. You haven’t had a drink in seven years, but you find yourself slowing down when you drive past liquor stores. You almost enter one until you catch sight of a CVS in the same shopping center. You run into it and buy 10 packs of Benadryl. At home later that night, you pop four of them and lie in bed, praying that sleep will come. Your prayers are answered and you fall asleep. You awaken with your heart pounding and look at your phone. You’ve been asleep for 12 minutes. You will not sleep again tonight.

May 10

You confide in a co-worker about your insomnia and he hands you two Ambien. Later at night, you take both despite the fear that you’ll mow your lawn in your sleep or try to deep fry a turkey. A half-hour after taking them, you feel a mixture of drunk and high. You thank God for creating the inventor of Ambien. You go to bed and awaken 20 minutes later. Again, you will be up all night.

May 20

At 8:00 p.m. you arrive at your parents’ house unannounced. You try to pass it off as a casual visit, but you are there because you remembered your mother had a root canal and was prescribed Percocet. Both your mother and father tell you that you do not look well. You explain that you haven’t been sleeping and would kill to get a couple hours of sleep. You ask your mother if she still has Percocets left. She says she does because she doesn’t like them, that she doesn’t want to become addicted to them. You are so happy to hear this news that you cannot contain your excitement. You ask her if you can have two pills because that should be enough to knock you out for a few hours. She says no. You ask why and she says she doesn’t want you to become addicted. You try to explain that it is impossible to become addicted to Percocets if you only take two pills and have no way to obtain more. She still says no. You tell her that you haven’t slept in three weeks and that you are starting to become fearful about what’s going to happen to you if the insomnia continues. She refuses. You get on your knees, take her by the hand, and beg her to give you the Percocets. She says no more adamantly because you now look like a junkie. You rise and call her a stupid, selfish bitch. Your father kicks you out of the house. You never do sleep that night.

May 24

You find out your wife hid your gun because she is afraid you’re going to kill yourself and she never liked you having it in the first place. She watches as you freak out in the car on the way home from the supermarket after telling you this. She asks how you are feeling and you begin to scream and stomp on the floor. No words, just screams. Then she says the worst thing she could’ve said to you. “Do you want me to take you to the hospital?” Visions of yourself in a straight jacket being sent for surgeries by Nurse Ratched fill your soon-to-be-lobotomized brain. You open the car door as she does 50 miles per hour down Route 309. She pulls over and you run out of the car like you’re in a scene from C.O.P.S. except, as usual, no one is really chasing you. You apologize to your wife profusely.

May 26

Three o’clock in the morning. You leave the house because it has become filled with malice and pain. You cry, thinking how the home you and your wife built together evokes such negative feelings. The house steals your air. Your wife steals your air. Everything steals your air and all have conspired to bring about your death. Everyone is against you. They want to bury you alive so you’ll never breathe again.

May 27 to June 14

Poetry.

Insomniac no more

You finally went to see a psychiatrist who diagnosed you with an acute panic disorder. He explained that you couldn’t sleep because you were having panic attacks while you slept. He says anxiety attacks, by contrast, have a well-understood trigger (fear of public speaking, fear of dogs, fear of roller coasters) and they disappear as soon as the source of the anxiety is removed. With panic attacks, there is no obvious cause. They seem to come out of nowhere, which makes them more frightening. They tend to persist for weeks, or months, or even years.

He prescribed Ativan which broke the insomnia after only two nights.

When you started sleeping again, selective amnesia set in that made it difficult to remember how you felt. You can’t remember the pain. You are at once grateful and disappointed because you wanted to write about it, for yourself, and with the thought that perhaps your story might help someone else. It’s a shame you didn’t chronicle it. You would have, but you were too sick. You couldn’t put two sentences together that made any sense.

Then you realize: You chronicled all of it.

30+ poems

During the time you roamed the streets at 3:00 a.m., you began dictating poetry into your phone. You did it to pass the time, to distract yourself from what was happening to you. You found it helped, so you continued to do it. By the time the insomnia broke, you had written over 30 poems.

You were afraid to read them. You thought they would be garbage. You assumed they’d be depressing as hell. Months later, when you felt more like your normal self, you read them. What you read surprised you. They weren’t depressing at all. Most contained a deep sense of humor, albeit dark, and many were surprisingly hopeful. The most unexpected poem was the one you wrote the night your wife took your gun.

My girl removed the gun
I kept under the bed
When I asked her why, she said,
“You’ll shoot yourself instead.”
She was right.
Now I’m dead.

You remember that night more than any other. That was rock bottom and the experience didn’t match the writing. Or maybe it did.

A year after you recovered, you wrote a poem as a sober take on it:

Empty bottles
Empty tires
Swinging from a pepper tree
A can of gas that didn’t last
A trifle now the engine’s seized
A dusty road that leads you back
To the place you tried to leave
The Lord’s Prayer that left you there
With a sack of dying seeds
Steady streams of blackened thoughts
You pulled out of the fire
Then tried them on, before too long
The cold made them expire
So shut your eyes and shut the blinds
Pull down hard upon the cord
Until it snaps, the last synapse
With madness knocking at your door
Try to sleep
Shallow or deep
But you’ve been counting
Wolves as sheep
The ravenous beasts
Devour sleep
And nevermore calls you on the cheap
And makes you start to wonder when
You’ll ever rest your head again
And ever sleep again
The answer comes,
Never again

That’s depressing.

You met your psychiatrist and told him that writing these stupid poems may have saved your life. He looked at you and said nothing as usual.

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