What keeps a lot of kids up a night is the fear of a monster under the bed or in the closet. The sounds an old house makes can distress even the bravest child. But what if what kept you up at night was the best thing that ever happened to you? That is what happened to Sound Effect contributor Arwen Nicks. She explores her sleepless nights in this essay:
I had had a normal evening, homemade burritos with my girlfriend, talking about our days, her new students as a music teacher, something I read, something she heard, 1.25 episodes of “The Good Wife” and up we go to brush our teeth with the matching Sonicare toothbrushes that she bought us two Christmases ago.
And as we got into bed, things were calm. My girlfriend reached for me and when her hands touched my skin I said, “Jesus, Jennifer. Have you been juggling ice cubes again?” And we laughed a quiet bedtime laugh, and I wrapped her cold arms around me and we fell asleep.
But three hours later, I woke up choking. There was a weight on my chest. I shot up in bed gasping for air. My face was wet with tears and sweat. It felt like I had woken up inside of a panic attack.
And panic attacks I’d had before, but never had I woken up in the middle of one. Never had I forgotten how to breathe because I was crying so hard in my sleep. But that night, there was this fear surrounding me. It wasn’t in the air; it was the air. It was a fear of death.
I know that everyone dies. I know that you will die; I will die; your dog will die; your mailman will die; children die. We all die. I know that now and I knew it then.
I’ve lost people. Jared died after being hit by a drunk driver; Jessica overdosed in a hospital and Grandma Carmel died from cancer, in her bed as my father and I held her hands and listened to her death rattle.
I’ve been in bad car wrecks, had guns pointed at my face. I’ve seen death. But it had never quite felt like this. There was something about this that felt more honest than anything I’d ever felt before, like the purest form of truth, the kind that takes no note of personality.
After a few hours, I was able to fall back asleep. And the next day I was tired and had an emotional hangover, but I was fine. And that evening was fine; that night was fine, with Jenn’s cold hands wrapped around me; I was fine and I fell asleep.
But it happened twice that night. The crying, drowning, as if air isn’t what you breathe anymore, or this isn’t air at all.
And it kept happening. I’d wake up more often each night, sleep less, ponder my own mortality and the weight of what it means to just die — to cease to be.
I started to research it. I found an article about a man that hasn’t slept in five years —hypnophobia, sleep fear, fear of falling asleep — because you think you might die in your sleep, or just have an overwhelming fear of death.
It was nine nights after I had a name for it that I was at the point where I started to fear the ritual of going to bed, because I knew what was coming.
Three weeks in, I started seeing a therapist.
I finally told Jenn about my death panic. She said, “Just wake me up and I’ll hold you.” And I did and she did and it didn’t help at all. But it didn’t hurt either.
It was easy to ignore the idea of my inevitable disappearance from the mortal coil during the day; I work a lot. But at night, when the credits were over and our teeth are clean, I was pure fear.
The logical part of me started to wonder if something was really wrong. What if there was a disease? What if there was a problem in my body and this was my brain’s way of alerting me? What if this death terror was actually a helpful alarm?
I went to the doctor with a list of symptoms including times and dates. She took blood and ran tests and those lead to more tests.
She sent me for an ultrasound, MRI and CT.
It wasn’t adrenal cancer. That was their main concern.
They said, “Come back in six months so we can rule out a brain tumor.”
You’d think getting inconclusive test results about a possible brain tumor would be stressful, but I sleep like a baby that night.
Four months into this saga, I went to dinner with my friend Nicole. I told her about the unsettling and yet to be settled test results and the fear that got me there, the panic attacks at night. After long descriptions over risotto neither of us could afford, she looked at me and said, “Yeah, that makes sense; you’ve never been happy before.”
Forks down, she went on to explain how things changed for her when she met her husband, the surge of mortality she felt after she had her daughter. She said, “You’re happy Arwen; this is what wanting to live feels like.”
And maybe it sounds silly because you’ve just listened to me tell this whole story, but I’ve never thought of myself as someone suffering from depression.
When I had a gun pointed at my face, or the bad car wrecks, they scared me, but I wasn’t afraid of death; I was afraid of getting hurt.
I wasn’t afraid of death until I met Jenn — until matching Sonicare toothbrushes, 1.25 hours of “The Good Wife,” the laughing, the dancing and the way her face looks every morning.
I’m terrified of the fact that one day it will end — and one day it will.
And that brings us to today. It has been nearly nine months since that first panic.
And now when the panic does happen, which is more than half the nights, it happens just before I fall asleep. And I seize, my muscles go tense and I try to calm my breathing.
Jenn can feel it and she pulls me close and she whispers, “You won’t die tonight — and you won't die tomorrow.” And then she squeezes me and says, “And I won’t die either.”
This story originally aired on Jan. 14, 2017