July 15, 2017

Sleeping Through the Fear

The older I get, the more I understand things about my childhood that always baffled me.

It's taken a long time for some of these things to reveal themselves to me, though. I guess it takes a lot of living a different kind of life in a very different place to comprehend how those events that happened decades ago could lead me to where I am right now.

Sometimes, those revelations are just a vindication that I'm not crazy—that something I remembered happening could've, indeed, actually happened, and that there's a name for it and other people have actually experienced it.

I'll never forget the day a friend of mine confessed that her mother always treated her like the other woman when it came to her dad.

I felt exactly the same way.

There are other instances like that, those that have rocked my emotional world and sharpened the focus of my misty, tear-soaked memories, but I'll have to save those for another blog post on another day.

The thing that's on my mind right now is the concept of the "fear nap."

I read an article this morning that, in pretty clear scientific terms, explained how a person's "flight" response can be so strong that whatever stress they're under at the time can literally put them to sleep.

Of course, the most obvious example of my childhood flight response was the fact that I used to pass out and have convulsions under the slightest duress—in church, at the doctor's office, in my parents' bathroom while getting a bandage changed.

I even conked out once after having slipped and fallen on a wood floor that had just been waxed. I found it to be so slippery, in fact, that it might as well have been glossed over by a Zamboni.

Afterwards, my mother found me unresponsive in the living room chair, my eyes rolling to the back of my head.

Those instances can be pretty easily explained—as they were by a neurologist who, on the suspicion that I might be epileptic, gave me an EEG and determined that I suffered instead from vasovagal syncope.

That is, I was just a fainter.

I'd swoon at the sight of my own blood or at the feeling of a vaccine injection running down the veins in my arm. I was susceptible to blood pooling, the same thing that happens to military cadets who stand at attention for extended periods of time without flexing their leg muscles.

It's depicted in movies enough to seem relatively normal—like when the damsel in distress gets "the vapors" and is roused by the smell of camphor. Of course, I suppose it's not that normal, though, for it to happen to a prepubescent child who doesn't happen to be wearing a corset.

Regardless, as familiar a scene as it may be, suddenly losing consciousness is not the same as falling asleep.

And that's something I remember happening to me, too.

Sleep was almost always an issue for me as a kid. I had terrible insomnia in the days when my mother sent me and my sister to bed way too early—way earlier than our classmates or our cousins and, during the summer, before the sun had even set.

I'd lie there in my bed for hours, sniffling through my tears, not stifling them enough to keep my sister from telling me to shut up. Often, I wouldn't fall asleep until after I heard my parents go to bed.

And then, predictably, getting up in the morning was traumatic. At the time, I didn't know anything about circadian rhythms, but I knew that, for whatever reason, my body just refused to keep that schedule.

So, earlier in my life, my parents blamed my behavioral problems on me being "overtired." And it's true that I was tired.

But the solution was not to set an even earlier bedtime—a suggestion I protested vehemently.

My behavior, however, told my parents otherwise. In the inevitable fights that would ensue, usually with my mother, and the tears that would follow, I'd get so stressed out and so hysterical that I'd stop everything and start to yawn.

I probably could've fallen asleep right there, if my mother hadn't still been screaming or smacking me around.

"See?!" she'd yell, wagging her dishpan finger at me. "You're overtired!"

And so she'd try to get me to take a nap—something that felt more like she was getting rid of me (or imprisoning me in my own bedroom) rather than trying to help me. If I managed to fall asleep at all in the middle of the day, especially on those summer afternoons when the window fan blew only hot air, it would just make my insomnia at bedtime even worse.

My body didn't need sleep, per se. It needed an escape.

According to the article, you might get the urge to nap when your brain is working so hard that its supply of glucose gets depleted—and, of course, it's glucose that normally fuels your energy levels.

Although it's not officially a medical diagnosis, it's something that happens most often to children.

Of course, I've been known to fall asleep under other stressful circumstances even in my adult years—something that never made much sense unless I was narcoleptic (which the sleep study I did determined I'm not).

There were times in my heavy partying days in New York City when I'd go home with some stranger and our encounter wouldn't go so well—falling somewhere in the "gray zone" between consent and assault—and yet I'd fall asleep beside the culprit instead of gathering my things and heading for the hills.

I've sat in the passenger seat of a Jeep or some other all-terrain vehicle that's been climbing steep hills and rounding hairpin turns along a mountain ridge, and while the driver was kept wide awake by his white knuckles, I uncontrollably snoozed next to him.

After my car accident three years ago, when I was at one of the lowest points in my life, I couldn't stay awake. Sure, maybe it was the physical stress of recovering from head trauma and whiplash—but I suspect now that it was more about having just lost a job and dealing with the resulting financial crisis. Or that, coupled with the fact that a past love got married to someone else.

But this flight response wasn't just my body playing possum—it was a "time out" that my body forced on me.

If this is indeed what's been happening to me my whole life, I'm actually grateful for it. Because there's a reason why, when we've got a decision to make, we "sleep on it."

I woke up one morning and somehow over the course of my night's sleep had figured out how to mount a bike rack to my car—a seemingly simple task that had baffled me before sleeping on it.

And I like to sleep on what I've written so I can read it the next day and make sure it actually works.

Sometimes the sleep—whether it's a full night's or just a nap—will change my perspective entirely and inspire a revision I would've never thought of, had I not allowed myself to lose consciousness.

Related Posts:
Fight or Flight
Under a Sleepy Surveillance
Dancing With the Fear
Driving Through the Fear

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