Very few people know true insomnia. And, as luck would have it, I am one of the chosen few. I have gone as long as 48 hours without being able to fall asleep. When I do finally sleep, it is very hard for me to wake up. And when I say hard, I mean really, really hard. At least a few times a week, I dream that I have awakened when I am actually still asleep.
Through necessity, I have become accustomed to this sleep/awake state. Accustomed, but not comfortable. It makes me question what is real. It’s hard to describe the way this sleep disorder makes me feel. Not being able to sleep for long periods of time completely alters my reality. Time slows down. I am unsure of what’s happening around me – am I awake or dreaming? The lines are completely blurred. Sometimes I have thought I have done things when I have actually just dreamed them. Many times I have thought that I have done something in a dream, but I was actually awake the whole time This makes it nearly impossible to wake me up early and be able to function in the morning . Sometimes I do things and then have zero recollection of them later – I did them in some kind of sleep/wake state. A place between the unconscious and the conscious.
However, I have found that there is one famous (infamous?) literary character who, at one unforgettable point in her life, seems to epitomize my all too frequent sleeping reality. And that is Lady Macbeth. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not comparing my illness to Lady Macbeth’s evil ambition. I have no hidden desire to be a cold blooded murderer. I do not have blood on my hands, or even dream of having blood on my hands. And I certainly do not want to contribute to the media’s inaccurate, dangerous stereotyping of the mentally ill. But Shakespeare’s depiction of her sleepwalking scene in Macbeth is the closest thing I have found to my insomniac experience.
In act 5 scene 1 of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth begins to sleepwalk. She is haunted by the murders she has committed. Her past is inescapable even in her dreams. In one of the play’s most famous passages, she cries out:
Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!—One; two: why, then
’tis time to do’t.—Hell is murky.—Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier, and
afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our
pow’r to accompt?—Yet who would have thought the old man to
have had so much blood in him?
On the outside in her waking life, Lady Macbeth is calm, cool, and collected. She is ruthless and emotionless. She is capable of holding her humanity inside her. But when she sleeps, whatever conscience she has left emerges. Her true self is exposed. There are no lies in the dream world. Lady Macbeth is convinced she has blood on her hands that cannot be washed off. She says this while sleepwalking, but to her, in this moment, it is her reality.
This is often what happens with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD does not discriminate among innocent victims, noble warriors, or evil power seekers. On the outside, sufferers often seem perfectly functional and put together, while on the inside – in their unconscious – they are anything but. It’s as if they are wearing a mask. In the past, I have had a number of people tell me that I seem very independent, appear indifferent to what others think of me, and have everything together. This was always surprising because on the inside I was a complete mess. Nighttime has always been the hardest for me. It’s when the truth rears its ugly head. I can no longer hide beneath my mask. Many times I am not sure if I am awake or I am dreaming. I hear, see, or believe things that are not true of this conscious reality. Lack of sleep puts me in a different reality – an unconscious reality and it feels just as real as the one I am in right now. Lady Macbeth and I inhabit a different plane, and often for the same reason – the past.
I have yet to be able to escape my past or put it to rest. Post traumatic stress disorder is a hell of disease. Mix that with my severe insomnia and I have a cocktail practically built for psychosis. I experience hypnogogic hallucinations – a kind of waking dream. Sometimes I believe I’m fourteen again, trapped in a small space. When I eventually come out of this state, I know it was “just a dream”. But does that mean that my experiences in this state should be treated as such? Do they mean more? Should I treat them as if they were real?
I don’t yet have the answers to my questions. But I keep looking. I am living in gray area, where it is sometimes hard to know or remember what is real and what is dreamt. The lines are blurred and I can’t see clearly, even when awake. Reality is murky to the insomniac. In the daylight, I am ok but when the sun sets it’s another story. Too often I feel like I am caught in my own little hell. Lady Macbeth expresses the same shared sentiment with the words, “Hell is murky.” (Although, for her, it seems more a case of poetic justice.)
Appearances can be deceptive. Someone may seem to have everything together, when, in reality, they are hanging on by their fingernails. Masks can protect, but can also isolate. So try not to be too quick to judge those around you by first, or even second, impressions. You can never know what really happens to them when the sun goes down and the mask comes off.