When I was in my late twenties, I received a call from a man with an unfamiliar voice. “Hi. How’re you doing?”
“Fine,” I replied warily. “Excuse me, but who am I speaking with?”
“You don’t know me, but I know you.”
“I can see you from here. Through the window.”
I glanced worriedly at the window and retreated a few steps into the room. “Who are you?”
“Just somebody who’s keeping an eye on you. Somebody waiting.”
I hung up. Then I freaked out. I freaked out so much that it triggered what would have been called a nervous breakdown in my parents’ time — what happened to my mother after a small stroke took out the aural nerve in her left ear, the one we would henceforth refer to as her ‘bad ear.’ Apparently sensory loss can trigger just such a breakdown, although nobody labeled it as such at the time — Mom diagnosed it herself decades later. I remember that period as a dark time during which Mom repeatedly scared the Be-Jesus out of seven-year-old me with unnecessarily vivid descriptions of nuclear winter while obsessively drawing up plans to transform our coal cellar into a bomb shelter.
But that was her nervous breakdown.
This was mine.
The man never called again and there was nothing to suggest that catalyst for my distress was anything more than a random crank call. It didn’t matter. The four horsemen of my personal Apocalypse had left the barn and were busy laying waste to my inner landscape. I sprung to action, planting giant trash bags stuffed with crumpled up newspaper in the hall between the living room and our bedroom – so that I could hear the man who was watching, waiting as he came — and littering the window sill of the bathroom with shards of broken glass — so that he would cut himself as he struggled to crawl through the narrow space.
What about my then partner, the guy in the bed beside me? The trouble was, I had his number. The previous summer, while we were out for stroll in Rome, he decided to stare down a large and menacing dog lying in the middle of an alley. When the dog, ocularly provoked, lumbered to its feet — hackles high, tail held stiff and still — and advanced towards us with a low growl, my partner gasped and, seizing me by my waist, interposed me between him and the dog. I had little doubt that, were some threatening stranger to arrive unannounced in our bedroom, his response would be to pull the bedclothes up to his chin and launch into a WASP rendition of “Take my wife! No, really, take my wife!”
I became a chronic insomniac, falling asleep without much difficulty only to wake like clockwork at two a.m. when I would listen for the man who had called me to arrive. Listen and listen until I had worked myself into enough of lather that my only recourse was to troop off to the kitchen to sit, slumped and despondent, before a bottle of brandy.
This went on for months.
It didn’t help that I had the most boring job in the world and one which combined extreme tedium with a need for great precision – editing scholarly articles for an academic journal in an office shared with a chain-smoking Mennonite. Imagine trying to focus your attention on an article about commerce between Luca and Pisa in the fourteenth century on three hours sleep. Now add a perpetual haze of second-hand smoke. Think Peking.
Eventually I went to a doctor, who prescribed sleeping pills. When I became pregnant with my first child, however, he took me off the pills and handed me, instead, a relaxation tape and a sheet of stickers.
The stickers consisted of affirmations — things like, “I have a calm center,” “I feel at peace with myself and the Universe,” and “Breathe.” These I stuck on mirrors and cabinet doors around the apartment. The tape — produced in California and very New Age, complete with mooney recorder music — led me through a series of relaxation exercises, culminating in a visualization. I was told to envision someone I trusted to whom I would give a list detailing all my worries and concerns, confident that this person would keep it safe for me while I slept. I envisioned my mother. Not only did I trust her implicitly, but Mom was not one to let things go. Ever.
With time, I overcame my insomnia. I stopped being afraid of the man who never came, I left the man I couldn’t trust to protect me and married one I could and, while it’s true that I still wake up at around 2 a.m. most nights, I can, with very few exceptions, go back to sleep by conjuring up my mother and handing her my litany of woe, knowing that it will be returned to me in the morning in its entirely, unaltered and un-redacted.
Conversely, I pretend that the person keeping me awake is not me, but a super annoying person named Leonard, who just won’t stop yammering on about his lame-ass problems and his baseless fears. “Now, Leonard,” I say firmly. “Your entire life you’ve woken up in the middle of the night and worried about money and whether you’re going to make it through and have you ever ended up on the street? Have you? Have you ever really suffered or done without? No. No, you haven’t. So, put a sock in it and go to f’n sleep!”