Saturday, May 17, 2008

Dancing in the Dark

I have a friend who's afraid of the dark; if I'm to be truly honest, I have to admit that I'm more than a little (but less than a lot) afraid of the dark myself. Fear of the dark is such a primal fear. I haven't read much about it, but I'm willing to bet that it comes down to fear of vulnerability. In the dark, obviously, we can't see what's coming.  On a practical level, we can't see the saber tooth tigers, the rivaling tribesmen, the home invaders, or the mice until they are already upon us; thus, we are at a terrible disadvantage.  I think that over time, we come to associate the dark with the other, more abstract fears in our lives until the dark represents for us a blackened void in which to obsess about our greatest fears.

I think the dark is a little easier for me as an adult who makes her own hours than it was for a child who was annoyingly reminded to turn out the light and go to sleep. I remember at 8, 9, and 10 getting up to check on my sister, 7 years younger, who suffered from asthma. I fell asleep in her doorway while I lay listening to her breathe. When she was older, I often woke her up by diabolically asking her "if she was afraid" and then set about convincing her that she should be so that she would come sleep in my room with me. I don't remember what my fears were then, but I'm sure chief among them was the fear of death.  Having seen my sister hospitalized with pneumonia at 1 and taken numerous times to the emergency room for asthma attacks was my first acquaintance with mortality.  I was aware that it was possible to lose the people in my life, and my night waking subconsciously helped me to safeguard them.

As an adolescent, I remember staying up late reading (often Stephen King - no wonder I had issues) until I fell asleep with the light on. I remember reading in the bathroom in the early hours of the morning. I lost a grandmother and a grandfather and another grandmother, and my fear of mortality was strong.  I struggled with adolescence and spent a lot of my evening hours fearing myself - who I was and who I would become.  In college, I don't think there was much darkness to sleep in. There were always roommates and suite mates and people returning at strange hours and hall lights and long nights studying. It was strangely peaceful.  There was no opportunity to be afraid; there was no darkness. Then, during my junior year, in my tiny, quiet, peaceful school, a female student was attacked in her bed by a man from the local town. The next year, a young woman was attacked walking home from the library, and I learned that darkness is a relative term. What was to be feared then was not the darkness in my room as I tried to sleep, but the darkness of a jaded world that forced its way into my life. The bogeyman was not in the closet or under the bed, but in the shadows as I moved about the world at night.

After college, I lived alone until I was 33 years old. I lived in apartments in dormitories so I was always surrounded by people. Much like college, the buildings didn't have to be dark, and I liked that. In my own space, however, I avoided the darkness. I read at night until I literally fell asleep with the light on and a book over my face. A few hours later, I woke up enough to realize I was completely exhausted and then turned off the light. If I chose not to turn out the light, then I was perceived as an overly competent dorm parent who watched over her charges all night. Who were my bogeymen then? Sometimes they DID live in the closet or under the bed. Sometimes they were cancers waiting to seep into my cells. Sometimes they were visions of being alone for the rest of my life. Sometimes they were voices inside of me who really didn't like who I was. It was comforting to have other people living around me, but my bogeymen could always find their way in.

Living with my husband and sharing my bed with another human being has helped me forge a better relationship with the darkness; however, it also brings an unwillingness to drag him into my depths. I can no longer fall asleep reading, and it is no longer acceptable to sleep with the light on. Occasionally, when he was out at night, and I was home alone, he returned to find me asleep, in bed, with every light in the house blazing. On the few nights when the bogeymen sneak in, I am no longer content to lie in bed, heart pounding, hiding from them. Now I get up, go to another room, and read. It's a little like falling asleep with a book except that I have to get back up and find my way to bed. Having a baby also changed my relationship with the dark. When you have to get up between 1 and 4 times a night, you want to do it in a way that interrupts everyone's night as little as don't want the baby to be tricked into thinking it's daylight, and you want to be able to get back to sleep as quickly as you can because you don't GET a lot of sleep. Despite profound sleep deprivation, I did enjoy quite a few nights of rocking Duncan in the dark. So, I'm often too tired to be afraid of the dark, but sometimes they still get me, those bogeymen. Now they don't lurk outside my window but my son's. They are registered sex offenders who sell crack at the playground in downtown Amenia. They are drunk drivers who barrel into school buses. They are defective smoke detectors. They are men with the power to detonate weapons of mass destruction. They are leukemia, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, global warming, autism, and MRSA. Whereas they used to be everything that had the power to hurt me, they now hold the power to rip from me the people I love most.

And so, my night-fearing friend, I wish I could tell you that your fear of the dark will go away, but I can't. I don't know if there are treatments or reinforcement schedules or therapies that can cure us. What I can tell you is that it's a lot easier to get through the night when you aren't alone. And alone is a figurative term. Sure, it's easier with someone else in the bed (who sleeps on the side closest to door so the bogeymen will get him first while you jump out the window). But it's also easier when you know there are people you really COULD call at 2 am if you were truly desperate, and when you start to collect a little group of insomniac friends you can IM when you can't sleep. Most importantly, though, it's a little easier to get through the night when you wrap yourself in the collective good thoughts of the people who know, care about you, and love you the most.
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