For several years now, I have struggled with a lack of sleep. It began after my mother’s surgery, when she slept in a hospital bed in my living room, and I would get up several times a night to check on her. It continued after she died, when I would awaken around 3 a.m., most nights, at the precise time my brother had phoned me from Hospice House, to tell me she had taken her last breath.
Most recently, my sleep problem was exacerbated by hormonal changes and numerous hot flushes that came over me in a rush, like a volcano erupting from the inside out. As soon as I fell asleep, it seemed, I awakened, again, in a mire of sweat. I switched the fan on or off, rustled the sheets and covers, fluffed and punched the pillows, until finally, I would give up, and turn on the light. I’d read Facebook posts or emails or news articles about the state of American politics. I worried. I wondered how I was going to function in my stressful social work job the following day. I thought about my son. I watched the hands of the clock creep from 3 to 4 to 5 a.m.
Sometimes, on particularly difficult nights, I would recall the story of the Family That Could Not Sleep. Since the 1700s, most members of this family from Venice have struggled with a condition that hits them at middle age, and prevents them from sleeping at all, no matter what the treatment. Their inability to rest leads them through a series of horrifying stages that includes hallucinations, dementia, and, eventually, death. My brother once told me that no one ever died from lack of sleep, but he was wrong. Sleep deprivation can kill. This is where my mind would take me. By morning time, I would be exhausted, resentful, and overwhelmed. Then I would go to work.
Since I left my stressful job, and moved to the countryside, my sleep problem has lessened, somewhat. I have stopped looking at Facebook and reading political articles on my phone at night. And now that I sleep full time with my husband, who is disturbed by light in the room, I no longer read books or magazines in bed when I wake up. Some nights, I am able to soothe myself back to sleep with deep breathing and practicing gratitude. Yet nothing seems to help for long.
But last night, awakening at my customary time, I came downstairs and picked up a book of Buddhist teachings instead. The teaching was about fear. As I read, I began to understand that the fears I have built up around my sleep issues have compounded the problem a hundred-fold. And for the first time, I felt a sense of spaciousness and calm around it. Perhaps this sleep problem was not the end of the world, I decided. Perhaps I will not end up like the Family That Could Not Sleep, slowly deteriorating into hallucinations and dementia and death. Perhaps I would get through this. I returned to bed, closed my eyes, and drifted into slumber. I still awakened again, several times. But in the morning, I rose peacefully, freed from the usual string of irritation and sadness that runs rampant through my thoughts.
The Buddha teaches that fear of the unknown causes us to grasp and cling and resist the present moment. He says it is the basis of our suffering. We cannot bear to come to grips with the basic fact of impermanence, he says, the reality that everything changes, and that nothing is fixed.
In an effort to prove we are in control, we shore up identities for ourselves, comforted or traumatized by the stories of our childhoods, buffeted by our opinions, soothed by material possessions and the distractions of technology, intoxicants, and sex.
Christianity, too, speaks often of fear. The angel Gabriel tells Mary to “fear not,” and to trust in the life that is about to unfold inside her. Jesus tells his followers not to “worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself.”
The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous speaks also of fear. It tells alcoholics that fear is behind most of our troubles, calling it a soul sickness in its own right. Most spiritual traditions, in fact, speak to the malady of fear. It is a thread that permeates every facet of our human existence.
My mother was often afraid and, as a young girl, I remember being irritated by what I felt to be a weakness in her character. She fretted about money and about my sister and about my dad. She cried often and paced the floor at night. I promised myself that I would not be like her, that I would grow up to be bold, and strong. So I let my fear of weakness govern my life, instead, and it hardened me. In my younger years, I clung desperately to the myth of self-reliance, preferring to stand on my own. In the end, my mask of strength crumpled, and I was forced to ask for help. I could not face the enormity of my sister’s and mother’s illnesses by myself. I had to soften enough to reach for the hands of others. And when I did, those hands were there to hold me up.
One night, after her surgery, I came out to the living room to find my mother quivering in her bed. I pulled the covers over her and made sure she was comfortable, but still, her shaking did not stop. Finally, I asked her what was wrong. “I had a dream I was already gone,” she said. I sat with her, and held her hand, and promised her she was getting better, that the dream was just a dream. I told her she was gaining strength every day. I soothed her with the certainty of my words. I told her she wasn’t ready to die yet.
My mother was trying to talk to me about her fear of death. I wish I had been strong enough, in that moment, to sit with her and her fear, to let her embrace it, and sort through it, with me at her side. I thought I was assuaging her fears, but it was me that was afraid. I could not bear the thought of letting her go. My fear of losing her shut her down, and the moment passed. And she died two weeks later.
The fetter of fear is a chain that binds us in so many ways. It keeps us tethered to a past that no longer serves us. It keeps us steeped in our own opinions and separates us from those who see the world in a different way. It causes us to build up material treasures in an effort to exert control over our future. It keeps us from sharing the most important and intimate parts of our lives with others.
Perhaps our fears will not kill us. But they will stop us from realizing and revealing our most fully human selves. And isn’t that a certain kind of death?