A BREATHLESS SLEEP

WRITTEN BY WILLIAM NEIN
William Nein is a London-based songwriter, documenting the world around him through music, writing and photography.

You can listen to William's albums here: https://williamnein.bandcamp.com
Photos By William Nein
William Nein is a London-based songwriter, documenting the world around him through music, writing and photography.

You can listen to William's albums here: https://williamnein.bandcamp.com
Music By William Nein
William Nein is a London-based songwriter, documenting the world around him through music, writing and photography.

You can listen to William's albums here: https://williamnein.bandcamp.com
A Breathless Sleep

The above song, “Seagulls” is written and performed by William Nein and is referenced throughout his story. We suggest listening to the song after reading the piece.

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In my late teens, there was a week in which I couldn't sleep for longer than an hour or so without waking up unable to breathe. For insomniacs, this length of time could seem enviable, but for me, the stress of the event still leaves me feeling anxious and slightly shaky.

The first time it happened, I remember sitting bolt upright in bed, alone, and trying to breathe in with nothing happening. I must've thought I was choking. I certainly remember not being able to make a sound. I remember running into the bathroom, crashing into doors and leaning over the toilet bowl as if I were vomiting: that feeling of sickness where you are certain you will die; that you are sorry for everything and pray; where you promise you'll be a better person if you manage to survive this.

What would I repent? Procrastinating too much; not doing enough; creating enough; living enough without fear; not helping people as much as I possibly could; expressing myself to its fullest degree. I feel that a constant state that I live in is one where I’m just too afraid to really be myself whatever that may be in that moment. That the judgement from others would be too severe, rightly or wrongly. That I will be punished by people for expressing who I feel I ‘truly’ am inside. People's views are often too simplistic and narrow. It's both a disappointment for them and for me when people can't be more understanding to the full spectrum of human emotion and action. I will often hide wider aspects of myself when I realize they cause friction or discomfort to others, restrict my persona to characteristics that will be accepted by a larger society because of the need to ‘fit in’, even though I revere the use of free expression, somewhat jealously, in others. It’s a double-bind as my need to express and my fear to do so are products of my own mind, fighting each other.

I WILL OFTEN HIDE WIDER ASPECTS OF MYSELF WHEN I REALIZE THEY CAUSE FRICTION OR DISCOMFORT TO OTHERS, RESTRICT MY PERSONA TO CHARACTERISTICS THAT WILL BE ACCEPTED BY A LARGER SOCIETY BECAUSE OF THE NEED TO ‘FIT IN’.

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I'm not sure how long it took before my body was able to vomit out some of the air in its lungs and get its first tiny breath in, but unfortunately as soon as it did I was stuck without oxygen again. It was only when I could breathe out enough to take one or two lungfuls of air, our first act when we are born, did my body begin to remember the rhythm of 'in-and-out', and, shaking and confused, I sat there on the ground. Either somebody heard me and came to see what was wrong or I went to go and tell someone, whilst shivering, what had just happened. I'm not sure really.

I don’t remember if it happened again that night or not—my feeling is that it probably did once more before I learned my lesson and stayed awake. It was a catch-22 (coincidentally my favourite book at the time): I could neither sleep without fear nor live without sleep. A cycle I could never escape. All I could do was hope that if, and when, I did indeed fall asleep that my body could heal itself enough to ease the torturous cycle.

The following morning I went to the doctor to find out what could have caused the attack. After a while of waiting I was told somewhat tentatively it must be an adult form of croup and as it was unusual, there wasn't much they could do, just come back if it happens again. I wasn't too happy with facing another night of waking up in a panic-stricken terror but if there was nothing to be done, then I guess I would just have to wait and see.

I sat in the kitchen, day two or three, with the grill on to make some toast, awake, but must've fallen asleep as the toast was burning when I next looked at it. I discarded the charred slices of bread and tried again, this time not allowing myself a moment of lack of concentration. My brain functions were definitely slower than usual (I’m not the quickest to start with) and I can only imagine the fuzziness around the edges, the lapses in concentration, are what many people experience whilst on certain forms of medication. I felt that a large part of my brain was 'missing'.

It's a strange feeling to be so desperate for sleep, and to need it so much, and yet be aware that if you fall asleep for just a moment you are agreeing to waking up in a breathless terror. I tried out different pillow configurations, I mostly attempted to sit upright so that if I did fall asleep it may help in some small way, lessen the effect on my windpipe of breathing at a horizontal angle. Ultimately, after three visits to the doctors and four days since the first attack, it was being given a steroid inhaler for asthma that actually eased my symptoms.

The effect was unbelievable. It felt like I could instantly breathe without wheezing again. The fear of a nighttime attack was still there, but eventually I fell asleep, and woke up again without incident. It was probably the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had. To feel a sense of accomplishment of getting through an evening of sleep is something that many will not have felt, but to those who have it is surely a most ecstatic experience, and that you wouldn't be heralded for doing so can seem almost criminal.

In the following years I have, correctly or incorrectly, diagnosed myself with sleep apnea—something I believe I inherited from my father. I remember how my father used to breathe whilst asleep: a sharp intake of breath, followed by a prolonged silence, and then an equally sharp exhalation which could be quite disturbing at times. I've been told I often do the same and the effect can be that the brain, and the rest of the body, may not get enough oxygen. It could be that I've never experienced a fully satisfactory night's sleep which is why I am almost always tired no matter how much or little sleep I've had.

IT COULD BE THAT I'VE NEVER EXPERIENCED A FULLY SATISFACTORY NIGHT'S SLEEP WHICH IS WHY I AM ALMOST ALWAYS TIRED NO MATTER HOW MUCH OR LITTLE SLEEP I'VE HAD.

I never thought of my father as a tired person, however. He would wake around 7/7:30am, be out the house within an hour and work a full day until 6pm as a car mechanic, the owner of his own business, often ending the evening at the local pub. Other than the sleeping habits we shared a certain dependency on alcohol. For me it’s to give myself energy to be able to be productive at a social or creative level, but I don’t know if it was the same for him. He always seemed more at ease around people than I feel I am, but maybe he just had a few more years on me in terms of hiding himself. He got cancer when I was 14, so that would have made him 56 or 57. He probably would’ve been a lot older when he finally showed any symptoms but there was one twist of life that made it all that more sardonically cruel. Whilst he was giving blood to my aunt who had leukemia, the doctors had to take the blood from his body, replicate the cells and then put the blood back into him. The platelets were then extracted from him and given to my aunt. This in effect poisoned my aunt and replicated the undetected cancer cells within my father. My aunt died soon after. My father lived with cancer for eight years. A remission of three or so years was a nice reprieve. He had to sell his business and was unable to do the things he dearly loved, fixing and building things. The upside to all of this was that I actually got to know my father, picking me up for weekly visits to my parents’ house, driving in the car for one or two hours listening to music and chatting.

Some of my favourite memories are of us drinking together till late in the evening with him recalling his childhood memories of being a kid in the 50s, quiffs and ducktails, being attacked by fellow schoolkids with flick knives. He told me he and his friends always stuck up for the kids that were being bullied. I admired him for that.

I’m not sure how scared he was when he had to face up to his mortality. If he ever woke up in the middle of the night unable to breathe, or had similar repentant thoughts to the ones I had choking at the toilet bowl. Whether he worked through all the things he did or didn’t do, the regrets of losing contact with his two daughters from a previous marriage. He didn’t talk about it to me, whether he was too proud, or simply didn’t know how to talk to about it, I’m not sure. The only insight I was given was on his deathbed when he sat bolt upright with a terrified look on his face as if something was behind him, touching him on the shoulder. All we could do was comfort him as best we could, and love him for all that he was.

At the moment of his passing I was the only one left with him in the room. I heard his last breath and when his eyes inevitably opened after death I was the one to close them. In that moment of peace the first sound to catch my attention was of the seagulls outside swooping and squawking. It’s always stayed with me because “Seagulls” was his favourite song of mine, a song which was ultimately about living as fully as possible, of accepting your own mortality and not letting it restrict you, partially based on Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. Almost like a hidden, silent code between us. It was also the song I was asked to play at his funeral.

Nowadays to sleep I almost nightly listen to binaural beats to block out intrusive thoughts and recurring thought patterns. Two different frequencies of pure tones, one in each ear, which help me fall into a meditative, trancelike state. In today’s world we are so bombarded with input that it’s hard to keep a hold of the calm that we so desperately need to keep in tune with our body’s needs, to keep up-to-date with our own existence. I feel that if our mind falls behind what our body may be feeling it can create a subconscious state of anxiety and fear which may then often reveal itself in more physical forms. Depending on how much light is in the room I may wear a makeshift blindfold to limit sensory input; and purely for comfort I have a palm-sized stone I found on a beach a few years ago whilst on holiday with my mother and uncle, which I hold in my hand. I have since researched that comfort stones are a common and ancient phenomenon in which they are seen to absorb negative energies and relieve worry and stress.

I hope to never have to relive the nights of waking up not being able to breathe. I always appreciate a good night’s sleep, and dreaming is a favourite pastime of mine. My ultimate goal is that when I finally have to face the end that I will have as few regrets as I possibly can. That the silent agreement between myself and my father that we shared within "Seagulls" will be a promise unbroken. To live with as little fear as one can and to face death with as much acceptance as possible, whatever the last sleep may bring.

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