Friday, July 9, 2010

THE MAGIC PILL: Release from Suffering (Two Kinds)

I’m usually a pretty good sleeper. I like to flatter myself that it’s the result of a good conscience, but it’s probably just fatigue. I tend to wake early, and my daytime naps are rare, so by the time ten o’clock at night rolls around, I’m ready to lay my head down on the pillow and close my eyes…

There are times, though, when sleep is not so easy. Even if I manage to fall asleep on cue, I wake early, very early, too early… and my head goes into gear. If it gets an idea and starts to write, woe betide me. I’m not going to get more sleep than night. Thus it happened a couple of nights ago, unusually to both Ellie and myself at the same time. We were awake at four, each mulling over some worry or concern, each aware of the other’s restlessness, so we just got talking. And we talked until six.

It was a good talk, certainly, but we were left deprived of our usual hours of sleep. In such a circumstance, sometimes, very rarely, I’ll take a half an Ambien before bedtime, just to assure myself a full night’s sleep. And as I swallowed down that half an Ambien last night, my mind went rushing back to the memory of the first sleeping pill I ever took…

I was seventeen years old, in my last of twelve years spent at boy’s boarding schools on the south coast of England. There are those, you will surely have heard, who absolutely thrive on this experience; and those who suffer mightily throughout. I was of the latter class, a shy, introspective, private lad, not nearly sharp enough to be one of the untouchable brainy bunch, but not stupid, either. A budding poet, I was an easy tease, and there were those who delighted in sending me off into one of my paroxysms of rage. I suffered from intense body-shame, and dreaded the unavoidable exposure that inevitably followed on the afternoons of compulsory sports—at which I was also the complete duffer.

Life, then, was pretty much agony. But let me not be ungracious: there’s no point, these days, in feeling sorry for that boy. It’s just how it was. And along with the lumps, I was privileged to receive a world-class education, for which I continue to be grateful. Besides, I have heard childhood stories from enough damaged grown men to know that boyhood is not easy for the vast majority of us. It’s just a shame that innocence gets lost along the way.

But that’s not the story here. This is a story about a sleeping pill, about my very last term at school. I had been fortunate, the previous term, to have been selected as an exchange student with a boy of my own age in Germany, and had just returned from three frigid months in a town called Rendsburg in Schleswig-Holstein, the northernmost part of Germany, where I had for the first time experienced a different kind of school—a school from which one returned home to the family every blessed afternoon, and where there girls in the very same class, at the very next desk. I had fallen in love with one of them, though I never had the courage to declare my passion. Her name—I have never told anyone this secret—was Anneliese.

Ah, well… Needless to say, this experience was a revelation to me, and a joyous one, a kind of anticipatory liberation that came just prior to my actually leaving school. I could smoke with impunity, for God’s sake! (At my own school I had to run off and hide behind the bushes to indulge in an addiction acquired already at the age of thirteen.) My German “family” served me beer and wine with dinner! It was paradise… But it came to a sudden end in a near-tragic way. I had been invited to drive out with friends to visit other friends in a neighboring town, and on our return, in the darkness, on an icy road, our driver lost control of the car and it skidded at high speed into a farm tractor.

I was sitting in the front passenger seat—what the Germans referred to jokingly, in those days—perhaps still today?—as the “Todesplatz,” the death seat. When I came to there was blood pouring down over my face onto my overcoat, and my first impulse in that freezing weather was to remove all my clothes to prevent them from getting stained. I was also very upset that my copy of Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems, which I had been holding in my lap, was covered in blood…

I recovered. My wounds, including a cracked skull, proved to be not life-threatening. A few stitches, a few days in bed with my German “mother” spoiling me with her attentions and welcome visits from friends, and I was ready to be sent back to England and, soon thereafter, for the last term, to my own boarding school. (This, I realize, is a very roundabout way of getting to that sleeping pill, but we’ll be there shortly. It’s just around the corner…)

Back at school, I started to suffer from severe headaches. In part, I’m sure, they were due to the car accident in Germany; but in part, I’m equally sure, they had to do with my anguish being back in that old hated territory and with my impatience to be released from what felt more than ever like punitive incarceration. But they resulted in my being transferred, for a few nights, from the regular dormitory, shared with twenty other boys, to the school’s little hospital, the “sanitarium,” where I slept alone in a very small dormitory in which, at the time, not one of the other beds was occupied. And where the school nurse had no one else to lavish her kind attentions on.

She was a kind and generous woman, with whom I immediately fell in love. And perhaps she, a little, with me. It was she who, in response to my complaints about not being able to sleep, brought me that sleeping pill. I have no idea what kind of pill it was. This was back in the early 1950s, and I assume that medications of all kinds were more primitive then. She brought it, almost reverently, like a sacrament, in a small white enamel bowl, with a glass of water, and offered it with a smile. (While I have trouble recalling what happened yesterday, I can still see these details in high relief!) I swallowed it down and remember, from that moment, only the lowering of the light and the swing door closing behind her as she left, and then…

… a blissful, irresistible drifting into the warm tunnel of sleep. I imagine the experience of taking heroin could be something like this—a silent, peaceful drift of consciousness into welcome oblivion, a place whence pain and anxiety are banned, where time and space expand into infinity. I remember it to this day as a suspension of all the unpleasantness of reality, where I had neither the need nor the ability to control the direction of my mind. Simply, suddenly, peacefully, I slipped from wakefulness into sleep.

This was the memory that was triggered last night. What I seek these days, in meditation, is a similar release from suffering… but with the intention of moving, not into oblivion, but further into consciousness, into a sharper awareness of the passing moment’s reality rather than withdrawal from it. Funny, though, that the difference between meditation and medication is no more than a “c” and a “t.”

1 comment:

mandt said...

"I was also very upset that my copy of Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems, which I had been holding in my lap, was covered in blood…" I'm laughing out loud! Isn't amazing our priorities in shock? Absolutely delightful account, even for all the grieving underline of growing up. You have probably read, " A Separate Peace," and then there's another favorite, "Catcher In The Rye."