Over the last year, I’ve developed a deep intimacy with sleep: I slept soundly in a hospital bed, my skull gently throbbing with staples, only waking in the middle of the night to take vitals. Then, I slept in my parent’s house, feeling safe alongside the woman I had known my entire life. I slept on the beach next to a lake, head on a towel, as the delicate waves from passing boats lapped the sand.
It wasn’t always like this. My new familiarity with sleep began sometime at the end of June 2017. I found myself half-awake with a major fever, oscillating between shivering chills and hot sweats, constantly wrapping and unwrapping myself to the open air. When I finally reached full sleep, I awoke abruptly with what felt like a muscle spasm. Cramps climbed up my right calf and foot until it slowly raised before me like a zombie leg, completely outside of myself. Then the zombie started to move, overtaking my entire right side and quickly freezing my left. I felt my spine lock in an arched position, paralyzing my body, on the verge of cracking under its own pressure.
Somehow, I had fallen off of my bed and was brought back to consciousness by a friend who, sleeping in the room next door, woke to the sound of my body hitting the floor. I couldn’t get up, so she grabbed a towel for me to pee into and immediately called 911. Minutes later, four burly firefighters came into my room and gave me cold washcloths to break my fever.
The discovery of what happened in my sleep didn’t come until the next morning at Urgent Care, where I was told I had a Grand Mal seizure – the kind of seizure where you lose full control of your body and go unconscious. A computed tomography (CT) scan revealed the cause: a brain tumor the size of a golf ball.
Two weeks later I was asleep again, in my childhood bedroom, subconsciously processing the prayers we shared for the next day’s procedure. In my sleep, angels visited me. My grandparents and other family members gathered around my bed, holding my hands.
I woke shortly thereafter at 5 AM to head to the hospital and have my head cut open. From the gurney, I was lifted up and placed on the operating table. Intravenous lines were inserted into my veins to feed me medicine during the operation. The young doctors and residents looked at me with a tinge of pity: we were pretty much the same age, but there I was, trusting them to take me through this journey safely. As I felt the cold anesthesia rush into my arms and an oxygen mask being placed over my mouth, I breathed deeply and suddenly. Then, everything went black. The surgeon and his team worked for over six hours to remove pieces of my tumor as I laid silently still in a pharmaceutically-induced daze.
I came to in a regular hospital room, lying on a fancy hospital bed. I felt major discomfort hooked up to more tubes, not able to get up or even drink water to soothe my aching throat. Whatever they did to me in my “sleep,” wasn’t clear in my mind, but I groggily felt around for the bandages that covered the new bald spots on my head. Morphine was administered. Unable to move, I was told to just relax on the bed and allow my body to heal. To heal, to sleep, to pray, to be with my support team gathered by my side amongst the flowers, letters, and gifts stacking up around my bed.
For the following weeks, my relationship with sleep deepened. Fading in and out of it with ease and regularity, my body dictated its needs—daily naps, asking people to leave me to be in peace, to relax and rest and recover to let the staples close the skin on my scalp, where the titanium plate had been inserted.
A year has passed since my surgery. My head is healthy and I usually get a solid eight to ten hours of snooze time every night. Though I often wake up with muscle spasms (usually when I’m in a dream state), it hasn’t led to another seizure. I like to think that as I sleep, my brain is reconnecting the neural pathways to my foot and leg. I’ve witnessed first-hand the power that sleep has to heal, to bring beautiful visitors, and to occasionally present uncomfortable challenges. Just last week, I was back in that same bed at my parents’ house, where I spent a few weeks healing from surgery last summer. I was confronted with vivid dreams of that time, twisting moments of humans and places and alternative realities that felt all too real.
In this way, I think that our beds are portals– ships that carry our subconscious forward and backward in time. May we all allow our bodies to pay witness to that scene while in supreme rest and healing.
WRITER: Ethan Lipsitz