Sometimes, the most debilitating nightmares are the most effective reminders.
It’s 4 AM, Monday morning. I’m sitting at my kitchen table, fingers still stiff from sleep. It’s the dead quiet part of night; the only sounds are the soft gurgling of the refrigerator and the baritone buzz of the lamp above me. No cars drive by, no dogs bark. Next to me, coffee steams and stinks. It tastes terrible.
About an hour ago, I woke up feverishly half-dreaming, half-imagining driving off a bridge and becoming locked underneath an ice floe while everyone in the car drowned and I was the only one who could get out. It was painted with a nauseous vividness. I could feel the ice water burning my nostrils and numbing my fingers.
Several times a week, I wake up surging from the kind of paranoid fears that are so subversive, and so depleting, that they only come creeping around in the sickest hours. Most of the time, I can shut my eyes and will them back to the black through the weight of sleep, and in the morning, I’ve forgotten. But sometimes, my eyes lock open in a zombie state, the fear grips, and the only way to kill it is to abandon the bed altogether and force my brain to shift into real-world gear by coming downstairs to the kitchen table.
These 4 AM panic attacks are common, and stressful. I have been in car accidents where people died, and that sickening crunch of metal and suffocating stench of airbag are central plot elements to almost every nightmare. The dreams are always about the people I love. They get worse with age.
In the real world, the one that starts around 8 AM, everything is fine. Marriage is happy, kids are healthy, job is pretty solid. There’s a lot of love in my house. I don’t take this for granted, but I am always afraid I do; always, somewhere deep in a shadowed cavity in my cranium, is a persistent whisper: “Enjoy it while it lasts.”
I have a plan, but I don’t know my future. My wife and I could spend the next 50 years together and fade into the sunset like the sappiest Nicolas Sparks plot. My kids could grow up to be the next Mia Hamm, or the next great president, or the next Adele. We could retire in a house overlooking the Atlantic ocean, and host awesome Thanksgivings, and have a dozen grandkids to spoil. My life is not perfect, but I still want it to last forever.
This is why I am thankful for the 4 AM states of cold-sweat panic. Despite the mental ulcers and debilitating lack of sleep, they cast a sharp contrast to reality, and every morning, when the rest of the house wakes up, I am reminded not to take a second afterward for granted.