Just smile and go back to sleep

~a guest column by Sharon Whitehill

As a teenager in love I romanticized the idea of falling asleep in my boyfriend’s arms, imagining his gazing tenderly down at my innocent face. Now, as a long-married woman, I hate the very idea of being watched while I sleep. Unlike babies and children, grown people look foolish at best when they’re sleeping. Their chins vanish, their mouths hang open, they make ugly noises.

Once, after surgery, I awoke with a very sore jaw. “Oh,” said the nurse, “they used a chin strap to hold it in place.”

I was appalled. I’d considered my face in the mirror a million times but never how it might look anesthetized—a searing visual image. Mouth lolling open so far it had to be harnessed? Not that the O.R. people would care. But I cared.

My husband Jim definitely does not care. He knows how he looks drifting to sleep because I tell him so every night. “Your mouth opens in perfect synchrony with the recession of your chin! It gives you a half-witted look!” (Though he’s perfectly whole-witted awake.) But he just smiles and dozes on.

How can he not be bothered? Because this, I maintain, is what sleep does to us all: leaves us unguarded, exposed, unprotected, defenseless. It displays us.

How we sound is just as unnerving. Inhalations catch in the back of Jim’s throat as if strangling him. Exhalations emerge in a long baritone note, like a nightmarish monk chanting the OM. Then there’s the puff, a term coined by my sister, that pooches the lips and makes balloons of the cheeks. Puh. Puh. Puh, with each released breath. Puh. Puh. Puh. I love him, but puffing makes me want to attack him in his recliner. (What he happily calls his “decliner.”)

Sleeping myself is a whole different story from watching Jim. It’s a delicious sensation until I discover that I’m puffing too. Or drooling into the pillow. Or waking up on my back, mouth so dry that even few sips of water don’t ease it. How did I flip to my back when I never, ever start out that way?

Oddly enough, sleep was always a positive thing in my family—not just necessary but critical to our health. We “needed” our sleep; my father “couldn’t help” waking up early; my mother “had” to sleep late. Unlike most of my friends, I was never made to get out of bed on weekends or during the summer. My father made his own breakfast, my sister and I got ourselves dressed for school or outdoor play. For years I actually got sick, if I slept less than nine hours a night, with a kind of 24-hour stomach flu.

Yet sleeping too much feels like the guilty privilege of self-indulgence. Wasted hours that could be used to accomplish important stuff. “I wasted time,” Shakespeare wrote, “and now doth time waste me.”

Experienced directly, sleep is luxurious, intimate; sleep observed is embarrassing, slightly shameful. Like sex, now that I think of it. Maybe it’s not surprising to say people “sleep together” when we’re referring to times when no sleeping’s involved.

But even sleeping alone is excessively personal. Private. Not to be subjected to verbal mockery of the kind I inflict on my husband. But please don’t think, “Oh, poor Jim.” He just smiles, replies “Thank you”( as if to a compliment), and goes back to sleep.

Sleep is also a puzzle in terms of how humans evolved. Spending a third of our lives in a state of unconsciousness? It’s a wonder our species survived.

Maybe it’s just that I don’t like to think how completely out of control of our fates we actually are. Eating and drinking, driving a car, just walking around—all those millions of risky activities we engage in every day—never thinking how close we may have come to choking, falling, or being crushed to death.

Maybe sleep is the time when we’re safest of all.

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