We live right behind my son’s school. A rear laneway separates us. Last night there was a fracas in the school. A teenage girl was dragged into the grounds at three in the morning by a group of four men in their early twenties. It is obvious what they were planning to do to her but why they were planning to do it and why they chose the school to execute their plan remains unclear.
She was screaming bloody murder. She woke the entire neighbourhood. There were police cars and paramedics everywhere. All of my neighbours stood bleary-eyed and nervous in their back gardens adorned in multi-coloured dressing gowns and blankets seized from their beds.
What was I doing while this possibly life- and- death situation was going on? Making cups of tea? Handing out blankets? Getting on the phone to the authorities? None of the above. I was sound asleep. I slept through the whole thing.
I am a very light sleeper. I suffer from insomnia. Over my morning coffee I remark about how there were dogs barking all night, or blaring music, or people talking loudly in the street. Things that keep me awake. Things that no one else seems to hear but me.
Just the other night I was awakened by the amorous activities of my neighbour. He is 22. He has just gotten a serious girlfriend for the first time and he is not afraid to let the world know it. She dropped him off at his house at two in the morning, smooches were obviously exchanged and then a conversation ensued that went something like this:
‘You get in the car first.’
‘No, you go in the house first.
‘I want to watch you drive away.’
‘I want to watch you go in the house.’
‘You get in the car first.
‘You go in the house first.’
I turned to my husband, ready to make some acerbic comment. He was sound asleep. I went to the window, the rest of the street was dark. Was I the only one in the land privy to this ridiculous conversation? Had I developed some weird kind of extra-sensory ability where conversations were amplified?
‘You get in the car first.’
‘You go in the house first.’
Someone had better do something first or blood was going to be spilled. And it wasn’t going to be mine.
My inability to sleep well is known in its full, brutal extent to my family and friends. I am always up wandering around in the wee small hours. So why when there was an actual situation that was of danger to someone, did I remain asleep?
What if all my neighbours had also remained asleep? What if no one had heard a thing and this poor girl had been subjected to the horrible fate her abductors intended for her? It doesn’t bear thinking about. And I wonder, would you sleep through a catastrophe?
At work I am editing a book about a painter whose work mostly consists of a series of Gothic, gloomy images of people who are sleeping. Each image has some kind of shadow or ghostly figure standing over the bed. At first I thought she had painted her nightmares but it turns out she has painted her waking life. About ten years ago she awoke to find a man standing over her bed with a knife. There was no doubt of his intention. He had gotten into the house through the kitchen window she left open at night for the cat.
‘Time froze,’ she said. ‘Seeing him there, a complete stranger, a man holding a knife, was the most potent, horrible image I have ever seen. Even though he didn’t touch me I felt like I was pinned to the bed. I was completely cold but I remember the life started returning to my limbs when an inner voice started repeating over and over in my head: Please don’t let him hurt me. Please don’t let him hurt me. So I called out to my son, my voice was ragged, dragging across my throat as if it was being slowly ripped out of me. My son appeared, my 18-year old, 6 foot 3 son, who wouldn’t hurt a fly, and all of a sudden he began to rage, picking up a chair and swiping at the man who just ran for his life, dropping the knife in his haste. My son and I held each other. I remember how much he was shaking, but he held onto his composure long enough to call the police. In that moment my son, my beautiful baby boy, was my saviour.’
They caught the intruder from the prints left on the knife. He is still in jail. But the thought of him haunts the artist. ‘It’s all I can paint,’ she said. ‘As if reproducing that moment over and over will purge him from my mind, will free me. But I’m still waiting for that instant of liberation.’
I think it’s dwelling on what could have happened that plagues us in these situations just as much as what did happen. My friend Callie still dwells on her intruder experience. It was Christmas Eve about five years ago. Callie’s husband, a doctor, was out on call, while she and her daughters were upstairs asleep. While they were sleeping someone broke in downstairs and stole all the Christmas presents from under the tree. Callie didn’t hear a thing. Naturally, she was upset to lose all the presents, but what unnerved her the most was that in the morning she found her sixteen year old daughter’s bedroom door was wide open while she was still asleep in bed. Her daughter consistently, insistently slept with the door firmly closed. She made a point of it. That door had not been left open at night for five years. Callie still wonders what if.
We hear all the time about the fight or flight response where adrenaline kicks in when we instinctively recognise a dangerous situation. Basically, we just get the hell out of there. But does that necessarily happen when we are fast asleep? Studies indicate that it does, that sleeping is actually an active state where we are still partly aware of what is going on around us. That most people would sense if there was an intruder in their home or if there was a dangerous situation going on around them. However, the fight or flight response can be affected by stress or long periods of wakefulness.
The girl who was attacked is fine. She was coming home from the pub, couldn’t get a cab, so decided to walk. She was two minutes away from her house when the men grabbed her. Thank God she is all right. Thank God there were some people whose fight or flight response remained active while they were asleep. Looks like I’m going to have to train myself not to fret over noisy parties at night, car doors slamming or dogs barking. Looks like I’m going to have to teach my fight or flight response to only kick in when it’s something important, because I definitely do not want to sleep my way through a catastrophe.