Would You Sleep Through A Catastrophe?

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.

23 thoughts on “Would You Sleep Through A Catastrophe?

  1. It’s after midnight here and I am suffering through another night of insomnia. Are you sure we aren’t related Selma???? Wow, that’ s some story. I don’t think I would have slept through all that kuffuffel. That’s horrible, really really awful. Glad you added some humor though, the conversation with the guy and gal was a hoot.

    Sleep tight, hugs, G


  2. i do not suffer from insomnia,, but rather i am the neighbor that pulls up a lawn chair lights a cigarette and sits in on the action… oh my,, that would have been a night in reality heaven for me… unfortunately i have no visible neighbors so my voyeuristic tendencies have not been engaged in quite some time…. i will be relying on you for a window to the world,, as it sounds like you have a lively bunch of neighbors!!!!


  3. Your post was amazing, as usual. Thanks for dropping by my blog. I always appreciate hearing from you!
    Things are going very well. Courage in Patience releases on Sept. 1 and it seems to be doing well in pre-orders. I’m at work on the sequel, Hope in Patience (speaking of nighttime activities– I’m very much an early-morning– we’re talking 3 a.m.– writer. My “muse” wakes me up by pouring forth story development and I jump out of bed to capture it before it leaves me.)

    Have you written a novel or collection of your essays? I’d love to pick it up, if you have.

    Beth Fehlbaum, author
    Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
    Chapter 1 is online!


  4. I am definitely a light sleeper and I wake up when the ambulances go by. (I live down the street from a hospital. They go by a lot.)

    There is a rental property behind us. Usually rents to College kidsin their 20s. They like to party. A lot. They get loud. It was 1 a.m. and getting louder. The Man called the police. We heard the entire back and forth with the police. Around 2 a.m., the cops showed up. (Neighbours complained, you’re keeping every body awake keep it down.) The cops left. The hour consisted of variants of “Man, I can’t believe they called the cops on us. We’re not being that loud.”

    Thank god she’s ok. That’s one scary experience.


  5. I’m glad that the girl is alright. The thought of what could have happened is frightening. The only intruder / robbers we have had in my family pale in comparison. I have blogged about so check it out in my page.


  6. GERALDINE – a fellow insomniac. I sympathise. That’s what gets me. Why didn’t I hear it? I’m usually wide awake. I think it was a really close call. I’m so glad she is OK.

    PAISLEY – the stories I could tell….. now you have given me some great ideas for future posts. Hanging over the back fence does have its benefits. Haha.

    BETH – so glad all is well with you. That is brilliant. Sadly, no collection from my end yet but I am working on it. I promise!

    NAT – I have had a similar experience with the kids next door when their parents went away for the weekend. Did I ever go that crazy when I was 19? Probably. I think I’m just jealous that they can party all night and still look fresh in the morning. I simply look like one of the living dead who’s been dragged backwards through a hedge. I am a glad she’s OK too. That could have happened to anyone.

    ROSHAN – I will check it out. And I’m sorry you had to experience that. I hope everyone was OK.


  7. Selma-I was a heavy sleeper until I had my daughter (now even the smallest noises can wake me). In college, during a drama competition trip, I slept through a drug raid on the hotel room next to mine-bullhorns, shouting, screaming, helicopters overhead-the whole insane thing. But I think sometimes the “play dead” survival tactic kicks in and maybe that’s what happened to you, as it did to me many years ago–

    One afternoon while still in college I was napping before going off to my part time job. A man got into my apartment (my roommate refused to lock the front door) and tried to rape me. I was aware of everything he tried to do but was physically completely non-responsive; actually incapable of moving. I felt like I was outside of myself observing his attempts to hurt me. After a few minutes he got extremely frustrated and ran away, leaving me with my clothes in disarray but otherwise unharmed.

    I don’t tell this story often-it’s just too weird and somewhat unbelievable. But I think our subconscious minds and souls know what we can handle emotionally better than our conscious minds do and protects us in unexpected and unexplainable ways. Your sleeping brain may have decided there were already plenty of people helping and kept you away from the fray.

    I am very glad the young lady wasn’t raped-the attack alone will be traumatic enough.

    Take Care–Sagacious Woman


  8. My friend also slept through someone breaking in his house while he was sleeping. They stole medicine from a drawer in his kitchen, and then ran away. He had just gotten up to go to the bathroom and never heard them. He didn’t find out about the missing medication until the next afternoon!


  9. I live near an intersection that sees quite a bit of action, accident-wise. Have I heard any of them? Oh, heck no! I sleep through the squeal of brakes and loud crash.

    Shouting can wake me, loud voices scare the b’jeepers out of me, but I’ll sleep through sirens, because I hear them all the time. LOTM can get out of bed and wander outside to check on things, and I don’t notice it.

    I can’t say the girl was unharmed, because this will probably give her nightmares for years to come, but I’m glad she escaped before things got worse.

    It would be interesting if the artist could paint herself taking the knife, or as the one standing over the sleeping intruder in his cell, sort of take control of the fear and make it hers.


  10. I’m glad that the girl was not raped, but she will have nightmares about it for sure. It is a traumatic event to live through.
    About you sleeping right through it, I guess at some point or other our bodies are so tired that you have one of those dead sleeps that the world can come crashing down and we would never hear it. me too sometimes I wake up at any little sound but I have also slept that I don’t hear anything going around me.


  11. SAGACIOUS WOMAN – how absolutely terrifying for you. Oh, I am so sorry. The thought of what could have happened must plague you all the time. The ‘play dead’ survival response is probably just as firmly lodged in our subconscious as ‘fight or flight.’ I’m sure many people have said to you:’Lucky escape’ but what you went through would be just as traumatic as an actual sexual assault. I am so grateful you told me this. I am feeling quite teary about your generosity in sharing such a frightening moment in your life. Thank you.

    UOHAA – I hope it wasn’t medicine he needed urgently. How awful. So nice of you to stop by and comment.

    KAREN – that is a brilliant idea about the artist. I am going to suggest it to her. I know what you mean about sirens. When I was a student I rented a flat next to the local fire station for 6 months. Can I sleep through sirens or what? But kiss your girlfriend on the street in front of my house and I am wide awake in a flash. I hope that doesn’t mean I have voyeuristic tendencies. Oh, no, I can feel another post coming on…..

    TBALL – I am so glad too. I think she was traumatised enough. Apparently, she had scrapes and bruises all over her legs from being dragged along the road. I cannot imagine how terrified she must have been. All the neighbourhood is a-twitter. They can’t believe something like that could happen in our nice, quiet little suburb. The fact is, it can happen anywhere. And I know what you mean about the dead sleeps. Sometimes it’s as if I am in a coma.


  12. The past few days it seems I’ve been reading things that just make me feel sick about how some people hurt and abuse others. I am so glad she’s okay.


  13. The big trouble is … kids are always screaming and shouting, so, if one’s in trouble, and needs help, they may be disregarded. Remember the tale of ‘the boy who cried ‘wolf”?

    A few years ago, someone attempted to abduct a little boy near us, and it was just by chance I happened by while walking my dog … I didn’t normally go that way, but I had letters to post.

    Otherwise, I fear the lad’s calls for help might have been in vain.


  14. I am glad the girls is OK. How scary. And the story about Callie is frightening. Two very close calls.

    I used to be able to sleep through anything. In Christmas time back in Puerto Rico, I have been know to sleep through a parranda or two (that’s when a bunch of people come to your house in the middle of the night with instruments and surprise you with a serenade).


  15. well, thankfully the rest of your neigborhood wasn’t as unconscious as you were. I am a VERY HEAVY sleeper. It takes me forever to fall asleep, but once I am out, it’s almost impossible to wake me back up.



  16. DAOINE – I know what you mean. Sometimes all the nastiness seems overwhelming. I keep telling myself -‘Those people are in the minority’ but often it doesn’t ring true.

    TRAVELRAT – thank God you were there. How frightening. I feel sick just thinking about it. You are brilliant!

    INGRID – Oh, a parranda sounds wonderful. Is it usually done as part of a celebration or when people are in love? I hope you do a post about it one day. I’d love to hear all about it.

    MELEAH – I know. Thank God they were all easily wakened. Occasionally, I sleep very heavily and it is wonderful to waken feeling refreshed. If only it would happen every night.


  17. I don’t know what made me pick up those letters and take them to the post box. The box wasn’t emptied till 10 am, and I could so easily have left them till morning, and taken Barney the other way for his walk.


  18. Wow. That’s really scary …… and those intruder stories even scarier. We feel safe in our house, our car….forget that bad things happen ino ur contained walls.
    Very interesting post!


  19. What a terrifying experience for that poor girl. The things we human beings do to each other leaves me with a feeling of despair sometimes and I have to wonder just how much further up the food chain we really are from animals.


  20. It’s somewhat a relief to move from big city to small town if only to be able to sleep with a lot less worry. Tornadoes are probably my only concern.

    Oh yeah, the overzealous young couple next door used to be one, as well. Until one night, i overheard her on the phone, crying and screaming…

    “Why did you have to sleep with her? WHY? WHY? WHY?”

    From that time on, I have been sleeping soundly.


  21. BRENDA – I know. Hasn’t made me too scared to sleep though, because, quite honestly, I am scarier than any intruder when I don’t get enough sleep. It ain’t pretty. Hahaha.

    GYPSY – I often wonder about that myself. We are so destructive as a species, so violent. I am watching David Attenborough’s ‘Life Of Birds’ on DVD at the moment and apparently there was a moment back in prehistory where it was touch and go as to what would be the dominant species – either mammals or birds. What a different place the world would be if birds were the dominant species. Can you imagine?

    CHRIS – oh, I hate to laugh, I really do but I remember when you posted about how you couldn’t sleep because of the ‘enthusiasm’ of the couple next door. Oh, the poor thing. Sounds like her boyfriend was keeping others in the neighbourhood awake too. LOL. Sweet dreams!


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