A Superpower I Wish I Had

On days when despite all the medication, sleep would tease me from a distance for several days in a row, I would feel like an extremely unsatisfied customer of the Indian mental health industry.

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The thing about taking anti-depressants, sleep medication and therapy is that it’s all very expensive business.

And before any sociologists / social sectorists pull out (s)words, I mean relatively expensive.

Now, I consider myself ‘middle-class’ with respect to how I think and how the term has been popularly used as a way of communicating miserliness in someone’s purchasing habits. The way I use it, also refers to an extended family nurtured mindset of not wanting to spend on anything unless it’s an item of necessity that one may die without. Fortunately, or unfortunately — this is also how I reasoned with myself when I gave in to psychiatric treatment. I didn’t mind dying. But wanting to die, according to a vast majority of educated adults, I realized, was a wrong thing to want. And while I didn’t care about this majority, I realized I might actually kill myself if I didn’t resort to treatment. And that, I thought, would hurt a very very small subset of this majority viz. people I cared for. Worth the expense, I told myself, before agreeing to expensive prescriptions after prescriptions of medication and therapy.

But on days when, despite all the medication, sleep would tease me from a distance for several days in a row, I would feel like an extremely unsatisfied customer of the Indian mental health industry.

Today has been one such day. I am in Pondicherry to attend the annual staff retreat of the organization I work for. With my routine disturbed and no sleep for three days in a row now, I was contemplating between overdosing and distress calling my psychiatrist when a colleague sitting next to me caught the zoned-out fatigue on my face. “Why don’t you take a nap? We have a 30-minute break after this session”, she said with concern.

I took a long breath in. Nodded and smiled.

Now, for those of you who have struggled with falling asleep (without having to fight for it) you might also be extremely familiar with the urge to throw water in the faces of people who manage to fall asleep in all kinds of places and conditions — for e.g. while sitting or standing at busy railway stations, during long bus rides or all throughout meetings with their heads hanging low. Maybe the urge to splash water on their faces is just me — but the sharp twinge of jealousy can’t be denied.

A nap, I think to myself, before responding to this question. A nap, as per my definition, sounds like a slot of timed sleep in which you tell your mind to sleep for exactly as much time as you have and then wake up feeling fresh and rested. A nap, I think, is something I’m yet to experience in my life.

I’m still smiling. Because as grateful as I am for kindness — it also tires me. How am I to explain that sleep, for me, has been a long three stage process for as long as I can remember.

The first stage involves making sure there are no sounds ( an extremely difficult exercise if you’ve grown up in the Indian ‘joint family’ where you’ve to wait till the last person is done watching TV placed strategically in the middle of the house from where everyone in the house can hear it), the mattress is laid out properly ( because a separate room with doors shut is a tabooed arrangement and allowing teenage kids to explore sexuality did not feature on the list of my families’ troubles) and finally, waiting for the lights to be put out.

The second stage and the real stage — is trying to fall asleep. And just when you think you’re tired enough to fall asleep as soon as you hit the pillow — you’ll wake up.

Or at least I would. I would wake up and suddenly become aware of every tiny detail around me. The leaking water taps in the bathroom. My parents’ whispering their opinions on family matters and related politics. My youngest uncle waking up to use the computer in the hall, to watch porn on mute. (Poor thing — this was still early 2000s and he didn’t know his adolescent niece knew how to check browsing history on a single computer being used by the entire family for functions ranging from accounting to school work and of course, entertainment).

The second and longest stage, would, on most days last till early next morning, when I’d be shaken awake by my father yelling around loudly about how my brother and I were running late for the school bus, yet again. This is when I think I’m finally approaching the third stage of actual restful sleep. But missing school because of missing the school bus was a punishable offence in our household. It meant my father having to borrow the family car, pay for fuel he didn’t want to afford, to drive us to our private school situated 20 kilometers from where we lived.

Yes, we were middle class about everything but private education. A scarring private education, which fared excellently on the matter of imparting effective English communication skills — but caused a big blow to my then sensitive self-esteem. My father paid the school fees, which for him, was the only dream I think he was still working for back then. But he could not afford all the extra costs of the latest in-style school bag, water bottle, a fresh set of textbooks and uniforms which the others had and teased me and my brother for not having.

These remain unresolved matters, needing a chapter of their own, but I’ve strayed too far from the matter of sleep now.

As it often happens with me, I’m still smiling lost in my own trail of thoughts. I’d learnt the art of nodding and smiling — without meaning it — a while back in my career. I snap out of my thoughts as I see people getting up from the meeting, to take their respective tea/ smoke breaks. I look at my colleague who’s still looking at me — both confused and worried now.

A nap, I say quite dramatically with sudden wisdom, is a super power. It’s a super power I don’t have.

She smiles and shrugs in an ‘as-you-wish’ sort of way. It’s a 30-minute break and neither of us could wait to step out from the windowless, air-conditioned conference room we’d been stuck in since the morning. So, we got up to leave and I switched back to my ‘smile and nod’ mode. I braced myself for some intelligent — this time over tea and therefore casual — conversation around the organization’s strategy and goals.

Researcher, writer — always wondering why and what if.

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