The morning finds me adrift on a sea of Walgreen’s sleep remedy – and how can I find myself? I seem to have gone somewhere rather frightening. And is the fact that I have gone there frightening, or the place itself frightening? Both, I suspect. The trick being to rebut the former and soothe the latter. It’s okay. Being afraid is okay.
And what are we talking about? The 3 AM wake-up call, basically. The body’s announcement that it’s time for terror. Disembodied and coming from no particular source. Just roaring along at an hour when nothing should be happening at all.
Which was equally true of the night I was shot. And is this what I cannot accept, that life can appear to proceed quite placidly, even boringly, until something intrudes with the force of Alien? Note that I have never seen the 30-year-old film, only a trailer, perhaps. One gets the idea. Well it is true. When you least expect it…. As a consequence, my disabled life is a matter of constant vigilance. There is no doubt that I can fall, get my arm stuck in something, encounter any manner of disaster, all in the quiet and comfort of my home. In other words, I do not trust quiet and comfort. I see menace lurking there. I see menace lurking everywhere. However life’s plot unfolds, look for Harold Pinter in the final credits.
As for the night in question, terror was not actually among the ingredients. Horrified incredulity, yes. Plenty of that. Despair, hopelessness. Maybe a revitalizing sense of fear inside the ambulance, overlit and surprisingly soundproof when one considered the siren roaring outside. I do recall asking the paramedic if I was going to die. My talking, he said, was a good sign. Some impertinent questions from the Berkeley police while lying on a gurney. The incredible scene of a photographer, perhaps two photographers, leaning into the frame with vintage accordion cameras, complete with massive silver flash bowls exploding their white light in my face. For any introvert, the ultimate indignity. I even recall deciding right there and then that I might as well go to sleep, for I would either die or I wouldn’t, but at least there would be no more flash photography.
No, the real terror began the next night. It was time for sleep, after all. The family members, the doctors, the police, all had come and gone with their bad news. None of which could remotely top my body’s news, inert, deadened staring at the ceiling. Doubtless the nurse stepped into the hallway to give me some privacy or quiet. And this was almost certainly a big mistake. The last thing I wanted was to be alone. But suddenly the room was empty. And there was nothing, and I was in solitary, screaming or feeling like I wanted to scream, and totally abandoned.
In retrospect, this must have felt like a replay of my infancy, helpless in some cradle or other, the mother either absent or nonresponsive. A terror recalling a terror. Something in me clung to hospital consciousness, as though it was life. There was no letting go. Dreams were gathering in the hallway, lined up along the bed, incubi and succubi perched at the base of the wall, clamoring for that moment when I would slip unawares into their realm, and they could pounce. I did not sleep that night. I am almost certain.
‘Almost’ because as the nights wore on, sleep never seemed to come. People have assured me, long after the fact, that this was impossible. Yet it is my recollection. Not sleeping for four, maybe five, nights. The occasional psychologist would come by. The one I was seeing already, Don, plus another, perhaps a psychiatrist. I did tell one of them that I had been having dreams of being pursued by someone with a gun. Perfectly normal, he told me. Somehow, this did not reassure. Night and waking life, dreams and no life, all these states and possibilities had gotten muddled. Terror, being both deep and amorphous, is hard to talk away, normalize, or otherwise assuage. In retrospect, perhaps I needed to go toward it, rather than away.
Meaning, enough reexperiencing to face the savage fear, then decide I was safe, however hard to believe. What I do believe, in hindsight, is that being out at night anywhere in America felt menacing for about 20 years. It was always there, the fear, somewhere in the background. And I was never more than half conscious of this. And what’s important now is the way fear, or terror, really seem to work. They come later, seemingly as part of a reevaluation, or a taking stock. In the moment we do what we have to do. The experience of helplessness, being overpowered, there being nothing there, screaming into emptiness…all this primal stuff is part of another stage. The only question being: does the stage go on forever? I don’t know. Let us say, I’m working on it.