Sleep, I realized long afterwards, is the one thing that keeps us human, keeps us animal. Go without sleep – all sleep – for too many days in a row, and you lose the ability to inhabit your own body. Pain and pleasure become increasingly abstract. Your consciousness floats in an ether of pure mentation, immune to all worldly beauty. There are two doors, one marked Suicide and the other marked Madness. “What is behind door number three?” you want to know. There must be another way out! But Door # 3, if it even exists, is firmly locked and barred. To sleep, perchance to dream…
I was 16. I had been reading D.T. Suzuki on Zen and filling notebooks with increasingly incoherent thoughts, night after night. Odd things happened. On the day following my fourth sleepless night I completely dominated a volleyball game in gym class, I who had never had quick reactions and was completely unathletic (but in good shape from walking five miles a day, to and from school). That was an intensely egoistic high, a true power trip that I still recall with a bit of nostalgia, how I leapt and dove and shouted, eventually the only one left on my side of the net, playing against a half dozen jocks and winning. “So that’s what it feels like not to think, not to be self-conscious, never to second-guess oneself!” I said to myself afterwards. Who’d have thought that being a machine would feel so liberating?
On the morning after my fifth night without sleep, I was sitting in Miss McCaughey’s Spanish 2 class when the last thread connecting me to earth suddenly snapped. In a flash I realized that everything was empty, empty! I put my unreal books in my unreal pack, got to my unreal feet, and walked out of the unreal classroom and its soulless holographs of human beings, one of whom – the teacher – asked me where I was going. “Out,” I said. I remember her standing at the door of the classroom, watching me walk slowly and deliberately down the hall.
Poor Miss McCaughey! It was only her second year of teaching, and she told me later she’d thought she must’ve done something horribly wrong. When she recovered from her shock, she sent my friend Jim out to find me, but by that time, I was gone.
Gone. Out of the hated school that I now knew to be nothing but a test and a trick. Every sentient being had already achieved enlightenment but me; I was convinced of it. That very realization constituted my own ticket, I thought. I was flooded with something that might have been joy, if I had had any normal emotional reactions left with which to experience it. Now all I needed to do was walk out of the stage set. I was sure the exit would appear, and I’d know it when I saw it. All I had to do was abandon all lingering attachments to the world, expect nothing, and wait for the moment, which was already present, to fully present itself to me.
I dropped my pack by the side of the road. No need for that any more! Following my familiar route across town, I tried to climb the steep path up the side of the High School Hill and found I could not. Freezing rain a couple days before had turned the snow into slippery concrete in which it was impossible to find a foothold. I clawed my way about fifty feet up the side, slipped, and slid back down. Nothing to do but circle the hill, then, as I had done in the opposite direction just a few hours earlier, but had already completely forgotten. No wonder I believed so fervently in the perpetual present – it was all I had left.
A half hour later, on my way out of town, I remember stopping in the middle of the bridge over Bald Eagle Creek and staring at the water, fascinated. I took off my gloves one at a time and dropped them in the water, watched them float rapidly away. My hat followed. I think I probably would’ve taken off all my clothes if it hadn’t been so cold out.
The sun beat down from a sea of blue – all light, no heat. The snow-blinding world glittered, impenetrable. I don’t remember much of my walk up the hollow. It’s amazing, really, that I remember any of this at all. Some time around noon, I think, I reached the end of our mile-and-a-half-long driveway and started across the lawn toward the house. That’s when it finally hit me, the sudden realization I’d been waiting for. If I had to put it into words, it would be something along the lines of, Dude, you’re out of your fucking mind!
Everything fell into place. I know that’s a cliché, but it’s also the perfect image for what happened. Everything fell back into its rightful place and I stood there in the glare ice under a cloudless sky staring at the house I’d grown up in, aware and ashamed of my nakedness before the world. I looked all around. The mountain – this mountain – was just a mountain again.
As I walked in the door, the phone started ringing. Let’s get this over with as quickly as possible, I remember thinking, as a great wave of weariness crested and broke.