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Zebra

by Lauren Becker

I don’t sleep. I mean, of course I sleep, but I don’t go to that place where dreams seem real and waking is close to impossible. That place where the body is limp like death, but with instinct and reaction.

The specialist orders a sleep study because I fall asleep everywhere but in bed. I fall asleep in meetings at work, in coffee shops, on the phone. I fall asleep in the waiting room at his office, writing emails, on the toilet. The sleep specialist suspects narcolepsy. I look up the symptoms. I am a classic case.
 

“But why?” I ask.

“We don’t know about these things. Sleep is a complicated process. What we’ll do is get you on some medication to try to regulate your system after the sleep study confirms narcolepsy.”

I have more questions, but don’t bother attempting further conversation with this doctor. He is condescending and I don’t recognize the name of his medical school, written on the diploma he has hanging behind his desk chair, crowning him like a halo. I would feel better if he had gone to UCLA or Johns Hopkins, but he’s with my HMO. I will see him once after the sleep study and he will prescribe meds and my regular doctor, who is smart and went to a medical school I’ve heard of, will refill the prescriptions, so I don’t bother.

The study comes back. I am not narcoleptic. There is no diagnosis, only a symptom: insomnia. Ruled out: narcolepsy, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome. I don’t have nightmares or sleep paralysis. I don’t dream. I live in a wavy world of brain banging, lid drooping, head jerking.

I read about sleep deprivation. It is used by terrorists as a form of torture. But I am not sleep deprived. I am not prevented from sleeping. I start to think I am a terrorist.

When he sends me off with my non-diagnosis, the sleep doctor with the unfamiliar medical degree tells me what he thinks is a funny anecdote. He says they told him in medical school that when doctors hear hoof beats, they should look for horses, not zebras. He tells me I am a zebra. I consider telling him that my mystery diagnosis is the zebra in the metaphor; I am too tired.

I fall asleep mid-conversation with my boss. It is not the first time and she is losing patience. My doctor refers me to a psychiatrist and a neurologist. She refers me to warm baths and decaffeinated beverages and meditation. She asks if I believe in prayer. My head jerks. It looks like I am nodding yes.

At the end of the week, my boss calls me into her office. I am awake and have put in a productive day’s work. She fires me. I tell her I have narcolepsy. She tells me it’s too late. She’s given me many warnings and chances to come forward about a disability. It is documented with Human Resources. I dig nails into thighs through my skirt until she is finished talking.

I pack my things and walk to my car. I recline my seat, open the window a crack, and pull a blanket around me. As I lose consciousness, I hear the cars leaving the parking lot. If I could open my eyes, I would look for horses.

Author's Note

I have had trouble sleeping for as long as I can remember. I have tried all of the remedies.

Insomnia is not all bad. I write during late night and early morning hours, when everyone is asleep, when nobody expects anything from me, when it’s dark outside, when curtains are closed, when parking lots and suburban street curbs are filled with cars, when my head is empty and ready for that first sentence.

Lauren Becker is the author of the collection If I Would Leave Myself Behind. Her work has appeared online and in print journals including Wigleaf, Cheap Pop, The Rumpus, Juked, and Tin House.

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