My Life With The Bat Children by Thaddeus Gunn
“We can’t stop here, this is bat country!”
― Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
When I worked in rock ‘n’ roll a few years back, I narrowly avoided a head-on collision with a semi as I was coming over Snoqualmie Pass from The Gorge. Never mind that when I looked in the rearview mirror the semi wasn’t there, or that in retrospect it was actually a giant hovercraft. I preserved the rented van I was driving and that was all that mattered to me.
I’d been working a round-the-clock gig for Lollapalooza as a driver, shuttling famous rock stars and redneck stagehands to and fro. Just hours previous to the near miss at the pass, I had been standing in the production office screaming a lie at the Production Fuckup What’s His Face who was supposed to pay me. I told him there was a van rented in the name of MCA Concerts (it wasn’t) and it was in a field over there (it was, as I showed him, stabbing my finger at it) and it was going to be on fucking fire (probably not) if I didn’t get my fucking money. And no I will not put my name on the fucking list and wait for a fucking check and no I will not fucking calm down. I’ve been working for fifty fucking hours straight. He started peeling twenties out of the petty cash box and kept throwing them at me until I went away. Then I got in the van, headed back over the pass toward Seattle, and almost got hit by the semi. Hovercraft. Whatever. And then there were a lot of frogs in the air. I figured I better pull over and lay down. I’d get charged another day for the van, and that would eat my whole nut from working all the way through Lollapalooza. But at least I wouldn’t have the frogs in the way.
That time, I had been awake—without drugs—for three days.
I’ve had sleep problems since I was little. Never been very good at sleeping. My wife’s a champ. Used to fall asleep at parties. Slept so hard in plain view that it looked like she died and rigored in an upright position right on our host’s couch. I envy her.
It’s not that I’m up all night, trying hard to get sleepy. No. I lay down. I go to sleep—or seem to. Then crazy shit happens. Crazy shit with foot-long names. Hypnogogic hallucinations. Hypnopompic hallucinations. Somnambulism. Sleep paralysis.
Last week I got another one added to the list: parasomnias.
I’ve had a string of professions that are known for impinging on sleep cycles: Late night DJ. Advertising copywriter. Night shift orderly. Cocaine addict.
Speaking of that last one, I once called the cops because I was convinced that there were little men in black wetsuits under my house. I told the cops that they were jacking it up and they were going to steal it. Thankfully, they didn’t believe me.
That time, I had been awake—with drugs—for four days.
You probably think that I don’t practice very good “sleep hygiene”. You probably think I drink coffee all night. You probably think I’m all rheumy-eyed like that guy from Fight Club. None of that. My eyes are clear. I don’t even drink soda pop. That coke thing was in my 20s. I got over it.
I’ve given up beer until these other things work themselves out, these parasomnias.
In the years since the semi incident, I’ve done three sleep studies. They tape about eighty wires to you from head to foot and put a cannula in your nose. They hook all that stuff up to a box that looks like you could swipe a credit card through it and make you carry the box with you. Then they tell you to climb into the bed in the lab with all that gear and go to sleep. Sure, no problem.
Turns out I wake up forty to eighty times an hour. This is news to me because all I know is that I’ve been asleep. Granted, it was shitty sleep because I was sleeping in the same bed as the Transatlantic Cable and an ATM. But it was sleep as far as I knew.
Not so, they say. They tell me I never achieved REM sleep. Ever.
Does this mean I haven’t actually slept in fifty years? I ask them.
Maybe not, the sleep technician says.
I didn’t go to the sleep studies to see what was causing hallucinations, though. I went to see how I could control my snoring, which is the common bane to the harmony of any couple. After the study, I’d been fitted with a CPAP. It has to be the most sexiness-reducing piece of bedroom hardware since blacksmiths forged chastity belts. A triangular mask fits over your nose and is braced by a bridge that presses against your forehead. A long hose extends from the mask and is connected to a machine that creates positive pressure in your sinuses, thus eradicating the sonorous rattle of your soft palate. You wear a chin strap a ’la Marley’s ghost. Altogether you look like you’re a coma patient in the ICU. As a bonus, the machine itself wheezes like an asthmatic Electrolux. This is why my wife and I sleep in separate rooms now.
Sleep deprivation can mirror schizophrenia, like so: You come home and go to bed. You go to sleep. Your wife comes home late from a drumming gig and unloads her bags. You get out of bed and come talk to her, but you’re a different person. You’re not the guy she’s been married to for eighteen years. You’re not her Sweet Bear, the one who is only comically grumpy, the one who leaves her Post-Its on the fridge telling her how much you love her. No, you’re an asshole. You’re some guy spitting some paranoiac poison about how much his brother hates him. You’re some guy talking nonsense syllables about blowing his brains out. She backs trepidatiously out of the living room, leaving Asshole You pounding away on the screen of your smartphone with your thumbs.
You wake up in the morning and find a string of hateful text messages sent to your brother. You find a smear of bizarre rants running down your Facebook wall.
You love your brother. You fear death, enjoy life, and like your brains where they are. But you don’t remember any of it. You have a stomach full of needles and ice. The only way you know what transpired is because your wife recounting it to you through trembling and tears.
That was last Tuesday night for me. After my wife told me all this, I figured I better tell her about the Bat Children.
There’s a nugget of fear deep inside me that I’ve harbored since childhood. It tells me that neither she nor anyone else is going to love a weirdo who sees stuff that’s not there and turns into a sleepwalking jerk. Better keep your mouth shut or live forever in isolation, it says. Remember what happened that one time when you told somebody, it says. I decide to roll the dice on eighteen years of marriage and tell her anyway because I want more than anything for her to stop crying. The story is worth whatever strange comfort it might give.
She already knew about my sleep problems. Well, one of them anyway. She knows about the snoring, certainly. She knows that my sleep is for shit, generally. She doesn’t know the rest of it, though.
When I was four, I tell her, my mattress would take off at night and fly around the room while I was still awake. It was fun until it started to crush me against the ceiling. I felt like I was suffocating. I’d start screaming. My mother adhered to the sleep training rule that if her children screamed at night, she should just let them scream. Eventually they would stop. It’s true. After it happened several times, I would simply shut up and take it, no matter how much I thought death was imminent.
That crushing, suffocating catalepsy; the hell of being dead yet awake—what they blithely file as sleep paralysis under the heading of parasomnias—persists to this day.
When I was fifteen, my parents made me sleep on the landing outside my sister’s room. She was gone to college, but my mother thought I didn’t deserve the room and told me as much. I can’t remember what I did to earn that judgment. It wasn’t the best place to sleep, the middle of a traffic route frequented by parents with anxious, peanut-sized bladders.
I saw a ghost one night just as I was waking up. It was during the time that I slept on the landing. It scared me so bad that I spent the rest of the night in the car. The mistake I made was in telling some of my classmates about the incident while we were riding back to the school from football practice on the bus. They feigned a rapt interest, drawing as much detail out of me as they could. When we got back to the locker room, they took turns kicking me in the ass with their cleats and calling me “ghost boy”. Eventually they’d shout it at me in the hallway.
When the Bat Children showed up, I was about seventeen. I was, for lack of a better term or position, in foster care. I was battling intense anxiety. I’d snap to a sitting position in my bed each night every twenty minutes, quaking. The night the Bat Children first came by, I woke up—or so I thought—to a noise at the window. I went to investigate. They clung to the window frame, scratching and tapping on the glass as if they wanted to gain entry. Their baby doll heads were glossy black and hairless; their eyes were shiny map pins shoved too close together. Their breath steamed the pane. That’s all I remember. I assume that I passed out from fear at that point. I woke up in bed.
I tell my wife that’s most but not all of it. I confess to her that I had done some sleepwalking earlier in life, when I was about six. Walked into my parents’ dinner party. Peed on the living room carpet, right in front of the visiting clergy. I had episodes in my twenties where I’d have phone conversations that I didn’t remember. The caller always told me later that it was my voice, but it was like I was being impersonated by a truculent boor. And I confess to my wife that I’d seen the Bat Children again, yes, even after I started using the CPAP. They came out of my closet, elbow-crawled across my bed in true bat fashion, came right up and licked my face. I made some progress, though, I told her. At least I was able to tell them that I knew they weren’t real.
We have a mutual friend who is a sleep doctor. She calls him post-haste and puts me on the phone with him. I’m on the razor’s edge between embarrassing myself to a friend and doing what’s right by my wife. In liminal spaces like these, I’ve learned that it sometimes works to just say fuck it. Sometimes.
I give him the rundown of the previous night’s events as they were told to me. He’s cool, matter-of-fact. He defines parasomnia for me, defines somnambulism for me: You’re roused from sleep but you don’t wake up although you’re ambulatory. Hypnagogic hallucinations, like the Bat Children, are the ones you have as you’re falling asleep. You’re essentially dreaming with your eyes open. Hypnopompic hallucinations, like the ghost on the landing, are the ones that you have when you’re waking up. It all happens because your REM cycles are supremely fucked up. Or perhaps because, like me, you never enter REM sleep at all.
I ask him what all this comes from. He says stress can cause it. Anxiety. When it happens in children, sometimes it’s the result of abuse.
Are you under stress? he asks. I give him the laundry list: I have no work, my wife is unemployed; my elderly parents, who are more or less homeless, recently had strokes. My mortgages, car payment, and credit cards are all at the redline. My best friend is having a lung removed and I don’t have the funds to be with him during the surgery. My son is unemployed and I can barely spot him gas money to get to a job interview. Plus, I’m a writer, so I collect rejections the same way kids collect Pokémon and I store them all in my heart.
You’re stressed, he says. Did you have anything to drink the night before this happened? Yes, I say, but not enough to be drunk. I know this for a fact. I was three blocks up the street at a pee-scented schwitzbox of a dive watching my brother’s gig. After two and a half pints, the keg blew on my favorite poverty beer. I was loath to risk poisoning from any of their other sub-standard swill.
Here’s how it goes, he says. Beer is a sedative up to a point. Then when it wears off, it’s a stimulant. Your wife comes home as your beer is wearing off. She sets down her drums. The noise rouses you but only halfway, only enough to take you out of the non-REM sleep you’re in and send you careening around the house spewing bile and epithets. This isn’t unusual for sleepwalkers. They’re often confused, grumpy, and generally repellent. If you try to rouse them, they only get more repugnant. Only thing you can do for them, he says, is make sure they don’t fall down the stairs or walk out a window.
What’s up with all that bullshit I was talking, though? We don’t know why the brain does that, he says, but it has nothing to do with nothing. It doesn’t really reveal your innermost thoughts as some once believed. It has no meaning whatsoever.
Good. Well at least at the core I’m not as much of a fucker as my somniloquy (sleep talking) and somnigraphy (sleep writing) would lead one to believe.
He tells me no beer, no caffeine within nine hours of bedtime, get to bed at 9PM, wear my CPAP faithfully all night, see if I can get eight to nine hours of shuteye per night. If I’m still a night-rambling shitheel after doing that for a month, then I need to take my CPAP in to the shop because it is most likely malfunctioning.
I greatly appreciated the favor of omission he did me by not asking about the child abuse thing.
My wife took it one step further. She put me on a program to get me as worn out as possible during the day by making me hike all over hell and gone. I grouse about it, but it’s a blessing. We live in the Pacific Northwest. The mountains are beautiful this time of year. The alpine meadows are in bloom. Lupine and shooting stars are everywhere. Surly mountain goats are pasted like postage stamps to purple mountain ramparts. I can go up on a high ridge, get gobsmacked by the grandeur of creation, feel my smallness in the face of it, and forget my troubles if only for a few hours while I joyfully succumb to hypoxia.
So far, her program has worked well at getting me to fall asleep. Not so good at keeping me asleep. I continue to snap awake at 2AM, stay awake for an hour or two, then descend into turbulent half-sleep for another three hours or so.
Still, I persist. I stick with the program. Each night I go to bed, beerless, at 9PM. I strap on my CPAP, hear the motor start up, feel the pressure inflate my sinuses. I lay on my back with my head half propped up on a special pillow like I’ve been directed to. I angle my gaze so I can stare into the darkness of my closet. Then I say my vespers, just as I was taught as a child:
O Lord, you have supported me all the day long. Now the shadows have lengthened, the evening has come, the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and my work is done. I ask in thy mercy to grant me a safe lodging, a holy rest, and if it be thy will, peace at the last.
But these days I end my bedtime supplications with, okay you little fuckers, come and get me.
Thaddeus Gunn lives in Seattle, Washington. His work has appeared in Brevity and SmokeLong Quarterly, and will be forthcoming in the 3rd edition of the “Writing Today” textbook.
–Cyclops frog Art by Mark Rain
–Transparent sleeper by Adriano Agulló
–Sketch by Dan Beard