Bad things happen when sleep fights back

Don't pick a fight with sleep. It will kick your ass.

I’m already feeling a bit dizzy. I know why — this often happens when this train of thought arrives — but I can handle it.

I think.

Deep breath.

This isn’t a story I’ve told before. My wife knows a lot of the details, my family and closest friends know some. But I’ve never sat down and written it all out, so I expect there’s some new information even for the people who know me best.

I’ve dropped a few hints, and shared some details. Here’s what I wrote for Webworm back in 2021, in a piece about leaving Evangelical Christianity that (until what you’re reading right now) was probably the most personal thing I’d ever written.

It happened to me. The cracks grew, then my faith — my worldview, my culture, my personality — shattered almost overnight into a billion irrecoverable shards. I couldn’t get any aspect of it back. It was gone. My entire life, I’d been talking to God, loving God, like he was a parent. Then, one day, he was worse than dead. He’d never really been there. I realised that who I’d been talking to was just... myself. There was no-one else. Just me, and the echoes in my head.

I would not wish this experience on my worst enemy. When I left the church I lost all but one of my close friends. I’d always been an anxious person and the gap in my life left by faith was eagerly filled by what, in hindsight, was fairly serious mental illness. I functioned, I found new friends, but my health suffered terribly for over a decade.

Here’s the other part of that story.

When I was a kid my sister and I were homeschooled by my mum for a couple of years. The horrible Christian school I’d attended had got too expensive, and probably also a bit too horrible. By way of example: the school used the A.C.E curriculum, which expected children to sit and work silently in tiny, 3-walled cubicles. You had to put up a little flag on your cubicle if you wanted to leave for any reason, and you had to wait for the attendant — teacher is too strong a word — to notice your flag and give you permission to leave. One day, I had to go to the toilet to pee, and my flag wasn’t noticed. I waved it frantically and yelled. No-one responded. So I broke the rules and ran to the bathroom, wetting my pants half-way there.

I was about six. I’ve never forgotten the awful shame of the bow-legged walk back to my desk —  only to get in trouble for leaving without asking.

So, homeschooling. Mum was determined to do a better job than that awful school had, and to her credit, she mostly did. I learned a lot more with her teaching me than I’d managed at school. But it was far from perfect. She got my sister and I another American booklet-based school curriculum called Abeka, and part of the course was called Health, Safety and Manners. This book featured a little dude in a problematic pith helmet called Safety Sam, a dog, whose name I’ve forgotten, and two little turds called the Manners Twins.

I instinctively disliked the Manners Twins, but I liked Safety Sam. He had a cool helmet, and a good dog, and he seemed to know his stuff. So when he told me, in comic strip form, that if you didn’t get a full 8 to 10 hours sleep or thereabouts every night you could die, I lost my tiny little mind.
Health, Safety & Manners 3, as pictured in a current Ebay auction. Safety Sam and the Manners Twins are pictured up the top.

I was a very literal-minded kid, and I took health stuff very seriously. There wasn’t much I didn’t find a way to worry about. I once read an account in Readers Digest about a middle-aged man who’d suffered a heart attack and freaked myself into thinking I had coronary disease. I told my parents about this, and I’m not sure how they kept a straight face.  We had a stethescope in the house for some reason and my dad took the opportunity to put it on and listen to my heart. I waited anxiously for the diagnosis. My dad’s face was grave.

“Son, I have very bad news for you.”

I almost died on the spot. If he’d still had the stethescope on he’d have heard my heart backflip and then race up to 250 bpm.

“You’re just fine,” he said, and laughed.

I didn’t think it was funny.

So, sleep problems. A mixture of Safety Sam’s well-meaning advice and worrying about other health problems — heart disease, brain tumours, whether or not I had accidentally cursed the Holy Spirit and was condemned to hell for all eternity — meant that I suffered horrible insomnia, from the age of about eight on to God knows when. I still got enough sleep, probably, but it took me forever to get to sleep, and consequently I developed an overwhelming obsession with getting to bed early.  We’d be at a family party, the other kids would be hyped to be up past their 8 o’clock bedtimes, and I’d be casting around looking for a place to nap, or begging my parents to take me home so I’d be able to get to sleep (and not die).

Once I grew into my teens I started to get over it. I found some friends that put up with my less-weird quirks and worked assidously to sand off some of the rougher edges. The sleep thing was one of them. Over time, I started to like staying up late,  rebelling against Safety Sam and his overzealous advice. After not waking up dead after several late nights in a row I discovered, as a lot of teens do, that I was a natural night owl. I’d regularly stay up and read past 2 AM. That created its own problems, like the fact that I could barely stay awake in school. I quite often fell asleep in morning classes and got mocked for it by students and teachers alike.

Once I started at Uni, it didn’t make any sense to break the pattern. There were parties to go to and even occasional study binges. I pulled most-nighters or all-nighters fairly often, fuelled by an absolutely spectacular caffeine habit.  I once stayed up all night working on a law assignment because I wanted to go snowboarding the next day. Halfway through, I got frustrated at my slow progress, so I forced myself to learn touch-typing as I went, reasoning that it wasn’t going to make me any slower. By the time dawn stirred itself, I had a completed assignment, a roaring headache, and the ability to touch-type. My friend and I went snowboarding as planned. I can’t remember the mark I got for the assignment, but it was good enough to pass.

Deep breath. You’re OK.

The funny thing with some traumas is that they might appear trivial or comical to outsiders while, inside yourself, they’re among the most consequential of the things that make you you. I don’t know how this one comes off, because like I said, I’ve never told it. And as always, I try to tell it funny, because what else can I do?

Any other way might feel too real, or hurt too much.

Working in bars was a natural progression in my second year of Uni. I was already an owl, and I needed money to live. It all made sense. I’d make room for the work at night and all the things I needed to get done during the day, helped by my faithful ally, caffeine. It had always worked before. Here is how I put it in a piece I wrote for a lifestyle magazine a few years ago:

Before quitting, I used coffee to not be tired during the day. Because I worked nights at a bar and had terrible insomnia, I was always tired, so I drank a lot. When coffee was unavailable I found other sources of caffeine. At the bar, V and Red Bull were always handy. I chugged them whenever I could. This, combined with seldom sleeping, a smoking habit and regular 5am drinking sessions conspired against me.

This is the bit I’ve never managed to tell before, but now I write it down, it’s coming out easy, because this story has been read by me to me in my mind a hundred thousand times.

I wasn’t quite well, you see. Something was up. In a far cry from my health-obsession days, I did my best to ignore it. The most obvious thing was a bad tooth. A piece of a molar had broken off and now there was a constant pain that I kept on top of by mainlining aspirin and chewing gum to cover up the horrible breath that I was acutely conscious of. But I couldn’t afford to get a root canal, so I worked most nights at the bar to save up. In addition to this, I was working on my Law exams — but I’d also decided to quit law and study journalism, and that required a fair bit of admin. And then there was volunteering for the student newspaper, and a friend and I were writing and preparing to shoot a short film, and I’m sure there was other stuff. I was a being productive, so damn Safety Sam and his bullshit! I didn’t have time to slack off!

I’d taken up running during the night, because I was feeling crook and figured exercise might help. You see some deeply unnerving things, running at midnight. I once saw a teenage girl crying her heart out in the gutter, as the sound of screams and crashing came from the house she was facing.

“Are you okay? Do you need help?” I asked. She leaped in fright.

“No! No, it’s all right. I’m sorry. Go away, please,” she said, shaking.

After that I realised that running around neighbourhoods at midnight made me an unnerving thing. But that wasn’t the strangest thing I did. One night, I suddenly threw myself to the ground and started beating and clawing at it, howling into the dirt. I remember doing this quite clearly. Part of me was in agony, and another part — a rational, dispassionate bit — was unimpressed. “Pick yourself up. Pull yourself together. Come on. What if someone sees?”

I still don’t quite know why I did this. It’s still incredibly embarrasing to remember, let alone admit to. Perhaps it was a precursor of what was coming. Some deep part of my mind was trying to warn me. Compounding the health and sleep troubles was the fact that I was slowly breaking up with Jesus, on account of him being long-dead and me realising that basing a substantial portion of my life around an ancient Middle Eastern god didn’t make all that much sense. Maybe it was all making me go slightly mad. It makes sense, writing about it now.

Deep breath. You’re OK. This is just a memory, it can’t hurt you. (Well, it sort of can, but we’ll get to that.)

It happened the day before Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve Eve, I liked to call it. I’d called my dad the previous night, December 22nd. I’d drive up to Kerikeri with my cousin on Christmas Eve proper, I said, but I wanted to work Christmas Eve Eve because I’d get double pay. Then I’d finally be able to get my tooth fixed, and maybe buy some presents for the family as well.

I woke up that morning at 7 am, having worked the previous night until about 5 am, smashing free V energy drinks the whole while. I hadn’t managed to sleep much, if at all, because I was nervous. In order to transfer from Law into Journalism I needed to go to an interview with two course tutors and explain why I’d be a good candidate, and the interview was early in the morning. At about 8 am, if I remember correctly.

I showered, shaved, cleaned my teeth (ow), drove to the interview. I didn’t have time for breakfast so I ate a Moro bar and slugged two coffees and chewed gum.

I have no memory of the interview besides sitting down and facing the two interviewers. I assume I did well, because they let me in to the course. I’d find that out later, after my hospital stay.

I went home. I felt terrible, so I had another coffee. I thought about sleeping, but my friend Jamie was coming over so we could work on our mockumentary movie script, which had the working title Kung Fu Survivor: Enter The Fu. So I watched Desperado, the Robert Rodriguez film starring Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek.

I don’t remember much of the film because my head was doing something odd. It was periodically buzzing, like my brain was receiving sudden snatches of activity broadcast from a beehive. In between whatever this was, it felt like it was full of cotton wool. It was as if sound and sight weren’t working right.

This wouldn’t do. Jamie was due over soon. I knew the fix; something I’d done several times before when I was really tired.

I put on the song Die, All Right! by The Hives and moshed like a motherfucker.1

When I say moshed, I really mean it. I thrashed my head around like a dog with a rat. Fuck my sleepy brain! It would wake up if it knew what was good for it.

Then, and I don’t know where this came from, I got the idea that Jamie wanted to meet me at the University library. I lived in a flat one block and one playing field away, so I decided to walk out to meet him there.

About halfway across the field I started to feel really strange. Colours worked differently. Trees loomed. The sky moved in a way that the sky shouldn’t and doesn’t move. The ground seemed to want to get to know me better.

I took a step. I stumbled. I was really dizzy.

I must be drunk. But that’s odd, because I’d only had a couple the previous night. This must be what LSD is like. I remember thinking that quite clearly.

I took another step. I tripped. I think.

I fixed my eyes on one of the playing field fenceposts about a hundred metres away. If I could reach that, I would sit down. I’d be okay. I took several steps towards it.

The world swam and spun



i am walking and i



how did i

i am not but i

a glimpse in a (mirror?) glass - window? i am

i am in dirt covered and with scratches and my face i am bleeding from my mouth and the blood has gone down my (split) lip and mixed with spit and foam and dribbled  all on my shirt and

i am not this, I am

. somewhere and

lurch and crash and stumble and horrified who was that

. people lift me and

are you okay? oh my god, are

walk in g h om  e

my Nokia phone chirps the text message tone

“Where are you? I’m at your place.”

i am in the field

…where is my hat?

texting “sorary I though hat you were at Uni Im combing back home now See you there”

“What the fuck happened to you?” Jamie asked me, as I lurched into the lounge room, probably. I don’t remember much of this bit, it’s mostly recollected from what Jamie told me later.

“I was drunk,” I said. “Must have passed out in the playing field.”

“You’re bleeding. You’ve got blood all down your shirt.”

“I was in a fight,” I said.

I should stress that I was not lying, not intentionally. My memory of the past few hours had been wiped and it wouldn’t come back for a while yet. In the meantime, my brain was frantically filling in the blanks with things it thought made sense.

But despite the effort I wasn’t making much sense at all, so a writing session was out. Instead, I changed my shirt and we got in Jamie’s car and headed to the Warehouse to get some supplies we needed for the film.

We walked around the Warehouse and I tried to make conversation. Slowly, I was realising something had gone hideously wrong. My lip hurt and my mouth was still full of blood. I felt sick. We got back in Jamie’s car. Memories started to come online, like the lights when you flip the breakers after an outage.

“I don’t think I was in a fight,” I said.

Jamie looked at me. “No shit.” The bar had me work as a bouncer on a quiet door sometimes when they were short-staffed, with a giant overcoat to hide my lanky frame, but I wasn’t the fighting type and Jamie knew it.

“I don’t think I was drunk,” I said. “Something happened. Something… happened. I think I need to see a doctor.”

He drove me without question to the nearest doctor’s surgery. It was going to be the emergency room, but we spotted a doctor’s on the way. They saw me immediately.

The doctor was brisk but kind. He listened to my halting story, now mostly complete with the actual events of the morning and some I wasn’t sure about, looked in my mouth, stitched up my lip, and asked questions.

“Do you take drugs? Specifically P, pure methamphetamine?”

“No, never.”

“Really? Please tell me if you do, there won’t be any legal trouble. Everything you tell me is confidential.”

“Honestly, no. I smoke a bit of weed every now and then. I smoke cigarettes a bit. And I drink a lot of coffee. Pretty normal,” I said.

“How much coffee?”

“I dunno,” I said. “If you're counting the energy drinks, probably about... 14 a day?”

“Hmm. That’s a lot. You should cut down.” A note. “Have you had a history of epilepsy?” he asked. No, I said.

“Well, I think you’ve had a grand mal seizure,” he said. “Except we call them tonic-clonic, these days.”

I felt my heart flip out and remembered that eldritch burst of colour and light or was it happening again right now? Is it happening again, right now? and I got dizzy again. I get dizzy again, as I write.

Deep breath.

“Doesn’t this mean that I have… a brain tumour, or something?” I asked.

“Not necessarily. It’s pretty unlikely, actually,” he said. “It’s more likely to be lifestyle factors, from what you’ve told me.”

Oh my God, I think, Safety Sam was right!

I breathed. “Alright. That’s good. I have to drive up to Northland, actually.”

“But I think we should send you to hospital anyway. Oh, and you can’t drive anymore.”

“I can’t drive tomorrow?”

“You can’t drive at all.”

I can’t remember if there was an ambulance ride to the hospital or if Jamie took me. I should ask him. Say thanks, in case I didn’t before.

Once admitted, I called my dad to say I wouldn’t be coming up tomorrow, like I’d planned. I didn’t know how to say it, so I tried to sound casual and chirpy.

“Why can’t you drive up? What’s wrong?”

I could hear the tension in his voice.

“I’m in, um, hospital. Uh, they think I had a seizure.”

I heard my father’s voice break over the phone.

“My son!” he cried. “Oh, my son, my son!”

“I’m okay! I’m okay, Dad. They just need me overnight for observation.” He cried. I think he said a prayer for me. I think he said he’d come pick me up. I wish I could remember.

The following morning, one of the neurologists came to see me with some interns following him around. Just like on Scrubs!  He asked if they could observe as part of their training and I said I didn’t mind. He asked me a few questions about how I was doing and then turned to the crew of junior doctors.

“Now, a case history. This young man’s story has similarities to that of a woman with no prior history of epilepsy who drove off the road at sunset, after suffering a tonic-clonic seizure. What might have triggered it?”

The students conferred. From my bed, I spoke up.

“It was a photosensitive seizure,” I said. “The sun was low, she was driving past trees, and they created a strobing effect.”

Silence. There might have been at least one low-hanging jaw.

“That’s exactly right,” the neurologist said. “Um, are you a medical student?”

“No,” I said. “I was studying law, but I’m going to do journalism.”

“I think you’ll be good at it,” he said.

I wish he’d been right.

Unfortunately, the next ten years or so of bizarre health problems were going to get in the way a bit.

I’m not sure how I got home from the hospital in Hamilton to Kerikeri. I think my dad drove most of the night to pick me up, but after the hospital, I don’t remember much. I don’t remember that Christmas or the days following at all, until a couple of weeks later where the memories get very, very vivid for less-than-ideal reasons.

Breathe. You wrote it down. You’re still here.

I don’t know how hard that is to believe, but it all really happened. Some bits are sketchy. I am not sure if the memory of me staring at my bloodied reflection is real, but I think it is. I definitely lost my hat. And I know that detail with the neurologist and his crew comes off exactly like one of those “and then everybody clapped!” fake stories made up for internet points, and I’m aware that I had some light brain damage at the time, but it did happen just how I’ve told it. And I’m glad it did, because it was reassurance I desperately needed that my brain still worked, that I was still me.

The reason I knew the answer, of course, was videogames. I’d seen the “PHOTOSENSITIVE EPILEPSY WARNING” displayed thousands of times when starting a console to play Halo or another game, and I’d often thought that the strobing from low sun coming through trees might set a sensitive driver off. In high school I’d even invented an (intentionally) stupid superhero called The Amazing Sockhead who used strobes to knock out baddies.

At this point you may be asking yourself “But what does this intensely personal story of a deep but very insignificant-in-the-scheme-of-things trauma have to do with self-improvement?” and the answer is, well, a lot.

I was trying to hustle, in my own ridiculous way, and I burned out so hard that my brain flickered like a guttering candle and — briefly — went out. And this tanked religion for me once and for all. Despite smartass hospital ward stories, I am no neurologist, so take what follows with a pinch of salt. To the best of my understanding, a tonic-clonic seizure is a little (and only if you are lucky) like turning a computer off then on again. For a moment, I was off, and the nothingness on the other side of consciousness that I experienced was the last straw for my tottering Christian faith. I went from believing at least loosely in a Heaven, to being convinced that there was a no-thing endlessness on the other side. I often wonder what might have happened had I had that seizure on my 400-odd-kilometre drive from Hamilton to Kerikeri, instead of in a playing field. I would probably be dead. It makes me feel that for a brief moment, I stood on the edge of a precipice and peered into the void.

I do not recommend it.

The seizure set off an extraordinary host of horrible health shit, including the return of my childhood sleep anxiety and insomnia, the eventual cure for which came from a self-help book! Yes, it does sometimes work. I’ll write about that next time. But if you’ve made it this far, I want to try to reassure you:

Unless you have a known, pre-existing epileptic condition, a night (or even quite a few nights) of poor quality sleep are unlikely to set off a seizure or anything remotely like one.

My experience was not just a night or two of bad sleep. It was years and years of bad sleep compounding with a genuinely excessive caffeine habit, poor-quality food, smoking, drinking, a terrible job, a terrible work environment, terrible stress and burnout, unhelped mental health issues, losing God as abruptly as a smartphone dropped from a rollercoaster, and like five actual minutes of frantic head-banging, and possibly more that I’ve forgotten to mention.

And, despite everything — despite the intense (mental) health stuff that followed and insomnia and becoming a parent with all the attendant sleep issues and much more besides — I have never had another seizure.

Spoiler warning for the next newsletter, I guess.

Breathe. It was nearly twenty years ago. You’re okay.

  1. Yes, this was really the song. I have never been able to listen to it since (or to any other song by The Hives). If the song comes on in a public place, I’ll leave. Luckily, that album turned out to not have much staying power. It’s a shame, because I really liked The Hives.