Fear of Self

Somewhere in this sprawl of sleepless hours is my father, and the destruction of his aging brain. Dad, now seventy-three, has been diagnosed with acute dementia. In the dementia, as it opened, he began to forget how to get to places he had been many times before outside our home. He would find himself driving deep into the country in his small car, with a cell phone he could often not remember how to use. I find the meatloaf in the cabinets with the clean dishes. Bowls of cereal wrapped under foil in the freezer. Many days he cannot answer any question. His eyes deep in his head–in the image of someone who has not at all been sleeping–though now sleeps more than he ever has. His usual bedtime of 10 PM drawn back to eight then seven. The other day he went to bed at four in the afternoon. My mother stopping him in the hallway, asking him to come sit with her, it’s not that time yet. “I know what I am supposed to do,” he said.

Recent nights now, among his waking, my dad might not recognize the bed. Suddenly the room is not the room he’s slept in all these hours–my parents having been married more than forty years. He often does not remember the marrying, or what her name is. He talks of going back to the home where he grew up, a farm that since has been sold, the house dismantled. The house, though, still there on that air. The same roads leading to it, as a tunnel. The years he spent there, bodied as a boy. The negative house, in its destruction. The sleep-kill in the flesh. I honestly can’t say, as I write this sentence, that my father will be here by the time I finish with this manuscript, another book. When I say here, I mean in body, as he is already often gone inside the mind, except in moments, in slow glowing. More hours there seems not anyone there in those wet eyes–or worse, the someone once there trapped under many layers, some force within him repeating in reverse. The skin around his skull. The hair. How he will often, in the midst of worst forgetting, put his head down in his hands.

Sometimes standing in the same room with my father now when he looks at nothing and sees nothing and responds to my speaking to him with more gone, I feel as if I have been awake for many years all in one moment and there is nowhere else to go. But I do go. I leave the room, because honestly, I am frightened. And yet at night now I’ve been sleeping better than I ever have. The present terror, perhaps, of certain kinds, forms a kind of hands, enough to at certain presences hold you under water, even further down, more than the blank rooms overflowing, again, the houses and those years.

In the afternoons my father walks around the house holding keys that do not fit the car he is no longer allowed to drive. His dementia, which he does not believe in, and his recent glaucoma eye condition, which he does not believe in, have at last overcome his ability to respond in traffic, to find his way home. We have had to take his Corvette from him, hide the keys to all cars, as in his frustrated anger he will try to fit into the ignition anything that glints. His waking hours a series of nervous limbs and huffing, a spiral loop of thick obsession over the idea of when he will again be allowed to drive. That he will not, that his eyes aren’t legally okay now, brings furious terror to his skin–the breath and blood underneath his face skin welling as on days when I was adolescent and would test his nerves by saying stupid things. “I’m blind! I’m blind!” he shrieks into the house during day hours, throwing his hands up, in mockery of our concerns. His recent new glasses in their fabric-lined case, which he carries around the house as evidence, in his mind, that he is a prisoner in here, surrounded, though it is less his eyes and more the fact he often does not recognize where he is, that even my mother seems a stranger, that he speaks of his passed parents as if they are waiting for him in an old house that does not exist. We can’t bring up these things to him directly–try explaining a mirage to the air upon which it is formed. Instead, we hold ourselves around him in the air as best we can, try to lead him back in patient speaking to the body of today, paring down the drift with knots of logic–“This is your home.” “There is no one in the glass.” “I am your son.”–though you can see the drift of the machine inside him wavering between actual air and his phantasms. Sometimes when he thinks we are not watching he gathers the keys that fit the storage closet, the doors to underneath the house, going back and forth from where the cars are as if this time these other, tiny keys might fit, much in the way I would wander with the plastic key sets tight in my hands waiting for the day they would find the moving thing that they unlocked. Wishing I could take the childish sense of calm about them that I had then and touch my father’s forehead with it, let him rest. It has been the fastest longest year I can remember, bumping in old rooms where a suddenly descending veil of awful air crawls at the walls.

From the pharmacotherapy manual I borrowed from a friend’s mom to study sleep medications, there are further sections on stages of cognitive decline, which in their clinically emotional language read like the last year or two of Dad’s waking life, often not too far-flung from an extreme state of the sleepless, despite his now sleeping more than ever, day to day:

Stage 4 (Late confusion) Patient can no longer manage finances or homemaking activities. Difficulty remembering recent events. Begins to withdraw from difficult tasks and to give up hobbies. May deny memory problems.

My mother at the kitchen table certain afternoons with the reams of foreign paper spread around her, wearing reading glasses over the checkbook, the way I remember Dad had always done. The way the eyes change behind the glasses, larger, dimensioned outward toward nowhere.

Stage 5 (Early dementia) Patient can no longer survive without assistance. Frequently disoriented with regard to time (date, year, season). Difficulty selecting clothing. Recall for events is severely impaired; may forget some details of past life (e.g., school attended or occupation). Functioning may fluctuate from day to day. Patient generally denies problem. May be suspicious or tearful. Loses ability to drive safely.

The cereal bowl covered in cellophane inside the crisper drawer this time. The closet. The blue bowl of cranberry juice left on the counter. The way my father will return to the same common roles over and over, eating more than ever, sleeping more than ever, showers at 3 PM, glassed in inside how he cannot remember exactly what he’s already done.

And just beneath this, what is to come:

Stage 6 (Middle dementia) Patients need assistance with activities of daily living (e.g., bathing, dressing and toileting). Patients experience difficulty interpreting their surroundings; may forget names of family and caregivers; forget most details of past life; have difficulty counting backward from 10. Agitation, paranoia, and delusion are common.

And then:

Stage 7 (Late dementia) Patient loses ability to speak (may only grunt or scream), walk, and feed self. Incontinent of urine and feces. Consciousness reduced to stupor or coma.

The average period of onset herein being eight years. His mind inside him ending before the body, dragging the body behind it, in revolt. How of all the doctors my father’s seen in the past months, their most common observation is what great shape his flesh is in–how were it not for his gradually destructing synapses, he would seem so young for his age. If it were not for those holes.

That at first I’d begun to type these stages out for how their shift bumped against the strange glass of prolonged waking, and in the recitation finding my fingers stuck hard to the keys. Knowing only slightly, sidelong, how perhaps that shifting seems, as insomnia does, like being locked out of a large, comfortable house and into a mirrored room where air is heavier, under oil. Standing at that old familiar window seeing people passing, with each revolution seeming less and less like anyone we know. The tunnels of terror-walking growing tighter, warmer, leaner to the face, approaching a shapeless, shaking destination that seems further off the nearer it becomes. As if I could parse that, here, in my soft body. As if any inch of his descending, glazing mind could here be gleaned. My hours spent seated low in front of this machinic glow box typing these words out instead of standing with him, standing in the light of his remembrance while it remains.

Here I am not asking, not saying, moving past, for how these hours, new to him, for me repeat. That how, in my father’s blanking and often disoriented, disturbed flesh, in his forgetting, confusing ways he’d walked inside of so long now every day–how underneath that, in the moment, in the sheer bulk of his frustration, the bulge of his tongue pressed in fury behind his bottom lip, same as mine in the same spot–how in the deliberate way he chews, in all his pacing, staring, seeing, I see him still right there–caught or clogged inside a self of other self, a fully breathing body mask–how underneath that, at its center, beyond the fluttered veils, and no matter how gone–he is there. And in him I still see him, however tattered, however pulled apart in his own form. The food he eats and eats, in his forgetting of what he’s already put inside him, building the body’s rooms. Obsessed with how the house is empty. The hours seated, still. The two pairs of jeans he folded over his arm in the mind he’d be leaving to live inside “the homeplace,” his parents’ house, that phantom body, still packed inside there with his instances of bodies of the living and the dead, though even when he sees them in the human air arrived to visit, he doesn’t recognized they’re there. How it seems profane to mention the way for years my father said and said again he’d rather get turned off than be out of his control. How in his saying that, then, it seemed a joke almost, like some unmade day that would, could, never come.

The days continue coming anyway, regardless of how long off they are. Regardless of all these rooms hidden online or on film or in air, how many hours we could spit into machines. My father in the afternoons still watching NASCAR, younger men behind the wheels of cars he can no longer drive. How earlier this way it crushed me in my body to watch him stand before the TV with his coat on and keys still in hand as the race emcee shouted “Gentlemen, start your engines!” and my father’s arms did not move. The race being the Daytona 500, where my father would go each year with his brothers to watch the cars do circles live, and with them together eat and drink. The circling. The circling. Days coming. Night.

“Where is everybody?” my father asks most times I see him, in the strings of days, coming from rooms alone into rooms where there I am–as if in days before the rooms would teem with people who have since then become disappeared. Seeing the thinning returning to my sleeping recently now after long periods of better evenings seems, since my taking notice of it, to have reinforced its gait, as the last few days now in particular I’ve been up still when the sun rose, still thinking the same things. Seems like it’d been forever since that flopping grouse wound and unwound me, flopping unmeasured patterns on the bed–and yet familiar, like a room inside the house I’d been in a billion times until I’d forgotten it was right there on the air. The copying cycle returning cleanly as if it had never been gone. The familiar, but never less disruptive seize, that same blank awaking its unawaking in my brain.

With my head folded in the lip groove of the pillow, the contents of the skull seem heavy, warm. As if a fat field buzzing there between the skin, a bug light waiting to give zap. I do not want to think this thought, and so it thinks me, harder. Not that I could tell you better now, because of this, anything about it. Close up, the string seems even shorter. The knot of thoughts that eat the hours mostly circling that small series of ideas, which in removal seem a flat blur. Eight hours passed flat on the back, feeling like twenty hours minute to minute, but like two or three in retrograde. The longest, fastest night. The residual refrain: Please stop thinking. Please, this is the end now. I will silence myself and lie still. The clock will no longer continue rolling. When I stand up, I will feel real. Among the day here in the house with the forgetting man the blank spots stretching larger for each time I instigate them, and in the making. All the hands at all the buttons. All the brains. I write the paragraph and then delete it. I open and close files, staring at words. I can feel something stirring in me, in there, wanting out, and yet the doors at best revolve–pumping in and at themselves in want of wanting. Eating. Refreshing faster, faster, for more new. All those finite people in any image, cells in some black fabric, spreading, under night, dismantling the self in other aura, awake but not awake.

Most days, my father, recognizing mostly nothing, walks around the house for hours without pause. I have seen him walk in dark along the hall to the room where he has slept for years and years here, stand inside it staring, come back out. I have tried to ask him to come into a room where I am in here typing and stop and speak to me. When I ask, he asks me to take him back home. He says this is not his home, here–the house he’s lived in forty years. He says, “I’ve been around here all day and I’m ready to go now.” He does not recognize the backyard or the bedroom. The lights in the hall are often off. In his sleep in the chair before the TV he talks to no one, often laughing, speaking a language of somewhere far off and rolled. Shut in a dark of heavy nothing, a film made of no light.

Tonight inside the house I’m in nothing will stop. The air seems not air at all, made for our breathing, but empty space; the telephones inside the rooms and all the rooms of houses here surrounding about to ring; the bodies through the window sometimes passing and when not passing always about to be again, any of them someone who might turn and walk toward the window, press their face against the glass, see me seeing them, and say a word.

My father as a younger man. My father in the hours of the day he and my mother made me–what he ate, heard, what he said, what doors opened or songs sung. As in the people, minutes, in any body’s mind there buried, fit into a gray made flesh. As in along the hall the hand-sewn quilts hang parallel on the wall’s far side to, in many rooms, books in bookcases full of words, words rendered and waiting, never to be opened into light again, unless.

Tonight the night is still the night. The crush of no noise at all for right now that seems to permeate the air. The latch on the thin window. Bodies passing on the other side.

The skin that freed itself in friction from the arm of Borges as he walked from room to room on the day he first bumped upon the thought of a space containing all possible books.

Last night, abutting this one, predating whatever else, maybe, perhaps I grab a random book by its spine among the many lining my loft with its high ceilings, out of some drift where any book is any book. Perhaps I read from the page to where it opened up: “There are things you can think about,” the book says, or said, is saying, “where if you follow your thoughts in, no one will ever be able to get you out.”


BLAKE BUTLER  edits the lit webblog HTMLGIANT (http://www.htmlgiant.com) and reports weekly on books and literature for Vice Magazine. His most recent works are the novel There is No Year and the nonfiction Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia, both from Harper Perennial in 2012. He lives in Atlanta, GA.

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TNB Nonfiction features some of the web's best essays, excerpts of up-and-coming books, self-interviews, profiles, and humor from a wide range of authors. Past and future writers include Emily Rapp, Mira Bartók, Nick Flynn and Melissa Febos, among many others.  Our editorial team includes:  SETH FISCHER is the Nonfiction Editor. His work has appeared in Guernica, Joyland, Best Sex Writing, and elsewhere, and he was the first Sunday editor at The Rumpus. His nonfiction was selected as notable in The Best American Essays, and he has been awarded fellowships by Jentel, the Ucross Foundation, Lambda Literary, and elsewhere. He is also a developmental editor of nonfiction and fiction, and he teaches at Antioch University Los Angeles, UCLA-Extension, and Writing Workshops Los Angeles.

One response to “Excerpt from Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia, by Blake Butler”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    This is beautifully written and yet so heartbreaking and so terrifying.

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