On the Fear of Never Waking Up

The early years of a cleft child are typically characterised by a series of surgical procedures, and my childhood was no exception. Chronic glue ear – a common consequence of cleft – also meant that I needed minor surgery to insert new grommets in my ear drums on a regular basis, an operation that was always done under general anaesthesia.

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that my earliest childhood memory should be from a hospital stint. I reckon I was about two years old, but I may have been younger. This is what I remember:baby-46806_640I am in the operating theatre, surrounded by doctors and nurses in dark green scrubs. I am just about to be put to sleep. As the anaesthetist holds the black rubber mask towards my face, I instinctively turn my head, straining my back to escape the foul smelling gas. Next, I give up a frightened cry, kicking my chubby hands and feet in a futile attempt to get away.

I am so hysterical that a doctor picks me up and carries me to a window to calm me down. I stop crying as my gaze becomes fixated on the movements of cars and people outside. Next, the doctor holds a balloon in front of me and asks if I will help him blow it up. Too late I realise it is a trick. My eyes close. It is dark. I am asleep.

I sometimes wonder if this memory is none of the sort, but a dream I once had. But whether or not this is an accurate telling of a real event, it does capture the very real feeling of powerlessness, sheer terror mixed up with furious resistance that I always experienced in the operating theatre.

For each time the anaesthetist approached with the gas mask, I instinctively flinched and began to shake my head violently to escape. Each time I feared that if I fell asleep, I might never wake up.

Eventually, I developed a resistance to going to sleep at night. What if I didn’t wake up? At the same time, I was also afraid of what would happen to me if I did not fall asleep. Would I die then, I wondered. What was more dangerous; going to sleep or staying awake all night?

I still carry this fear, and though I love a good night’s sleep, I always hesitate before closing my eyes and allowing myself to drift off. Even after all these years, I can’t fully trust that I will wake up in the morning.

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