Notes on an Unknown Illness, by J. B. French

It starts at night. At first all is well, or as well as can be expected, mind placid and body exhausted, eight hours of deep sleep seeming an obvious and imminent given. There may be present an element of unrest: a slight hunger, the prospect of a lukewarm shower in the morning, or the way the pillow has a tendency to harden, become lumpy and uncomfortable not long after a head has rested on it; but for the most part, all is well.

When the chance for slumber has been somehow missed, when the mind floats from wakefulness to half-sleep and back again, it begins. This does not happen every night, which makes the condition hard to predict, corner, seize. When it does, it begins slowly, then suddenly; awareness is reached only after the event, when it is too late, if too late does not imply the possibility of prevention.

The urge for activity is not altogether unpleasant. This is what comes first, a floating sensation, like being drunk or high on a brand or drug of choice, but only just, control and coherence still retained, mostly, by the user. The urge in itself, the physical half of the physiological response, is not altogether a problem. The psychological half is not equal to the physical half.

An imperative forms, foggy and elusive. It’s not as simple as a manifesto on what to do, or as complex as a recollection of what could have been. It’s both and neither, something less and more in ways that are immediately clear lying in bed with eyes open or shut against the silence and the dark. The illness cannot be doubted at night. Only in daylight does it cease to exist, in the same way as dreams and nightmares. It is difficult to say whether a contrary reality would be better.

In the night comes an imperative divorced from that of the day. Downtime, so seductive in the hours after class, after work, after another venture in the vast and infinite world, becomes a sickeningly shameful waste. What is needed, now, is a plan, a course of action, purposeful fluidity. The paradox is that it cannot be done when it is needed most; lying in bed with eyes open or shut, the body lacks the energy to rouse itself, only the mind barking orders to be heard and ignored.

Arousal follows, inexplicable and explicit, mind jumping from memory to fantasy and body responding in turn, as if this response is the only one remaining that the body can afford to expend. It lingers, festers, sustained without release or the prospect of release, because even if the bed is not empty, even if the presence of other flesh or breath exists alongside another, it is unthinkable to act on the impulse, here, now, like this, a nocturnal animal, a predator dazed and confused. All that remains is to lie there motionless, throbbing or leaking, the imperative becoming one of a basic vitality that will not be reached.

And the question becomes one of identity. It does not seem possible to be one of the others, one of these people or those, in the light of day. The ultimate dilemma, the condition so badly requiring attention, is an eruption between two or more modes of being. Clarity deceives, day or night, seen or heard, spoken or written, and all pleasure is lost with the knowledge and fear that there is no way to tell what is true from what is false. Navigation becomes impossible, and the illness, whatever its form or intent, seems to grow into something somehow tangible, tyrannical, terminal.

This is not depression or anxiety, the onset or ending of some half-formed night terror. It is closer to a physical manifestation of the passage of time, and life’s vulnerability to it. The bed was once a place of comfort and security, whispering promises of a fresh start; only in recent months or years has it become obvious, admitted that there is no such thing, that slumber is no saviour in a world so short on saviours.


J. B. French exists.