Lately I can’t sleep.
When my then-girlfriend and I lived together, sleeplessness was her role, not mine. I’d wake in the dark, disoriented, to find myself alone in bed in our apartment in Cambridge. “Amelia?” I’d call. Sleep slurred my speech: Meelya?
“I’m out here,” she’d say from the living room. “I’ll come back to bed in a minute.” As often as not I was out again by the time she slid back under the covers. If the movement disturbed my sleep, I’d shift over, skin against skin, to throw an arm or a leg or both across her.
In the morning I’d ask: How long were you gone before I noticed? The answer was always under sixty seconds, often closer to ten, just long enough for her to settle into the couch and open up Reddit. And: How long did you stay out there? Just a few minutes, she’d tell me. When I called out, she’d think, What am I doing? I could be in bed, with my girlfriend.
“You’re such a good sleeper,” Amelia would say to me, half proud, half envious. She knew exactly when I fell asleep, too, as my limbs gave off a sharp, involuntary twitch that was rarely enough to stop the fall. I hadn’t been a good sleeper before. Through high school and college I’d slept lightly, roused by nightmares and footsteps in the hallway and wind outside and dripping faucets. But now I slept soundly, my cold skin pressed against her warm back. When a noise did wake me—a critter scratching its way through the pipes in the wall, or a man shouting obscenities somewhere down the street—I lay in the glow of the streetlights and the big rainbow Microsoft sign across the road, knowing that if I woke Amelia up, she would let me hide under the covers while she checked the kitchen and bathroom to reassure me that there was nothing there.
The last time I couldn’t sleep properly it was winter in New Hampshire. Not too snowy but bitterly cold, hopelessly dark. I kept the thermostat at 60 during the day, 65 if I was feeling decadent, and 50 at night. I bundled up in sweaters and bought an electric blanket. What little sunshine filtered into my apartment was never enough. On mornings when I didn’t have to be anywhere right away I lay in bed long after my alarm went off, telling myself that I needed to get up but unable to make myself do so. At night I kept myself awake worrying about sharks.
It didn’t start with sharks. It started with Fighting Fire, a memoir I read that winter. The author, Caroline Paul, was for a time a firefighter in San Francisco, and in addition to battling literal blazes she trained to do general rescues. She pulled people out from under subway trains and smashed her way into back rooms to find trapped children while other firefighters wielded hoses. And she did ocean rescues—looking for bodies, sometimes, or swimming out to aid in securing a man who had swum out to sea to die.
It was that man who captured my imagination. In the dark of winter, I’d begun to plot my own demise. This befuddled me even as I considered options. But I’m not even suicidal, I thought, and when spring comes this is all going to seem very stupid. I could see this but could not dredge up the energy or curiosity to ask myself why I could not get out of bed, why the ocean called to me. Still I stockpiled razor blades, and still I fixated on this man, this suicidal man swimming far out into the ocean. He’d gone in the day, stripping off his clothes and swimming farther and farther while bystanders yelled at him to stop, to come back, but I imagined an inky black sky and an isolated stretch of beach. He’d swum west, presumably, out from San Francisco, but I imagined him swimming east into the Atlantic. Later, looking for the scene Paul wrote about it, I questioned whether I had the right book. Surely it had been a book by a firefighter on the East Coast?
I was a strong swimmer. How far would I have to go before I tired? I thought of the movie Gaataca, in which Vincent, the main character, finally beats his brother in a swimming contest by choosing not to save any energy to get himself back to shore. When would I reach the point of no return? Would I turn back before then?
The ocean was a bus ride away, and an isolated stretch of beach even farther, so I thought instead of the river dividing New Hampshire and Maine. I’d read Final Exit—a manual for suicide, though its purpose was voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill rather than suicide for the depressed—in high school (my friends questioned why I would find it interesting; I questioned why the school library had a copy), and I remembered the author’s comments about the cold. Freezing was a relatively painless way to die, he said, and “Death comes quickly in bitterly cold water from hypothermia.”
I fixated for a while on this idea of hypothermia, knowing as I did so that I hated cold too much to succeed. I would give up, and then I’d have to walk the three miles home in cold, wet clothing, and I might end up with frostbite and missing fingers, and then I’d not only have failed but have failed spectacularly. My dislike of the cold made this a good option, a safe one. I could make plans to freeze to death in a quiet stretch of river without any significant chance that I’d actually put those plans into effect. I trusted that as it got warmer, I would stop thinking of self-destruction. Still, I kept turning back to the ocean.
As children, my brother and sister and I played a computer game called Museum Madness. In it, a boy goes through a museum, solving puzzles at each exhibit. We rarely, or perhaps never, made it to the end, but because there were so many puzzles and they could be played out of order we did not mind much. Few of the puzzles stayed with me as we got older and moved on to more complex games—and on to the Internet—but there was one puzzle that took the boy into the ocean.
We played this game in the 90s, and compared to contemporary computer graphics, these were laughable. Still, when my sister, a year older than I, played this puzzle, she begged me to sit by her. She didn’t like the crushing feeling she imagined, looking at this boy in a bulky orange diving suit deep under the water. (Perhaps it was not orange—perhaps there was no bulky diving suit at all—but that was how it stuck in my memory.)
This was silly, we both knew. She wasn’t under the water but safe in a warm, dry house in Michigan, an hour’s drive from the nearest Great Lake. But I understood as a child, and I understood as an adult. I remained a strong swimmer. I’d swum across small lakes and been a lifeguard, and I could, and had, tread water for hours. To do so, though, I had to consciously close off the part of my mind that wondered what was under me in this pond or lake or ocean. What lurked in the depths? I did not want to know.
“The wide, detached silence continues,” writes Paul. “This man wants not just to die, but to disintegrate slowly, to swim while feeling drops off into the cold—first the fingers, then the face, then the legs. Swim until he could feel nothing and then slowly sink. It is a gentle way to die—I have seen a lot worse—but this passionless agony seems even more terrible than a gunshot wound or an intentional overdose.”
He was expressionless, she says. The ranger who reached him first—Paul’s team arrived in time for the later stage of the rescue—said that “‘He just kept on swimming. Kept on, until we got to him and then he just stopped, just lay there trying to sink.’”
That would not be me, I thought. I would fight, or cry, or something, even as I willfully took myself into the depths of the ocean. But I would also pick a time and a place when I was not likely to be seen. I struggled over the details: better to go when the tide was going out, not in, so that I would not have to fight the waves; better—because, although I knew it was cruel, I wanted to be a mystery, hard to identify if found—to leave my ID at home and instead take money for the bus fare…but one bus fare, or enough for a return trip? I wondered if I could turn off my panic at the vastness of the ocean long enough to drown in it. I worried about sharks.
When I was a lifeguard in college, sharks proved to be one of my hardest fears to shake. Never mind the obvious, that I worked at an indoor pool, where the only wildlife came in the shape of humans in swimsuits. Awake, I did not worry for a second about sharks in the pool. I worried instead that the man with the uneven front crawl, whom I privately dubbed the “dying-duck man” for the way his left arm flopped inelegantly into the water, would keel over and die, and I would be unable to save him. I worried that the divers practicing in the deep end would break their necks. Asleep, my subconscious mind ran rampant. I dreamed that a teaspoon was drowning and I had to work frantically to save it—CPR on an inanimate metal spoon was no joke—after which its owner, who had been so desperate for me to succeed, tossed the (now breathing) teaspoon into the trashcan and walked away. I dreamed of shadowy fins under the surface. I dreamed that there were sharks in the pool, chasing my friends. I woke shaken, fully aware that there would be no sharks at my next shift, or the shift after that, or the shift after that, but wishing I had not taken this job nonetheless.
When I was no longer a lifeguard, I could see that, though I had been fully trained, I was not mentally ready to be responsible for other people’s safety and lives. The shark dreams had had nothing to do with sharks themselves. I had never seen a shark outside an aquarium and had no particular reason to fear them. I had never even seen Jaws. The job had simply unsettled me. Sharks had posed no threat to me in college, and they posed no threat to me in New Hampshire.
Yet sharks still made me shiver. They brought to mind looming forms in vast, gray-blue backgrounds. They brought to mind razor-sharp rows of bloodied teeth. They brought to mind certain death. When I looked for books about them, I found titles like Demon Fish and Devil’s Teeth. In Adrift, a memoir of being lost at sea for more than two months, Steven Callahan describes sharks circling his raft and butting up against it. I read this and shuddered to think of the raft in the yawning ocean, sharks closing in. Popular culture treats them as solitary and vicious, able to hone in on the smallest drop of blood: don’t go in the water if you’re bleeding. Watch out for sharks. And truly, a shark attack sounds like a terrible way to die—thrashing bloodily in the water, wounds gaping, a shadowy predator lurking somewhere below before it lunges in for the kill.
A terrible way to die, and an unlikely one. They’re maligned, sharks. In the book Grunt, Mary Roach investigates military science, including military research into shark deterrents. The U.S. military has not, she finds, made any great strides toward repelling sharks, though not for lack of trying…yet she learns also that sharks have not been trying. Sharks can smell human blood, yes, but “If you don’t look or smell like dinner, you are unlikely to be so treated. Predators are attuned to the scents of creatures they most want to eat. Sharks don’t relish human meat. Even though a shark can detect human blood, it has—unless starving—no motive for tracking it to its source.” They’re bloodthirsty, maybe, but not thirsty for human blood.
Then there are the numbers. While the U.S. NOAA estimates that an average of 310 people are struck by lightning in the U.S. per year, the International Shark Attack File investigated reported attacks and found, for 2016, only 81 unprovoked shark attacks worldwide. This did not account for things like “provoked” attacks (when, for example, a diver grabbed a shark and the shark bit the diver) or “boat” attacks, but even with those—and every other reported attack the International Shark Attack File investigated, including those that turned out not to involve sharks at all—the numbers do not approach those for lightning strikes.
In other words, I am more likely to be struck by lightning than to be attacked by a shark. More likely to die of that lightning strike, too, when you consider the average of 31 lightning-related deaths (10% of strikes) in the U.S. compared to 4 shark-related deaths in 2015 (4.9% of unprovoked shark attacks) worldwide. In the U.S. alone, I’m an estimated 75 times more likely to die by lightning than by shark. But thoughts of lightning do not keep me awake at night.
What is it about sharks? Faced with even a hypothetical crush of inky water and swelling waves, perhaps it is easier to focus on something relatively small, concrete. Perhaps a shark is easier to fear than the ocean itself. Perhaps it is easier to imagine succumbing to that ocean than to find a way to claw out of the dark depths of winter. Deep in a New Hampshire February, I could only vaguely conceive of the idea that winter would end, and it was not until spring came, bringing with it the sun, that I could lift my head and say, Oh. OH. What happened back there? Was that what seasonal depression feels like? Seasonal depression, if my temporary ocean-and-shark fixation could be called that, had pressed against me with the weight of a full fathom five of water, but I’d been able to see only the circling sharks. I’d focused on their coldness, on their solitary nature. On the predatory glint of shark eyes, of depression, that says I cannot be reckoned with.
Perhaps, though, that focus was misplaced. Dig a little deeper and find that sharks can be strategic and sociable and downright curious. The sharks investigating Steven Callahan’s raft when he was adrift might have been doing just that—investigating. Had he been in the water rather than in his raft, they might have bitten him, less in targeted attack than to find out just what he was. But Callahan was not bitten, and he lived to tell the tale. Scientists and adventurers, of course, have swum with sharks and survived. They would not make good pets, would not make good lifeguards. And yet—curious. It is hard to unilaterally fear something that can be described as curious.
More and more sun slipped in through the windows. My mind and body woke, and with them so did my own curiosity. The ocean stopped calling.
Sharks do not sleep as mammals do. Many shark species must keep moving in slumber, bodies restless even if minds are calm, to push oxygenated water past their gills. They are drifters. They, too, are restless at night.
Summer bleeds into fall, and lately I can’t sleep. I still think about sharks. Abstractly, now. And then I wonder, what do sharks dream of? Do sharks dream?