Notes From the Unconscious

By Jacob Kiernan

About a year ago, I woke up in the middle of the night covered in a cold sweat and shrouded in nightmares—penance for some repressed sin, no doubt. I had hitherto been an unflappable sleeper, but since that night, I started waking almost every night. During the day, I was exhausted and spacey; at night, I lay prostrate and open-eyed. And as unexpectedly as my nighttime hauntings started, they began to let up, leaving me understandably relieved. That is, until the morning emails started to come.

“Yes, I did have a good time at the reading. We should go to another. A little late to be writing, no? Couldn’t wait until morning?”

The time signature on Julia’s email was 7:45 AM. The email she was responding to, sent from my account, was sent at 3:46 AM. It was four paragraphs of insufferable logorrhea lauding a mediocre author we had seen read.

That was only the first instance of what quickly became a horrendous routine. Sipping my coffee in the morning, I began to receive emails from friends and family nonplused by the fraught midnight messages they had received from an version of myself. Opening my outbox, I would discover dozens of emails sent from my account at three, four, and five in the morning.

The messages were packed with grandiose and melodramatic sentiment (which I prefer to save for face-to-face interactions). One read: “I know this is none of my business, but do you know if [name of ex-girlfriend] is dating anyone?” Humiliating. Another read, “I was remembering the time that we walked through the forest in Bonn. You had just finished your novel, and we got drinks on the edge of the Rhine…” The email was hundreds of words long, about a day years ago. I had hardly talked to the friend since.

What chicanery was this? None, it turned out. As I read on with growing horror, the experiences recalled and vocabulary used was undeniably mine. And yet, I had absolutely no recollection of composing these nocturnal epistles.

Reading the emails was a humiliating experience, and I bristle to think about it today. One message evinced saccharine affection for a girl with whom I had gone on a couple of dates:

“You looked so pretty in that sunflower dress—I fear I’ll never be able to get the image out of my head. And it was fascinating to learn so much about horseback riding. There is nothing more I would like to do than visit Wave Hill with you. What a wonderful way to spend an afternoon!” Needless to say, she did not respond.

Another email lambasted a friend for standing me up for a movie, which I enjoyed watching alone. I felt no resentment towards him—at least in a waking state. A third email, sent to my unsuspecting parents, effusively recalled sentimental memories from my childhood. My parents received the torrent with bafflement. The emails were coherent, emotionally stacked, and completely misrepresentative of anything I would ever communicate consciously.

I was shocked. My unconscious had slipped out while I was sleeping and betrayed me. Sending dozens of work and personal emails a day, I generally try to tactfully navigate the politesse required in a digital workplace. But this automatic writing totally abused those standards.

I read articles online about the dangers of technology for , proselytizing the importance of avoiding screens before bed—an obvious and yet totally unrealistic piece of advice. I talked to friends, one of whom had had a stint of sleep texting, unconsciously returning messages that she was anxious about during the day. Knowing that I wasn’t alone—that others had a similarly literate brand of what’s known as parasomnia—did little to ameliorate my embarrassment.

I yearned for the good old days of analogue letter writing, when you had to seal and stamp an envelope, there was the safeguard of diurnal post office hours (in some imagined sepia tone). With the touch of a button, my unconscious was parceling out screeds to anyone whose contact information I had.

The problem got worse. More messages went out. I needed a strategy, and I needed one last night. I moved my phone and computer out of my bedroom, took them offline before I went to bed. Then I created a document on my desktop called “sleep space” and left it open every night as a playground for my subconscious.

Night after night, the document grew. Some nocturnal part of my brain seemed programed to switch on around three o’clock in the morning while my physical body slept on; fighting it was futile. But reading over my sleepy scribbling the next day, I often discovered the inchoate feelings that my waking mind was too busy, or too busy repressing, to grasp. Among the overblown language and overwrought emotions, I excavated precious memories and buried ruminations.

I couldn’t get back the raw and zealous messages that I had sent. But this sleep writing has given me a window into my unconscious to which I did not previously have access. I just need to make sure that the window doesn’t open too wide. Repression, after all, has its advantages. Ask anyone with an ex.

Tags:  Personal Essays Sleep Unconscious

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