It is 4:23 in the morning. I am at the top of the beautiful, stupid staircase in my head.
Three months ago, during a trip to the dentist, I realized that I needed a staircase.
I arrived late to the appointment, struggling to contain the contents of an overburdened manila file. I opened the door with my hip while my right hand operated independently to check all my pockets in a futile search for my cell phone. The receptionist kindly accepted my little bow of apology and waved me in.
I got to a low-income clinic for artists where I seldom see the same dentist. This means that the novocaine talk must be had anew on every visit.
I looked into a pair of large, brown eyes above a paper mask. “I have a pretty incredible tolerance to novocaine.” (This presentation is infinitely preferable to the converse formula: I have a terrible sensitivity to pain.)
"Well, I’ll keep that in mind."
I didn’t believe this new dentist would keep that in mind. I believed that she had forgotten it already. I’m a relatively slender young woman and so dentists are reluctant to dose me as I’d like to be dosed. Which is as an elk calf.
The dentist began to prepare what I guessed to be a grossly inadequate shot of novocaine. Partially reclined in her padded chair, I regarded a magazine page taped to the ceiling. It featured a sandy sweep of ocean, a tropical dental getaway. I do not like to pretend I am in Mexico when I am receiving medical attention, even just for fun. The dentist administered my shot; the hygienist attended to her shining instruments; and we waited for my face to go numb.
Sensing the opportunity, my mind immediately shot off. It flipped through the remembered contents of my calendar, called out approaching deadlines, then scrawled a harried to-do list whose items ticked past too quickly to read. My mind which I used to consider a great ally, has turned into a sparrow, amped up on cocaine with red kaleidoscope eyes. It keeps me up at night. It talks over my phone calls. It strains towards the next task even before I’m finished eating, before I’m out of the shower, before I’ve properly greeted people, or put the car in par. More troubling, it seems to like me less and less. The dentist revved her drill, “Alright, let’s give it a try.” After thirty seconds of cautious drilling, I flinched beneath her. “You’re feeling me?” “Uh-huh.” “Something cold or something sharp?” I moved my hands. “You’re not sure. Okay, hang in there.”
She filled her syringe and talked me thought a series of injections, “Now I’m going to walk in backwards a bit here, breathe for me”
In the midst of the fourth shot, I wondered how much feather she’d have to sink the needle to get the sparrow. After a few sore minutes of waiting, we were able to continue, this time quite confidently. The dentist dispensed with her former delicacy and chatted with the hygienist as if they were alone in the room. The drill sent up little clouds of toothdust. I felt the numbness advance unevenly across my face - the way that armies advance across a map of Europe. The numb took over the left side of my nose, but could not bridge the septum. I felt it overtake the outer edge of my left eye, as thought I was blinking someone else’s lid. It occurred to me that I had asked for too much novocaine. That perhaps I was getting brain damage. I couldn’t drum up much concern. I was painless; I wasn’t late for anything; and the vibration in my jaw suppressed any real rumination. Quite possibly in the midst of a chemical lobotomy, my only definite thought was: It feels so good to lie down.
That’s when I knew that I needed a staircase. A filling appointment is not supposed to be the most tranquil part of the dat. I resolved that as soon as I left the chair, I’d start studying meditation, or mindful living, or eating flax seeds - whatever it took to dial down. I’d resist the staircase method in the past, because it seemed so New Agey. People who put themselves to sleep by envisioning their descent down a mental staircase are people who confer great agency to crystals. They are people who read books about spiritual healing with covers that feature pastel drawings of buxom in prayer. Yet here I am, in the early hours of the morning atop my very own flight of brain stairs. Self-hypnosis is sort of like trying to perform a card trick on yourself. The talking part of your brain must convince the rest of your brain to go to sleep without seeming too calculated. It has to seem casual. The details of the process vary, but my narrative goes like this:
You are standing at the top of a beautiful, white staircase in the middle of a golden pond. You will descend this stairs, into the iridescent water. With every step you’ll become more relaxed; the tension will lift out of your body and dissipate on the surface of the pond. Let’s begin…
So it goes, very deliberate and controlled, as I effectively drown myself to sleep. Although it’s nearly foolproof now, it didn’t work right away. At the beginning when I left myself drifting into sleep, the thrill of success would snap me back into full consciousness. Or I’d get impatient and take the steps too fast. When the water was at my shoulders a little voice of panic spoke over the hypnotist, This is not working, NOT WORKING.
Before my staircase, sleep seemed binary: I was doing it or I was not. I’ve now become familiar with the gradations of consciousness. On the first step I am impatient, hyperaware of every itch, unhappy to be on a staircase. On the second step I am better able to actually focus on the parts of my body that are asked to release. Between steps three and four, I find that my mind has taken an unauthorized vacation - just a little sweep of nonsense, maybe in the flash of a remembered conversation or a brief visit from some imagined third party. This recognition is usually enough to fully reinstall me on the staircase. I continue. But then, with the water at my waist, I find I have lifted my foot but can’t remember where to put it. Or I find that I have been standing still for what seems like a very long time. At that point I have only a few remaining moments of lucidity.
In truth, I do not know what happens after that. Presumably my limp body tumbles down, in the slow motion of an underwater fall. I lie at the foot of the stairs for hours. The current lifts my hair. Far away, other climbers roll down their own staircases and hit the bottom in a little plume of soft dust. I remain crumpled, breathing slowly until a pair of divers arrives to lift me to the surface where another day is breaking. Perched on the dry landing above, my sparrow looks on, waiting.
'Sleeping on the Stairs', a selection from Spiral Bound by Dessa.
Transcribed for Acadia Wynn.