Sleep is sustenance. Sleep is solace and escape. Sleep is pleasure and comfort. Sleep is a reward and it's punishment for going too hard. Sleep is what happens when you're not living your life. Sleep is also, when you get down to it, keeping us alive so we can fight another day. It may very well be the cousin of death, but, then again, the only way to keep from getting the mumps is to get a little bit of the mumps, if you feel me and stuff.
Sleep is many things to many people. It's a magical property of human existence that is both total ordinary and yet reliably wonderful. If there's one downside to sleep, though, it's that sleeping is the opposite of paying attention to shit. Sleeping means your senses are disabled or at least dulled—your mind may be sensitive to the outside world, but it's also kind of busy turning itself (and your reality) inside out. You can't fall in love, make an urgent phone call or attend a funeral while you're more or less unconscious. And you almost certainly can't watch a movie or television show if you're nodding off every thirty seconds.
Yet for many of us, sleeping-while-watching is a very real condition (for now, let's not call it a problem). I used to be able to watch movies for hours on end, or binge-watch a series like it was a competitive sport. These days, I almost always pass out at some point. Sometimes it's a steady nod, which means tuning in and out with almost rhythmic precision. Then there's the all-out collapse, where I drop out for ten or fifteen minutes straight, usually near the end. At this point, I know better than to ever ask my partner what I missed because it drives her insane. It doesn't matter what gadget we use, where we're sitting or really even what time it is, provided, of course, that it's after dark. I can even pull this feat off in a crowded movie theater.
What have I become and how did I get here? There are several plausible, if boring as hell, explanations. I am overworked. I am overwhelmed. I wake up too early. I am so used to fiddling with my laptop or iPhone at all times that, in their absence, my brain just goes dormant. Maybe I've lost my passion for moving pictures. Maybe that's a byproduct of a job that, in some oblique way, counts as showbiz. I suppose I could hate everything about my life and see any form of relaxation as an excuse to slip into oblivion. If I really did feel that way, though, I probably wouldn't be making a joke about it in a public forum.
After careful consideration, I've come to the conclusion that I actually like watching stuff in a semi-conscious state. It's not a way of copping out, but a strange way of engaging with the slow, atmospheric stuff I tend to favor. I realized this last week, as my partner and I were working our way through the second season of The Fall. Get familiar if you aren't already, but without any spoilers, it's a show where a detective (played by Gillian Anderson) pursues a serial killer (played by some Jewish guy with a six pack). It's a never-ending game of cat and mouse, a slow-moving, fast-acting creepiness with all sorts of subtle shading and character nuance. The tension of hunter and hunted is flipped and twisted up in every single way possible. You can't help but be totally absorbed. I can't help but pass the fuck out.
Somehow, I've gotten to a place where some things only make sense to me when I'm on the verge of sleep.
The obvious conclusion to draw would be that either I don't like The Fall all that much or that I'm pretending to like it for the benefit of others. Or, again, that I'm just so far gone that even an infinitely compelling show like The Fall fails to really reach me. The thing is, I find sleep strangely compatible with something like The Fall, where the atmosphere and overall ickiness is what sticks with you for days. It's as much about how things happen as the actual mechanics of plot. I'd go one step further and argue that The Fall's mood of dread comes exactly from its sparseness, from the way it leaves ample room for tone to seep in, fill the air and leave you feeling queasy, petrified and totally alone. I get freaked out and excited just thinking about it. I also want to go to sleep.
A funny thing happens when you sleep: If it goes on too long, it's true, you just sort of stop being there and become useless to yourself and all those around you. But if you slip in and out, it can actual heighten the experience of something vague and mood-based like, say, The Fall. I don't mean to suggest that I view sleep as a drug, but toggling back and forth between a dream-like show and the actual state of dreaming can be powerful stuff. There are few things that make me as happy as falling asleep on the couch to classic film noir, sleeping an hour, then waking up and picking out a new one. There is definitely something narcotic about this ritual, not because the movies knock me out, but because I consume them in a heightened state that blurs the line between drowsy and exalted.
I feel bad for my partner, who has to deal with this troubling behavior. It must suck to feel abandoned every time you sit down with someone for a nice evening of screen time. I guess I also feel bad for myself, since this could very well be a long-winded way of excusing myself for, you know, basically not being able to do something that once meant a lot to me. And it's true, I would probably be a more responsible partner and better viewer if I could stay awake during The Fall. The thing is, on some level, I don't want to stay awake. That's no disrespect to my lovely wife, the amazing men and women who make shows like this or the critical establishment that expects serious viewing to take place with all faculties intact.
Somehow, I've gotten to a place where some things only make sense to me when I'm on the verge of sleep. It's like that moment of clarity you get when you're about to drift off, the one that has you fumbling around in the dark for a piece of paper and a pen in hopes of jotting down the thought before you forget. It's when certain things are clear and true and utterly impossible to ignore. In some ways, I never feel more awake than when I'm teetering on the verge of slumber.
Bethlehem Shoals is a writer living in Portland. You can follow him on Twitter here.