Waking Up Twice

When I wake up twice, I retain conscious thought but completely lose control.
By Jarele E. Soyinka

My first memory is of me waking up in a white room. I have no idea how old I was at the time. I have no idea where I even was. But I was awake. I knew I was awake. For years, for billions and billions of years before then, Jarele Soyinka was non-existent. Or asleep, as I sometimes like to think of it. I was eternally asleep, and then I woke up.

And from that moment, I entered the march of human existence. I became a cog rotating to the beat of humanity’s circadian rhythm. It’s a cycle, really. You wake up, you live, and you fall asleep. You wake up, you live, and you fall asleep. You wake up from an eternity of non-existence, you live 80 or so years, and you fall asleep forever. Each human is having their short little waltz with time. A three step. One, two, three. Four, five –

Sixth grade was the first time my cycle was interrupted. My memory of the day is fuzzy, but I’m sure it began with the graceless ballet of my morning routine. I woke up in a green bedroom in my family’s California home, and rolled out of an oversized bed that creaks every single time you move. I probably dragged myself to a bathroom sink that was covered in toothpaste crust (tweenaged boys are gross). I hopped into the bath. With hot water raining from the shower head, my idle thoughts of life flowed to the meter of day-to-day monotony.

It was a standard routine, until the tempo increased. The thoughts in my mind sped up. I couldn’t control the ideas dizzyingly dancing through my mind. I was in so much pain; my anxiety attack was causing me so much pain. I wanted it to stop. I was begging for it to stop. My heart was racing, my eyes were watering, and I was on my knees pleading for the thoughts to end.
And just as suddenly, they were gone. There was a single misstep and the tempo went back to normal. Maybe my mind was unable to process the thoughts and simply paused, or maybe the thoughts became entangled and quickly devolved into something my brain could handle. At that time I didn’t give a fuck either way. I was too terrified.

It’s a process I call waking up twice. These thoughts were not new. Questions like: Why am I trapped in a state of existence? What defines my consciousness? What does it even mean to be non-existent? had come to me before. But never with this rapidity. When I’m asleep I have no conscious control of thoughts. When I wake up I regain agency. I can describe what it means to exist, what defines my identity, or identify patterns of the human experience.

But when I wake up twice, I retain conscious thought but completely lose control. My mind is bombarded with every existential monologue I’ve ever articulated. Minutes or hours of internal dialogue are compressed into seconds, and my mind is overwhelmed as these thoughts relentlessly invade.

Over the years I’ve managed to piece together my family’s history with mental ailments. Anxiety, schizophrenia, depression, etc. meant that the Soyinka family members have persistently rebelled against humanity’s rhythm. We come into the world, quickly adapting to the beat, and find our place in the species’ musical procession. But at some point, we break the cycle. We’re thrown offbeat and we wake up again. It’s happened to me, my older brother Bo, and my father.


Wole interrupted the cycle for the first time somewhere between 1967 and 1969. In Nigeria, there was a civil war on the horizon. Dad was a political activist, whose efforts in brokering a peace deal to avoid a bloody clash earned him 22 months of solitary confinement.

His daily routine consisted exclusively of waking up, eating, and sleeping. The days blended into weeks, which blended into months.

My dad probably increased the tempo on purpose. One time, in our family kitchen, he told me that “Albert Einstein came into my cell” to discuss philosophy and “William Shakespeare taught me” to form an identity through writing. For my dad, waking up twice involved hallucinations; their presence kept him sane. If humanity was going to shackle his movements and leave him with the metronome of life in confinement, he’d hasten the beat and introduce his own tango partners.

For my father, it was a blessing. He heeded Shakespeare and smuggled toilet paper into his cell in order preserve his identity through writing. His sanity clung to sheets of one-ply. But if you asked him if the nightmares that still haunt him multiple times a week were a blessing…

I’ve had dozens of anxiety attacks since then, most of them much less dramatic than the first. They almost always occur right as I’m falling asleep or taking a shower. My mind is unguarded, because I’m following a pattern that I’ve obeyed literally every day of my life. The first thought pours in and before I can regain control, I’m already overwhelmed by the unceasing flow of information.

An interesting part is that when I wake up twice my pupils dilate. The colors around me become desaturated, so my environment appears less vibrant. It causes the world to feel inauthentic. Humanity’s metronome seems slightly delayed. It almost becomes an existential crisis: am I offbeat or is everyone else? Humanity marches onward like there’s been no change to the meter, and I feel like an impostor mimicking their movements.

But without fail, I adjust. My eyes reset. My mind calms down. Or I physically fall asleep and when I wake up, I’m moving smoothly to the beat of humanity’s biological clock. Everything is fine. I’m back in circadian rhythm. I wake up, I live, and I fall asleep. I wake up, I live, and I fall asleep. I wake up, I live, and I hope that I don’t wake up twice.

—Magazine writer Jarele E. Soyinka can be reached at jarele.soyinka@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheJSoy.