Cure for Sleep: Terrible Questions
Season 3, 003: What's the most difficult question you've ever asked - or had to answer? One where you felt your whole world depended on it...
Welcome to Issue 3 in Season Three of The Cure for Sleep on Substack: this long-term companion project to my memoir of waking up, breaking free and making a more creative life. It’s a place where you can explore your own life’s most important threshold moments in the company of others who are also interested in revisiting their key times of choice, negotiation or conflict.
Two of the most difficult questions asked of me happen at the start and end of the book, the first from my husband, the last from my mother. The questions aren’t, in themselves, very terrible sounding:
Husband: ‘When are we going to have children?’ (p80)
Mother: ‘Do you love me?’ (p304)
And so the challenge for me was to convey their impact, as well as the deeper historical reasons why these were difficult for me to answer. Let’s look at how that works in the scene with Nye:
‘WHEN ARE WE GOING TO HAVE CHILDREN?
Nye’s question breaking the quiet of our New Year’s Day alone at home into sounds wild and discordant. A pigeon sobbed on our chimney top; outside, a child took a stick to the railings.
He’d put his book aside to look at me. Expectant.
I watched the light curdle and the small space between him and me separate, split. We were side by side in our ancient horsehair armchairs that had disgusted everyone but us when I bought them in my old hometown just hours before we married at twenty-five. Like yesterday, I thought, while realising, all of a sudden, that for Nye it may seem otherwise. A very long time ago, and too too much with just me for company.
Very slowly, reluctant suitor, I got down on one knee and reached for his hand while my dry throat tried to make tongue work.
Is this how our marriage ends? I did not say.
‘When are we going to talk about it, Tan?’ Tears in his eyes, a catch in his voice. ‘I’ve always wanted this, since I was a boy myself. To be a father.’
You are that for me, who never had one. This, too, I did not say.
What devices and word choices am I using here to convey the high stakes in this otherwise quiet domestic exchange?
Towards the end of that passage, you see another type of question emerge that becomes a repeating pattern in the story (as in my life): Of my not asking questions of huge importance to me. And this was another challenge in the book. To show the weight of those unasked questions. Their internal reality.
Here I am just weeks before the birth of my first child, at a last meeting with Yuri, the older man with whom I’ve shared an intense but platonic relationship across three years of monthly pub lunches and park walks. I’m certain he’ll never want to meet again now that I’ll always in future have a child on my hip:
I placed my hand on his, the first time, just a moment, fastidious as ever about his marriage: that circle he’d drawn around it at the start.
Do you love me a little, after all? No. I mean: Have I mattered to you? Will you promise always to remember me this way: a young woman in a lovely dress, just days before her first child was born?
All I wanted to ask, I swallowed. Pretending a need for the loo, I went to a cubicle and bit my hand that had just touched his until my tears and need to plead for love had subsided.
Now. This is a memoir not a novel. So all of those things really happened in the exchange with Nye and the one with Yuri. But it took me several drafts to get to that very naked revelation of feeling, of response. To select the right details. I had to feel it all again, fully. Really place myself back in those rooms. And then I had to allow myself to be unlikeable, open to judgement from the reader: not using those scenes to cast others as simple antagonists and me as the put-upon heroine.
It’s hard to return in memory and confront, frankly, our motivations, our stuck places, in relationship to others. But it can be powerful too: a way to begin our free movement away from those very same fears and compulsions.
Hence this month’s writing prompt…
your invitation to write
In 300 words or less, share a story of the most difficult question you've ever asked - or had to answer. One where you felt your whole world depended on it. OR: Share a memory of a time when you yearned to ask a question and didn’t. Recreate for us the place, the sensations, the stakes…
[Please read the guidelines for contributors if this is your first submission to the project.]
Throughout Season Three, I’m showcasing stories by subscribers who have each created a real body of work within the project, responding to multiple themes from the first two years of The Cure for Sleep. When this first piece from Sheila came through, I felt a truly unusual and very compelling sensibility had arrived in our midst…
The Human Hand by Sheila Knell
The human hand has 17,000 touch receptors…
and the star nosed mole has 6 times that just on the tiny forward facing star, this star that never shines, never grants a wish, a full of feeling star.
Think of how my hands might explode when they picked a wildflower if they had this power. What would happen when they scratched my dog behind her ears, this dog full of dirt and bits of burdock and raucous joy? Would they leave imprints on the shell when I pull a warm, freshly laid egg from the nest box, slip it into my pocket, and soon after crack it open for my children’s breakfast? Maybe sing when they pick wild black raspberries and turn them into jam? Sizzle wiping away tears?
I like to think my hands, these hands that brown in the summer, short nails, no paint, plain hands, no taper to the fingers hands, the pointer finger a little pudgy compared to the rest, blue veins popping hands, hands supporting these fingers, these carved away fingers, would sigh with relief as they write my story, each ridge of a fingerprint like growth lines in a tree, another story to tell. Perhaps, on a good day, these hands would giggle with delight, with truth.
[Facts about touch receptors and the star nosed mole from Great Adaptations by Kenneth Catania.]
How did you come to join The Cure for Sleep community?
I found Tanya after hearing her on the Wintering Sessions with Katherine May and felt this immediate connection. Her book came out and I read and underlined and dog-eared so many pages, finished the book and started it again. Absorbing the spirit of the book, I decided to take a chance, feel the vulnerability of sharing my writing here on Substack.
Where are you in your creative journey right now – and how does writing for this story-sharing community support that?
My creative journey is like a sun-blinded bee, not sure exactly where it is going, but buzzing along nonetheless. Growing up I did not feel creative, never entertained the idea of writing at all, so now, most days, it is just pure fun. I spend a lot of time outside and reading natural history and then wait for the muse to offer links to human longing. This space has opened up new ways of writing due to having a specific prompt and the requested word limit which challenged me to be more precise and experimental. I am continuing to take chances, learn more about writing, and recently started Kathryn Aalto's Nature and Place based writing course. The adventures will continue.
Based in a rural county of Pennsylvania, Sheila Knell is a mum, wife, friend, therapist, and woods walker who tucks pieces of paper into pockets and carries thin journals everywhere, stuffed in purses, work bags, backpacks, always ready to catch a word, a phrase, something that strikes. She watches how these words pile up, find each other, shift around until they are stretched out and comfortable, found art.
More by Sheila within the project: Voices | Rebirth | Desire
will you review The Cure for Sleep please?
As a valued member of the book’s community, you can help it reach more people by sharing your thoughts over on Amazon. What did you value in it? Who do you think it speaks to? Why?
Reviews are the main driver for how visible a book is online and thus hugely important to the long-term life and reach of a story. You can add your thoughts using the following link, scrolling down to the customer reviews section within Product Details. As long as you have an Amazon account, you can leave a review: you don’t need to have bought the book from there:
It has been a joy this month to start sending signed paperbacks out to some of the book’s very first hardback readers, people I didn’t know of until they reviewed it on Amazon and other channels. Although it’s not standard practice in the publishing industry, I asked that the paperback include their words alongside those from authors and media reviewers…
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let’s all say hello to each other…
Thank you to all of you who’ve already used the new introduction thread to say hello and share links to your own Substacks or other online projects. Do take a moment to introduce yourself if you haven’t already - it’s lovely to see people finding like-minds there…
Add your introduction and find out more about other members of our project
ask me anything…
about The Cure for Sleep or writing more generally! I have an always-open thread for this. I always try to give answers with links to further resources that might keep you good company in your own creative journey. Do read through questions asked by other members of the community too, in case my answers to them are of use to you too.
explore the story archive
Desire, time, longing, friendship, regret, faith, promises . . .
There are now hundreds of thought-provoking true tales on these themes and more in The Cure for Sleep story archive.
There are several ways to explore it:
By theme - all the stories, organised by monthly prompts
By A to Z - read a single story from each contributor
By name - search for all the stories written by a single author
author site | book site | twitter | instagram
Hello — this is my first submission. Many thanks to you Tanya for your unwavering encouragement!
I sat hunched and small, a fizzing bundle of self-hatred and yearning, a 22-year old woman in the front passenger seat of a small muddy Peugeot. Dusk spring skies darkened quickly. A sole blackbird chanted dutifully, highlighting the yawning silences between our words.
He spoke softly.
“But — do you not love me anymore?”
It had taken me months to get to this point. A slow process of noticing, feeling, knowing. Wishing otherwise.
It would be years before I would experience my own trust, my own heart, broken. But somehow I sensed it: that this was the worse side of the deal. That doing the breaking is worse.
My heartbeat was doing strange things. Speeding and slowing. My neck ached from cowed posture. I gazed up at the empty terrace in front of the car, felt my thumb rubbing against the fabric of the seat, searching for familiarity, reassurance.
I inhaled slowly, silently, and considered his question.
And considered what was beneath it. What was really being asked, by both of us, was not of love but: where do we go from here? Is this the end? Can we carry on, even if we want to?
I loved him, but that was beside the point, and I didn’t understand why. All I knew was the tight itch in the centre of my chest was whispering leave, go, stretch. This isn’t for you anymore.
So much about my life depended on what I said next. Oh, the vertiginous height of a binary decision. And right before I spoke I felt the weight of all that I knew I would eventually be brave enough to give up: the supportive family, the home to escape to, the friendship group. First love’s gentle adoration and sharp fierceness. Its history powerful, but not quite enough.
Thank you, Tanya, for encouraging me to contribute, and for writing such a phenomenal book in The Cure for Sleep! This is my first submission.
That deepest unspoken fear of mine: a seizure during sleep, and being found in the morning, dead in bed, haunted me. I have been scared to think wild thoughts in case it tipped my mind into riotous colour. Seeing sounds, chewing lips. I’d known for years before I had a diagnosis that there was something unusual.
I asked my neurologist gingerly, unable to keep the wobble from my voice: ‘When it feels like I am dying, am I really dying?’
Voicing the question that had privately troubled me for 15 years.
He was young-ish, probably about my own age, and he looked at my notes instead of at me. He paused, put down his pen and swallowed awkwardly in that magnolia-coloured box of a room we were in together.
‘No,’ he said carefully. ‘You’re not dying. Your brain just thinks you are.’
I breathed out for the first time in years and nodded, unspeaking.
He might have been feeding me a comforting lie.
But it he was, it worked.
Anxiety, which had been grabbing me and twisting me into hunched forms, lessened.
I took my fears and began weaving them into the tapestry of my life. Fear lifted for a couple of days or so at first, but then for weeks, until I realised it had been months.
No longer stuffed into a tightly closed box, my epilepsy became something I could speak about.
I let my wild mind untangle and stretch itself out, to create new things.
Ideas, long stifled – if I gave them room to breathe, I worried they would drag me in and damage my brain – were freed.
It left room.
And I grew into that space.