Week Twenty-One: Nightmares


I want to tell you how it feels to wake up afraid.

I have a lot of experience in this area. I have had nightmares every night, regularly, since I was fifteen. I won’t say that I haven’t had nights where I get multiple hours of decent sleep, but I cannot remember a single night without waking up feeling fear. I must have slept peacefully as a child. Don’t all babies? We revel in their sweetness, the epitome of rest and innocence. I must have been like that, sometime.

Last night, I woke up screaming.

It’s kind of embarrassing when you are with someone else. Usually, I have to explain that nightmares are normal for me, but admittedly, it is pretty disconcerting to be slammed into consciousness by someone who is terrified and often can’t remember where they are – or who you are. I apologize. But, I can’t help it.

At first, in a relationship, I can usually avoid this scenario in a very simple way; I just never actually let myself fall asleep.  But, that is only sustainable for a while. Eventually it becomes a topic. “Let’s talk.” “I have nightmares. No, not just every once in a while, but all the time.  Yep, every night.” “No, there isn’t anything you can do about it.”

No, you can’t help me by waking me up gently / waking me up roughly / saying my name / yelling my name / holding me close / holding me in a different position / caressing my face / kissing my forehead / playing relaxing music / using a noise machine / giving me melatonin / recommending essential oils on my pillow / getting me drunk / giving me drugs/ no! really, not even that drug / singing me lullabies / opening a window /  / closing a blind / letting the dog sleep in the bed / calling a doctor / calling a therapist / getting frustrated / telling me tiredly “it’s just a dream” / putting in earplugs / rolling over and sighing / expressing anger / expressing your own exhaustion / talking it out / asking why / stomping out of the room / moving into the guest room / breaking up with / explaining that it is affecting you work / telling me I have issues / explaining this isn’t normal / apologizing / giving up.

I can’t help it. I’ve tried it all.  No, really! I’m actually so, so, so bored with myself and these nightmares. I annoy myself! Of course, I’d like to fix it. One therapist actually told me that the only way they’d go away is if I accepted I’d have them forever. So, I live with it.  The last doctor told me that I am now so anxious about going to sleep that I have convinced my body not to fall asleep for fear of having a nightmare.  Thus, I am having mini nightmares about having my nightmares.  I usually start awake about five times on average before sleep medication kicks in and overwhelms this little pattern. It, too, is annoying.

When the real nightmare happens, it is different.  I don’t just open my eyes and wake up. I usually have no idea that I am having the nightmare.  Let’s not talk about the content of the dream. This isn’t the essay for that.  But, it is scary. Losing control. Violence. Pain. Humiliation. Shame. Hearing the world, the birds, happy voices and knowing they are so close, but so far away.  Fear of a stranger. Fear of trust broken. Terror. The shadow in the room that never, ever goes away.  It lives there and wakes me up and reminds me that it is part of me. I take it with me to every room, every bed, every partner, every night.

I wake up and try to figure out what world I am in. Where am I? Am I safe? Am I fighting? Am I alone?  If not, who am I with? Am I safe? What is that noise?  Why am I yelling?  What’s in this room?  Why am I standing up? Am I safe? Why is someone saying, “it’s okay”?  Because when I wake up from the nightmare, I am not okay. I am not safe.  But, slowly I do become awake.  And I calm down.  I can even usually get back to sleep. But the pounding of my pulse, the soreness of my tense muscles, the sights I still see behind my eyelids, sometimes they do carry on. Sometimes only a dawn can help.

Basically, night … sleep … means battle to me.  Something so many people take for granted is out of my reach. Sleeping is something I have to mentally prepare for. Falling asleep is almost like going to work with the dread it conjures. I dream (ha!) of a normal night’s sleep. I want to be that one poster child baby. If not comfort, I’d take oblivion.  But, they say that most of American fails to get a decent sleep on a regular basis. Maybe there isn’t a normal for me to aspire to. But, I don’t have insomnia.

I wake up in the night and I am afraid. It’s a real downer. I wish I could lie to you and tell you that tonight I will have sweet dreams.  But I know, even if I do, that somewhere in the fragments and layers of tonight’s dreaming mind I will also turn that corner and the shadow in the room will grab me. Again. Like always.

I have nightmares.

This piece is part of the #52essays2017 challenge where I will share one essay a week in 2017. To learn more about this challenge or to participate, check out writer Vanessa Martir’s website and post about it.


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