About Trauma and Sleep

The imagination awakens in the darkest spaces of my sleep. I guess that is what trauma does–you push it aside through your living, conscious moments, only to have your mind open itself up to horror when you are most longing for relief, for rest, for sleep, for an escape from the brutal reality of your daily existence. 

At the end of days full of no appetite, blurry eyes, crying, talking for hours with lawyers, real estate professionals, and holding your children as they stare in confusion or simply cry without words because they have no words….in that moment at two am in your king-sized bed, you now have all to yourself, the only request you ask of the Universe is a few hours to run away from your reality and not remember what your future holds and what you will wake up to face in the morning.

But, the brain doesn’t seem to work like that. Or mine doesn’t. Mine comes alive as I sleep–opening up worlds that terrorize me. I’m no expert on dreams, but they seem to force their way through my unstable conscious state to release the terrifying emotions I cannot speak about in my grown-up, hold the shit together, daily tasks. I have to be on top of my game almost every day–I have three kids solely looking to me to guide them through this chaos, this abandonment, this up-ended world–this spectacular, father-figure duplicity. I have to hold it together for myself–to push back on the fear, the feelings of inadequacy–the lies that are spoken to me by own brain “what could I have done differently to make him stay, help him make the right choices, or be enough for him to let go of the greed, the affairs, the highs.” Sometimes, in some sort of world where I can control these things, I wish that I could have been enough. It’s a logical fallacy. I can say to myself in my mind that this wasn’t about me–but it feels devastatingly personal–and wouldn’t anyone want to do whatever they could to keep their personhood from being trampled to almost inexistence, from feeling worthless in the end.

So that is where my brain takes me when I sleep. I lay my head on my pillow, praying to God for nothing–no dreams, no nightmares, no windows into other worlds or my own soul. Just, let me have this subconscious moment of relief.

But that doesn’t happen–especially in the beginning. It was at least once a week, if not 2-3 times a week that I began to understand the term night terror. I have had vivid dreams in my life growing up, but this was different. This was waking up, feeling like I was getting ready to be murdered. This was sweat-soaked pajamas and popping an anti-anxiety medication the moment I opened my eyes to keep from panic attacks. These were emotions that kept me in a fog for days after one night of laying my head down begging for rest. This was fear, every next time I laid my head down, that I would return to a time and space where I was presented with my own death, or watching Chris kill someone nonchalantly.

That one was the worst…recurring. Somehow I would find myself in a beachfront hotel built and never updated since the late ’60s. It was dingy, and dark, and felt like too many people had chain-smoked in the room over the last 80 years. What was most jarring to me was that the beach, the ocean, the rhythmic movement of the waves has always been a grounding space for me. These dreams turned that nighttime ocean into a nightmare for me. Because I was in the room and got a knock on the door past midnight. I was terrified because something in me knew it was Chris. And I was utterly frozen in place. I was alone, I was scared, I was terrified in my surroundings, and now he was opening the door. 

What is a blur, I only have the emotional memory around it, is that somehow, he was able to talk me into going on the run with him. In my mind and soul, it was terrifying–it was nothing I wanted any part of, but as in our marriage, I felt mute under his constant persuasion. I also felt terrified that if I said no, I would place myself in a conversation with a raging, illogical human–one who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted. And, the strongest feeling I remember was that I needed to stay safe for my children, and I didn’t know if I was capable of dealing with whatever pain he would push on me if I didn’t do what he asked. I went with him.

He strolled me down the beach, just like nothing had changed. Like when we went on family vacations and used to take evening beach walks together. But, I know that it felt like I was holding my breath the whole time–because while I was walking next to someone I thought I had known for my entire life, I was also very aware, that I was with a stranger, pretending that we trusted each other just as we had for 17 years of our marriage.

He finally told me to come with him to where he was staying in the hotel. I felt trapped. The moon seemed so bright, but I knew it was 3 or 4 in the morning…a time in which no one would hear me if I screamed. I sat on the bed of his hotel room, while he said he needed to be in the bathroom. As I waited, I heard splashing and struggling, and somehow I had an awareness that he was not in there alone. I kept thinking it was my moment to leave, to get help, but I wasn’t talking, I was frozen, I was stuck sitting upright on a dingy queen-sized mattress, praying to God to end this.

And then he walked out of the bathroom with blood all over his arms, hands, and chest and told me to come to look. I saw body parts sticking out of yellowed, foggy water. And I saw that he had killed someone in the bathtub. He had no remorse anywhere in his body language or face. In fact, he seemed particularly annoyed at me, that I would have any sort of reaction–disgust, horror, vomit, curling up in a ball. I just wanted it to stop, and he wouldn’t stop, and he wouldn’t stop talking trying to make it normal. It was like being told over and over and over again why I was crazy for not seeing this situation as a normal part of making it in the world. 

You just become silent and try to make yourself deaf to what someone is saying to you because it feels like if you keep listening, you’re going to start believing it. And I didn’t want to believe it–my soul was not made to believe any of this–and yet, I was terrified that I would come around, that I would be persuaded to agree that this was our only way of survival.

Somehow, at some point, the police came around, and Chris pulled me by the arm and started running with me on the beach, and I felt carried away again into an unknown that I never wanted. I wanted to run to the safety of the authorities–but I also had a fear that they would not believe me and that I would be implicated in a murder. The emotions speak louder than the details of the dream, and the experience of a catch-22 was deadening to me. Everywhere I looked, I wasn’t going to be believed; I was going to be manipulated, and I wouldn’t be able to find my own voice, my own truth.

And so, I wake up with that adrenaline coursing through my body as I have to go face the world of private investigators, civil lawsuits, making sure I am not being followed (or coming to a level of acceptance with the possibility that I am being followed), holding my children when they are angry or crying, feeding myself and them…all the while feeling the depth of terror throughout the day from a nightmare. One I begged to be free of. One that will make me afraid to go to sleep again tonight. One that I wonder what truth it holds; is it just the emotional space for my psyche to explore my worst fears, or do some of the events mean something in a way that may be a clairvoyant could explain to me?

When will they end? Sometimes it’s the same dream and it comes every few months, sometimes, it is days in a row. Sometimes, I go for a month without a night terror–I begin to relax a bit into my sleeping, and then out of nowhere, I wake up again in the hazy fear and terror of my subconscious taking me to worlds I don’t ask for.

Some people have mentioned taking sleep medication, but that can feel almost worse–waking up feeling drugged. At least with my nightmares, I do feel like I have some level of my brain being involved–I have days to remember and try to process the message, to replay the scene, and become who I want to be in the mini-horror film. I tell myself, “you can scream, you can run, you can have choices.” Maybe that is what it’s all about–taking you to your worst fears to see what you really want to be–afraid and terrorized, or verbal, alive, and finding new ways to believe that you are capable of out-maneuvering the people who have left you feeling paralyzed in your worst fears.

I’m on that journey–I haven’t figured it out yet. I pray someday for a year of peaceful sleep. We all are. Gavin has used our dog Wendell since day one. And Arabella has cuddled into each of us to try to sleep without fear.

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