Dreams or the “it’s all a dream” storyline is a really common plot device in B-Rate movies, lazy television and most soap operas and Telenovelas. Besides being altogether too overdone, it’s a plot twist that never washes for me, mainly because of my relationship with the dream world.
Dear reader, today I’m poking around in dark places a bit, and so it seems only fair I warn you – Trigger Childhood Trauma.
My whole life, I have had nightmares, terrors, anxiety-attack inducing dreams. Occasionally– very occasionally, I’ll have a pleasant dream, but most often I will dream the very typical “naked in public”, “late for an exam”, “can’t move away from a certain danger” types of dreams. The latter bridging the gap between “normal” dreams of stress and anxiety that most of the sleeping population encounter, to the Land of Terrible Things that make you wake up in a sweat, possibly screaming.
Nightmares and Terrors are subtly different–generally, nightmares are really bad dreams that might wake you up, and always make you feel bad or scared. Terrors are a different beast altogether. Terrors are real. Oh sure, once you emerge and are fully conscious, you know “It was all a dream”, but in situ, in the dreamscape, a Terror is as real as this keyboard I am using to relay this tale. I can’t speak to others’ experiences–and of course we don’t, in polite society, tend to share these stories–but I will share mine (it’s an extrovert thing). But it’s also a shed-light thing, in the hopes this is useful to someone.
You know how they say never to wake a sleepwalker? Well, you might wish to wake a person experiencing a nightmare, but at the same time, limit your expectations of the sleeper’s ability to communicate sensibly with you.
Nightmares Are Not Dreams
Here are some things that are true for me, based on a lifelong battle with the demons of the subconscious:
- Nightmares, and especially terrors, don’t evaporate upon waking like dreams do. Their horrific details can remain in memory with absolute clarity for years
- They seem to be indistinguishable in the subconscious from a real-life experience.
- I don’t want to talk about the content of a nightmare. That seems to be a tool we are encouraged to use, but all putting the experience into words does for me is anchor it even more firmly in my memory.
- When I awake from one of these episodes, I am generally completely baffled by the sensation of being ripped away from reality–as if my nightmare is what’s real, and reality is the dream. It’s like it takes me a bit to recognize the REAL reality.
- I can’t stress this part enough. Whatever the content of my nightmare, it is REAL, and it is happening to me. I remember one episode, I dreamt there were rats in my bed– dozens of them. I awoke, leapt out of bed and turned on the light. The husband was awakened, naturally, by all this, and had to get out of bed to reassure me there were no vermin in the sheets. I pulled back all the bedding and looked carefully before climbing back into bed, but as soon as the light was switched off, I leapt out again– I had to go to another room to get to sleep, even though I was fully awake and knew the rats weren’t real, my subconscious couldn’t let go of the certainty that I was unsafe/there were rats.
- Often the nightmare is some form of intruder in my presence. I think why these dreams are particularly real-seeming is because, most of the time, everything else about the room/time/space is identical to where I am at the moment. It’s like the setting of the dream short-circuits my logic. If a dream takes place in daylight, in a place I’ve never been, with people I wouldn’t be *somewhere else* with, it’s as if the logic part of my brain is ticking along making note that there is nothing real going on here, and upon waking, the dream is easily recognized and distinguished from reality. But when the setting is my room, my bed, at night, all the surroundings familiar and in place, it takes considerable effort to shake off the feeling that the dream, this time, is real.
- Even if the nightmare causes me to scream or cry out, upon waking I struggle to form words. This is one of the clues that this relates to a childhood trauma, I think the feeling I have is much like how selective mutism must feel, along with the overwhelming sense of powerlessness.
- I keep waiting to have a breakthrough, that one day I will be free of these events. While that seems unlikely, situated as I am in my 5th decade, I did have a Terror with a Twist the other night. My nightmare was much more literal than any I had had in the past, and for the first time I struck back, physically, at the intruder. Remember I mentioned the dream world seems to take over reality? I also struck out in my sleep and almost cleared my nightstand of its items. The rest resolved in typical fashion, I had to leave the room, make sure I was fully awake, allow my heartrate to lower and clammy skin normalize. But the punching my nightstand gave me hope. It was a reminder to be a self-rescuing princess
Because these events are so real, the body reactions support the feelings of fear and anxiety– I’m sure there are the same hormones, the same flight or fight responses going on internally as if there really was an intruder, or rats in the bed.
Wasn’t this fun, gentle reader!? Thanks for reading along, and I do wish you Happy Dreams. As for me, I may get a padded night stand…
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