For a long time, the only dreams I had were nightmares. In fact, I don’t remember having a full night of truly pleasant, uplifting dreams until about first grade. Most of the time, going to bed was a terrifying prospect. I couldn’t sleep, and when I did, my dreams were horrific. Sometimes it seemed justified. We lived in a house where it was very dark and very quiet at night. Once, when I was very little, I awoke from a horrific nightmare about the witch from Disney’s Snow White and looked out the window just in time to see a lightning bolt strike and split a tree in the middle of our front yard. A coincidence like that will give nightmares credibility in the mind of any reasonable child.
I’m thinking back to those times now, as recently I’ve been having nightmares every night. More aptly, I’ve been having them every morning. I assume that most of my sleep is fine, but the time right before I wake up is riddled with dreams so bad I wondering if it’s even true that your psyche is supposed to protect you from seeing the worst of the worst in your own dreams (dying, loved ones dying, etc.).
While the cause of my nightmares is probably dietary or organic in some other way, it makes me think of my love-hate relationship with sleep, a dynamic that has been present my whole life. When I was a baby, I had to be completely worn out by my parents in order to sleep. Something had to take my attention the entire day all the way until I finally collapsed from exhaustion. When I got a bit older, I would stay awake long hours, wanting to sleep but being completely unable to. Then later, I wished I could sleep more because I finally started to be aware of how exhausted I was, but found myself without time and feeling overtired by the time the opportunity for sleep finally presented itself.
I have never, ever, been able to just lie in bed and wait for sleep. Lying somewhere in the dark, supposedly comfortable, thinking of nothing, listening to silence, is absolutely the most vulnerable situation my anxious mind can fathom and is entirely contrary to me lowering my guard enough to go to sleep.
Could I actually defend myself if any of the nondescript rustling I heard from my bed were something menacing? Probably not. Is it highly unlikely that it is or ever will be anything menacing? Of course. But none of those are my chief concern, really. When your brain is a nightmare factory, in fact, when your brain doesn’t even have to be asleep to generate images and ideas that torment and frighten you, the worst part about falling asleep is being a sitting duck for the bad thoughts and nightmares to rise up from under the bed or emerge from inside the closet. Every scary movie trailer (don’t need the whole movie, brain will fill in the gaps), every bad social interaction, and every dangerous situation I witnessed in recent memory is ripe to be plucked and played out in five acts and five stages of sleep.
They’re just dreams, is what everyone told me when I was little. I had night terrors, too. Night terrors are not just dreams. Night terrors are dreams that did a line of coke and came home from the club to wreck your living room. The vividness of my dreams, the clear and present threat they seemed to present to me just couldn’t be fiction, no matter what people said. I think that’s the most I ever believed in anything illogical, actually. I was a very reasonable child, not gullible when it came to ideas of Santa or the Tooth Fairy, but every villain I ever dreamt about seemed real. I learned the hard way not to say I thought so, however, after mortifying my mom by regaling some playmates with tales of one of the movie villains I was sure lived in the house and was stalking me at all times.
As a result of my experiences with sleep, I came to hate the night. All night long in my twin sleigh bed from Pottery Barn (nicest bed I’ve ever had, thanks, Grandpa Ralph) I just wished the sun would hurry up and come out so I could be safe in my classroom again with things going on to distract me and people around whom I felt safe. I even missed the teachers I didn’t like, just because being at school with them during the day meant we were all safe from whatever was waiting to get us while we slept.
Now, I’m an adult. I sleep by myself. I go out at night by myself. I do all the things adults do. I visited my mom for two weeks recently. My mom doesn’t sleep well either. We stayed up late into the night, sitting on her porch, keeping watch, just in case.