Well this feels strange. It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve had any inclination to type anything. I feel rusty, in many, many ways. For future reference, we are currently in the third lockdown of the pandemic; I don’t mean the royal “we”, just, you know, the UK. Everyone is over it I think/assume; I know I am. But, enough of all that, I think there’s plenty online to keep people up-to-date, angry, arguing, informed, misinformed, very misinformed; therefore, I won’t add anything of value in regards to what’s happening.
I’m here to cheer you up (lolz), as I chat about my experience with night terrors. I guess this is your trigger warning; I’m about to discuss what happens, a little about why, and to attempt to give some solace to those going through similar. As usual, I’m writing about something, having come out the other side. I still have the odd night terror; however, they’re now much less frequent and, I have some techniques to lessen the impact they have on me, physically and mentally.
Why? (the bloody ‘ell did you start having night terrors?!)
The short answer is that it’s one of my PTSD symptoms. My PTSD was triggered last year, for an array of reasons. It’s due to layers of trauma over the years, varying in their extremities. But, if you’ve read any of my other blogs, you’ll know that my little boy was born prematurely, and we went through weeks in NICU, not always thinking he’d survive. I guess that was the straw. I’m currently having weekly therapy sessions, and things are slowly improving.
Aside from flashbacks, I’d say that the night terrors and nightmares, have been the most debilitating thing about dealing with PTSD. I mean, as a mom especially, anything that messes with your (already limited) sleep, needs to be eliminated. There were weeks and weeks when I was having 3-4 hours of sleep a night, maximum. And I really mean that that was the maximum; very often it’d be 1 or 2. I’m up to 6 ish now, so let’s call that a win (even though I crave 9).
What’s the difference between a nightmare and a night terror?
The most straightforward way to explain this is to say that you wake up from a nightmare, whereas you wake up in a night terror. Whatever was scaring you during your bad dream, becomes part of your surroundings in your semi-consciousness. This will usually be in your bedroom and involve, what you perceive to be, a presence that poses a threat. A terrifying threat.
If someone is able to move or make noise during a night terror (I get temporary sleep paralysis), it can involve screaming, running, and an variety of physical activity. People have been reported to have moved house before, because their night terrors have convinced them that they’re being haunted. There are some who believe that who, or what, you see in these moments, are supernatural and that they are causing your bad dreams; this is a rabbit hole I refuse to fall down, because I would never sleep again.
Extreme sensory overload
I rarely remember anything I’ve just been dreaming about. My nightmares are very different; I remember them very clearly. Waking-up in a night terror is all about the present moment. I’m not scared about what I’ve woken-up from; I am paralysed with fear, due to what I’m experiencing. Every sense is heightened. Whatever background noise there is, I feel like I could hear a rabbit’s breath. My heart beats to the point that I’m convinced a heart attack is imminent. I’m always soaked in sweat (I know, TMI) and I can feel more racing out of my body.
There is usually the smell of warm blood; I have no real recollection of ever smelling this before. However, my mind is convinced that this is what it is. Mt therapist and I have the theory that this potentially comes from my c-section. I dissociated for about 5 days, before I was able to hold my baby, in NICU. So, there are a lot of memories stuck somewhere; sound and smell memories are a thing, and it’s very real when they happen. Not all are bad, quite the opposite in fact; but, night terrors obviously bring-out the worst ones.
My vision is the last to kick-in. I have terrible sight in the dark as it is, so it’s begins as a blur. I do always make-out the same thing, stood in the dark, next to my bed, and I begin to panic because I know what I’m about to see clearly in a second or two.
What / who do I “see”?
I always see a cloaked, male figure. I refuse to name him, because he is not real. He is human-like, but I’m very aware that he is not a person. His face is elongated, and menacing. He smiles and stares at me, letting me know that something horrific is about to happen to my son first, then my husband, then my dog. I understand that I will have to watch this, unable to move, before he does the same to me. It’s challenging to explain, but it is so real, and in my mind; this is happening. His hands are hidden, but I’m aware of what they will do. I can see his face in such detail; his pores, the exaggerated, deep lines in his pale, grey skin, the hair of his pointed brows, poking out from under his black hood. He is vile, he represents my greatest fears.
I know that it all sounds very clichéd; but, waking-up in the night, to see any figure staring at you from the shadows, is frightening. He won’t always be in the same spot; the worst was when he was peering around the back of my headboard, and his face was directly in front of mine. It makes me feel a bit queasy even writing about it. He doesn’t breathe; it’s more of a crackling sound, sometimes his mouth is open; no lips, just sharp, pointy teeth and a black hole. I feel like you get the idea.
What did I do?
Not a lot, for what seems like forever. I literally have zero concept of time when all this is happening; it feels like 10 minutes to me. However, it’s probably 30 seconds? I really don’t know. I cannot move a muscle, I’m overwhelmingly powerless in that moment (much like how I felt in the days and weeks after giving birth). When this first started happening, I’d start screaming as soon as I was able. I would wake-up my husband and son, I’d lose my voice for the following days because I’d never screamed like that it my life. I didn’t know I could scream like that. The thing I was seeing was still there as I screamed; this increased my fear because it didn’t feel like my mind playing mean tricks at all.
Eventually, he would fade away. The feelings didn’t though. While my husband did his best to settle our son, I would spend the rest of the night on the sofa, watching Hallmark movies, with all the lights on. At it’s worst, I’d be having 2-3 night terrors a week and the rest of the nights I’d be waking-up from vivid nightmares. I was so exhausted, the most exhausted I’d ever been (and I used to cluster feed a newborn for weeks on end). I craved sleep so much, but, I was terrified of actually going to sleep. I was a wreck. I can remember breaking down and wailing (intensely crying) on the phone to my sister-in-law (sorry Jo). I felt like I was openly begging for things to get better, but with the feeling that they never would. I met my friend for a coffee (during that time we were all meant to be eating out to help out); I walked-in and burst into tears before I’d even said anything. We swiftly left so that I could cry on a bench with her (sorry Laura).
Paying for therapy felt like my only option, and thankfully, it is working wonders.
Grounding myself and breathing
Don’t get me wrong, night terrors and nightmares are still horrible. I still have them; but, the frequency has diminished greatly. What happens when I open my eyes, has also changed. I’m able to tell myself, immediately, that non of it is real. I’m at the point now, that when I see that thing staring at me, it’s not just fear enveloping me. There’s a healthy serving of anger too. This anger gives me the fuel to stare back, to mentally tell him to fuck off. I focus on slow breathes to steady my heart rate, and everything calms down much quicker. He fades away and I know that counteracting the hit of adrenaline, is my priority. If I haven’t woken-up my son, from making noises; I go and look at him. I tuck him in, I stroke his magical little head, and I keep breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth.
It still takes 40 minutes or so to shake the feelings from a night terror. Sometimes I take a bath, read recipes, watch Hollyoaks. I just keep focusing on each breath. Post nightmares, I’m now able to stay in bed and get myself back to sleep. I use a classic grounding technique; I think about 5 things I can touch, 4 things I can hear, 3 things I can see…this sometimes gets muddled-up in regards to order and amounts, but it does the trick. Then I close my eyes and begin my breathing, as I think about decorating. I decorate large tables that I don’t own (yet) for Christmas dinner, or brunch, or for someones birthday. I’ll pick-out side plates, flowers, lighting, napkins and their holders; the whole shebang. It has become my go-to technique, and something I can enjoy, and continue thinking about the following day (tell me you’re in lockdown, without telling me you’re in lockdown).
The worst thing
Aside from the guilt I feel about waking-up my family regularly (not so much now – phew!); it’s the loneliness. There’s nothing quite like feeling terrified, on your own, in the middle of the night. PTSD has been isolating. The exhaustion made everything 100 times more difficult. It’s one of those things, I was having therapy, so I was (and am) receiving the help I needed, but there’s no quick fix with this stuff.
Annoyingly, I have a hard-wired, anxious brain. NICU was the trigger for my PTSD, so that’s what I’m currently working on, and there has been such positive progress. I have new tools I use now to care for my brain; it will always need work, but it’s worth it. My sleep is the first thing that my anxiety affects (ugh); therefore, I’ve built-up my little tool kit, along with a fuck-you attitude towards anything that’s stood next to my bed (still super scared at the same time). I’ve invested in heavy duty concealer for the shadows under my eyes, and it now takes quite a lot to scare me (this is not an invitation to try!!). I am doing ok. Not amazing, but much much better than I was several months ago.
I wouldn’t wish this on anyone; if you are going through similar, I hope some of the techniques I mentioned help to settle you down so you can regain some control of your sleep. Please remember that I am not a professional, these are just my experiences; always seek advice from someone who is trained to help, if you need it.
Peace, love, and extra Zs, Fay x