I live with a chronic condition that I've never spoken about publicly until now.

Image courtesy of Anne Rivera

I'm at the Port Authority in New York City at night. Once I step outside of the bright terminal I look for a cab to hail. There are none. So I start walking and look for a bus. There aren't any. I keep walking. A line of trees appear as if I'm in suburbia. It's pitch black. I think maybe I'll be OK. Then I see the small orange glow of a lit cigarette. There's that moment of recognition that I'm isolated in the dark and I'm going to get jumped. I start whimpering and screaming "Nooooooo!" Usually I wake up right then with my heart pounding. I immediately know it was just a dream. Again.

When daylight gives way to the night, my life changes completely.

My worst nightmares are never exactly the same, but they all have a common theme: I'm usually in a bad NYC neighborhood at night, vulnerable, alone, trying to find a cab or safe place and wake up yelling right before an attack takes place. I have those about twice a month. 

What is most debilitating are the distressing dreams I have about five nights a week and on the surface never resemble one another. They are disturbing, detailed, always different and leave me feeling physically and emotionally exhausted when I awaken. What they share in common is that I'm being victimized, violated or my well-being is compromised but not enough to wake up screaming. Instead of feeling rested and restored I wake up feeling spent.

Because I grind my teeth in my sleep (bruxism) from the nighttime stress I have to sleep with a customized bite guard that will need to be replaced every few years. My dentist told me that I had worn away much of the enamel on my molars and warned that if I didn't wear a bite guard my teeth were going to crack. It took me about six months but I've gotten used to it.

Basically my bed has been a battlefield most of my life which is a result of having been a victim of a multitude of assaults, abuses and personal violations as a child. The way I coped with it from age thirteen and into my late twenties was to self-medicate by drinking alcoholically. I drank to forget. To sleep. To relax. To feel normal. Of course those intended "benefits" were always fleeting and brought a new set of problems and dangerous circumstances. There is absolutely nothing curative about disordered drinking but it was all that I knew how to do. As many of my regular readers know, I'm currently twenty-two years sober.

I've been in counseling off and on for many years and have overcome so much in my life! I'm truly grateful for where I am today and this is the happiest I have ever been except for the nightmares and being deprived of healthy restorative sleep. Despite the many years of therapy, reading books on the subject and doing all I can to set my nights up for successful sleeping the dreams persisted.

In addition to mental health counseling I began spiritual counseling during my divorce. I tried praying my nightmares away. Didn't work.

I've met with medical professionals and looked into sleep disorder clinics in my area. None offered anything safe (non-addictive, especially) for me or curative. I don't need a sleeping aid. I need a shut-these-fucking-nightmares-down aid.

It doesn't exist.

This past spring I decided I had had it. I knew that whatever I had tried up until that point wasn't working. Although I had made relative peace with having a chronic nightmare disorder as an offshoot of PTSD, because self-pity is never a good thing, and always focused on the good in my life during the day and despite feeling tired all of the time I have accomplished a lot, I could no longer accept being chronically tired and not at full capacity. Maybe it's because I'm nearing fifty. My body can no longer handle it the way it used to.

I went back into research mode and discovered a clinical textbook that specifically deals with PTSD nightmares from a cognitive-behavioral approach! That's the therapy I studied in grad school and is the method employed by my counselor. I love CBT and highly recommend it. Unlike most everything else I had come across, it wasn't just a small chapter in a book or specific to combat veterans. It's an entire book with highly detailed suggestions and explanations. Having a clinical background myself was very helpful in understanding a lot of it. Seeing everything so plainly written in clinical terms wasn't just informative, but it normalized things for me. I began to see that I was carrying around a lot of shame because unbeknownst to me I was feeling ashamed for having nightmares. I felt like I was weak for having them. I've always felt so different from everyone else because of it and hid it from the world. There are so many things in life I have passed up because I was too tired to do them and would make excuses for it and not just to other people, but to myself, too.

Now, instead of fleeing from the nightmares when I awaken I'm (ugh) embracing them. I'm keeping a detailed journal. I no longer run from them like I run from the predators in my sleep. Instead of making peace with having nightmares like I've done for so long I'm making peace with the nightmares themselves. I'm paying attention to them. They are a part of me and they are trying to tell me something and it's not that I deserve a life of suffering.

Most people I know are terrified of spiders and the last thing they'd want to do is place one in the palm of their hand, take out a magnifying glass, really look closely at it and accept, embrace! that it will crawl on them in bed at night. That's exactly what I'm doing right now feels like, but believe it or not, I even made peace with a gigantic garden spider this summer!

It's a lot of work and it's very painful but for the first time in my life I am having some shifts in my dreams. As it turns out I have repressed a lot of emotions and rejected a lot of memories from my childhood that once felt too overwhelming to accept as real.

I'm starting to confront and/or defend myself against the tormentors in/during my dreams. I am slowly noticing that I am able to be more aware during my dreams, too. During the day I spend a lot of time envisioning different endings and ways to cope in nightmareland. It's a form of Image Rehearsal Therapy.

With a detailed journal I am able to keep track of any progress with either the content and/or frequency of bad dreams. 

Some of you may have noticed that I'm posting a lot about getting out and doing outdoorsy things. That has been the greatest gift. Even though I sometimes feel too tired I am doing it anyway. It feels great! Wayne is so supportive, encouraging and patient. 

Writing this post is a part of my therapy. I am done with feeling ashamed and hiding this part of my life from the world. I now know that my condition is a not a sign of weakness but my body and mind's natural reaction to an unnatural amount of childhood trauma.

(What I tried but hasn't worked yet is my own idea of an I Dream Of Jeanie approach: Once I know I'm having a nightmare, in the dream I cross my arms in front of me while wearing a fabulous 1960s genie get-up, close my eyes and nod my head so that I magically make it all go away and immediately awaken. I'm not done trying that one yet. Maybe I can get a research grant??)

Right now we're getting ready to go hike up a little mountain today, then sample another out-of-the-way mom and pop diner before heading to L.L.Bean to buy myself a new pair of walking shoes.

I am so grateful for all I have in my life today, including having my life! I take absolutely nothing for granted, especially that you've read this entire post. If you have, thank you. If this has helped or touched you in any way, please let me know in the comments below. I would love to hear from you.

Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this and congrats for being so brave and putting this into the universe!

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  2. I think speaking about this wonderful! You sound like you are on a really good path.

    I don't claim to know anything at all about this particular issue and I'm typically not one to give so called helpful suggestions/advice but have you heard of EFT (emotional freedom technique)? If you have then just disregard this comment :)

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    1. Thanks, Anne! I have NOT heard of that! I will look into it, thank you!

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  3. Averyl,

    Way to go, brave soul!!! Sending prayers and peaceful thoughts your way. I understand so much of what you are going through. It will get better and making your peace with the situation, as well as making peace with what your mind and body need(ed) to do to cope is a great place to be. Enjoy your hike, but most importantly, LL Bean :)

    Andrea :)

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    1. Thank you, Andrea!! It's nice to know you understand AND that you are also very positive about what can be!

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  4. Thank you so much for sharing this! I too suffer from chronic nightmares and PTSD.

    "I now know that my condition is a not a sign of weakness but my body and mind's natural reaction to an unnatural amount of childhood trauma."

    This line. I really can't thank you enough for shedding light on this.

    Stay strong!
    <3
    Angela

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    1. Hi Angela! I'm sorry to hear that you also suffer from this, but I am SO GLAD that my post has offered you some light! That's so nice to hear. Thank you for being open and letting me know. XO

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  5. Great post! So relatable. I love the direction you're taking on your blog and the level of honesty and vulnerability you offer. Your journey is encouraging for the rest of us on our own journeys.

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    1. Thank you for your encouragement, Melanie. I never know how what I write will be received, so to know it's encouraging for you and others is wonderful.

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  6. I'm sorry that you went through trauma as a child. That breaks my hear to hear. I pray that each day brings new hope, goodness and peace to you. I also pray that your nights get better too. Thinking of you😊

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    1. Thank you, Lindsay. That is very sweet and prayers are always appreciated. xo

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  7. Averyl, my heart goes out to you. I understand some of this but not to the same degree. My dreams are very vivid, almost nightly and have been since I was a teen. But every now and then I'll have these terrifying dreams where someone is coming after me but I feel paralyzed to move and I'll try to scream but I can't. I don't have them as often as you do but I'm surprised I'm still having them at my age. Unresolved long time issues, I guess.

    You are a strong woman and I pray that God gives you peace and the joy that you deserve, Averyl! :)

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    1. Thank you, Aileen. As always you are very kind.

      I wasn't expecting so many people here to relate! While I'm sad that others are also experiencing less-than-restful sleep, I realize more and more that this may be more common than I believed. Maybe what I learn along the way can be used to help more people. xo

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  8. I've been with my wife 19 yrs or so and I watched her struggle with the same issue it was heartbreaking to see her wake up screaming or wake up to being hit or kicked cause she was having a nightmare . All from some horrible things no person should have had to experience never less a child . All I could do was hold her tight until she woke up and she like me chose a spiritual path to combat her demons and I'm here to tell you for the last three yrs she has been sleeping like a baby more nights than not . Be good to yourself I am more than aware of the courage it took to write this . God bless.

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    1. Manny! My childhood friend! I had no idea and that is really heartwarming and makes me hopeful to know about her progress. Thank you! xoxox

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  9. Dear, sweet Averyl! I've watched you overcome so much in the past few years. I've no doubt you will find your victory in this too.
    My eldest would have dreams of horrible things being done to him. I have no idea why except his dad was gone often on deployments, and maybe that missing protectiveness of having dad there caused him to think bad things would happen to him. Some of the stuff though! I never let him watch scary stuff so I have no idea where it came from. He started listening to a pastor named Joseph Prince, and his whole outlook on life changed. It was such a relief to see him sleep and dream peacefully.
    If you don't mind more spiritual help, there is also a man named Doug Addison who has a lot of advice on dreams and how to deal with nightmares. Like you were saying, he recommends facing the fear of a dream head on.

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    1. Aw, lo_lo, thank you. xoxox I will look into both names/messages. I'm glad to hear your son found comfort and was able to achieve peaceful sleep AND dreams. I appreciate you sharing that with me!

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  10. You have definitely come a long way, even there's still path ahead of you to travel. Thanks for sharing and empowering others to do the same.

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    1. Thank you, Erik. Yes, all the way back to LiveJournal! :) xoxo

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  11. I've had what i call "frustration dreams." I'm often in the hospital(as a doctor) or medical school, or at my position at UF and I get into trouble and can't get to where I am trying to go. They can be quite interesting and vivid. I never like them. If they get really bad I think I've learned to wake myself up from them. They happen in other ways also, but the deep harsh frustration is always present. I tend to believe that dreams allow us to live out our fears safely actually and serve a purpose. Of course i also have very vivid amazing technicolor wonderful dreams too. Perhaps the solution lies in perspective.

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    1. PS: Marijuana is another possible treatment aid I suppose.

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    2. My perspective, which I described above, is definitely the solution for me. Thanks.

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  12. Averyl, Thanks for sharing this! Best go luck in your recovery. Good for you for facing this head on. Sounds like it's working!

    Sarah

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  13. I went to the VA about hearing loss in an ear. They asked me a bunch of questions and the next thing I knew I was sitting in front of a psychiatrist. Later I was diagnosed with PTSD. I've had CBT at the VA for little over a year. That and mindfulness meditation has changed my life. And somehow it keeps getting better. Thank you for sharing your story. It takes a lot of guts. More than I have.

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    1. tintin! Thank YOU for sharing your own PTSD diagnosis here along with what has been life-changing for you. I read your blog years ago while it was active, and you sometimes commented on a former blog of mine from back in the day. I was glad to find you on IG.

      Since I wrote this post I have made incredible progress. For the past couple of weeks I have actually slept soundly. That's unprecedented. I've also been learning from my dreams and will, someday, be a fan of them as you shared with me on IG.

      Thank you.

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