Getting Over a Nightmare

I had a particularly upsetting nightmare last night. I had such a nice day, the ideal blend of productivity, relaxation, and fun. I wasn’t that tired when I went up to bed because I felt invigorated from the day and all the things we did. It was nearly 50 degrees in the early afternoon, so the damp earth, soaked from all the melted snow, had that lovely smell of the early springtime thaw. Of course, we still have a couple months of winter snows and cold temperatures in front of us, but it was a nice reminder of the goodness to come. I love how a 50-degree day feels luxuriously temperate in the dead of winter; I didn’t even wear a coat! The warm weather coaxed me outside for far longer than I’ve been going out recently, and I really enjoyed the fresh air, even with my Tin Man stiff joints and without the companionship of my injured pup.

All that sweet mild air pumped my body full of energy, so by bedtime, I was still buzzing. Although counterintuitive to head to bed then, it almost always is most effective in combating my insomnia to adhere to the same schedule, even if it takes longer to fall asleep. My bedroom is cold and dark, the environment most conducive to encouraging my body to wind down and fall and stay asleep, so even if I’m not yet tired when I head up there, I’m more apt to wind down than if I stay downstairs in the stimulating living room.

Since it was a Saturday night, Ben came upstairs with me and we got to talk for a while longer while I calmed down for sleep. We are also reading a book together, so it was relaxing to listen to that. Thoughts of the day circled around my head and although I felt more awake and hyper than I would have liked, my head was filled with pleasurable memories and feelings when I finally drifted off.

It feels like the day’s extra happiness and freedom from worry was an attractive invitation for my brain to overcompensate and make up for “lost time” normally spent saddled with anxiety and depression. It was like the beautiful day where I almost felt “normal,” rather than wholly damaged from trauma, served as a perfect pitch for trauma brain to swoop in and crack the bat on an over-the-fence homerun traumatic nightmare. The bad dream went on and on. I couldn’t rouse myself out of it, and it was one of those nightmares so vivid that, while in it, I had zero inkling that it was just a dream. It was disturbingly similar to reliving the actual attack: I had the same clothes on, the setting looked nearly the same, the actions against me were similar, and the same words were icily hissed in my face. When I finally woke up panting in terror, those final words still hung in air like toxic poison gas as I bolted upright from the safety of my own bed. It felt so realistic that I used my phone’s flashlight to scan my body for the blood and injuries that wrapped it after the real attack.

I was lucid enough at that point to logically know that my body was fine, but it seemed I needed extra reassurance. Unfortunately, just seeing my intact, healthy body wasn’t a powerful enough confirmation that I was fine and could relax and go back to sleep. As much as I tried to employ my now well-rehearsed meditation techniques, my mind still raced with fears, bad memories, and emotional pain. After getting up, having a drink, returning to bed, inhaling the bakery-like aroma of my scented wax, and taking some slow breaths, I was fortunate enough to calm any immediate anxieties. I knew I was absolutely safe in reality and that the nightmare was just a mental trip back to that torturous place. This is actually a vast improvement over nearly all of the last couple of years, wherein a very vivid, triggering dream would pollute my awake mind with all sorts of worries and paranoia about new bad things potentially happening. It would throw me into a viscous cycle of working myself up into a terrified frenzy, so I’d be unable to sleep the rest of the night, then exhausted the next day, which then seemed to invite more upsetting PTSD flashbacks. This, in turn, would leave me more depressed and catastrophizing at night when my head hit the pillow. This would make me too upset to sleep.

Last night, I experienced measurable progress. I extinguished the anxiety within two minutes. I did not feel afraid after this initial startle response. I was fully confident that I was fine and that nothing like that should ever happen again (in all likelihood). However, I was certainly still upset. In fact, I felt heat emanating from my body, which is a common somatic manifestation of that emotion for me. I had to take off my blanket. My mind was swarming with sadness, anger, grief, and hurt. I felt mad about what happened to me and the lasting results. I felt angry that so many girls and women are sexually abused and must live with the painful memories of the encounter. I felt confused as to why people are evil enough to commit such acts, and frustrated that there’s so little to do about preventing it in the future. As I lay in the quiet darkness of my safe bedroom, I imagined all of the other survivors around the world listening to their beating hearts and the thoughts in their heads instead of peacefully sleeping in innocence. I said a few prayers to the stillness around me—for me, for them, for a better world, for freedom from the painful memories that chain us down. And then, I found temporary peace. I closed my eyes, relaxed my tense muscles, and soothed my distraught mind with the affirmation: “I’m fine. I survived. I’m stronger today than I’ve ever been. My heart is full of love and that acts as a personal beacon of peace.” In the light of day today, this reads a bit corny, but that’s what I said, and that’s what worked.

Sleep didn’t return immediately. It must have taken at least an hour and a half, but eventually my breathing lulled and I must have drifted to sleep because my memories end there. The rest of the night was populated with the normal smattering of neutral and scary dreams. I’m understandably dragging a bit today. Earlier in the morning, I felt frustrated about that, but after writing and reflecting on how well I actually handled a truly horrific nightmare, I’m feeling a bit less frustrated and somewhat impressed. I do hope tonight’s sleep is free from such disturbingly realistic flashbacks, but if not, at least I’m fairly confident I can navigate the aftermath with more emotional command.


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