When I was little, about age 3 or so, I was convinced that you had to sleep with your eyes open. To my childhood mind, you couldn’t close your eyes or you wouldn’t fall asleep. I would therefore strain to keep my eyes peeled for as long as possible, until I literally passed out from exhaustion.
A couple years later, when my family moved to a 2-story house, we had a landing in the middle of the stairs where I could peek into the living room without being seen by whoever was in there. At night, after being sent to bed, I would sit there for hours while my parents were awake, watching tv with them, until my parents noticed and would say, “Lauren, we know you’re up there, now go to bed.” Shocked that they discovered my secret, I would run panicking upstairs and jump into bed until I was convinced that they were convinced I was actually asleep. Then, sneakily (in my mind anyways) I would slip out from under the covers and sneak back to the landing. This routine would go on for hours after my official bedtime.
I think the discovery that amazes me the most throughout my healing process is how truly and deeply abuse can affect and infiltrate your life. Especially in ways that may never seem clear to you. The stories above are just 2 examples of how the abuse pervaded and corrupted my life, and in this case, my sleeping habits. Nightmares formed another powerful link between the abuse and its affect on the reality of my life.
I have suffered from nightmares for most of my life-both childhood and adulthood-and most of them were repetitive. For instance, I was always running in my dreams. When I was little, I was always running away from big, scary animals; mostly alligators, snakes, bears and killer whales. In other words, the animals that were most often the villains of Disney movies. During these dreams I would run away from these animals, barely staying out of reach of their snapping fangs and claws, desperately wanting to fly but being unable to.
There were other variations of the nightmares as well. A bear would invade town, and my parents would abandon me/forget about me when they fled, leaving me to fend for myself and try to escape as best I could. Other nightmares involved me peeling layers out of my skin, trying to get whatever disease I had out of me. Trying to rip it out, claw it out, anyway I could. But it never worked. The secret of the abuse was still there, still hidden from those who might be able to help me.
Always, I woke up exhausted from these dreams. During them, I had been constantly moving, never able to rest, not for a minute, or I would be captured, defeated, hurt. And whenever whatever it was that was chasing me caught me, I would wake up feeling like I’d fallen off a cliff onto my bed in a panic as I jumped awake.
While dreams aren’t always accurate, I believe they can often be helpful coping mechanisms. In fact, it is quite common for victims of trauma to have nightmares, and they are perhaps a way of processing everything that happened on a deeper level.
For me, these nightmares affected my sleep, and formed a powerful connection to my abuse. The seemingly cute stories of me sitting on the landing because I didn’t want to be alone, and trying to sleep with my eyes open, point to something much deeper and more powerful. It was always at night when the abuse happened. When my parents were asleep. It always happened when I was alone, in my bed, vulnerable.
Over time, sleep became my enemy. Being alone became my enemy. So I coped with it by attempting the impossible; by trying to never sleep. By trying to stay awake so hard that I passed out from exhaustion. By being within sight of my parents on the landing because no one could hurt me as long as they were close. When I am worried about anything, the ability to sleep is always the first thing that goes away.
The abuse ruined my ability to rest.
How to Deal:
For me personally, I believe my nightmares point to why I have always responded so well to movement in my waking life (for example: ballet, other types of dance, yoga, bike riding, etc.). I was always running in my nightmares but couldn’t escape, couldn’t get away. These activities represent a form of mobility that I longed for both in my dreams and real life. I couldn’t run away from my family, from what was happening to me, so I “ran” through sports, dance, and any other type of movement I could fit into my day. Never stopping. Never resting.
The interesting thing is, this “movement therapy” is actually what the psychological world calls “semantic experiencing.” This theory of psychology holds that if a victim feels the need to run, or feels panicked outside of the situation, they should imitate running. It helps you to feel more relaxed and to release your pent-up emotions of helplessness, stress, tension, etc.
So how do you sleep again?
That is what I am currently testing out. My counselor gave me some good pointers, however. Find a way to make sleep a safe experience again. Now that I am no longer in any of the situations of sexual abuse or domestic violence, I am automatically much safer. However, the body does not recognize that immediately, and it takes effort to reclaim the night for rest.
Some things my counselor suggested were to find a routine that works for you, to calm you down. This routine could include lighting scented candles, taking a hot bath, listening to soothing music, writing, reading, meditating, praying, yogic breathing, anything. The point is: Take the stress out of sleep. Replace the terror and the nightmares of abuse with something beautiful, relaxing, and special to you.
If you do have a nightmare, wake yourself up and take a moment to relax. Take in your surroundings, go to your “happy place,” focus on an image and describe it to yourself in your head. Feel grounded in your feet, your legs, your mind. And take deep breaths. This exercise will help to calm you and make you realize that it was just a nightmare, and you actually are safe.
Finding a way to rest can be incredibly difficult. But it goes back to what I have discussed in numerous earlier blogs; take care of yourself. Love yourself. Let yourself rest, help yourself to find peace. And know that sleep will come and nightmares don’t last forever.