I’ve been plagued with nightmares since the abuse began when I was eight years old. Drowning nightmares. Nightmares in which I’m being chased by my brother Kevin with a knife in his hand. Nightmares in which I’m suffocating. Nightmares where someone is trying to break into my home. Nightmares that relive the gang rape when I was twelve. Nightmares of my brother Kevin sneaking into my room in the middle of the night and raping me. My brother Kevin not only sexually abused me and beat me, he terrorized me. There was no way for me to feel safe. I’ve lived a life of constant hypervigilance, always on the lookout for danger.
My nightmares don’t occur as often as they used to, but every now and then one shakes me to my core. Usually, when I awaken from a nightmare, I am in a state of panic. My heart races, pounding in my chest. My breath quickens and becomes shallow. My senses are on high alert. I peer through the darkness and listen for the slightest sound. I try to ascertain if I am in danger. I get up and check my doors and windows to make sure they are locked. I peer out the peephole in my front door to see if anyone is there. I reassure myself that I am safe, but it brings no relief. My fight or flight response reverberates deep within me. I use my grounding and deep breathing tools, but they don’t work. I crawl back into bed and try to find sleep, but it takes a long time.
The constant disruption of sleep and heightened stress of hypervigilance takes its toll on my mind and body. I wake up exhausted. My brain takes hours to lift its fogginess. My muscles ache and I have debilitating migraines.
Last night’s response was different. I awoke to the sound of someone knocking on my door. I heard three short, soft knocks. I bolted up in bed with the usual fight or flight response. I listened intently for another knock. There was none. I realized that if someone had truly knocked on my door – which is white-painted metal, it would have been much louder than what I heard. I sat in my bed, tuning into my fast-paced heartbeat and breath. I realized that I must have been dreaming. I fought the impulse to get out of bed to check the windows, doors, and peephole. I focused on my breathing, trying to quiet my pulse. I reassured myself over and over, It was just a dream. It was just a dream.
It took a few minutes, but I was able to calm myself. I laid my head on my pillow, pulled the covers over me, and closed my eyes. I don’t know how long it took – I didn’t toss and turn for an hour – but I was able to fall asleep.
I still woke up tired, foggy, and achy. But I recalled how I had worked through my fear, how I was able to self-soothe. I felt good about myself. I feel hopeful that I will be able to do it again. I know I will still have nightmares, but perhaps, over time, I will be able to alleviate some of the stress they place on my mind and body. Perhaps one day I will awaken refreshed and alert. Whatever happens, last night was progress in my ability to heal myself from the nightmare that was my childhood.
Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash