Someone told me a story about her daughters, who woke up at night and looked for the “bears” that were scaring them, having misheard the word “nightmare” as “night bear.” It was a sweet story and I loved the imagery. I took to calling my PTSD nightmares, night bears. It makes them less scary in a way, because I think of bears as being soft and cuddly rather than threatening.
Night bears are something I’ve struggled with since I was a small child. I still remember some of my recurring childhood nightmares. I remember a dream where I was Red Riding Hood, walking along a dark path between tall, thick, dark shrubs. I heard sounds and I reached my hand through the hedge, only to find a giant, grey, terrifying wolf grabbing at my hand. I would wake up terrified and frozen. I tried to call out but my voice didn’t work. That paralyzed feeling happened often as I woke from dreams, I felt I couldn’t move or speak. Eventually I would be fully awake and run into my parents room.
When I was a teenager I took some medication to prevent malaria while travelling. I was 16 and it had a very negative impact on me. I’ve always been sensitive to strange side effects from medication. I began to have even more vivid dreams. They were full of all the sensations. I remember having a dream about being on a battlefield during World War Two. I could actually smell the smoke from the fires burning around me, I could feel it in my nose. The heat was burning and I woke up sweating.
As a teenager I also began to have precognitive, predictive dreams. This may sound bizarre and ridiculous to you, it sounds strange to me too, but it happened. I had a friend in high school who struggled with self harm and suicide attempts. I would have vivid dreams about her. When I arrived at school she wouldn’t be there. I remember calling her house, frantically from the pay phone in the hall. Every time I found that she was in the hospital after harming herself, often in similar ways to my dreams.
In my 20s and early 30s, I had another friend who I had a similar connection with. I’ve written about her in some of my other posts “MJ.” We lived in different cities, but the precognitive dreams were eerie. She could never figure out how I knew she was in trouble, or in the hospital, before she even contacted me. It happened so many times that we both began to trust in the strange premonitions I had about her.
Because of these experiences, when I have vivid dreams about death and violence I am often afraid. I worry that something bad has happened to someone I care about. I worry that there will be bad news. I worry that it’s a sign. It’s a horrible feeling, and I try to reassure myself that precognitive dreams are not real and that my brain is just expressing stress and worry through images of violence. I’m never 100% reassured though.
In the last few years of my marriage, I had vivid rape and sexual assault dreams. I would wake up screaming, thrashing around in bed. It would wake up my husband too and he would comfort me. But I often felt confused and afraid. The person who was abusing me, perhaps triggering the dreams, was the only one there to protect me from the nightmares. I remember having one particularly bad dream in the months before I left him.
In the dream I was attacked by a man on the street. I was trying to fight back and to scream but I was pinned to the ground. There was a chain link fence beside me as I lay on the ground, on the side walk. I was trapped under his weight as he raped me. The only part of my body that I could move was my right hand. I somehow grabbed a stick and frantically banged the chain link fence with it, trying to attract the attention of someone who could save me. I remember waking up, my right arm hitting out in bed, strangled cries coming out of me. I used to worry it would wake up my children in the other rooms.
As long as I can remember, nightmares have been a feature of my PTSD. When I am under too much stress, the nightmares return. They cycle through various themes over a period of days to weeks, and then they relent for a while. I rarely have the dreams which are so intense I wake up shouting and fighting imaginary enemies anymore. I do still occasionally wake up in a sweat, from deep sleep to intense panic attack, then back to sleep again.
Recently, I’ve been having a lot of nightmares. I think it is because of the stress of the court case and the triggers related to my marriage, the unfairness of the system and the stories I hear at work.
This week I’ve been dreaming about death, violence and natural disasters. When I wake from the dreams I’m disoriented and confused. When I’m alone it’s very difficult to feel safe and calm. Sometimes I turn my cell phone on, just to ground myself in reality and remind myself that I’m not alone. That I could call or text someone if I needed to. I open the window, I listen to the wind and the leaves. I cuddle my teddy bear. I breathe and I let the semi-medicated, blurry sleepiness take me back into sleep.
Last night I was feeling unsettled and struggling. I’d gone up to bed early but had some trouble relaxing. I had the window slightly open as usual. I woke up in a complete panic, startled awake by the house shaking from the strength of thunder and lightening nearby and wind howling through the window, rain pounding. It was so intense that I was afraid. I usually love storms. But I hate being startled awake. It’s a trigger to the abuse.
I was dreaming about being in a hotel by the beach. There was a giant tsunami crashing onto the beach. I was running from room to room in the hotel, as it filled up alarmingly quickly with water. Somehow all the rooms were sealed and there were no windows to open. There was not enough air and eventually no place to run. It reminded me of the passengers trapped on the sinking Titanic, right at the end.
Last week I dreamed about being at the strip mall near my house, at dusk. I was alone. I found a severed head on the pavement, blood everywhere. I was shocked to realize that the head was alive and speaking to me. I called 911 on my phone and ran over to the head, trying to comfort what was left of this person. At the same time, my mind was screaming at me that it was impossible for a head to be alive without a body and that something supernatural or unnatural was happening. I was calling out and calling out for help and then I woke up.
That same week I dreamed about an old man dying while I held him in my arms. His face was hollow and his breath rattled as dying people’s do. I woke up so sad, and the sadness stayed with me all day.
That’s the thing about PTSD nightmares. They don’t just fade when I wake up. Bad dreams fade, neutral dreams fade, but PTSD nightmares stay with me…sometimes for years after. They can put me into a mood before I’m even out of bed in the morning. They also make me feel exhausted, as if I’ve lived a whole day instead of sleeping through the night.
They are difficult to talk about. I expect to hear “don’t worry, it was just a dream,” but they don’t feel like dreams to me. These nightmares are resistant to medication, to therapy, to the power of positive thinking. They have a life of their own and I can’t control them. That also feels triggering.
To everyone who struggles with PTSD night bears. I hope you have a restful sleep tonight. I hope you have someone to comfort you when you wake up afraid and disoriented. I hope you can comfort yourself too. Nightmares aren’t “just dreams,” they can be traumatic, draining and incredibly frustrating.