Let's talk about the weird shit that happens to us when we sleep. I'm going to share my experiences with night terrors, including some mildly scary details about spiders, intruders, and death, so don't read on if that might bother you.
I've always had excellent dream recall and enjoyed a lot of fun, interesting dreams. My father tells me now that as a child I sometimes confused reality with what happened in my dreams, which sometimes puzzled my parents. Even then, though, I rarely had nightmares, although I did have recurring lucid dreams of being eaten by a tiger. So it was strange when I started having really bad dreams in my late teens.
One night halfway through my first semester of college I woke up in my dorm room, heart racing, convinced a giant spider was crawling under my lofted bed amongst the clutter and laundry stored there. I jumped out from under my covers and ran out, slammed the door shut and wondered what the hell I was going to do about a fucking tarantula in my dorm. Should I wake up my RA? Call my dad? I stood there, leaning against the door alone in the hallway, thinking for several minutes until it slowly dawned that there was no way this was real. There was no spider. I felt stupid. I laughed at myself. "It was just a dream. Good thing your roommate's gone tonight, Edith. That would have been really embarrassing. Go back to bed." So I did.
That was the first time I ran out of my room screaming in the middle of the night, but it certainly wasn't the last. At some point years ago I turned to the Internet to figure out what was going on with me and my weird-ass scary dreams. I learned that these nightmares were probably night terrors, a sleep disorder most common in children and closely linked to sleepwalking.
Since my freshman year, I've gone through periods of nightly terrors and sometimes go weeks or months without them. I do remember a lot of my night terrors the next day, sometimes vaguely and sometimes in vivid detail. Sometimes I don't remember them. If I have no recollection, obviously the only way I know is if a witness tells me about it. I had one last night but I only vaguely recall it. I only know it happened because my father came downstairs afterwards, and asked if I had a bad dream. Maybe, I mumbled sleepily. I don't know. Why? "You were screaming."
My experiences feel very different from a dream or a nightmare. All of my terrors happen in a sort of alternate version of reality rather than a "dream world." The terrors aren't preceded by a dream. I just wake up with my heart racing, very frightened, absolutely convinced that whatever is terrorizing me is completely real. It generally takes anywhere from 30 seconds to 3 minutes for me to come out of it, understand it isn't real, and lay back down. I never have any lingering fear or trouble going back to sleep. They usually happen about an hour and a half after I first fall asleep, sometimes sooner.
Almost all of my terrors involve a hallucination of some sort. Many of these hallucinations are based on real objects around me - something benign becomes a danger. An air vent, in the darkness, becomes a craggy hole as the ceiling collapses. The smoke detector is a carbon monoxide monitor indicating that I'm being poisoned and need to get out.
Some of the hallucinations are completely imagined. Over the years I've seen some frightening things. There was a ladder falling over on top of me in bed. A man clinging to the stair banister over my head holding a knife. A portion of wall ripped away from my house. A fire igniting in the corner. A dead body hanging in my closet.
My first extinct is generally to escape. It varies how far I get before I snap out of it. Sometimes I come to as soon as I hop out of bed. One time I made it as far as opening the front door to my house before I realized that it wasn't real. Occasionally I wake up standing outside my room, heart still pounding, with no recollection how I got there. I've read about people who have seriously injured themselves trying to escape from their terrors by jumping through windows. Thankfully mine have never progressed that far.
Other times, my terrors are subtle. Still terrifying but more insidious. For a long period I had feelings that I wasn't wanted where I was living. I would look at my closet and see my stuff missing, or know that someone had been in my room watching me. I knew that someone wanted me out. More recently I've had a terrible feeling that I was supposed to do something before bed but didn't, and now bad things are going to happen. I had one a few nights ago where I simply knew I was going to die. I got up and started walking out of my room. Everything was in black and white and I was about to die. Very very strange.
The terrors have had little impact on my life. The shit I see is pretty terrifying, but they're not devastating and I don't really carry the feelings with me the rest of the day like I sometimes do with bad dreams. I only get anxious about the whole thing when I have to room with someone and I worry will frighten them. Who knows what will happen if I ever share a bed with a romantic partner because, honestly, I find it embarrassing. I do wonder what causes them and after 5 years I still don't really know. Fatigue is definitely a trigger; I almost always have them right after I fall asleep if I'm extremely tired. Sleeping in a new place usually triggers them too - so many unfamiliar objects for my brain to turn into scary things! Beyond that I haven't noticed much of a pattern. I think I should consider keeping a journal to keep track of them. I should also probably consider seeking treatment.
I would love to have a conversation about sleep disorders and other nighttime strangeness with you guys. I know I'm not alone. Tell me about your experiences with night terrors, sleepwalking, sleep paralysis, sleep apnea, nightmares, or lucid dreaming.