Nightmares on Repeat


My dream recall is vivid and detailed. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had nightmares so intense that they carry over into my waking life. These nightmares leave me with emotional hangovers. The process of such meticulous remembering is so innate and exhausting that I must consciously force myself to not remember.

1996, age 10

A girl with long blond, curly hair lived in a giant mansion with a butler. His name was Vin Chenso. She never wanted to ask him anything. At birthday parties she invited all the boys. Her and I were the only girls. I always lost a shoe. There was a boy named Aaron at her birthday party. Whenever I tried to talk to him he said, “I’m dead.”

According to the American Sleep Association, isolated nightmares are completely normal and experienced by as much as 90 percent of the population at some point during their lives. And somewhere between 35 and 45 percent of people are estimated to have one nightmare a month. I thought it was common to regularly experience nightmares and to be able to recount the details for years to come. Frequent nightmares (more than once per week) are much rarer and only experienced by 2 to 6 percent of adults. Multiple times a month, or more depending on what’s happening in my life, I sleep “enough” hours but go through the day in a fog because of my nightmares and intense dreams. It’s like waking up from one life into another. There have been spans when I had nightmares every night, for months on end. Each time entering into dreamland to pick up where I left off the night before.

2000, age 14

The house was haunted. We never really went to the top floor, doors were always shutting. I went up there, then ran back down because it was scary. The top floor was huge. There was a really long hall that branched off to lots of rooms and other halls. Once, I went up there and saw there was another stairwell to the downstairs. I was scared so I ran down those stairs and ended up in another kitchen. A girl came walking down the stairs in a white dress. She heard me and ran upstairs. Her picture vanished from her old family pictures. I looked back and the girl vanishing was me.

I go through phases when I write down all my dreams and nightmares. Like in college, when I was a pre-med student and in an on again off again relationship with my high school boyfriend. My anxiety levels were through the roof. I was having so many wild dreams that I felt compelled to write them down first thing in the morning, I did this for several months. One such dream in November 2005 sprawls over three single-spaced pages.

A nightmare is distinct from a bad dream which is also different than a night terror. A bad dream is disturbing, but it doesn’t cause as much emotional distress as a nightmare does. Bad dreams are those you can sleep through, nightmares are much more likely to wake you up. Bad dreams and nightmares are not always fear based, but they are full of negative and distressing emotions and themes.

A night terror (also called a sleep terror) is in some way acted out in your body and is a fear response. For most people who have a night terror, this means yelling out loud or flailing about while still sleeping. These episodes involve extreme fear. If someone wakes you up, the next day you might not even remember that it happened. I remember some of my night terrors, but not a lot, what I do remember is waking up drenched in sweat with my heart racing.

Children are more much more likely to experience night terrors than adults, but most children grow out of it in their teenage years. For adults, night terrors and frequent nightmares are common for people who have PTSD or related traumatic disorders. I was diagnosed with PTSD in 2014. The trauma that caused that began in 2011. Night terrors joined the fray around that time. Night terrors have, over the past year, become infrequent visitors. I rarely wake my husband up with my midnight screams. Nightmares have not gone away, but I have learned to compartmentalize the fear they drum up.

2014, age 27

Confusing. Everyone was moving. Dad was alive. No, he came back to life but was really only half alive. He was dejected and depressed and addicted. Got our house back but only for a little while, it was really really haunted. At one point I went to a room full of books. Like my brother’s old room, but it was huge and really haunted. I screamed “fuck you” and the door slammed on me. I was so angry. It happened over and over.

I ran out of the house and as I was running I split in two. Me as a child ran out of the front door and the house tried to smash me as I am now. The house yelled that it would smash me like I smashed it’s door. The door slammed and the walls broke and came crashing in. I slid out of the house and it came barreling down in pieces, and came after me. I hid behind a boulder and grabbed someone else who was in the way and pushed them away from the debris.

Several themes have been following me through the decades. One is that I am always losing my shoes. Ten-year-old me was losing shoes in her dreams and 32-year-old me is still losing shoes. Another has been homes that sprawl into bigger buildings the further you go in them. Hidden rooms and secret hallways long forgotten. The first dream I remember having was like that, I dreamt my dad had gone into the crawl space beneath our house and that it was actually a large basement. The third experience that I cannot escape is that my evening forays have always been full of hauntings. And until recently, I could never scream for help in a nightmare, most of the time I couldn’t even whisper “help.”

2017, age 31

I wandered into haunted rooms and stairwells, the house was – per usual – bigger than in real life and kept having more rooms that I didn’t know were there. Almost like the house was alive.

I have 13+ years of dream journals saved up on my computer, adding up to 45,000 words of potential horror movie material. That is not counting the dozens of handwritten journals I recently reacquired after they spent years tucked away in the attic of my sister’s house.

I can chart the ups and downs of my life through dreams. In retrospect, I can extrapolate some semblance of meaning that seems to correlate with issues in my waking life; unresolved conflicts, codependency, invisible loyalties, and internalized misplaced blame. All of which have been pulled along by a strong current of fear. Between my journals and my dream journals, I could put together one hell of a memoir.

January 9, 2019

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