This is probably one of the most difficult issues I have dealt with throughout 2018 and until this point in my life.
I’ve always been active in my sleep: sleep walking, sleep talking, generally just weirding people out whilst I’m unconscious.
Then in 2018, I found I couldn’t sleep very well. It started off gradually; I would sacrifice sleep in order to keep up with my caring responsibilities, revision, homework, etc. I would also try to fill my time with YouTube, reading or journaling before I went to bed, just so I could try to be ‘me’ at at least one point in my day.
When I did sleep, it would come quick, fast and heavy. No dreams, just a blink of an eye and then I was up again. I think my relationship with sleep at this point was a fairly average one. Sleep wasn’t something that relaxed me or whatever, it was just another thing I had to get done.
As my mental health worsened, my relationship with sleep became more complicated. I used to long for sleeping longer. I was cutting out more and more sleep around the exam period, and the dark circles under my eyes seemed like tattoos because they never went away. In the mornings, I could never wake up. I was frequently late for school, and when I woke up I just used to think “what’s the point?”
Before exams, I had my first ever night terror. I remember the second time more vividly though; my friend was over and I woke up screaming because I had no memory of who she was or why she was in my room. My Mum came running into the room to see me shaking and clutching my pillow.
That’s pretty hard to come back from.
After exams, we found out about the spreading of the cancer to Mum’s liver. Our days rapidly became full of nurses, medicines, crying, trying to deal and understand with everything. If Mum had a difficult night where we were looking after her, we couldn’t have lie ins to make up for the sleep we lost the night before. We had to make Mum breakfast or make sure she had taken her medicines. We were always losing sleep, for example, Katie was frequently woken up by Mum sleepwalking in the night.
Inevitably due to the amount of stress I was under, the night terrors just got worse and worse. I started to fall asleep, and I would wake up an hour later, because I thought a man was in my room, someone was trying to rape me, a child was under my bed, my duvet was levitating, I had to fight someone, my family had been murdered and I had to capture the killer. Unfortunately, I could go on. The first time after my Mum passed away, I woke up screaming that there was a man in the house. Katie had a panic attack because she truly believed we had been broken into.
When my night terrors were at their worst, when I woke up in the morning, I would feel relieved. I would wake up, look at my clock and work out how many hours I had before I would have to go to bed again. I began to feel anxious falling asleep. I would be lying in my bed, forcing myself to stay awake until I would just pass out. I felt afraid all the time, waiting something to happen. I would fall asleep during the day, or I would just find myself sleeping on people’s beds without knowing how I got there.
A night terror is different to a nightmare, as when you have a night terror, you thrash around in your sleep screaming, your heart hammers hard, you feel like you can’t breathe, and you can’t recognise the people around you. You’re easily confused; once i woke up and I thought I had hurt all of my family.
It’s terrifying. It makes me feel stupid, literally insane, and incapable of performing a normal function every human should be able to do.
I felt like a prisoner in my own head. I was terrified to fall asleep, and when I had night terrors I couldn’t calm down because I didn’t understand that there wasn’t a threat.
There never seemed to be any rhyme nor reason to my night terrors. They just seemed to happen. I now know that night terrors can be a symptom of PTSD or anxiety.
When I would try to research about night terrors, I couldn’t find much, so I pretty much did every wrong thing I could have ever done:
· I stressed out about sleeping; Sleeping became the opposite of relaxing, and my bedroom was not a relaxing environment.
· I would make useless checks; I would wake up and check the house for strangers or men, check the locks. This whilst it initially calmed me down,this also only made me more anxious, because if I didn’t check the locks then I started spiralling.
· I avoided sleep; Night terrors can occur when you don’t get enough sleep, or if your sleeping patterns become disrupted.
· I would force myself to stay calm; It is perfectly ordinary for a human body to experience stress, but when I experienced it, I would try to suppress what I was feeling so as to avoid anxiety, and (I believed) a night terror. I would feel incredibly anxious but I would force myself to push it to the side. But no, this only adds to the problem because your pushing your feelings down. You process most of your feelings from the day in your sleep, so, voila, night terrors.
(obviously I am not a doctor but) What I have done which works for me:
· Medicine; my GP prescribed amitriptyline. This medicine works by reducing anxiety levels, and you take it as you need it. I’m pretty sure the effect was purely psychosomatic; I believed I wouldn’t have a night terror so I didn’t. Until I did have a night terror on this medicine, so I haven’t had it since. I have also tried herbal remedies but it didn’t work at all for me.
· See sleep as time to relax; This sounds so easy, but if you said this to me 3,4,5, 6 months ago, I probably would have just burst into tears. Before I would lie in bed tense and nervous, but now, I try to make sure my body is as relaxed as possible by performing a “body scan” ( I have written about body scans here: I Dont (Self) Care ).
· Counselling; Whilst counselling sometimes made me have night terrors because I unearth all the thoughts and feelings I’ve tried to suppress, it helps to talk about your dreams, fears, because you feel less like a freak.
· Stop eating 4 hours before sleeping; we noticed a correlation between eating late and sleeping.
· Pampering; Pampering is important because you are looking after yourself and it helps you to unwind.
· Try to unwind; I watch a lot of comedy before I go to bed because laughing is the best way to chill out.
If you experience someone having a night terror, I know it is terrifying for you, but please think about that person. I have just woken up thinking I have been kidnapped and I have no idea who you are, so please be patient with me. The best thing to do is to relax yourself- Do not try to hold them. When the individual comes around, they may be mortified, embarrassed and ashamed, but please try to make them feel comfortable. Sometimes drinking a herbal tea can be a good way to calm their nerves and to give them an opportunity to talk about what has happened.
If you get night terrors; you are not a freak. You are not a freak for feeling anxious, or because you have experienced trauma, or any other reason. I have screamed so loudly I have been so sure people will call the police, but it never happens. You are okay, and one day you’ll be able to wake up feeling rested. I promise, and that’s a promise I used to think I could never make again. I used to say to myself “I guess this is just me now.” It isn’t. You are still wonderful and you deserve good things.