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What It's Like to Still Get Nightmares After Trauma

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Editor's Note

If you have experienced childhood abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Today, April 16, is National Stress Awareness Day and I woke up needing to write.

I was woken up by a nightmare about my stepdad around 4 a.m.

• What is PTSD?

In the dream, I walked back to my car from the store and sort of felt uneasy, but didn’t know why. When I tried to start my car, it wouldn’t even turn over, and my hands started to shake. I looked around outside and noticed a pile of fluid growing beneath my car, and some broken wires scattered about. Getting back in the car and locking the doors, I looked up to see my stepdad standing a few rows away, staring at me with the odd smile he often got when drunk. Fully panicking, I kept trying to start the car as he started walking closer.

Then, I woke up.

I reminded myself I was one day and seven hours (2,1000 miles) away from them. That if he even tried to call me, he’d get arrested at this point in time. That despite how fresh it felt, how hard my heart was pounding in the dream, I am actually “safe” right now.

Safe. It can be a difficult word for survivors. When your childhood consisted of layers of trauma, “safe” is at first a foreign concept. Feeling safe in your head, or even in your own body, takes a level of introspection I do not wish on anyone, really. Being forced to sit with the reactions of your body until you can learn what they mean, why, etc. is extremely unpleasant. When I first started trauma therapy, she wanted to know when I was first aware of being afraid, or hungry. I had nothing to offer her; the disconnect hardwired into my body to survive was that strong. I had to learn the difference between fear, anger, grief, betrayal, loneliness. Going in, my main emotional concepts were rage or total numbness. Coming out, I learned a lot of the anger that had pushed and prodded and pulled me through my toughest times was, in fact, grief.

People who haven’t done this type of internal work might say you are “bitter” or “holding onto the past.” But for survivors, the past is our bones and the unnoticed hitch in our breath. It is waking up and chanting, “you’re safe now,” and hoping it means something. It is working for a world where you don’t need to survive. It is choosing life and trying for joy, even when the people who brought you into this world didn’t love you or provide your basic needs.

I had a bad dream, and then after, I went back to sleep.

That small after is already worlds away from what I would have been able to do a few years ago. I wonder how much more I’ll have grown in the next few? It is a comforting thought.

Another note on the dream, in case you have survivors in your life and you struggle to understand how these dreams can come up years after, or even during a particularly happy time in their life. Did this dream happen exactly to mirror events of the past? Not exactly. It actually makes up my brain mashing together three different events.

1. When I was a teenager and my stepdad was in a raging, drunk mood and tore the spark plugs out of my car. He told me if I wanted to go to school, I’d have to call someone. When they got here, he’d strangle them. My mom supported this, for clarity.

2. After I cut off my parents, I was walking out from the grocery store one day. My stepdad was parked next to me, just sitting there with the car running. I bolted.

3. Valentine’s Day a couple years go. My mom was in court for embezzlement. I woke up to a threat message from my stepdad, “you better watch your back.” Because they’re the type of people who blame everything and anything but themselves for their mistakes. And once upon a time, I had no choice in the matter and often took on the weight of all this thinking I was protecting them (and had to).

So, was the dream a reality? No. Were the events that my subconscious built the dream from? Yes. Did I have it because of something that triggered it? No, although Mother’s and Father’s Day are on the way, so maybe there is something going on I haven’t consciously felt yet.

Back to the layered trauma thing. When chronic trauma is compounded one after the other; first my father’s abuse, then realizing my mom was not only an enabler, but equally abusive in other ways, to my stepdad revealing his gross intentions of his behavior toward me — how can you truly process one event when each took up entire chunks of life and immediately flowed into the next one?

I’ve done a lot of work, and continue to do it daily. But there will always be pieces in my brain I haven’t fully processed, in part due to what I mentioned about fear. My body and brain found ways to make me survive horror daily. As an adult, sometimes the actual “fear” comes many years later. The processing doesn’t really reach an end point in the sense, the healthier and “better” you get, the more easily you can access and feel these things in real time.

Perhaps that makes healing sound like a double-edged sword. But to me (and every therapist I know), you can’t get over something you cannot name or face. And it is through actually experiencing some of the worst emotions, I’ve also found the desire to enjoy my life. I want to meet future me. I want to see how far I manage to go. I want to do so many more things than a younger me ever saw as possible for herself.

Well, that got pretty long. Funny enough, my company gave the entire global network of offices off today for a “wellness day.” For me, I guess that meant writing this all out. Hopefully, some of it was informative in terms of life realistically after trauma.

Thanks for reading.

Keep fighting for the life you need.

Getty image by Motortion

Originally published: April 30, 2021
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