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My Inner Child Expresses Her Trauma Through Sleepwalking

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Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

I once, according to my dad’s telling of the tale, came downstairs from my room, obtained a jar of jam from the refrigerator, took a spoon from the silverware drawer and started to eat jam directly from the jar. When he questioned me and asked what I was doing, I became defensive. Whatever was happening in my head, I had determined jam-eating in the wee hours of morning was normal and not an offense of any kind. And that is a fun little anecdote regarding the sleepwalking of my childhood. There are many.

• What is PTSD?

My dad also tells tales of other sorts of sleep disorders—sleep terrors and nightmares.

Sleepwalking is rare. Estimates place the percentage of the population that completes complex action while asleep around one to 15. This phenomenon is a sleep disorder and it is usually associated with either sleep deprivation, stress or both. The combination of this disorder with those of nightmares and terrors is even more rare. It is hard to say how many people might have all three, because the one experiencing the events often has no recall of the events.

In the past few years, I started to sleepwalk again. While I have no recall of the events, I have evidences of the events. One morning, bread was laid out on the kitchen island, as though I were preparing to make a sandwich. Another morning, I woke to toasted bread, still sitting in the toaster but stale and cold. On yet another occasion, I woke to near freezing temperatures and realized I had turned the thermostat all the way down as I slept.

It wasn’t until I mentioned these events to my sleep specialist that I started to understand the presence of sleep disorders is directly related to stress. And in my case, that stress is related to a loss of bodily autonomy through chronic sexual abuse and medical testing and treatment for bladder and kidney issues. Usually adult sleepwalking is tied to and triggered by childhood stressors.

My sleepwalking (along with incontinence and suicidal thoughts) returned shortly after a visit from a family member and the repeated arguments that took place during that time. The insistence that I do as he believed I should and the lack of respect for me and my autonomy threw me right back into my childhood self with symptoms of extreme stress.

Getting along with this family member is an impossible task for me. He wounded me in ways that can possibly (I hope) be forgiven, but can never be forgotten. He created a vacuum in my life that sucked in all sorts of damage, abuse and pain. And while some would argue I shouldn’t “play the victim card,” the fact is I am a victim of horrible abuse that does not stop affecting me. And having the perpetrator of my abuses in my physical space, telling me what to do, is an affront impossible to ignore.

People talk about “finding their inner child,” like it is a fun and freeing thing. But my inner child is terrified, wounded, confused and under mind-altering levels of stress. I don’t want to find my inner child—ever. But I don’t get a choice, because that child finds me on a regular basis. She returned in a blink of an eye after that visit with my family member. And she didn’t leave.

I began sleepwalking again because that child started running the show while I slept—the early expression of my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) coming back into my experience. This is often the case with sleepwalkers. If we do it as adults, we likely also did it as children.

I don’t know if I eat jam from the jar in my sleep anymore. But I am definitely exhibiting the stress I did in childhood within the circadian patterns I currently experience.

Now I can make the nightmares go away.

I didn’t know it was possible until a few years ago, when the nightmares were increasing and the trauma of the past was leaving a trail of symptoms across my life.

It was at that point I was finally properly diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). And this diagnosis brought with it the beloved use of blood pressure medication that stops the nightmares. Or to be more succinct, it stops me from
engaging with the nightmares or remembering the nightmares.

Blood pressure medication as a treatment for PTSD, was discovered incidentally by a Dr. Simon Kung at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.  The medication had been around for decades, but it wasn’t noted as an effective treatment for nightmares due to PTSD until 2012. Thankfully, I receive medical care at a teaching hospital that uses cutting-edge treatments and I started on a blood pressure medication mere weeks after my diagnosis.

My brain can still engage with flashbacks and nightmares, but my body is prevented from interacting with that engagement and I remain asleep and unaffected by the subconscious terror. It still amazes me this is possible, after having interacted with this terror for over 30 years. I am in awe that we can simply shut off that terror during the night. And I am extremely grateful for Dr. Simon Kung’s work to find, study and disseminate the knowledge that I and many others who struggle with PTSD symptoms, can experience peaceful sleep.

While the medication doesn’t prevent me from sleepwalking, it makes my sleep much more consistent and much less traumatizing. When sleep, the restorative and balancing action your body requires, become a source of fear, it is a terrible thing. And being able to participate in and enjoy sleep is nothing short of miraculous for my beleaguered and exhausted self.

I feel like this turned into a term paper, not a blog post. But it is important, apparently, for me to recognize and report about the challenge of experiencing symptoms of stress and trauma during the night and to present alternatives.

Because, as someone recently told me, people need to hear my stories. And I am committed to the telling not just because I think it might assist others, but because speaking truth is freeing. Expressing the challenge and the need and the struggle and the fight and the overcoming of obstacles and the strength and joy and relief of that overcoming is important. It is such because my voice is my only chance at regaining the autonomy lost as a child. My voice is the only thing that can offer that child some peace and restoration.  That young self and my triggered adult self, both need to know and feel and trust there is a path to good and that we can walk the path and find the end.

I might make sandwiches or eat jam from the jar in the night for the rest of my life. I might, just as easily, find the release of stress I need to stop sleepwalking from happening any longer. And it is necessary for others to see this hidden experience and to validate that experience.

I don’t fault those in my life for not knowing I was expressing the grave burdens of an abused child in my quirky sleepwalking moments. The science wasn’t there. The advocacy wasn’t there. The skilled psychiatric specialists were not there. The only thing my dad could see was a girl doing weird things—expressing the inexpressible in the ways only my subconscious self could. And it couldn’t express it well enough or loudly enough or clearly enough to spare me the trauma, but at least I tried to express it in some way.

I can express it now. I’m determined to express it now.

I’m determined to give that child a voice that can be heard, understood and validated. I’m determined to let her speak, cry and scream out the things that her jam-eating, sleepwalking and nightmare-having self couldn’t quite manage to express.

That little girl experienced chronic and escalating sexual abuse. That little girl also had doctors and nurses poking around in her most sensitive and sacred parts without any sort of trauma-informed care. That little girl was lost in a sea of pain and she nearly drowned in those deep and dark waters, as the waves beat her and threw her against the rocks. That little girl needed to say she felt like she was dying from the weight of trauma and shame and conflict and fear and confusion laid upon her tiny chest — crushing her ribs, puncturing her lungs and making it impossible to breathe.

That little girl also needed others to hear her and to offer validation and to acknowledge the injustice and offer hope and comfort and help. She still needs that.

I try to offer it to her. But it is hard to trust just one voice (especially when so many deceptions have been spoken in her experience). It is hard to assure her she deserved safety and autonomy and privacy and justice and good.

It is hard to assure my adult self that she too, deserves safety and autonomy and privacy and justice and good. It is hard to believe my voice can make a difference. It is hard to believe I am heard. It is hard to find validation. It is hard to find hope and peace.

But that little girl fought hard to survive. And I am going to keep fighting her fight.

This post originally appeared on Learning to Be Whole.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

Thinkstock photo via Archv.

Originally published: March 16, 2017
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