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My Trauma Nightmares Make Me Feel the Need to Be Tied Down While I Sleep

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

I’ve always been what you’d call an “active sleeper.” I’ve never sleepwalked (to the best of my knowledge), though it does apparently run in my family, to a degree. Talking in my sleep is typically my jam; I’ve laughed, spoken complete sentences, shouted, exclaimed – you name it, I’ve probably said it, much to the amusement of my fiance. Many of us do it, right? You might be remembering the funny things you’ve said in your sleep right now.

I wish it had stopped there; I wish that all I did was say silly, nonsensical things in response to my dreams. Uncovering trauma changes you, though, and research shows that the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep – the time when we are actively dreaming – is one of the brain’s ways of processing unresolved trauma and emotions.

Since therapy helped me uncover the emotional abuse I experienced from my mother and the sexual abuse I likely experienced due to her greed and negligence, my nighttime activity has taken a darker turn.

I’ve gone “no contact” with my mother, finally severing the umbilical cord she kept around my wrists. I’m finally free from her, and though there remains every chance I’ll see her in the street, or that she’ll appear uninvited at my door, I’m glad to say I’ll never see her again. Some things cannot and should not ever be forgiven, and the multitudes of ways she ridiculed me, shamed me, and molded me into this dependent child in a man’s body – they made the bed she has to lie in. But going no contact is just a fragment of this journey, and what I’m left with now is an unfinished puzzle. Going no contact with someone doesn’t mean I’ve found closure, and I desperately want to send her a letter to tell her everything she’s done to me.

Right now, I can’t do that. All of the anger and resentment I feel toward her courses through me, and while I might not be thinking about it every waking second, it’s right there in my subconscious, just out of sight – a ghost waiting for me to fall asleep before it rattles its chains and howls in my ear.

The nightmares are typically the same. I confront her. I scream at her, saying all the things I wish I’d said growing up – that she can’t control me, that she can’t ridicule me and my father, that she’s venomous and toxic and that the reason the rest of our family left her is abundantly clear to me. I’m standing up to her, in those nightmares. I’m screaming in her face, asserting the power I never felt while her boot pressed down on me. I’m no longer the scared little boy, fearing his mother’s Vesuvian eruptions.

And then, the unthinkable happens. I kick her in those nightmares. I hit her. I close my fist and I punch her, and the force of those emotions sends a signal from my brain to my body that should, by all rights, be locked in sleep.

I need to say here that I’m not a violent person. I need you to know that. I’ve only gotten into one fight, back in school, when I’d had enough of the bullying and, just once, stuck up for myself. For all the bitterness and fury I feel, I would never be physically violent to her or anyone. It’s just not who I am; I believe in the figurative might of the pen, not the sword.

And yet, when my brain sends that signal, my body receives it. I’ve screamed in malice. I’ve punched. I’ve kicked. Except my mother isn’t there – my sleeping fiance is an incredible woman who has done nothing wrong.

It happened again last night. I confronted my mother in my dreams, and I closed my fist and I punched. My partner was awake – she couldn’t sleep – and with a closed fist, I punched her in the face.

Just typing that makes my stomach rise into my throat. Her hand was partially covering her face at the time so it could’ve been much worse. She’s thankfully uninjured. I don’t know what I’d do if she was hurt.

For everything my partner has been through, she holds infinite patience and understanding. She’s experienced domestic violence from ex-partners and an abusive father. She lives with her own trauma, so I cannot imagine how she has been so understanding with this. I cannot understand how it hasn’t been triggering for her to wake up to violence. I’m waiting on the day she says she’s had enough, that she can’t do this anymore, that she’s too afraid. But… she’s not. She says that day will never come.

So how, I ask, am I to continue with this? I’m seeking therapy again – private, this time, after my last run with therapy ended with NHS discharge due to funding, despite the majority of my struggles being unresolved. It doesn’t feel enough, though. I’ve begged for her forgiveness despite assurances that there’s absolutely no need. I feel like I have to be tied down at night for her safety – I couldn’t give a damn about my own. I don’t want to sleep apart from her, but even if that was a measure I chose, she would never want it. She’s said as much to me.

So here we are; I go to sleep at night and I pray not to dream, and if I must dream then I pray not to act. There is no forgiving my mother for everything she has done to me. Too often are those living with trauma told to forgive their abusers, so please – don’t tell me that, and please don’t judge me for the things I do in my sleep that my waking self never would.

I’m afraid to sleep and I’m afraid of what I’ll do next, but all I can do is keep moving forward. I have to do my best to address these emotions in my waking life. I have to hold onto the knowledge that this isn’t new to medicine, either. It is, most likely, a type of sleep disorder. Studies show that REM sleep behavior disorder – which involves so-called “dream-enactment behavior” such as shouting and violence – may be linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Members of our Mighty community have contributed their own experiences with PTSD and nightmares. I’m not alone, even if I feel like this makes me a monster, capable of violence when I’m wide awake.

I have to keep fighting this while I’m awake so that I don’t fight my battles in my sleep.

Photo by Simon Hajducki on Unsplash

Originally published: February 17, 2022
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