I wish I had nightmares that other people talk about – being chased by zombies or monsters or being lost in a spooky place – because at least I would know they were fake. Instead, when I refer to having nightmares, I specifically mean that I relived some aspect of the rape and sexual assault that I experienced as a youth. The level of detail and reality is terrifying and it often makes me question my safety when I am finally able to pull myself out of the nightmare and wake up. I use the word ‘nightmare’ very selectively because my partner and several close friends know what it means and to offer me support if I mention having nightmares recently.
They do not often happen frequently or intensely enough to cause me too much concern or disruption. Typically my partner can spend a few minutes reassuring me that it wasn’t real, that I am actually in fact safe, and I can fall back asleep. However, there are the times when the detail and the storyline are so intense and real that I won’t be calmed as quickly. It can require multiple reassurances, a longer conversation, an episode of Gilmore Girls, or a run before I can settle back down and to back to sleep. Sometimes I can tell whether it’ll be a one-off nightmare or if it will be one of many that night and over the next few nights. Most times I can’t. When it is one of many, I tend to experience insomnia over the next few nights as my body is trying to protect me and then I get to navigate the impacts of sleep deprivation.
One major trigger for my nightmares is being in new spaces or with new people. I don’t know if it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein I have come to connect new spaces with nightmares. It’d be great to stop the nightmares from coming but I know enough about impacts of sexual assault to know that it isn’t completely within my control. Being that we have moved four times in the past five months because of an eviction, they have been much more frequent and grown in intensity. Therefore, when we settled into our new apartment this week, I thought that it would only be a matter of time before having another nightmare and, unfortunately, I was right.
Last night, I was able to pull myself out of my first nightmare but there were too many details that still rang true in the dark of our room and I found it nearly impossible to fall back asleep. After over an hour, my partner finally managed to help me settle down and sleep. A couple hours later, I woke up from another nightmare because I was shaking and sobbing so hard, which has never happened to me before. I’ve cried after waking up or the next day when recalling details of the nightmare but never before have I woken up because I was crying so hard. This time I refused to be consoled and my partner helplessly sat with me until I finished crying. He never asked what he could do or how to help because he knew as well as I did that this was new territory and that there wasn’t a way to help in that moment. I had to deal with the fear and emotions before I’d be able to communicate. The methods that had worked just a couple hours earlier and that he had learned to implement flawlessly over years of being together were useless. I know what was different about these nightmares and what frightened me to my core while asleep still scare me now that I’m awake. How these details and realizations have managed to stay out of prior nightmares is beyond me but I am glad for it. We both sat up for hours while I tried to calm down and eventually I settled down enough to watch Gilmore Girls even though I still couldn’t sleep.
As I was biking to work this morning, I was thinking about the many conversations and presentations I have led on the far-reaching and ripple impacts of rape and sexual assault. And these nightmares are such a perfect micro-example of that. It wasn’t just me who sat up all night. My partner also did while trying to console me, shift my framework towards positive thoughts, help employ coping mechanisms, and bring my stress down to a manageable level. By the time I was finally in a place where I could close my eyes and not freak out, he had to get up for work. We both were less productive at work today because of sleep deprivation and being preoccupied with how terribly last night’s nightmares affected me. We are both anxious about what tonight will bring as there’s an increased likelihood that I will have more nightmares.
I feel safest and most able to sleep when I am at home and in familiar spaces. Regardless of the time, who I’m with, or how far from home I am, if it’s possible to go home then I will do that. There have been and always be times when I will have to sleep where I am not 100% comfortable. Most of the time it’ll be fine but it still puts me on edge and there’s a chance I won’t sleep well until I’m back in my own space. I know this but I also refuse to let trauma dictate my life and the choices I want to make. I love to travel and many people live far away from me which necessitates spending the night(s). I know that when I am staying with other people I may not sleep as deeply or as well because I don’t want to have nightmares but it’s for a limited time so it typically works out fine.
It can be hard to explain to people why I don’t want to stay the night, especially when thinking of dating and people I’ve had sex with. Society tells us that sleeping is a part of dating or hooking up with someone and that crashing at a friend’s place is not a big deal. These assumptions have caused a number of former partners to be angry at me for refusing to stay the night. Perhaps I could have mitigated those reactions by having an in-depth conversation about my trauma history and nightmares but I don’t always want to get into that nor should I feel compelled to. Sometimes when I’ve had those conversations, friends and dates tell me that it is totally fine for me to wake them up in the middle of the night. However, there’s a difference between saying that at a normal hour and then actually waking up in the wee hours of the morning and being able to coherently react to safety concerns, anxiety attacks, and other fear responses. There’s very little wiggle room as any wrong word or behavior will only make things worse. As well intentioned as so many people have been and continue to be, I don’t necessarily want the extra burden of having to wake other people up and coach them through my trauma and that’s okay.
I’ve made it through one more work day post-nightmare thanks in part to Teagan and Sara, Taylor Swift, cookies, and the sun coming out. But also because I’m strong, capable, loved, and know that I have done this before and will do it again. And because I know the majority of nights and days to come won’t feel like this.