In this post, I wanted to share what I’ve learned about night fears resulting from sexual assaults as a child and how to reduce them.
I started out with night fears which were more of the usual type. I had a real sociopathic perpetrator, in my house, with real access to me, and I was afraid. Straight up, regular, warranted fear. My mother was no help. This was a lot of real, justified fear and I lived in real risk of being raped at any time for at least a decade. So you might say I was conditioned to associate laying in my own bed at night with, if not being raped, at least with the persistent fear of being raped.
Over time, I developed what I called ‘monsters’, which I still don’t fully understand. They were compilations of my fear and rage that seemed to haunt me, give me a target for the fear in my body, other than the one I couldn’t admit into awareness, that it was my father who was the source of the danger and injury. When I’d be in bed, it would feel like a ‘monster’ was there just outside of my awareness (or in it) that was waiting to harm me if I dropped my guard. I had these from early childhood onward through my 20’s.
When I left home I still had the monsters of course, and it took me a couple of years to even begin to figure them out. I’d started attending an adult children of alcoholics (ACoA) meeting that was for women only, and it was there I started to have some support and validation. It was also the first place in my own memory that I’d felt safe.
One afternoon or evening, I was sitting on a couch in the common area of the student housing where I lived with a friend who was a survivor, and she was asking about the monsters, about what would happen if I let one of them come close. I trusted her, and I tried to do this. Once the monster came close enough, I suddenly knew it was my father, that it was my father who had hurt me.
This is the first learning about night fears. It helps to find out, even roughly, what real life person, location, experience or whatever they are about. From then on, when I had monsters, I could say, “this is from being abused by my father”, and I didn’t feel like I was going crazy.
I started to notice I’d get what I called ‘monstery’ when I was triggered by something, usually something I’d seen on tv, but sometimes contact with my family. The types of things that triggered me were depictions of women-hating violence like rape, or scary movies with a supernatural element (reinforcing my fear that the monsters were real). If I avoided triggers like that the monsters were under a bit more control. I could also do things as part of my going to bed procedure that would make me feel more safe, such as having a candle lit by my bed and blowing it out last, or by writing in my journal and clearing out all my worries by writing in bed, just before turning off the light. I wrote my journal as a letter to the Goddess, so it was the same as praying before bed.
A major breakthrough came a few years later, when a friend from ACoA said I could call her the next time I had a monster, no matter how late it was. I called her and with her prompting, described the monster in enough detail to try and figure out what event or fear it was associated with. I still remember that phone call, and how helpful it was to have someone there with me when I was so afraid. Over time, I became good at letting the ‘monsters’, which were really flashbacks and the fears of flashbacks, come to my awareness during therapy sessions and then allowing them to come closer to me so I could feel what information they might hold about my life.
People have these misconceptions about survivors, they think it would be best if we just forgot all the bad stuff that happened to us. What they don’t get is that we may be able to forget the facts and details in our heads, but our body never forgets on it’s own. the memory isn’t all stored in the same place like a regular memory. It doesn’t fade until all or most of the pieces are brought together into a bundle, and that takes psychological detective work. If I didn’t remember and assimilate all the traumatic events, I’d still be terrified every night going to sleep. When healing from chronic trauma or complicated PTSD, I believe the only way out is through.
Some other random things that helped:
1) Giving myself permission – I was terrified to get out of bed in the night to go to the bathroom. I got myself a chamber pot to use for awhile so I didn’t have to.
2) Pets – Pets are excellent company for keeping away night terrors. They don’t mind if you wake them up for company in the middle of the night and they are always alert for real-world dangers. If you feel like someone is in your room or hallway to attack you and the dog hasn’t noticed, it’s not a real-world attacker.
3) Feeling anger – once I’d cleared out the fear of being raped that was stored in the monster experiences, I became aware gradually and with some help from a therapist, that anger was actually the main trigger, or even rage. While it may seem odd for me to fantasize a monster hurting me rather than the other way around, that’s how it worked. Anger was so dissociated from my awareness – I never consciously felt anger – that my mind had somehow decided it was safer to have the monsters angry at me than me at them. The monsters were in fact my own rage. This convoluted theory was proven right when I started acting as if this was correct. When I had the ‘monster kind of scared’ going on, I’d assume I was angry. I looked in the mirror, into my own eyes and told myself “I’m angry, I’m angry” over and over. I found it was impossible to feel both angry and fearful at the same time. I tried to both feel the anger, and see myself in the mirror believing and hearing me. I tried to feel the anger in my body. This completely dissolved the monsters! It was like I’d found a magic wand to turn them off.
4) Being brave / exposure. I began getting up in the night to pee. When I felt a monster coming on, I would practice thought-stopping. “no, I’m not going there” I would tell myself firmly, and although the awareness of the monster feeling was still there, I’d go through with my plan to get up and pee and come back to bed. If I had to turn on all the lights, so be it, if I had to run back to bed afterward, fine. I would remind myself that monsters were just my unconscious letting me know I was triggered or angry. I would tell myself “I’m angry I’m angry I’m angry” instead. I’m not going to tell you this wasn’t hard, but over time the night fear conditioning I’d gotten as a child gave up. I almost never experience it any more. More recently, I would read about how exposure therapy, progressively desensitizing yourself to the fearful situations, gradually and under your own control, is an accepted treatment for anxiety. Before I actually got up though, I tried some easier things, like allowing myself to lay on my back (a trigger) when the lights were on or allowing my foot to stick out of the covers (where apparently I was afraid a monster would grab it). If I couldn’t deal on a particular night, I kept the chamber pot as a backup.
I’m happy and proud to say that most of the time I don’t have a single fear to get up in the night to pee any more. Unless something incredibly triggering is happening in my life, I also never have monsters any more. If I can do it, you can too.
You know, I was realizing as I was putting the categories on this post, that this qualifies as perseverance. Perhaps I am perseverent after all, I just have had a harder time doing regular life perseverance while I have been caught up in persevering on the healing tasks that I needed to do.