What I learned about night fears and sexual abuse survivors

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.

20 thoughts on “What I learned about night fears and sexual abuse survivors”

  1. Hi Laura, Nice to meet you. The bathroom visits were a combination of things, from a fear of bathrooms (which is where my abuser would go before abusing me), to feeling like something might grab me in the dark from behind. Not sure if there’s a specific memory for that.
    Nice to meet you. I’d love to hear about the surgeries. I’m probably not going to go that route, but still. I’m also writing a book, so if you are interested, may I contact you to review the chapter on vulvovaginal injury when it’s complete?
    We survive. May we happily dance on their graves.

    1. Sure, I’ll be happy to share my experience of having my physical damage from the original rape repaired–which has had its own not-so-great consequences, but at least I don’t have to live every day with the physical evidence of the rape. I prefer the consequences of the surgery 🙁

  2. I’m really loving reading through your blog. I don’t think I was sexually abused as a child, although I really wonder sometimes, since I also have monsters and splitting. My mother was abusive to the extent that after being brutally stranger raped as a (former) virgin at 16, I left the hated “home” and preferred to live on the street, enduring serial rapes rather than to spend another minute under that roof. Eventually I became an expert witness on child sexual abuse, doing the evaluations, learning how to earn the trust of abused children so that they could disclose safely, get them into a (hopefully) safe foster home–I say “hopefully” because I have encountered predatory foster homes where the children had even less power and less credibility than they did before. Meanwhile I have had two surgeries to try to repair the damage from the first rape. I too had complete vulvovaginal numbness for years and years. I did find a few kind lovers who took the time to help me, and now although I have to rely on fantasy to get off (weird fantasy–really weird, but whatever), at least it’s possible and sometimes very satisfying….but I’m older now, and most of my libido has gone, which is a blessing.

    Can I ask, what is it about getting up to pee in the night that triggers you?

    Sending love from one survivor to another,

  3. I’ve read this blog so many times, gotten so close to responding, and then chickened out. But I’m going to go through with it this time.

    For most of my life I have had severe anxieties regarding “night”. I have to sleep facing the door, a light has to be on outside the room, I have to check my room at night to make sure there are no “monsters” hiding in the closet etc. I have always taken hrs to fall asleep, and tend to wake up frequently. The usual pattern.

    Reading your blog really hit home for me, because this is exactly what I feel. I’m scared to walk to the toilet at night in case something comes up behind me. I’m scared to let my guard down because something or someone will come into the room.

    I used to have memories of abuse, and still snippets of it remain, but for the most part it is gone. I remember having nightmares, I remember some of the content, but I can never grasp on anything tangible. All I have is my monsters and this intense, paralysing fear.

    You are so brave to have been able to overcome this. I’m so scared to even start. But what I’m scared of most of all is that I’m going to start fabricating. I’m scared I’m going to unintentionally make something up. I have no facts about the abuse, I have no idea whether it even happened. Or perhaps I’m refusing to admit it to myself.

    Either way, in a sense I’m refusing to admit to myself that these monsters are real. Part of me wants to be more sure of the possible events of my past and make peace with it, but the other part wants to say that these monsters are just a part of my imagination. Even as I write that I know it makes no sense. But I don’t want to admit to myself that they stand for anything more.

    How did you start to come to terms with the abuse? How did you reconcile it within yourself? How did you start this long process of recovery?

    I’m petrified where I am but I’m petrified of going forward. And I realise that I read your blog entry at the beginning of last year, and again now, and nothing has changed.

    In any case, thank you for writing his post. It is the first time I’ve come across anyone who has described such a similar ’emotional memory’ as myself, and in terms that seem to fit so well. Its comforting to know I’m not alone.

    All the very best SDW.

    1. Here’s my advice,
      What worked for me when the memories were intense, was to find a friend who I could call at night while the fears were happening (maybe someone in another time zone?) This friends job is to ask you to describe the ‘monster’ fully while you let it approach and to listen without analyzing while you do so, periodically reminding you that you’re safe. I’m not going to kid you, this is scary to do.

      What also worked for me is to identify my triggers. For me this was anger I wasn’t even aware I was feeling. It might be for you as well. If you’re saying stuff like ‘fabricating’ to yourself, you’re probably suppressing pretty hard. I told myself I was angry, even if I didn’t feel it, and this helped dissolve or distract me from the monsters.

      And finally, I did years and years of desensitization, where I told the monsters “thanks for sharing” and did the stuff I was afraid of anyway, in small chunks and then bigger chunks as I could handle it.

      You have my heartfelt support. The memories of how you felt are real, even if you don’t have other info attached.


  4. I am grateful you have so bravely shared your experiences. I am just beginning the healing process and it is not easy as you know too well. I was struck by what you said about being triggered by lying on your back. I used to sleep with stuffed animals all around me so I was sort of protected by them. I was afraid through adulthood to sleep on my back. My father used to do that tickling thing too and I hated it. I also liked your comparing healing to getting sick and feeling better afterward. that is exactly how it seems to come and go.You are so brave and you really are an example of true healing. I have a lot to work through and for now I am tired from it all. Thank you for sharing because it helps to know what others have been through. I really thought I was alone for so long.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, plushfaerie. I want to give hope, because I know healing is worth it, and it does get better, so thank you for letting me know you’re out there too. If you are experiencing the ‘getting sick and getting better’ of healing, then I am certain you are very brave as well.

      I understand the feeling so tired. I used to feel healing was like I was walking slowly with aching legs up a hill, and I had to keep moving or I’d slide back. I was tired, and sometimes I could only move slowly, but I was determined to keep moving, metaphorically speaking, because it was so important. Over time life has gotten a lot more joyful than that. I’m glad reading here has made you feel less alone.

      Nice to meet you,

  5. I had one encounter with my father at 8 yrs old. He was acting strangely for a few days as he kept asking for me to camp out with him in the living room. I finally agreed and during the night he started stroking my private parts. I laid there very still pretending to be asleep until he stopped. The next day he made some excuse that he thought that I was my mother. Although nothing else happened I spent the rest of my life feeling unworthy because I was stupid or weak enough to be victimised. I always questioned why me and I still do sometimes. Since then (34 yrs ago), I have had night terrors. I try to keep contact with him to the minimum as that can trigger depression and sadness. I recognise the symptoms you describe and I can understand why it is difficult to defeat the monsters. I used to see ghosts only at night but five years ago, they started appearing in broad daylight. I think that even though I didn’t suffer physically, the mental torture has been acute. I now recognise that there is something not quite right with my dad – he is controlling and never admits that he is wrong. Other questions that plagues me is why do I still maintain a relationship with him. Will it help to cut off contact completely? For those who had suffered actual rape, have you reported your fathers or do you still carry on a cordial relationship?

    1. Hi Lilian,
      I reported my father to the police 20 years ago and haven’t seen him since. He has a no-contact order from the police as well, which was put in place when I reported him. No contact with him has worked really well for me. Why have a cordial relationship with someone who does something as evil as sexually abuse a child? I think that kind of action revokes any and all parental rights. It won’t make the ‘ghosts’ go away to cut off contact, but it will likely make you feel safer, which will help you process the experience in therapy. That, over time, will make the ghosts fade away, in my personal experience. If you know you’re going to keep seeing him, your psyche probably won’t let you get on with processing the memories and feelings because it won’t feel safe.

      His ‘excuse’ is completely bogus. There’s no way he thought you were your mom, think about it. It’s the sort of thing that might go over with a child, so don’t blame yourself for believing it then. The abuse is not your fault. Just keep telling yourself that. It’s true.

  6. Hi. I have been reading your blog on and off for a long time. I think maybe I have commented here before. Anyway- I am leaving this comment on this post here because this is an issue I am really struggling with. I have been in therapy for over seven years and I have a great doctor- but I was abused by both my mom and dad for… all my growing up life. From the time I was 2 or 3 until I moved out of the house and went to college- so it has taken me a long time to get down to the details. Tonight I sent my doctor the first most clear email about the crisis of night which I have called the crisis of going to bed which is really neither about bed or night but about being raped in my bed at night by my dad. I have been working at this so hard for so long and I have finally given up hurting myself almost constantly in reaction to my fears and pain… but now that I have stopped harming myself to cover old pain and told a lot of the story about my mom and dad- I have to go back and do the rest of the work and recover myself from their mess. It is so difficult and painful.
    Thank you for writing and for your blog.

    1. Hi Jenny,
      Nice to meet you. I’m sorry it’s so hard right now. It does get better, I promise. I’m so glad you’ve stopped harming yourself. If you’re like most of the survivors I know, gradually you will get better at letting yourself experience the flashbacks and comforting yourself through them so you can integrate the information. It’s unfortunately all about practice. I still find that I need to be in a therapists office or have other good support present in order to feel some memories fully, but things are pretty clear now and definitely completely manageable. I’m glad you have a great doctor to support you. A survivors support group was also really helpful for me because, let’s face it therapy is only once a week or however often you can afford it, and they can never become your friends, whereas survivor friends are there in your regular life and they’ve been there. I went to this one: http://www.siawso.org/

      Thank you for commenting,

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  8. It is so difficult when you are struggling with no visual memory, and I truly believe this is one of the major reasons that I am struggling so much with panic. I like the idea of embracing it though, and I am trying to wrap my head around it. Thank you, Warrior.

  9. @Butterfly: You know, I thought of another thing – I might have given the impression in what I wrote that you have to know the ‘facts’ or story of what happened in order to integrate the memories. this isn’t exactly true. What I’ve found is that I need to feel what comes up, and that usually gives me more information about it. That process helps integrate the flashback. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll end up with a linear memory of where, when, who, and what, but I’ll have more than I had, and what memories I do have (physical, emotional, auditory, visual) will be connected to each other, which will feel a lot more in control and will usually give me a decent clue as to what actually happened if not all the details.

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  11. Hi Warrior. This one hits completely home for me, monsters and all. I, too, have a feeling of ‘monsters’ around me, especially when I am laying prone in a bed. I agree with you about integrating the memories. Here’s my question though – because you seem knowledgeable about this – I have no conscious memory of my first abuser (the babysitter). I know that this is when my night fears began, and I don’t know how to integrate these memories into my consciousness, because I don’t even have images or anything. Just fear; it’s like fear is my only link to know that something even happened to me.

    1. I think the fear is a flashback. It’s an emotional memory. When I allow myself to feel it fully, it usually connects with other information, and if it doesn’t, it might still help clear it. An important part was to learn to comfort myself through it rather than resist it. Think of it as your inner abused child trying to tell you something and you keep trying to shut her down. Why not just feel it and allow your ‘inner good mom’ to comfort you while you do? Getting good at being a good inner mom was really key for me. Or find a friend to hang with you on the phone or a transitional object like a teddy bear (I’ve gotten good mileage from teddy bears, don’t laugh) to use to comfort your inner child through it.

      Here are some thoughts of things you could try for the monsters:
      1) Make sure your ‘real life’ is as secure and adult and free from triggers as possible. Personally, I’d suggest taking a firm six month complete break from any triggering people such as complicit relatives or abusers. Avoid watching triggering movies, make sure you take your vitamins and get enough sleep and all that good stuff.
      2) Figure out what your trigger times and places are, or situations. Mine are: in bed or at night or after I’ve seen a scary or anger-producing tv show or movie, or after spending time with my relatives.
      3) With as much safe supports as you can, allow the monsters/ feelings to ‘get’ you, or at least fend them off a lot less, ideally in your therapist’s office, but if you’re like me, they won’t affect you there. I had to have a recovery friend available by phone, and be in my own home where I’m triggered in order to do it the first few times. You will get useful information from this. The babysitter stuff might come up, or maybe just a bunch of feeling and sensation flashbacks. The monsters won’t actually do anything to you, and you won’t go crazy. I’m not sure if I would have believed that myself back when, but it’s turned out to be true. You’ll get really anxious and that might be intense, but it will burn itself out, particularly if you have lots of support. Even if you hyperventilate and pass out you’ll then start breathing normally. Monsters are actually flashbacks – either emotional or physical, they just have some extra bells and whistles. Contact me offline if you want me to be your phone buddy for this, you have my email. A good recovery friend will be willing to talk you down, listen to you describe your sensations and any images or sounds and won’t get freaked out that you’re talking about monsters. In my experience partners and relatives suck at this, because they have too much of an agenda and want to make it better rather than just hold the space for you to experience it fully.

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