This painting, by John Henry Fuseli, is called The Nightmare. It’s a pretty well-known painting, and for a lot of reasons. I’m going to skip the scholarly interpretations of the painting and go straight to one of the prime reasons I love it so much: it pretty much epitomizes what it feels like to be trapped in one. I call my nightmares The Dreams, because it separates them from my regular dream cycles. I’ve always been a vivid dreamer. I have held great stock in my dreams. During many parts of my life, sleep and dreams have been an escape for me. They are full of vivid colours, textures both perceived and felt, scents, tastes, and sound. They are fully immersive experiences. Until I was diagnosed with PTSD in 2009, I had no idea that there was such a thing as a trauma dream, but when I found out and my therapist began the process of helping me through the terrible and lengthy process of healing my PTSD, I realised just how much of my life had been tainted by trauma dreams. Trauma dreams are nightmares of such brutal vivid harshness they are often impossible to escape from. They are lurid in the extreme. When I was a teenager I learned how to control my dreams to a certain extent through a painstaking process, in an effort to quell those dreams. Over years I was able to redirect the course of many of my nightmares, or wake myself from sleep when I was unable to redirect. But because I didn’t know I was suffering from PTSD, I didn’t know what to actually *do* about anything. So the reason I was having them (not to mention still being stuck in trauma hell, constantly facing new traumatisation every day) never got addressed. When I started working on actually healing the trauma in therapy, The Dreams got worse. So much worse.
Imagine being paralysed in your sleep, locked tight in a body with muscles solid as a rock and strung tight as guitar strings. Screaming. Sweating cold sweat so profusely your sheets and blankets are soaked through. What feels like blood curdling screams comes out of my throat as a sort of keening; my husband has gone through years of having to wake me out of this state. Or else I am shouting, but what comes out is a sort of frantic whispering. I’m not going to talk about what The Dreams are explicitly about. At least not right now. Just know that they are horrible. I have a medication that helps; it’s non-addictive and non-habit forming. But sometimes The Dreams get through anyway. Especially when I am processing a lot, or going through a lot.
Last night was a bad night. And I woke up so grouchy, so irritable, I declared myself unfit for human consumption. I spent my day outside, soaking up the sun and listening to the birds. I don’t know what kind of birds these are, but they are getting ready to migrate. Every fall they consolidate themselves into larger and larger flocks and congregate in the trees and along telephone wires, chattering madly. I like to think they are all catching up on all the news, making plans, consolidating travel arrangements. And then suddenly one day they will be gone. Until then it’s nice to sit outside and listen to them. It snowed the first snow of the season on Monday, but today it’s warm and full of the sound of birds. So I took the dogs outside and let them play and sat until I got drowsy, then came inside and read. And fell asleep, and had more nightmares. I repeated this pattern twice. And I still feel fugly and at crossways.
I wanted to have something awesome and amazing to say on World Mental Health Day, but all I have is this. The Dreams suck. PTSD sucks, and bipolar sucks, and when your brain feels fuzzy and crochety and misfiring because you’re not right in the head, all you can do is try to enjoy the sun and the birds and your dogs and read a little and keep using all those other tools. And know my brain will settle down pretty soon; it’s just waiting out these waves that is hard, and makes me feel tetchy.