I don’t remember the first time I screamed in my sleep.
Like most people who suffer with night terrors, I woke up after that first incident without any memory of what happened. Unlike most people, however, I wasn’t a little kid that first time. I was around fourteen when my mum told me that she’d heard animals fighting late into the previous night.
Neither of us had any reason to believe that the sound of crazed animals attacking one another was really me in the other room. In later years, my night terrors would be linked (by therapists, my mum and myself) to my phobia of spiders, academic stress and my dad’s illness. But none of these things were relevant at this point, and to this day, I’m not sure what caused me to scream into the night.
Since that night, I’ve had more night terrors than I can count, and, unusually, I remember many of them.
Around half an hour after falling asleep, I open my eyes, though I am not awake. I’m not in dreamland; I know that I’m in my room and I know, or I think I know, that I am in danger. What the “danger” is can vary. Often, I think that there’s a spider in the room, sometimes a rat and one time, bizarrely, a tiger. Sometimes, it’s just a feeling: a horrifying rush of adrenaline that forces me from my bed, screaming in a voice that isn’t my own. If I encounter another person, I’ll babble incessantly about the thing that’s in my room, until they calm me down enough to take me back to bed. Sometimes I realise that I’m having a night terror and go back to sleep.
“I was fourteen when my mum told me that she’d heard animals fighting late into the previous night. Neither of us had any reason to believe that the sound of crazed animals attacking one another was really me in the other room.”
I wake up the next morning exhausted. Sometimes I can recollect what happened perfectly. Other times, I’m like a blackout drunk trying to piece together what happened the night before, what I was running from, who I woke up, why this keeps happening.
The information on night terrors is limited. Even the trusty NHS website is aimed at concerned parents whose three to eight-year-old children will grow out of sleep disturbances without any psychological damage. The term “night terrors” sounds cutesy; a phrase likely to describe children dreaming of monsters under their beds. According to Healthline, around 6.5% of children experience the phenomenon compared with only 2.2% of adults.
Because of this, we weren’t initially too concerned. I was technically still a child, and though I’d never jumped out of bed screaming before, I’d always had what my mum called an “overactive imagination”. Peaceful, blackout sleep has always been a stranger to me. On my typical night I’d be naked in the school hallway or behind the wheel of a car I couldn’t drive.
But if my nightmares were 2D films, my night terrors were in IMAX, and they were only getting worse as I transitioned into adulthood. I’d wake up everyone at a sleepover screaming, hallucinating vividly, confused as to why no one saw what I saw. I once woke up in a wardrobe, another time, halfway up a ladder that was in my room. A month before university, I woke up outside my house in my PJs and wondered how I’d ever live with anyone outside of my family, how I’d explain this when I didn’t have the answers for myself. I’m now twenty, and while my housemates are understanding, I’m worried about how long I’ll have to keep explaining myself to new people.
“If my nightmares were 2D films, my night terrors were in IMAX, and they were only getting worse as I transitioned into adulthood”
The only known causes of night terrors are stress, anxiety and fatigue. But each incident only made these three things worse, plummeting me into a cycle of exhaustion and fear. The more night terrors I had, the more tired I was and vice versa. The more terrified I was during an episode, the longer I would lie awake the next night afraid to close my eyes. Life was getting more stressful: my dad was sick, I was trying to do my A-Levels, but no matter how well I felt I was coping during the day, I had no control over what my mind would do at night.
I learned the hard way that mental health isn’t something you can put a pin in. After spending years ignoring how I felt, the fear that was building up was bursting out of me whenever it could. My mind and body had finally had enough and were letting me know about it every night.
But even once I’d confronted my fears — of losing my dad, of failing school, of the spiders that always made their way into our old house — my options still felt limited. Doctors refused to put me on medication, and while CBT helped with my day-time worries, it did nothing to calm me at night.
I always tried to laugh off my late-night adventures, but the joke quickly wore off. I was worried about sleeping at other people’s houses; I didn’t want to be seen in that vulnerable state, eyes wide, desperate to convince them that was I was seeing was really there. I didn’t know anyone else who experienced adult night terrors and even among the media’s ongoing conversation about mental health, night terrors were left out.
“Night terrors have no place in a conversation that only acknowledges a certain type of mental illness: the invisible kind that can be fixed by things like mindfulness and ‘me-time’”
Night terrors have no place in a conversation that only acknowledges a certain type of mental illness: the invisible kind that can be fixed by things like mindfulness and ‘me-time’. The conversation grounds itself in the idea that we all feel low or nervous sometimes, we all overwork ourselves or feel anxious at parties, that it’s good to ask for help. But this definition of mental illness is so narrow. What if your anxiety doesn’t have an understandable cause? What if your mental illness shows itself in an unpleasant, intimidating way? What if you’ve asked for help, over and over, and no one can?
I know that my issue isn’t the only one that’s been left out of the conversation. Borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, drug addiction and many eating disorders are also deemed too scary and unrelatable to be spoken about in an empathetic way. In an attempt to normalise mental illness, we have ignored what people who are suffering need the most: to be heard, to be understood and to be helped.
I don’t know why my mind deals with stress this way, and I don’t know how to make it stop. What I do know is that by talking about our experiences with rarer mental health issues, we can find comfort in one another’s stories and, hopefully, get closer to finding an answer.
Molly Greeves is a journalist and deputy editor of The Courier. Follow her on Twitter at @mollygreeves
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