Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Living with Night Terrors and Daymares

Part I of II. Regaining some semblance of daytime rationality.

Key points

  • Daymares: Anxiety, stress, or fear that is like a bad dream, but happens when the person is fully awake.
  • “The past is not dead. It's not even past.” William Faulkner
  • I accept that my night terrors will never end.

Part 1 of II.

Three weeks ago I awoke from a screaming nightmare that my wife Suzan said was as loud and petrifying as any she’s heard during our 30 years together. I do not need to read my diary filled with hundreds of dreams and nightmares to replay the turbulent sounds I emit during my nocturnal inner life, even if I don’t always remember the content. The first screamer I recall occurred on Christmas Eve when I was three and half years old. We just moved into a small apartment in Flushing, Queens that I hoped would be permanent but wasn’t. We’d moved every few months since my biological father abandoned us two years before, never to be seen in person again, leaving my mom deeply in debt and emotionally broken. Many years later my mom admitted she had “fallen apart and never stopped crying for six months after he left and I’ve been trying to make it up to you ever since.” Despite an often difficult relationship, I can say without reservation that she succeeded and I am grateful for all she gave me.

That Christmas Eve I lay awake hoping to hear Santa Claus’ arrival. Eventually I fell asleep. (That was the last year I believed the story of the red suited kindly old man.) My alarming cries awakened my mom and grandmother. I can still relive and recite that nightmare with precise detail, a fact that reinforces my belief that linear time doesn’t exist in the unconscious. We’d recently returned from Florida where we’d been living with my aunt, uncle, and their kids. My uncle and cousin had taken me to see a bare-chested Seminole tribesman display their age-old tradition of alligator wrestling. In the world of this nightmare, the alligators, with their massive mouths and sharp teeth, surrounded my bed attempting to swallow me. Upon awakening, I believed I saw the alligators chomping at my bed. My mom rushed into the bedroom to comfort me and show me there were no alligators.

For years I thought my insomnia arose from anguish over what the next day would bring, obsessing on recent regretful actions or that I’d suffer sleep suffocation and never wake up, but no, the anticipation gnawed -- what hellish dimension, rarely as literal as the alligator vision was to a 3-year-old, would capture me during sleep? In the days, weeks, or even months of silence, I let my guard down in hopes of final freedom from the creeping terror of night. Misplaced hope. The howls always return. My soul shimmers with the sounds of one unbroken 60-year scream echoing through the night. The frightful sounds slice like the bloodletting of a switchblade piercing the invisible wall between my unconscious and conscious are never quiescent for too long.

The reverberations of hellish night terrors, what I call my “nightmare hangover syndrome,” become daymares that discombobulate the next day when I feel, instead of “hear” an ever-present angst that I attempt, but fail, to repress or ignore. Not all nightmares are screamers but they still haunt me. After starting this post, my mom arose in what started out as a dream. “Why are you writing about me in the past tense? I’m still here.” It turned from dream to nightmare as I began to awaken and realized she’d died seven years ago that exact day. I began to cry. The imagery and her voice have lingered for days. This dream, as so many others, has convinced me linear time is nonexistent in the unconscious and that, as William Faulkner wrote, “The past is not dead. It's not even past.”

A nightmare’s hum vibrates in the shadows, sometimes even disappears for hours so I could teach, write, fulfill the needs of quotidian life, and have normal conversations; then some innocuous or incongruous flash of light, image, or sound causes a mindbody shriek unheard by anyone except me that demands I pause to regain some semblance of daytime rationality. Find a balance. Most of the time I have no choice but to take a deep breath and continue. If I am alone I can sit and contemplate what it means and try to recall or understand what the hell had happened during the night and how and why the invading nightmares affected my moods; my ability to function. Despite decades of introspection, I have never figured out why the nightmares plague me even during periods of outer world daytime contentment.

The “daymares” hovered over many a joyful day and night of my youth and middle age as they do now in the quiet and calming evenings alone with Suzan. The scream is never silent. Throughout my life it has manifested in bouts of ulcerative colitis, migraines, mini-paralytic depressions, dark humorous asides, cranky and cantankerous behavior, always awaiting the next middle-of-the-night eruption. I’ve tried to discern patterns and themes in my diaries, to dig deep during 40 years of therapy, find solutions in two studies at the UCLA Sleep Clinic, been prescribed various medications and searched for calm by practicing meditation.

Still, the terrors never abated for very long. I came to believe the poet Rainer Maria Rilke was right when he wrote “Don’t think destiny’s more than what’s packed into childhood.” It became necessary that I work with my therapists to make my daytime life less stressful because, whether the night terrors arise from the first six years of a tumultuous childhood or some inexplicable phenomena, I accept “the scream” has been and will forever be my ineradicable destiny.

References By Frederik Joelving on January 1, 2010…

More from Bruce Bauman
More from Psychology Today
More from Bruce Bauman
More from Psychology Today