I Was Too Ashamed to Seek Treatment for Night Terrors Until I Was Badly Injured

I've felt like a little kid: irrational, scared of the dark, afraid to sleep over at anyone's house lest I humiliate myself.
Publish date:
July 20, 2016
stigma, night terrors, sleep patterns, Sleep disorders

Last night, there was a frog in my bed. I woke up just in time to sense it hopping around under the covers. Heart pounding in my ears, every inch of my skin crawling with fear, I bolted upright and began patting down the bed, trying to trap the slimy little hopper one place. Finally, I grasped a bulge of the covers in my hand and turned to my boyfriend.

"I got it," I said, proffering the cover bulge with shaking hands.

"What?" He murmured sleepily.

Then I realized: I didn't have it. There was no frog in the bed. I had hallucinated it. How would a frog have gotten into a third floor walk-up in Park Slope in the first place? Let alone passed through the closed door of the bedroom and weaseled under the covers.

"You're doing your thing again," he groaned and rolled over.

That was a relatively harmless incident of "my thing." Mostly I hallucinate (or "sense," even if I don't actually see them) animals in the bed or alien presences in the room. I'll flail my limbs, pound on the covers, throw pillows, or leap out of the bed in a panic. Sometimes, I let out blood-curdling screams, terrifying my poor boyfriend out of his slumber or waking my roommates. He'll wrap his arms around me and hold me until I stop shouting and thrashing, but it takes me a minute to become lucid enough to be consoled — and often over an hour to get back to sleep. I'm lucky to have someone there: When I was single and slept alone, it would take two or three hours for the fear to die down and the adrenaline to leave my system enough to even think about getting some shut-eye. Strangely, it only started happening after I graduated college; I'd been afraid of the dark as a child, but never had any incidences like this, let alone regularly.

Yet, for years, I never thought to do anything about it. During the day, the previous episode would be relegated to a distant memory, if I remembered it at all (about half the time I didn't, only finding out when my boyfriend told me about it the next morning). I'd be tired, especially after a particularly scary night, but I was largely functional (after an extra cup of coffee or five). Besides, I was far too ashamed to tell anyone about "my thing."

I felt like a little kid: irrational, scared of the dark, afraid to sleep over at anyone's house lest I humiliate myself. My most recent ex, not aware of his harsh words in his half-asleep state, would get irritated at me in the moment, which in turn made me feel even more upset and ashamed.

"I don't have conscious control over it," I tried to explain, deeply mortified.

For years, only those with absolute necessity knew about the episodes: my roommates, my boyfriend, and the handful of exes who've regularly slept next to me (with widely varying reactions to this particularly bothersome issue). Then, a few weeks ago, I tore a gash on my shin on the corner of a dresser. I'd been in a full-blown panic, trying desperately to escape the bedroom because I thought I saw a UFO outside the window. The crippling fear had made me wobbly on my feet.

This was the first time that I'd ever injured myself, but I couldn't ensure that it would be the last. So I decided, at the very least, to do some Googling. It turns out "my thing" fit almost every diagnostic criterion for pavor nocturnus: sleep or night terrors. According to the DSM-V, sleep terrors are fairly common in children: They occur in about 37 percent of children at 18 months, and about 20 percent of children between 2 and 3 years old. Episodes only occur in about 2 percent of the adult population, as far is known. Moreover, episodes of sleep terrors are different from what is known as "sleep terror disorder," in which a regular and significant impairment of functioning occurs. The prevalence of the disorder itself is not known.

I myself wouldn't be a part of either statistic, since I've never sought psychiatric help for it or even mentioned it to my doctor. I have, however, been in therapy for generalized anxiety disorder, which can be comorbid with sleep terrors in adults. Anecdotally, I was relieved to find troves of people who seemed to suffer from similar issues (on forums, comments sections, and the like), not all of which fit the exact criteria for sleep terrors but that seem to fall under the same umbrella category of parasomnias or abnormal things that happen to people when they sleep.

Since incidences of night terrors in adults are highly correlated with depression, anxiety, and PTSD, I've since asked for help from my stepmother, a psychotherapist who specializes in processing emotions, trauma, and shame. It felt good to finally talk about the sleep terrors openly, and she came up with some great ideas for managing or reducing my symptoms. First and foremost, I've started keeping a sleep journal to log when it does and doesn't happen, along with other potentially influential factors: whether I exercised, took a sleep aid (homeopathic or otherwise), where I am in my cycle, what I ate, and so on. I've already noticed an inverse correlation between exercise and sleep terrors: they seem to happen almost entirely on days when I haven't gotten a good sweat in (as if I needed another reason to be more consistent about exercising).

Most importantly, I've realized that there's no need to be ashamed of having night terrors as an adult. To everyone out there who goes through this same experience at night: Know that you're not alone, and that there are some great resources available for information and treatment. The CDC, National Sleep Foundation, and WebMD all list sleep centers and free information and are great places to start. I now feel much more comfortable talking openly about "my thing" getting night terrors. The only outcome of keeping the suffering a secret was that I prolonged it unnecessarily and allowed myself to feel helpless in the face of fear. No one should have to feel that way, not when there are so many people out there who understand and are available to help.