More often than not, Sophie Pierce will wake up from sleep screaming, convinced there is a man in her room. Night terrors affect only a small percentage of the adult population, but Sophie is one of them. She shares her experiences here.
I am thirty years old and I am afraid of going to sleep. For over half my life, sleep has not been a safe place. Instead, more often than not, I wake up screaming because there is a man in my room.
Sometimes he’s just a shadow in the corner without a face, other times I could tell you exactly what he is wearing. I’ve woken up with him standing over me, and I’ve seen him step just out of sight, hiding in a cupboard, or under the bed. I’ve messaged people to tell them a man is watching me and they need to come help. I’ve phoned someone and said there was someone outside the window. I’ve found myself standing at the back door crying or locked in the bathroom downstairs, always coming to with the same, hideous, dawning realisation that perhaps this was not the reality I believed.
I am one of the unlucky few who never grew out of childhood nightmares, and my dreams have grown up with me. I suffer from parasomnias, or abnormalities in your sleep. They can manifest themselves in different ways, but for me, they are night terrors. And they are ruining my life.
I’ve done a lot of research into them, but there is a surprising lack of anything helpful about night terrors in adults. I hear statistics like 2% of people might have them every now and then, so I feel isolated, alone, the girl who wakes up screaming for no reason. I can’t find any truthful accounts of them in adults, which is why I’ve taken to writing about them.
You know when you accidentally knock off a scab before it has healed properly and the skin underneath is all raw and pink, because it wasn’t meant to be exposed? That’s what it’s like having someone tell you about a night terror they witnessed you having.
My housemate will tell me she heard me calling out for help in the middle of the night, and she’ll listen with concern outside my door, making sure I’ve got myself back to sleep. Or I’ve had boyfriends who say I woke them up in the night, whimpering and pointing at the cupboard, begging them to believe someone is hiding inside.
For me, they come in different scales. At the lowest end of the spectrum, and also the most frequent, I will wake up with my bedside lamp on, or sometimes every light in my room will be on – because the only remedy to darkness where shadows lie in wait, is to flood them with light. But it’s at the other end of the scale where the monsters in my head wait for me, in waking dreams.
Ask anyone who has seen me in the clutches of one, and they will tell you how alarming it is. This is not someone thrashing in their sleep with their eyes closed, calling out from some invisible dream. Oh no. My eyes will be wide open, I’m quite often out of bed, or even my bedroom. I look and sound completely awake, insisting quite emphatically and in no uncertain terms, that there is someone in my room.
All the people in my life who love me know about my night terrors, (as well as a few others I’d prefer not to have witnessed them, but your subconscious doesn’t respect being at a new boyfriend’s parents’ house, or teenage sleepovers) and everyone is always full of helpful suggestion. But nothing I’ve tried has worked so far. The most common thing people suggest involves trying to trick my subconscious in some way, condition it into realising safety. Which is impossible, because my subconscious is in my brain, the same factory that churns out these nightly horror shows. It would be like trying to move so quick you can outrun your own reflection to see the back of your head in a mirror before it also turns around.
Having regular night terrors is like constantly reliving the story of the boy who cried wolf. Your brain is saying “look, I know we messed up the last few times, making you think there was a man in here when there wasn’t, but this time… this time it’s really true. There really is someone in your room watching you.”
Like I said, I’ve texted people in my sleep asking for their help. I’ve written coherent messages, with proper grammar, spelling etc. My brain did that. How am I meant to set some Inception-esque indicator that I am simply dreaming? Plus, the weirdest part is that my sleeping brain knows what my awake brain knows.
A few weeks ago, my housemate was away for the weekend. This didn’t make me nervous; our house is perfectly safe and I am often here alone. It’s not a problem, usually. But on this particular occasion, while I am sleeping, I become aware of someone looking at me. I open my eyes and stare at him. I could tell you exactly what he looked like. He has his hands on the bed post at my feet. The paralysis that has temporarily grasped me has gone and I start screaming. Not only screaming, but begging my neighbour to wake up and save me (we live in a terraced house and are friendly with the couple next door). I am clawing at the wall, shaking my bed frame to wake her up, all the while making unbroken eye contact with the man at the end of my bed. The man who is entirely made up by my brain.
I don’t always remember having them, although I never forget the feeling of them or the impression that has been left on my subconscious. I’m not embarrassed that I suffer with them. It’s not that. It’s just the feeling of their immediate aftermath. You feel vulnerable, exposed, raw and exhausted, for days afterwards. Maybe that’s why so few sufferers speak candidly about their experience. But we need to start.