When I was young, I had vivid, terrifying nightmares, almost nightly. I had and have a very active imagination and have the totally awesome super power of having a mind that will take something it’s seen or heard and turn it into imaginary reality as I sleep. Everyone has nightmares, sure, and mine were no more or less special, but they would stick with me for hours after I woke up, sometimes for days, and there are even a few I still remember and shudder over their memory.
I recall one particular dream I had when I was six. I know I was six for certain because one of the key characters was by brother, an infant at the time, and he was born when I was six years, four months, and 25 days old. This dream took place in my house and I was running through the living room, kitchen, hallway, away from monsters – zombies, vampires, Frankenstein’s creation – until I came to the basement and there was a witch, a green one like the Wicked Witch Of The West, and she was holding my brother by his head, her sharp, claw-like fingernails digging into his skin.
In some dreams, I could fly. I would fly from danger because the bad guy could never fly. I would flap my arms and take off at the last second and soar away until my arms got tired. Then I would fall gently to the ground and the bad guy would get me. But as I got older, I learned how to wake myself up when I needed to. When flying away didn’t work, I would simply wake. If my nightmares got too intense, I could somehow make my dream-self close her eyes and will my real-self awake. It was a survival technique that I learned out of necessity – I had heard that if you die in your dreams, that means you’re dead in real life and I couldn’t let that happen.
I still get nightmares, if I’m not careful. Now I know that I must sleep on my stomach with blankets (sheets aren’t heavy enough) all the way over my shoulders. On particularly frightful nights, like those after I’ve watched a scary movie, I also need to have a sheet over my head. If I have a nightmare, I know that I’ve either rolled onto my back or the blankets have come down. As long as I’m face-down and fully covered, I’m alright.
Eirinn has had trouble with bad dreams. So much so, that as a part of our nighttime routine, we include “good thoughts” – things for her to think of when “bad thoughts” start creeping into her mind. The theory being that if she’s busy thinking of good things, she won’t have time or room to think of bad things. She needs a nightlight, too, and even still she will come into our room once in a while having had a nightmare. She hasn’t learned her triggers or her mid-dream survival techniques yet. She will.
Avery has never had problems with sleep. Sure, she’s gone through phases – she started out a terrible sleeper like her sister, but after having been through it once, we let her cry-it-out and she became much, much easier. She also has a small bladder, so nightwakings are usually of the “hafta pee” variety. But her dreams are tame, at least tame enough that they never seem to rattle her. I’ve actually never even heard her talk about one, good or bad. Until last night, when she crept into our room, startling me with her face in my face (I wear earplugs, so sneaking up on me is very easy to do), and instead of her having to pee, she was mumbling about a bad dream. She wanted to sleep in our bed, but we don’t do that in our house. It may be a cruel and unusual rule, especially given my background and experience with being frightened at night, but everyone must sleep in their own bed. No one sleeps well when beds are shared around here, with some people snoring, others kicking and sleep-punching, and others still grinding their teeth. No, I’m quite stubborn in wanting them, rather, to learn how to overcome their fears, even at this young age.
So, I walked her to her room, sat her down on her bed and we talked it out. Her dream involved the Science Center, with all her family around her, and skeletons started coming out of the faucets. I can see how that would scare anyone, especially a not-quite-four-year-old. I convinced her to lay in her bed, after some hugs and back rubs, and we came up with some “good thoughts”. We chose her favourite places in the whole world (Disney World, Canada’s Wonderland, and the trailer) and talked about all the reasons why she loved them – meeting the Princesses, the rides, fishing – and I told her that the next time her mind tries to think about scary things, to quickly think about her favourite places. If she’s busy thinking about that, the bad thoughts will go away. As we were talking, I was gently petting her forehead and I could see her eyes fluttering shut. She had calmed down and was thinking about Ariel and Buzz, the boat ride that tips back and forth and the bumper cars, about swimming at the beach and roasting marshmallows. Her good thoughts had won.
I feel sad when my kids are awoken by their imaginary monsters, whatever they may be, because I know all too well what that feels like, even now, when I’ve rolled onto my back or my sheets have fallen. Fear is the worst, especially in those moments after you’ve woken and your mind is unreasonable and illogical. In the waking daytime hours, the thought of a skeleton coming out of the faucet or a witch stealing your baby brother would make a person feel silly or embarrassed, but in the middle of the night, those dreadful, forced thoughts can seem as real and valid as any other. If only our good thoughts were ever-present, then we’d never have to fear those horrible bad ones.