My elementary school photos, kindergarten to 4th grade, from left to right. The night terrors began when I was in third grade.
(“Tell me a story from when you were a kid. Please. Pleee-ase.”
It was a nighttime ritual by now, my daughter asking me to tell her one of my childhood stories. I knew what it REALLY was, a ploy for her to stay up later. Or a ploy for me to have a little more time with her alone. Who’s fooling whom, I thought. I smiled, both inside and out.
“Okay, remember how I told you about how I used to have trouble getting to sleep? Well, one night…”)
The little boy did not mind going to bed. That didn’t scare him. In fact, it was reassuring to be snug in bed and see the bright light under his door, the light that indicated his parents were still up and about.
The best nights were those Saturdays when his parents entertained and stayed up very late, and the smell of a cigarette from one of the guests wafted to his room. As long as the smell lingered his parents would be up and he would be safe.
No, it wasn’t going to bed that scared him.
As long as he fell asleep before the light under his door went out he would be fine. He knew this and developed all kinds of tricks to help himself fall asleep quickly. His stuffed animal friends, especially his bunny, would talk quietly to him. Or the radio, tuned to a Top 40 station, counted down the most popular songs and soothed him, like counting sheep jumping a fence.
He’d look up at the big blue clock his parents bought him, the one with the bright white numbers so he could tell time in the dark. Those numbers seemed so friendly to him and the blue, his favorite color, matched his walls, his sheets, his bunny, his eyes…
His eyes which now were closed. He was asleep.
Invariably, though, some time in the night, every night, he would awaken. It wasn’t nightmares, at least not most nights, that caused him to wake up. He just did, wake up that is, every night, sometime around 2 in the morning, like clockwork.
Sometimes he woke up slowly, sleepy-eyed, and fought the inevitable consciousness.
He tried, in this not-quite-awake state, to lull himself back to sleep, knowing that if he awoke the terror would begin. But this never worked. Every time he began thinking to himself,
“I know I’m still asleep and should stay asleep but if I don’t wake up I won’t be alert and then I’m vulnerable so I need to wake up, I need to waKE UP. I NEED TO WAKE UP! WAKE UP!!”
And he’d wake himself up, wide-eyed, alert.
Sometimes he just awoke with a start, to that same wide-eyed, wide-awake state, immediately scared. Every time he’d look at the bottom of his door for the reassuring light but his parents were long ago in bed, asleep. And THIS is what scared him to the marrow of his bones, that he would be the only one in the house awake, the only one available to protect his house, his family, himself from all that the darkness brought.
His way of dealing with being the only one awake in the house was to awaken someone else.
And somehow all the logic that he so well understood in the comfort of the daylight disappeared in the lonely darkness of 2 am.
The well-intentioned promises made at family meetings, the star chart of promised rewards taped to the refrigerator, the talks with his therapist. They all added up to a big fat nothing when the little boy was scared and lonely and scared and alone and wanted more than anything to be near his awake mother. Every night it was the same.
“MOM!!! MOM!!!” he yelled at the top of his lungs.
And she would come and he would ignore or just not notice her frustration and her exhaustion as her calming presence and the touch of her hand rubbing his head or his back, or her, in her tired, tired state, laying down next to him, blotted out all else.
He knew the meaning of peace and serenity. It was your mom laying down next to you and rubbing your back at 2 am moments after being so terribly scared. There is peace in this world and this is it.
In his mother’s presence, he would quickly and quietly fall back asleep.
After months and months of this pattern there came the night he feared. The predictable pattern played out again. In bed, the light shining from under his door, he found his way into sleep. And, as always, he began to awaken and he told himself he should just fall back into a deep slumber.
But this time something was different.
He felt a presence in the room and then hands on him, touching his blankets. He was wide awake in a flash but his body froze with fear. He could not move a muscle. His eyes would not open, no noise would come from his throat. And still, the hands moved over and on him.
His mind raced, trying to make sense of what was happening. Maybe he was still asleep and this was one of those rare nightmares. No, he could tell this was real, could tell he was awake.
Maybe his overactive nighttime imagination was getting the best of him. No, he could tell when he was scaring himself, even when he couldn’t stop it from happening, and this was different.
Maybe it was his older brothers playing a trick on him, like the time, thinking he was asleep, they put his hand in warm water to see if he would wet the bed. No, they knew enough about his nighttime fear to not tease him about this.
What was it then?
The touching of his blankets stopped and he sensed the presence move away from his bed. He heard the familiar squeak of the hinges on his door and knew that whomever or whatever it was had left. This knowledge propelled him out of his paralyzed state and he screamed like no other scream in his life:
She was in like a flash, faster than ever before, like she sensed the urgency in his voice, like she was already close by. It all came out in a jumbled mix of frightened words,
“Somebody… touching me… in my room!”
She rubbed his head, soothed him, brought the covers up around him as it was a cold winter night.
“Oh, honey,” she said, “That was me. It is so chilly tonight and I thought you’d be cold so I brought you another blanket. You must have felt me spreading it out over you.” She hugged him and lay down next to him. “You are fine.”
The truth and logic of what she said slowly dawned on him and relief came over him in waves, finally overtaking him and calming him. The peace of his mother’s presence took hold and he fell back asleep.
Until the next night…
The artwork for this article is by artist Fish Astronaut . Outside of relecting on my childhood issues, I work to promote ordinary acts of kindness.