My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen on me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me. I said, ‘Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.'” (Psalm 55:4-8)
I wonder if the Psalmist was writing about things that were happening during his waking hours, or if he was writing about the terrors that come at night. Perhaps both, probably both. I’m certain the Psalmist had seen enough violence to be at least occasionally harassed in his sleep by nightmares.
The Mayo Clinic describes Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as “a mental condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event – either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms may start within one month of a traumatic event, but sometimes symptoms may not appear until years after the event. These symptoms cause significant problems in social or work situations and in relationships. They can also interfere with your ability to go about your normal daily tasks.
PTSD symptoms are generally grouped into four types: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions. Symptoms can vary over time or vary from person to person.
Symptoms of intrusive memories may include:
Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event
Reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks)
Upsetting dreams or nightmares about the traumatic event
Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the traumatic event
Symptoms of avoidance may include:
Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event
Avoiding places, activities or people that remind you of the traumatic event
Negative changes in thinking and mood
Symptoms of negative changes in thinking and mood may include:
Negative thoughts about yourself, other people or the world
Hopelessness about the future
Memory problems, including not remembering important aspects of the traumatic event
Difficulty maintaining close relationships
Feeling detached from family and friends
Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
Difficulty experiencing positive emotions
Feeling emotionally numb
Changes in physical and emotional reactions
Symptoms of changes in physical and emotional reactions (also called arousal symptoms) may include:
Being easily startled or frightened
Always being on guard for danger
Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast
Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior
Overwhelming guilt or shame
For children 6 years old and younger, signs and symptoms may also include:
Re-enacting the traumatic event or aspects of the traumatic event through play
Frightening dreams that may or may not include aspects of the traumatic event
I have had recurring nightmares of one sort or another for most of my life. As a child, I had recurring dreams about a stick-figure man who came to my bed at night, and also dreams of my father jumping off a train to his death or accidentally falling and dying of a head wound. Not exactly normal dreams for a 8-9 year old!
When in my mid-late 20’s (after the death of my father), I began having a series of recurring dreams that were about “familiar but unrecognizable” places … places with labyrinths of interconnecting bedrooms, bedrooms where evil lived. I didn’t dream them every night – and often there would be gaps of weeks or even months between them. At first, I blamed them on yesterday’s dinner. But over time, I began to realize that I was dreaming of the same places over and over and over again. The places portrayed in them so familiar to me that I knew them almost as well as I knew my own home. I would frequently think to myself within the dream, or even say upon waking … “I’ve been there before.” And yet I knew of no places like these, so no – I’d never been there. They were just dreams, right?
In my 30’s (after finally divorcing my abusive 2nd husband (“T”), determined by the Courts to be a sociopath) I began having recurring dreams of someone/something visiting me at night, using my body for its pleasure. These dreams were particularly disturbing for me on a couple of fronts:
- Because they felt like “present day” experiences, meaning these did not feel like veiled remembrances of something from my past, but rather like I was being visited and violated now
- Because they were very difficult to wake up from, and therefore they seemed to continue well past the point when you’re awake enough to know that you’re dreaming, but not awake enough to get out of the dream. So there I would remain, in the dream, trying desperately to wake myself from the dream, so that I could open my eyes and confirm that it was only a dream.
In my last post, I mentioned moving with my daughters about an hour’s distance from “T”. In that beautiful coastal community, we found a fantastic church and we began to thrive.
One Sunday, the Pastor Daniel told of two sisters he met doing some missions work overseas. He described how one had been repeatedly violated by a family member, while the other sister (thought to be sleeping) was in the room and therefore a witness to her siblings abuse. Oh the torment of soul she carried, and Pastor noted that one doesn’t have to be the physical victim in order to be abused. As he shared that story, something within me began to violently shake and quake. I found it near impossible to breath, and before he finished I had practically ran out of the sanctuary – barely able to contain myself. “Is that what happened Lord?”, I asked. “Is that what was so upsetting to me at age 3?”
It is an established truth that my sisters were abused (my dad didn’t deny it, and my sisters had full recollection of it). That they had memories and I didn’t made me somehow feel like I was “a poser” to say I’d been abused too. Hearing Pastor Daniel retell the experience of these two sisters, and my reaction to it, finally gave me courage to say “Yes, it happened to me too, I was abused too.”
I still had questions, for I still had very few memories of my childhood due to dissociative amnesia, but it was another step on the journey to truthfulness.
Thankfully the majority of people don’t have PTSD, recurring nightmares, or other symptoms common to trauma or abuse. But we ALL experience fear. And it is of FEAR, and the power of FEAR that I will write in my next post.
Until then, may the King of Peace overshadow you with His righteous right hand, and grant you sweet sleep.
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