by Teresa Joyce, NAASCA representative in the United Kingdom
All of us encounter dreams nightly, whether we remember them or not. They normally occur during REM (rapid-eye-movement) sleep, where the body is completely relaxed, almost to the point of paralysis of the muscles. It's where the mind is at its most active without our control and we have entered our subconscious.
Theories are debated as to the effect that our dreams have upon us, but what can't be argued is that they occur. So why do some people remember their dreams, whilst others don't? Scientists report that people who tend to remember their dreams also respond more strongly to their emotions during the day.
Not everyone recalls the mental escapade on waking. It is also believed that emotional dreams are far longer, more intense and easier to remember.
If a dream has a psychological trigger, there is much more for us to consider. A “trigger” is something that sets off a memory or a flashback, transporting the person back to an event of his or her trauma. Triggers are always extremely personal and completely individual, and the intensity of them is felt and relived just as strongly as when the trauma occurred. A trigger creates a multitude of things, such as sleep deprivation and an all-consuming fear that even the thought of sleeping can invoke a cold sweat. I could never adequately convey here the intense distress that can accompany child abuse survivors each night when ascending those stairs.
When we consider all of the above, we are now connected with that in which every child abuse survivor can and may need to encounter nightly.
Before I continue I'd like to share here that all of the above for me is still experienced even though I am now standing within a place of recovery. As with all of us I had to complete my journey and the experiences that came with it. It's the one thing that has always eluded me so it seems that it's not so easy to gain any control over my subconscious. The word itself speaks volume and is so closely linked with the word suppression. I am still required to descend into that world of revisiting my past trauma often.
The difference now is that on the other side of recovery I can deal with those nightmares in a way I never could before. I am now able to untangle the web of those painful emotions and torment that were weaved within the dead of night. In all truth, whilst writing this piece I recognise every syllable written from my book of life. It seems that I am to be grouped within those of remembrance and my dreams are almost always within recall even if not completely.
For a survivor, dreaming will never be something that they would like to enter into mindfully when they are armed with the knowledge of being swallowed up within that darkness. They are never quite sure what the night will bring as they lay in their bed full of apprehension. They can spend hours just trying to avoid what others may call peaceful sleep because they know far too well that for them that is never a guarantee. To be within the darkness trying so hard not to close their eyes with the fear of knowing only seems to feed the trauma. They are taken to a place of visitation even before they enter their subconscious which sits there just lying in wait. They are so aware that any control they may now have at that moment will soon be overtaken by the terrifying journey throughout the night.
The affliction of the night for a child abuse surviving adult can never be fully understood without the experience; there is no control over those painful emotions and reminders. As they rush towards the past and out of the present just as if the abuse had never stopped, with every remembered touch they feel the crawl of their abuser's hand across their body. They are consumed within a cold sweat unable to awaken on this roller-coaster of trepidation. Each turn or movement they make seems to be towards their abuser and not in the opposite direction. Any understanding escapes them, any effort to take back control alludes them, they are on board a ride that can only be explained as a runaway train with no way in which to stop it.
Not to forget the night terrors, they are in a completely different league than any nightmare experienced. They are the big guns and their impact is formidable. They can awaken you abruptly from a deep sleep which is thought of as non-dream sleep. They usually occur in the early part of the night and they can be encountered several times, they are a prologue before entering dream sleep otherwise known as REM sleep. If we think about that statement, by the time REM sleep arrives, that child abused recovering adult can rightly feel that any resistance is futile. Of course, this judgment is always taken during the darkest of hours which can be without remembrance or choice.
If they remember on awaking, the effect upon them is absolute, as they set about trying to distance themselves from the night and embark on the day in front of them. The anguish they feel burns within that remembrance, and it is so overwhelming it can induce sheer panic. They are never refreshed within this place of disturbed sleep and the exhaustion only increases the situation. For them, they are engaged in a struggle within as to how they had even survived to see the morning. Living life this way and not being able to see an end in sight is beyond comprehension. There is a great need for trust to be found from an external source until they can stand alone. But trust is more than difficult, especially if the abuse took place within that in which they called home. They feel as if there was never anyone that they were ever able to trust within that home, which should have been their haven.
Nightmares and night terrors leave them powerless and out of control in a fight for their existence, and it will only ever be reconciled when they can confront that real-life residue without the painful confrontation. But just how do you confront the night when the night is a place that is so completely feared? Abuse leaves without explanation and there will never be any found by an abuse survivor, simply because there is no explanation for abuse, just devastation. The world of dreams will forever be a fork in the road for a child abused recovering adult, with no forward knowledge of which road to take, when they are no longer able to stop their eyes from closing. Given time, it's possible for every child abused recovering adult to find that place in which I now occupy, where it's possible to rearrange those nightmarish dreams so that they will no longer continue to occupy the wakeful hours.
Recovering adult abuse survivors may never fully find a place of complete release from the abuse or be able to find complete control, but control is always relative when control has never been within their grasp before. If a way can be found to move forward even if the progress may seem slow, in time they will find that courage to enable them to face each morning with hope. Once achieved the impact is immense and in doing so the difference it makes to that life, I would find myself struggling to express. It will feel like finally finding wings when life has always been flightless. Being able to take back any control is a huge achievement and to have input where there was none is life-altering.
For me, the journey I embarked on now allows me to be a small part of that alteration, as I connect with other child abuse survivors through the use of countless avenues. On seeing that strength when it begins to emerge from within that adult child abuse survivor, it never fails to leave me with my remembrance, which in turn then becomes an exchange and one that they may not even be aware that they are making.
If we each give that of which we are able, together we can give everything.