I woke up suddenly at 3:00 a.m. The cats went flying from the bed. My eyes strained wide open, jaws clenched; I sat straight up in bed and was instantly aware of my surroundings. I closed my eyes, exhaled, rubbed my temples, and took in a bushel of the stale night air. Maybe tomorrow it would be better.
The next night, I woke up at 2:00 a.m. Not so abruptly this time, but still, I went rapidly from an active dream state to being fully awake. There was no point in staying in bed, so I slowly extricated myself from the covers and cats and crept out of the dark bedroom, trying not to wake my wife, Jasmine. The following night, I woke up gasping for air at 4:00 a.m. I sat up and coughed. The cats and my wife stirred and looked at me.
“Bad dream?” my wife asked.
How long has it been since I had a good night’s rest? A night without dreams about places, situations, and things that I had tried very hard to forget. How long had it been since I could look forward to waking in the morning feeling refreshed? How long had it been since I had a “sweet” dream? Years—not days nor weeks nor months, but years. I enrolled in a sleep betterment group and began to learn techniques about what to do when I suddenly awakened in the middle of the night.
My recent dreams varied in bizarre content but not in the essence of their character. They always involved some sort of conflict and problems that could not be solved. Often there was violence and threat to life. These dreams were not pleasant, and they caused me to view sleep as something to fear rather than welcome. How many years can the body tolerate abnormal sleep?
The dreams also bled over into the daytime in the form of intrusive thoughts. These were not the same bizarre scenes that filled my brain during my troubled sleep, but unwanted memories of particular events and situations that had actually occurred in my past. The recollections that I tried extremely hard to forget. Real unresolved problems that still lacked satisfactory endings. Circumstances for which there was not, and would likely never be, a happy ending. All revolved around the unanswered question of “why?” I enrolled in various groups that helped veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Then, too, I often “woke up” in the middle of walking in a building or driving on the road in my car. Not the return-to-consciousness wakeup that comes about when your mind wanders from what you are doing, but rather the abrupt kind of shocking wakeup that occurs when an incredibly annoying alarm clock buzzer goes off. Unlike the wakeups after my bad dreams, these wakeups during the day were typified by a total lack of awareness of my own self and my immediate surroundings.
I was subjected to a wide variety of medical tests that attempted to establish the cause of this abnormal brain behavior. I was told there was nothing physically wrong and that I likely needed to process things and situations from my past and resolve them. As if that were easy.
The two most challenging things I have ever done, and I used to land a jet on aircraft carriers at night in the stormy North Atlantic, were to say in public that I had been diagnosed with a mental illness and to swallow the first medication that would help me deal with PTSD. After all, people like me did not have mental illnesses. And once I took that first pill, I would never again be allowed back into the work world that once was my escape and in which I excelled. That pill was the first step down a one-way road into the unknown, portrayed on the silver screen in ignominious screenplays like The Snake Pit and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
It was hard to keep taking those pills once the side effects kicked in. Remember, your physician has determined that the positive effects of your medication outweigh the adverse side effects. Easy for someone who has never taken mind-altering drugs to say. Equally challenging, I was about to learn, was to agree to meet regularly with a stranger and enter into a conspiracy by which we would pick at the scabs of my life and expose those wounds to the air — and pain. After all, they were scabs because I had tried to cover over the damage and put an end to the pain. No, this was not going to be easy. Why can’t there just be a shot that would make it all go away and restore my life to the way it was? This process hurt. My hands trembled as I described things that I had never told anyone.
Finally, there was a session during which we got to the critical issues that needed to be resolved. The center of gravity had been identified. An explanation was provided. The “why” was answered. “Not so,” said I. But ... it was so. Now there was an explanation that could account for all the things that had been done, resulting in all the pain I had felt. I left the session totally drained and sought solace in meditation.
The following day, I woke up suddenly at 5:00 a.m. The cats again went flying from the bed. My eyes strained wide open, jaws clenched; I sat straight up in bed and was instantly aware of my surroundings. I was drenched in sweat and could hardly breathe. I had awakened suddenly from a dream. All my issues and unresolved problems had been squarely addressed and resolved beyond my wildest expectations in this dream. The dream included a most satisfactory alternate future. I smiled, got out of bed, and went into the living room to sit in a chair and repeatedly think to myself, “Wow.”
The next day, I woke up again at 5:00 a.m. My new dream had been one of telling the story of the previous night’s dream. It felt good to dream about recounting the alternate history story with a happy ending. It was an enjoyable dream. I did not have another dream for several days. When I finally did, I woke up at 6:00 a.m., calmly and without disturbing the cats or my wife.
I had finally dreamed about something else, something new, something not at all involving my troubled past—just an ordinary everyday dream of no real importance.
Biography: Jim Tritten is a retired Navy pilot diagnosed with PTSD. He writes for therapy and lives in a semi-rural village in New Mexico with his Danish artist/author wife and four cats.
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