So, as a result of PTSD, I generally have a lot of nightmares. I have had a lot fewer nightmares since I did DBT-PE (dialectical behavior therapy with prolonged exposure) almost two years ago (yay!! success!!), but I still have them sometimes. However, the content is generally better!
A main theme in my trauma was feeling helpless, and this was also a theme in my pre-PE nightmares. It is still a theme in some of my nightmares, but, sometimes I also take action in my dreams and solve the problems in ways I wasn’t able to do during the actual trauma!
This is really exciting for me because it feels like I am finally “over it,” or at least over some parts of it. And my unconscious, which is active at night, is over it, too. It’s not just conscious-me.
Please note: this post contains descriptions of both nightmares and trauma. This includes descriptions of helplessness, calling 911, brain injuries, trees falling, fire, and mask-less people during covid. There are mentions of Christmas, injuries, a car accident, potential death, unconsciousness, broken bones, and surgery.
The first time I had a “success nightmare” like this was about a few months after I finished PE. In the nightmare, I was at home, and there were various things going wrong. I don’t remember all the details at this point, but one of the things going wrong was that there were all these fires. Several patches of trees had caught fire. So, in my dream, I literally flew around putting out fires. I went to each problem and dealt with it. I was able to do it. I left the trees wet and hissing with steam. It was so good. Being able to deal with it took a lot of the fear out of it.
I had another “success nightmare” like this last night, and I wanted to share it. 🙂 I actually first had a different nightmare earlier in the night. In the first nightmare, someone came into my room, my personal, clean-air breathing space, and wasn’t wearing a mask. I was really scared of getting covid and asked them, very politely and maturely (I think I even used a DEARMAN in my sleep, lol!!), to please put a mask on and leave. (it was something along the lines of “I noticed you are not wearing a mask, I am really worried that I will get sick, could you please put a mask on”).
In my dream he did not put a mask on and proceeded to ridicule me for having the gall to ask him to put on his mask! And then, I left my room and went out and about, and everyone that I knew, including my close friends, intentionally took off their masks when they saw me to make fun of me for making a big deal out of nothing and being too sensitive and worried. Ugh. It was awful. It makes me so angry to think about it. But I also felt so helpless because these people were not wearing masks and were just openly breathing on me, and there was nothing I could do to get away from them.
Anyway then I went back to sleep and had this other nightmare that ended on a better note. I think it started out as a good/okay dream (I don’t really remember that part), and then became a nightmare. I was at my home (which, interestingly, is where almost all my nightmares take place, even though a lot of my actual trauma was far from home) and was standing on our long driveway in the forest. Then all the trees started falling down. (and now I am dissociating trying to write this…) They were these big pine trees with two-foot-wide trunks, and the forest was pretty thick, so there were a lot of them, crashing down. Some trees fell into others and caused a domino effect throughout the forest. My sister and I were standing in the forest and couldn’t get away from them. We wouldn’t have been able to run far enough to get out from underneath the path they were falling in because there were trees coming down in all directions.
This fear of a tree falling on me does come from real life (not trauma though). In the past six months, two trees have nearly fallen on me. One was a huge tree in our backyard that just suddenly cracked and tumbled from rot on a blue-sky, wind-free afternoon. Luckily I was far enough away from it, but when I first heard the cracking noise and couldn’t pinpoint where it was coming from, it was really scary.
The other was our Christmas tree, which was a large tree we cut and brought inside. It was partially decorated, including lights and some glass ornaments. The base wasn’t super secure, and the tree was probably too big for the base, and the whole thing just toppled. If there hadn’t been a ladder in the way to break its fall, it would have fallen on me. Anyway. This fear doesn’t come out of thin air. I think it’s interesting to see how things from my life end up in my dreams.
The fear of people coming into my room without wearing a mask comes from real life, too. I’m living back at college this semester, and apparently someone has to come tomorrow to inspect my fire extinguisher. They have to come into my room, and I don’t know if they’ll be wearing a mask. I have seen so many people not wearing masks, even inside my building. If this person isn’t wearing a mask, or it’s only covering their mouth and not nose, or they’re wearing a mask but it’s not well-sealed, or I don’t have time to put on my own mask before they open the door, what will I do? Will all the air in my room just be potentially infected? (this is real life!) I guess I can leave the windows open for a few hours. But it’s really cold outside. I guess I can deal with that though.
Anywayyy in the tree falling nightmare, my sister and I, and my mom and some other people who were now just magically there, like they are sometimes in dreams, did get hurt by these falling trees. They were falling and rolling and crushing us. People had broken bones, and everyone had a brain injury and was slurring words together and having a hard time thinking and doing things. When the trees had all fallen and things were settled down, I knew that I had to call 911 to take us to a hospital and get help. (and I’m dissociating again..) This part is directly related to trauma. (I am trying to write this (opposite action!) but it’s hard.)
In the dream I knew I needed to call 911, but I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t figure out how to call. I was asking each person individually to please call 911. But they all had brain injuries, too, and couldn’t do it. My mom said she didn’t have 911 in her contacts and didn’t know the number for it. I told her that it’s in the name, it’s literally 9-1-1, but she still didn’t get it. Some people had broken phones. No one could call 911. I eventually realized I had my phone in my back pocket. It somehow wasn’t broken by the chaos. I got it out. I had a really hard time unlocking my phone and using it, due to the brain injury. But I eventually managed to get to the phone app and to type in 9-1-1. An ambulance eventually showed up.
This may not sound like a successful or resolved nightmare because we still got hurt really badly, but to me it was successful because I was able to call for help. In the actual trauma, a severe car accident, we were in the middle of nowhere, and the two phones we had were smashed to tiny bits in the accident. We had no way of calling for help. We were trapped, stuck, helpless, in the middle of nowhere. We, and especially my dad, could have died if we did not get help.
I also have had other nightmares, pre-PE, where my family and I got hurt and we were unable to call 911. For example, one memorable nightmare ended with me and my family sitting and lying on the floor of our house, all hurt in various ways. In the dream I could see the phone, but I couldn’t reach it. I was in too much pain / too broken to move any closer to it, and my arm wasn’t long enough to reach it from where I was sitting. I asked someone else in my family to get it (maybe my mom? I don’t remember), but they said, “<my name>, I can’t.” They were too broken to move, too. We were all so helpless.
So, in contrast to the actual trauma and to past nightmares, this one really was different. It was a success. I was finally able to call 911! It feels so good. Such a relief.
Also, side note, there is a difference between a nightmare and a bad dream. I’ve been using these two terms to mean different things, and apparently my friends and family didn’t know they were different. A bad dream is a normal dream that is unpleasant / has negative emotions in it. A nightmare is a bad dream that wakes you up (source). There are also some other differences between them. For example, trauma nightmares can occur during non-REM sleep (source). I often have nightmares during naps after being asleep for only 5-10 minutes. That wouldn’t happen with a bad dream.
I personally normally wake up from nightmares into panic attacks or flashbacks, which often quickly change into dissociation. It can sometimes take me all day to fully come back to reality. I was talking about bad dreams vs. nightmares with my brother, and apparently his bad dreams never wake him up?! So he has never had a nightmare?! What?! When my PTSD was at its worst, I was having like three nightmares per night! It’s also interesting to note that he was in the same car accident with me and the rest of my family that started most of my trauma. When it comes to emotions, my brother and I are very different people.
Here’s an interesting thing, since I’m talking about this now. There’s a statistic that 20% of people who experience a traumatic event get PTSD (source). In my family, there are 5 people, and only one, me, got PTSD from the car accident that we were all in. That’s 20%! I am that literal one in five! Of course, the accident has affected all of us a lot, but only I actually have ptsd. My mom had a lot of the symptoms of ptsd in the first couple years after, but they were more infrequent than mine and didn’t affect her life the way mine did. It was still very valid distress, just not ptsd.
It’s also important for me to remember that although we were all in the same accident, we didn’t experience the same events, and we didn’t experience them in the same way. My dad, who was hurt the most, was unconscious for several weeks. So, he just doesn’t conveniently have any memories of the whole thing! Also, I broke a bone and had to have surgery, but my brother, mom, and sister didn’t. We were also separated, and I had some experiences the others didn’t have. We also came into the accident with different life experiences. I was already more anxious of a person and had probably had diagnosable social anxiety for years. I was also already a little anxious about health because of other experiences I had had. So, the accident wasn’t the same for all of us. I have to remind myself of all this when I start to feel guilt or shame for being the only one in my family with PTSD. But I didn’t have any say in whether I ended up with ptsd, lol, so since it wasn’t a choice, guilt and shame aren’t justified.
There were so many tangents in this post! 😬
Have you ever had a nightmare or bad dream that you turned around or “solved”?