There was a little girl in a cave. She was a cute little girl with long blond ringlets, wearing a pink dress and white shoes. She was carrying her doll, who matched her perfectly. Although the cave was big and dark, this girl was happily skipping around and singing. This particular cave had a voice and talked with the girl. They laughed back and forth and really enjoyed being together. Some time into their playing, the cave came up with an idea to play hide and seek with the little girl. She happily obliged. He started counting from 1 to 100. He got to 10, and she was still skipping around and laughing. At 20 she playfully looked for places to hide, but unsatisfied, she continued to casually look for other options. At 30 she was giggling as she played with her doll and laughed with the cave. This continued on until the cave reached 60 when the girl realized that she wasn’t playing hide and seek with the cave, but actually needed to find her way out. Although she was a little nervous, she wasn’t too scared because the cave was friendly and they were playing. She felt she had plenty of time to get out. By 80 the girl started getting worried because she hadn’t found any light to indicate the cave’s opening. The cave’s voice started to get stern and a little scary. By 90, she was frantic as the cave’s voice boomed. His voice was so loud that the cave began to shake and drop small rocks. She needed to get out. At 95 big boulders started to crash all around the girl, just missing her. At this point she had lost her doll. Agonizing sounds came from the girl as she frantically looked for her doll so she could rescue her. She was holding her hands over her head, screaming for the cave to help her find her way out. He just evilly cackled as he continued on toward 100. “96!” he boomed. She screamed even harder, tears streaming down her face. “97!” The shaking got harder and the girl could no longer breathe. “98!” The girl fell to the floor, knowing her fate. Scared beyond comprehension, she braced for her certain death. “99!”
I spring up in my bed in a sweat, heart racing, and gasping for air.
I didn’t die.
It was all a dream.
This is the most common of my frequently recurring nightmares I had as a child. The number of times I had this particular dream is countless. As a child I couldn’t figure out why I kept having the same nightmares over and over. I can’t remember when they began or when this particular nightmare stopped for sure, but I remember always expecting it to come.
When I woke up from my nightmares, I lay awake, imagining a thick metal shield that I could close over my neighborhood to protect it at night. I felt a lot of fear a lot of the time. I couldn’t shut out constant thoughts and feelings that something bad was going to happen.
I didn’t realize until after my diagnosis of PTSD that these nightmares were one of the symptoms I experienced early on. As a child I just figured that everyone had nightmares, so I never realized that my particular nightmare experiences may be a sign of something else.
I’m not sure how many nightmares a typical person has throughout their lives and at what point my situation is considered abnormal. Before I started therapy, I had gone years of not being able to fall asleep, even for a nap, without having a nightmare. I hated to sleep because I would wake up and then have panic attacks because the dreams felt so real.
My nightmares have continued to today, but I haven’t had the one about the cave since I was young. I don’t have exact recurring nightmares anymore, but the themes are always the same. I consistently find myself and/or loved ones trapped, in life-threatening situations, and being hurt. I have many regarding child pornography, sex abuse of children, and scary perpetrators. Since my nightmares feel so real, sometimes it takes me hours after waking to remember that it was just a dream and that I don’t need to feel stress or tense about the particular incident any more. I will often, throughout the day (after particularly frightening nightmares) all-of-the-sudden gasp for air as intense fear suddenly fills my brain, taking my breath away and causing my heart feel like it stopped. These are the moments that I have to consciously remind myself it was just a dream and that I don’t need to worry about it. The intense stress that I feel is so real that I often rack my brain trying to remember what bad thing had happened. Surely there is something REAL that happened to cause these feelings and physical responses.
Looking back throughout my life I realize that my nightmares are more severe at times of stress, which unfortunately is quite often as I have a son with tuberous sclerosis. I have intense nightmares at times of sickness, extreme depression, stressful life events, and during my pregnancies.
These dreams and memories carry so much more significance to me now that I know I have suffered from PTSD nearly my entire life. One of my hopes in telling this part of my story is that symptoms of sex abuse in children will be identified early so they can receive the help they need and not have to live within the chains of PTSD. Nightmares, accompanied with other symptoms, may be an indication of something else going on.