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Am I Haunted? Living (and sleeping) with a Nightmare Disorder

I was a child morbidly obsessed with anything spooky, landing me with the affectionate nickname ‘ghost girl’ during my primary school years. It comes as no surprise that this has seeped unconsciously into my adult life.

My name is Rachael and I suffer from a nightmare disorder. I am 34 and are a keen creative writer and decorator and live at home with my wonderful and supportive partner and my squishy Pug, Lois (who is also wonderful and supportive). I decided to write this blog as dealing with horrible visions and images almost every night can make you feel isolated, and dare I say it, even a little crazy, but if one other person reading this feels even a small flood of relief that they are not alone, I know my attempt to document this disorder hasn’t been in vain.

What is a Nightmare Disorder?

It is first important to distinguish nightmare disorder from night terrors. Night terrors are episodes of panic and confusion that can awaken the individual abruptly, and can then be difficult to bring back into a calm or rational state. Those who are sufferers of night terrors have no recollection of their dream's narrative.

A nightmare disorder, also known as ‘dream anxiety disorder’, is a rare type of sleep-related disorder or parasomnia that causes the sufferer to endure repeated instances of incredibly unnerving and frightening dreams. Nightmares commonly occur in children, but according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (ASSM), approximately 4% of adults can experience them too. It is essential to understand that this condition can be debilitating as it can cause severe distress, disrupt your sleep and cause chaos when it comes to your quality of life.

My very first demon

Nightmares are horrible cesspits that exist in our minds, quietly waiting for us to slip into the throws of slumber before their distorted forms turn our peaceful dreams into, well, our worst nightmares. I am old enough now not to get scared during the night when I hear a faint bang, nor do I panic and refuse to enter a room in the dark or sleep with my TV on, I am perfectly rational when it comes to things going bump in the night… or so I thought.

Sleep paralysis occurs just before or after falling asleep as you slip between wakefulness and sleep: you are essentially paralysed even though you are or believe you are fully awake, and this can cause hallucinations, such as seeing or feeling a weight on your chest, pining you down to the bed, seeing a figure hovering over you or even sitting on your chest or stomach.

My first sleep paralysis experience happened when I was living with my parents. My bed was an old pine frame with a headboard and raised part at its foot. I remember being awake, lying on my back and I recall seeing (my then) partner standing at the foot of my bed. He was leaning forward with his hands resting on the wood frame, with a yellow and red rucksack on his back.

At the time, I assumed my eyes were hazy from just having woken up, as his features looked somewhat odd like I was looking at him through mottled glass. I wanted to sit up, to speak (and to ask why on earth he was wearing a red and yellow rucksack), but the more I fought against the invisible force pinning me to my bed, I realised the entity at the foot of my bed was not my partner at all but what I can only describe as a cross between Slenderman and ‘the pale man’ from the 2006 film Pans Labyrinth (yes, that guy).

Imagine laying on your back, unable to move a single strand of muscle, unable to scream or cry out for help as this insidious creature stands only a few feet away from you, slowly leaning closer. This instance is what made me truly believe in the supernatural as I was convinced, I had seen a ghost.

Lucid dreaming isn't always fun and games

I know this is probably incredibly common, but, as often as I experience nightmares, I also experience lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming occurs when you are in a dream state, and you know you are dreaming. This can usually be a fun and quite amazing phenomenon as in this state, you have the power to alter your dreams. We have all experienced being chased in a dream but either can’t move or move incredibly slowly. Well, if you happen to lucid dream, you can magic yourself some super speed. Awesome.

However, lucid dreaming mixed with a nightmare tends to have different results, or at least it did in my case. After my Grandad passed away a few years ago, I found myself dreaming of him constantly, usually heart-breaking scenarios of walking into his house and him being sat in his chair smiling, or my mother telling me it was all a mix-up, and that he was alive and well.

My dreams would usually start a run-of-the-mill, weird but not unpleasant dream. Then, all at once, I would walk into a room and my Grandad would be there and …. BOOM. Nightmare time. This repeatedly happened night, after night, after night, after night. It became so frequent in my dream that if I saw my Grandad, my response would be “This is going to turn into a nightmare now”. And it would. I have even been roaming around in a dream anxious that I may bump into him. A nightmare within a nightmare.

This part of my life became very distressing, and I developed a fear of falling asleep and would physically begin to panic the moment I felt tired, which in turn gave my nightmares more fuel. I think this is how my brain deals with emotional situations, it concocts them into nightmares, leaving my subconscious to deal with them.

It’s not as simple as ‘not watching scary films’

It would seem logical to assume the link between my nightmares and my passion for ghosts/ anything remotely spooky are the main cause of my sleep disorder, but I know that isn’t true.

For as long as I can remember, I have had trouble dealing with and expressing my emotions. I tend to keep things bottled up and would rather ignore a problem than have to confront someone about how they’ve made me feel. The fear and experience of being told it was my fault and that my feelings were invalid have turned me into a bit of an emotional recluse.

Sleep disorders tend to be higher among those who have emotional issues and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. I am convinced there is no real correlation between my interest in the supernatural and my nightmares, but rather emotional distress and the inability to communicate this in a healthy manner.

For anyone else out there reading this, whether you suffer from nightmares chronically or every so often, take note of your emotional state.

With regards to therapy, I am currently undergoing person-centered therapy and are in the very early stages of this processes. It’s hard and emotionally draining having to express my feelings when, as you can see from my blog, it is something I struggle to do. Yet, my therapist is very good, even after only a few sessions part of me is starting to feel a slither of hope that eventually, I will be able to overcome my obstacles and resume peaceful, sleep-filled nights.

There are many helpful avenues out there that can help you, such as counselling, therapeutic activities such as yoga, and meditation and even active sports such as running or swimming. Combined, these instances should help your mind become more relaxed, less tense and improve your mental wellbeing, so you can not only live a wonderful life but also experience wonderful dreams.


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