NON FICTION: For When The Night Terrors Strike

Night Terrors Bed Silhouette - Ben Blennerhassett

Photo: Ben Blennerhassett

It’s 4 a.m. and I’m sweating bullets. I woke up ten minutes ago with the surety that I was going to die. I leap out of bed, run downstairs, almost pass out from the effort, then crash on the couch.

Am I having a heart attack? Is there an underlying disease here? Am I going to die?

I’d had similar episodes like this before, but not this bad. Those with hypoglycaemia would understand—the way strength drains out your body, the cold that creeps into your bones, your heart almost beating its way out your chest…

Am I being overdramatic? Surely I don’t have it as bad as some people, whose days are governed by the various triggers that could set them off.

Yet, tonight is a reminder of how bad things can get, and I’m barely scraping through this weird episode that’s threatening to send me down the mental spiral of doom. I turn on the telly, but even a rerun of That ’70s Show—one of my favourites—does nothing to allay my terror.

The remote control slips from my sweaty palms and I think I pass out for a bit. There are good days, and there are bad days, and tonight seems to be one of the worst.

Lights shining in empty basement with a table

How it feels in my mind. Photo: Jonny Clow

Good and bad

I’m fortunate enough to have a variety of hobbies that highlight the peaks and troughs that come with this thing called life.

I mean, we all know that life is a series of ups and downs, but sometimes it takes a totally different activity to highlight the obviousness that we fail to see in our everyday lives.

Take for instance, the act of writing. Sometimes I blast through thousands of words in hours, every sentence seemingly coming from the very essence of my higher self. On other days, I’m content with just thinking about writing.

You might think those bad times serve no purpose to a writer, that they’d be forgotten in favour of the better days, but you’d be wrong. I remember the hard times, so that whenever I manage to write more than 500 good words in a day, I drop a little internal acknowledgement to whatever’s responsible for that.

Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is another thing that has helped me appreciate the ebbs and flows of life. Some days, it’s as if you can’t do anything wrong even if you wanted to, and on others, you have people wiping the mats with your face, and not in a figurative way either.

The main thing that these activities teach me is that you need to go through the bad days to know when the good days are, and that you really have no control over what day it’ll be. But you do have the power to decide how you choose to go through those days.

Dead end crossroads

It may seem like a dead end sometimes, but you always have a choice. Photo: Kyle Glenn

The self-medicating life

This is the thing about emotions—I can’t handle them. Everything’s fine and dandy when I’m on a high, but the moment something negative pops up, I turn to substances or emotional withdrawal. I might even argue that anhedonia is a defence mechanism for my pain, not a byproduct.

I remember my first heartbreak at the age of fifteen. For some reason, my dad’s bottle of vodka called out to me, and I’d cleared a third of the bottle in one afternoon. It was the first time I’d ever used substances as a crutch, and it would not be the last.

In fact, on this very night of my panic attack, once I’d gathered enough energy to walk to the kitchen, I once again find myself standing before the liquor cupboard, ready to drown the doom that’s lingering over me.

Oh, I’ve clung to the drunk writer image like you wouldn’t believe. And tonight, with a bottle of vodka in hand, I was ready to perpetuate the stereotype.

“That’s the problem with drinking, I thought, as I poured myself a drink. If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.”

—Charles Bukowski

Everything changes

One saving grace of having the aforementioned hobbies above is that I’ve learned that nothing is forever. Nothing. This includes the good, the bad, and the ugly.

It’s like this one time I found a great jiu-jitsu coach, and took it for granted that he’d be there to teach me forever. Two years into the sport, he left for greener pastures, and I never took good coaches for granted again.

Conversely, the times that I tore a shoulder or separated a rib, I thought I’d never ever be able to train again, but months had passed, and soon I’d be back on the mats.

Good or bad, nothing is forever, and the scale continually changes. So if I judge these events from my personal scale of one to ten, then it’s safe to say that I’m capable of being at an eight just because I know what a two feels like. Am I making sense?

And the worse I feel on the bad days, the better I’ll appreciate the normal days, let alone days when I actually feel happy.

So I stare at vodka bottle with these thoughts in mind, then decide to stick it back in the drawer. I drag myself back out to the couch and choose to deal with my suffering. I can’t hide from it forever, after all.

Red coloured alcoholic drink in glass

Gotta admit, I love me my drinks. Photo: Mae Mu

Dancing with the devil

My choice of forgoing a drink fills me with dread—I could numb this feeling right now, I could even have a good time! What am I doing?—and for a brief moment I’m overcome by a wave of pins and needles.

Then I remember that cheesy quote about non-lethal things making me stronger. So I sit it out. I don’t think I’m going to die tonight, even though it feels like Death itself is cradling me in its arms.

I almost will my fear to be worse. If I hit rock bottom, then probably the only way I can go is up, I reason to myself, pointlessly aware that I’ve gone through two clichéd sayings in one minute.

There will always be the good and bad days. My future consists of it. And the only way I can find peace in this truth is by learning to accept whatever life throws at me, be it pain or pleasure. So I welcome the pain tonight.

And in a weird way, the suffering begins to fade once I stop resisting, and soon, sleep starts to take me, giving me the respite I need, as well as a lesson well-learned.

After a quick Google search, I would learn that I had unknowingly applied ‘paradoxical intention’, a technique used in psychotherapy to help patients deal with fear. 

If you suffer from panic attacks or irrational fear, perhaps you too could benefit from some quick reads on the subject. You can start with this link that I found to be quite helpful. All the best!

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