The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had, writes Roland Orzabal in the song Mad World. While there are several interpretations of this famous lyric, its meaning is generally taken as a mournful clarion call for death.
What about dreams of dying that you wish you never had?
Such is the dilemma I face when I go to sleep every night. I’ve just gotten so used to it that it feels normal. Since I was a child, I have been a pyscho sleeper. Talking incessantly in my sleep; kicking, thrashing around the bed (and kicking unassuming sisters off in the process, on occasion); waking up screaming from a night terror of being eaten by an alligator (details still vivid as day). It was kind of funny; after sleepovers, my friends would tell me about all the crazy things I did in my sleep. No one wanted to share a bed with me, on family vacations, or slumber parties. I don’t blame them.
All I knew was that going to sleep meant going on an adventure. My dreams were incredibly intense and detailed; exciting. I would remember them when I woke up, and think about them; some were recurring (like that alligator). It was kind of fun going to sleep because it was like going into a parallel universe of fantasy. Most of my dreams weren’t scary, just realistic.
I hated waking up, though. Since as long as I can remember, I have never been a morning person. Last out of bed, hair disheveled, it was a rush most of the time to get out of the house. As I got older, I would snooze the alarm clock, and go back into the solace of my dreams until the very last second. The piercing jab of that alarm clock would go off ten minutes later, and I’d feel as though I’d just fallen asleep for the night.
As a teenager, it only got harder to get up early for school. I remember my dad pulling me out of bed a few times, after I’d sleep through my alarms and cues to wake up from movement in the house. On my weekends, I would regularly sleep in until noon, sometimes later. I just loved sleep, and lots of it. Eight hours a night wasn’t enough for me.
As I grew into an adult, the patterns continued. I kept on dreaming, flailing, and basically being a pyscho sleeper, sometimes to the alarm of people sharing a room with me. It’s one thing to have a child writhing around in their slumber, but an adult is a bit more intimidating. ARE YOU OKAY?! I’ve been asked more than once upon wakening from an episode. YOU SCARED THE HELL OUT OF ME!
It was kind of amusing. For a time in college, I got a dream journal and tried reading in to their meanings. I scheduled my classes in the afternoon so I could sleep in most days, but had a job that required some mornings.
I am a pretty energetic, positive-thinking person. But at seven in the morning? I am like a different person altogether – cranky, negative, anti-social. I felt like Jeckyl and Hyde. By the afternoon and evenings, I was at my prime. I don’t consider myself a Night Owl, per se, but I certainly feel more alive in the afternoon and evenings.
As the years passed on, I met my future husband at age twenty-five, and we soon moved in together. At first, he didn’t think much of my episodes in the night; they were random, strange, and a bit humorous. But as time passed on, he saw how much I was struggling in my sleep.
One night, he found me wearing the mini-blinds in my sleep; I had somehow put my body through them, knocked them down from the window, and was caught up in them, freaking out. Other nights, I would just scream bloody-murder for help. Most of the time, he would interrupt me just enough to settle me back to sleep for the night. I never remembered these episodes, but each morning wondered what story I might hear from the night’s before. I didn’t think much of it; I’d always been an active sleeper, and this was a lot like my childhood was. But screaming for Help! repeatedly in my sleep? That was a bit disconcerting.
Then I met someone who told me about night terrors. This person also had sleep apnea, and had done a couple of sleep studies. I listened to him describe his symptoms, mainly that he was always tired in the early morning unless he could sleep in, and that he was an avid sleeptalker, too.
Different from nightmares, night terrors are active episodes of screaming, wildly moving about, and basically experiencing terror in your sleep. Sometimes you remember details from the dreams; sometimes you don’t. Most of the time you just sleep right through these episodes without even knowing they happen.
Curious, I wondered if I might have some kind of sleep disorder. I made an appointment to see my doctor in early 2015. I described my sleeping patterns, dreams, and history of grogginess in the early morning; I told him some of the stories Ron had witnessed.
You are having night terrors, he quickly surmised. An overnight sleep study in their sleep lab was then ordered.
A sleep lab is not a normal place to go to sleep. You show up to a building in the evening, where you are outfitted with a dizzying number of wires, monitors, and devices to track your breathing and movements throughout the night. Just having all of that stuff on me definitely made it hard to fall asleep, let alone knowing I was being monitored by people in another room.
I slept through the night, and went home early the next morning. A few days later, the doctor had his diagnosis. As I sat there in his office, he pulled up a graph from my breathing during the night. There were a lot of lines, dips, and spikes. Then, he proceeded to elucidate what they meant.
You have Sleep Apnea. That first dip there, that was a nine-second apnea. Then here, this was your longest episode, lasting thirty-seconds. That means you weren’t breathing for about half-a-minute, he explained.
There was something in the way he said not breathing for half-a-minute that hit me hard in my gut and knocked the wind out of me. Looking at that dip in the graph was like looking at a picture of me dying. I immediately felt light-headed and recognized what was happening: I was going to faint. I laid down on the examination table, breathed deeply, and told the doctor I felt like I was going to pass out. He and the nurse checked my vital signs and got me a cup of water.
I’m sorry; it’s just when I saw that gap on the graph of not breathing, it really scared me, I explained. I lay there a few minutes on the table, steadying my breath with my eyes closed, gathering myself. Then, the doctor asked if I’d ever fainted before. Just once when I gave blood, I replied. It wasn’t the sight of the blood, but the feeling of it leaving my body that got to me.
You had a vasovagal syncope just now, the doctor continued. That means you almost fainted upon learning of your apnea. It was in that moment I realized how unsettling it was to receive bad news about my health. The doctor noted it on my chart so when I get the next dose of bad news, the delivering doctors will look out for a fainting reaction.
After a couple minutes of recovery, I was ready to learn. Please walk me through the graph again, I asked. Now that the initial shock is gone, I need to learn all I can about it.
This is true for many people in life: we fear that which we do not know. The more information you get, the less scary it becomes. The doctor patiently walked me through the graph. My episodes were all within the first two hours of sleep. I asked him if they could be related to my night terrors. Though further studies would be needed to establish a causal link, and no such behavior was observed during my sleep study, he said it is likely that they are related; he had treated other patients whose night terrors were linked to their apnea.
Either way, learning about my sleep apnea was unsettling. Within a few days of processing it and researching it, it actually felt like a big relief. At last, I had some kind of justification for my dead-in-the-morning feelings; for my sleeping for twelve hours whenever I had the chance; for why I was always so tired in the morning as a child. As the doctor explained, when your body is waking up several times during the night in a stressed, hypoxic state, your body doesn’t get the best rest; your cells don’t get the recovery time they need. That’s why it’s normal to sleep so long – to catch up on the lost sleep. And maybe there was a reason for my night terrors.
I went back for a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) sleep-study about a month later. The goal was to try a device that functions as an oxygen-mask while I slept. Knowing I’m claustrophobic, I already didn’t like the idea of a mask and tube stuck to my face while I slept all night, but knowing it might help, I was open to trying it.
That night was the worst. I couldn’t make it more than a half-hour with that thing on my face. As soon as I’d fall asleep, my jaw would slacken and relax, creating a suction-like effect on my tonsils. I’d wake up sort of gargling and confused.
For the CPAP machine to work properly, you must keep you mouth closed at all times, the sleep technician directed.
Mouth closed at all times?! I mused to myself. Impossible! I have had TMJ issues for years, and while I’m not a mouthbreather, I need to relax my jaw when I sleep, not keep it tightly closed.
We can try a chin-strap, he offered. Apparently I wasn’t the only one with this problem. He proceeded to explain how wearing a chin-strap for awhile can train your mouth to stay closed while you sleep. Hmmm…CPAP machine with mask and tube, and now a strap around my chin to keep it all copasetic? No thank you; I knew the outcome already.
They tried three other CPAP fittings that night, but I couldn’t deal with any of them. After that study, it was recommended I try a mandibular-advancement device, basically like a custom mouth-guard that protrudes your lower jaw forward. CPAP wasn’t going to be a good fit for me. With my TMJ, I was skeptical about the mouth-guard option as well. So I did nothing. I tried to get more sleep when I could, and at least I finally had some understanding.
It took me three more years to pursue getting the oral device. First, I had to first do another at-home sleep study to reconfirm my apnea, which it did. Then, I had to try a temporary version of an oral device for a month at home, and followed by another at-home sleep study to see if it helped.
I immediately noticed how the device opened my airway more. Yes, I felt like a gaping fish with it on, but it seemed to help, though I spat it out in the middle of the night much of the time. I did the at-home sleep study with the device in all night, and it worked! I felt slightly more rested the next morning, and I had no apneas recorded that night. Getting those results was a key step in getting a permanent device. I should be getting my new oral device any day now, and I am hoping it works well.
In the meantime, I reflect upon both my dreams and reality. How have each shaped who I am today? In my case, the anatomy of my throat is what causes my apnea. Like many people with apnea, it happens as the throat muscles relax and close in on the airway. If you already have a small airway, you may be more prone to have apnea. I’ve done a lot of research on it, and have kept a journal of some of my worst episodes.
I’m also curious about other factors, though. One possible link I’ve made is to claustrophobia. I have had a few experiences in my life that I’m pretty sure either contributed to or confirmed my fear.
The first and probably most obvious is almost drowning as a child. I know when people read almost drowning, they may dismiss it as an over-imaginative child’s warping of an old memory. But for me, these memories have stuck with me for years.
The earliest memory was at my grandparent’s swimming pool. I was only about two years old, and had somehow managed, as many small children do, to end up sitting on the bottom of the pool. I’m not sure how I go there exactly, but I specifically remember looking up at the light dancing on the surface of the water, aware I could not breathe. I don’t know how long I sat there, but I clearly remember my older sister Mary heaving me out of the water. I was fine, of course, but I do credit my sister’s quick actions for saving me from who knows what.
As an older child, there were two other times I experienced not being able to breathe while underwater. One was learning to waterski behind my parents’ boat with a training rope that I had no control over; it was tied to my skis, held by an adult on the boat, and I had a training rope to hold onto for practice, simply tied to my skis for show. I had no control to let go of the rope. When I didn’t stand up at first, I was dragged underwater long enough to start panicking. Did they forget about me? Why aren’t they letting go of the rope?! It was a long drag, especially in my childhood memories, and when someone finally let go of the rope, I knew I’d never use that dummy training rope again. I would be in control next time.
And the next time I was in control, kneeboarding behind that same boat with family, just a few years later. With that kneeboard strap velcroed tightly over my thighs, all it took was one rough fall to turn face-down underwater, the strap forced higher and tighter almost around my hips. I was stuck with my head down upside-down, paddling frantically to get my head above water to catch a breath. I remember thinking I was going to drown this way. I couldn’t undo the velcro strap that had shifted so tightly around me; all I was doing was trying to get my head above water to get air.
Then I caught a glimpse of my dad jumping off the boat. Head back down underwater, I knew he was coming for me. Within seconds, he freed me, and I cried with relief. It was pretty terrifying as an eight-year old. No wonder I have no interest in scuba-diving. Though these experiences pale in comparison to some people’s near-drowning stories, it undoubtedly had a huge impact on me as a child.
As I grew older, I knew I didn’t like small spaces, but I didn’t think of myself as a super claustrophobic person until I was traveling in Europe in my early twenties. We went to the Catacombs in Paris, an underground network of tunnels, full of human skeletons. While the remains didn’t bother me, being underground trapped in a rat tunnel most definitely did. I felt like I was being crushed; like I could visualize the city above me pushing down on me, ready to entomb me with all those bones. My heart raced; I panicked. I had to get out. Fortunately, my ex-boyfriend’s mother, who was traveling with us at the time, was so freaked out by the skeletons, that we both hoofed it out of there together, supporting each other along the way. Almost there! Running through the tunnel, hand-in-hand, we raced to the exit, where you ascend a spiral staircase that seems to go up forever. Finally, we saw the light of day, and after setting foot above ground, I knew I didn’t want anything to do with being underground again, especially in such a small space.
Then, we did an overnight train from Paris to Venice, Italy, where we slept in couchettes, which are like tiny bunk-beds on a train. I was on the top bunk; there was only about a foot and a half above me. Looking up at the ceiling immediately made me feel like I was trapped. I asked to switch bunks, but was denied. I managed to fall asleep, but had an awful sleep terror that I was being crushed in a small space. Flailing my arms in my sleep, I hit the ceiling above me, which only added to my dream feeling so real. I woke up to my ex-boyfriend yelling at me to shut up; don’t you know there’s other people sleeping on this train?! he scolded me. Why are you screaming so loud?
As if I were trying to wake everyone else up. He didn’t understand what was going on; I didn’t really, either. All I knew was I could not sleep on that bunk anymore, so I spent the rest of that train ride awake, looking out the window at the stars in the countryside, realizing I might be claustrophobic. I didn’t think about night terrors, though.
There’s been multiple events before and after that – caves, small rental cars I couldn’t sit in the backseat of, tiny spaces I had to avoid. Last year I had to go in for my first MRI for a groin pull. The very thought of being stuck inside a small tube for close to an hour, lying still nonetheless, sent me into a panic. I even looked at one of the machines up close to get a sense of it, and knew it would be a huge challenge for me.
I consider myself to be a pretty tough cookie, and I am not afraid to push my limits. I would like to think of myself as somewhat brave, and I say that with humility, knowing how relative bravery really is. But this was surely going to test my coping abilities. While I’ve learned to cope with certain uncomfortable situations over the years for short durations, we all have our limits. I rarely take medicine, but for this MRI, I took the sedative they suggested, but even with it, I struggled to make it through. It was a complete manifestation of my worst nightmare – being trapped in a confined space.
Most people think of elevators when they think of claustrophobia, and I while I won’t take them if I don’t have to, I’ve learned I can ride them for short periods of time when needed because it’s temporary. I take is at an opportunity to work on getting over my fears in small, achievable doses. Not everyone with claustrophobia is afraid of elevators, and some people can withstand certain situations while others can’t. People should be sensitive to each other’s phobias, irrational as they may be, regardless. We all have fears that present themselves in different ways.
Though I’m focusing on the night terrors here, I must counter it with some positive: I often have amazing, wonderful dreams – of flying, traveling, being in idyllic places. I consider them bonus days because it can feel like another adventure was lived overnight. I love dreaming. But I still have night terrors. They always involve the same dream, one of a trio of recurring dreams I’ve had for years.
Dream #1: Trapped and Buried Alive
This is my most common recurring dream. The methods vary. Sometimes I am being pushed into a morgue-drawer, and that feeling of being slid into the wall, with only a few inched above my face, feels realer than the air I don’t breathe while I’m having sleep apnea. I can feel the lack of space around me; I can feel the permanence of being entombed. I am dying, and I’m keenly aware of it in my dream. This is often when Ron wakes me up as I’m screaming for help.
Sometimes I’m being slid underneath a house or a large building. I’ll be on my back supine, looking up at the floors above me, and then will start sliding underneath that house in a one-foot crawlspace. And then the house will start crushing me. Sometimes it’s something small – a coffin, a box, a tunnel underground, a cave. The common theme is being trapped in a small space, and suffocating. There is an urgent fight for survival. I’ll start screaming and pushing on the walls above me, which presents itself as a night terror. This is where I think my near-drowning experiences as a child may be connected; both involve not being able to breathe.
Ron has gotten so used to my outbursts in the night that he often just lets me sleep through them and shout it out. I don’t usually wake up, though Ron says I’ve cried and even talked to him afterward. Recently, I had the worst episode he’d ever seen. I was crying, screaming, sweating, totally panicked when he woke me up. I even woke up from this one, the threat of the house crushing me still present. I was positive I was dying, and it was terrifying. He comforted me for a few minutes before I went back to sleep.
This might be a stretch, but I think my night terrors may be related to a truly scary, too real event, that happened at our old rental in Santa Cruz. I wrote about it in The Long Journey Home if you want to read the full story, but here’s the short version: my husband was held up by SWAT at gunpoint in his own home because our drugged-out neighbor called 911 and reported he had killed me. Absolute insanity. I wonder sometimes if he heard me screaming in the night from a night terror and it fed into his delusions. He is lucky my husband wasn’t harmed from his lunacy.
Dream #2: Secretly In Someone Else’s House
I love Home. While I’m an active person who loves exploring new places, I truly am a homebody by nature. Home has always been a high priority to me. When I graduated college and people asked what my next big goal was, owning a home was top of that list, before marriage, career, or the like. Something about the stability and security of owning a home settled me. It was only in March 2015 that I bought my first house, achieving this lifelong goal.
My dreams persist, however; I am constantly in someone else’s house. It’s never a scary dream, nor am I in danger or trouble. I feel like I’m at home while I’m there. There are at least four different houses that recur: one is a super nice beachhouse in Santa Cruz, with four stories and an ocean view; another is a rustic mountain cabin, like where I lived in Bonny Doon in college; one is the childhood house I grew up at 3309 Betty Lane in Lafayette, California; and another is the home of my ex-boyfriend’s grandmother (strange, I know, but I did live with her for about six months). Sometimes my old rental in Santa Cruz will set the stage.
In these dreams of being in someone else’s home, they are never home themselves, but I know I’m not supposed to be there. Sometimes I am having fun in these houses – swimming in the pool, helping myself to food in the kitchen, even watching TV on the couch. But I’m always aware this is not my house; that I am indeed trespassing. I’ll even tiptoe around. Occasionally, the homeowners come home, and I am left sneaking out a back window or running out the garage door to avoid being caught, which hasn’t happened yet. I thought things might change when I bought my first house, but no, I still have is dream just as often as before.
Dream #3: The Mountain Lion Lurking Outside
I had my first dream of a mountain lion when I was a young college student at UC Santa Cruz. I’d never seen one at that time, but this is the first time they appeared in my dreams. It was trying to get into my house, but I had all the doors locked and secured. It was kind of exciting to watch it lurk around outside. I knew I was safe, so found it cool to watch it outside. I had this dream several times before the mountain lion ever turned aggressive.
One night, a sliding glass door was left open to the house. The puma nearly got in, and was yowling outside. This was the first time I was scared it was going to kill me. There have been a few times where the puma got close to me; where I was sure I was going to be attacked. Thus far, it hasn’t got me in my dreams.
Over the years, I’ve now seen a mountain lion in real-life on three separate occasions, all within the last six years. One time was trail-running at Wilder Ranch on the Zane Grey trail. Then, I saw one coming down Fenceline trail on my bike, also in Wilder Ranch. It quickly ran off as I skidded to a stop up the trail, just in time for my husband Ron to catch sight of it fleeing. The third time I saw one was at Quail Hollow Ranch near my house in Ben Lomond; it was hunting a deer, who was snorting in defense (read all about that story, with video, in my previous post Wildflowers and Wildlife at Quail Hollow).
I respect mountain lions, and am generally not afraid of them. Obviously, I don’t want to ever get between one and her cubs, but I know they want to avoid us as well. They’re beautiful animals who belong in this landscape. Why they keep appearing in my dreams is a mystery to me.
Full Sleep Ahead
It definitely makes sense that these night terrors could be linked to sleep apnea. I’ve read about others who have had similar experiences themselves. Maybe these dreams will taper off once my apnea is under control. The long-term health effects of sleep apnea are not good, to say the least, and include an increased risk of heart attack. I can (sort of) deal with the night terrors, but I don’t need the toll on my health. I already have an irregular heartbeat as it is (bradychardia, and left bundle branch block).
Getting a full-night’s sleep in eight hours, not ten or more, would be awesome. It sucks feeling like two different people during the day. When I’m alive and kicking in the afternoon hours at my peak, I wish I could feel that way in the morning. When I wake up for work in the morning, sometimes I’m so tired I want to cry. When you feel like you could fall asleep in the shower, it’s hard to get motivated for the day.
Hopefully the mouth guard will help me get a better night’s rest by decreasing my apneas, which may also reduce the frequency of night terrors. I know several people with sleep apnea who swear by their devices, CPAP or dental, and I look forward to that remedy for myself. If my jaw can’t handle the device for the long-term, it may not be a permanent solution, but it’s something to try. I’ve examined many factors to better understand my health. I live a low-stress lifestyle, get plenty of exercise, and eat a healthy diet. I’m a pretty happy camper when I’m well-rested and awake; not a lot preoccupies me on a daily basis.
To be fair to myself, I’ve adapted somewhat successfully over the years, as I’ve managed to wake up many early mornings for work over the years. I would just like to do so with some more energy. There are so many interesting things to do, many of which involve the morning, and I don’t want to miss out on something just because I’m tired.
I love life, and while I love to dream, dreams of dying are not the kind I’d like to have.