Last night I had an amazing dream. I dreamt I was being hurtled into space in a rocket, catapulted from the Earth into a sea of stars. For a few moments I was terrified, rattling around in my seat as the abyss swallowed me, but when the engines finally stopped whirring and I was left just floating, I felt incredibly at peace. Space was beautiful. A vivid canvas of light and dark hanging still as I drifted silently through, becoming a part of the painting myself.
I awoke feeling uplifted and peaceful, like even though I’d awoken back on Earth I was still somehow up there. Hours later, I still can’t get over it. Probably because I can’t remember the last time I woke so happy from a dream. Usually my subconscious is a great place for my demons to wreak havoc, their own personal playground where I am surrendered to their control. I was surprised to have such a wonderful dream when in the evening I had felt so down and lost. I thought for sure this feeling would chase me into my sleep but I wound up chasing space instead and feeling more than free.
So why is it that sometimes the demons of the day to day mental health grind follow us through bedtime, and why is it that sometimes they don’t?
There’s always been a close relationship between mental health and sleep with one often affecting the other. Since a young age I’ve been able to predict bouts of nightmares if my mood has been low or if I’ve been going through an episode. About a year after my mother died my nightmares became so frequent and so vivid that I was afraid of sleep. Not sleeping for days led to an even more damaged mental state and ‘microsleeping’, the brain shutting itself down whilst I was awake causing my nightmares to appear as hallucinations.
My relationship with sleep still remains quite damaged and most of it is to do with nightmares. There appears to be no pattern in subject, setting or characters. Often I will be running from monsters with the feeling that my legs are being weighed down, and sometimes my past comes back to replay and distort itself in my unconscious mind. The ones that upset me the most are those that centre around abandonment, mostly because this is still one of my most prominent triggers today. Dreams are where we’re meant to be free, but for some there is nothing more frightening than the prison of sleep.
Those who suffer from mental health problems have been proven to have a more effected sleep and dream pattern. In Psychology Today, when talking about BPD patients, Dr. Michelle Carr writes
‘Patients with borderline personality disorder experience more negative dreams, as well as more distress within their dreams and after awakening from dreams. Further, personality disorder is consistently associated with higher-than-average nightmare frequency, and increasing nightmare frequency is associated with more severe symptoms in personality disorder. Some researchers suggest that these chronic nightmares may be related to childhood traumatic experiences, which are often implicated in the development of personality disorder.’
None of this is news to me and I suspect this is an average occurrence for anyone reading this with a personality disorder. But what’s happening when our moods are low and nightmares don’t immediately follow? Is there simply a delayed reaction or are we doing something different that means we’re not subconsciously leaving the door open?
I’ve spent the majority of the day trying to figure out what I did differently last night when I felt so lost and alone. Felt hopeless and useless? Check. Got weepy? Check. Didn’t reach out to friends because I felt too much like a burden? Check. Tried distracting myself with TV and social media? Check. Sent text after text to my wife alerting her of my sadness in hopes she’d come home early? Check. All the tell tale signs were there.
In fact, the only thing I did differently last night was to tell myself that it’s ok.
I’ve been accused before today of using the phrase ‘it’s ok’ a lot, even when it’s not. This apparently comes across as me enabling someone else’s behaviour. But instead of reaffirming someone else’s negativity, I still believe it’s important to tell people that it’s ok. It’s ok to not be ok, it’s ok to not be coping, it’s ok to struggle and to get sad and frustrated and angry because sometimes fighting against those things and berating yourself for them leads you further down the path you’re trying so hard to run away from.
So, I told myself it was ok to feel this way. I told myself it was ok to wait for my wife to come home and make dinner instead of me ordering food because I felt too bad that I was too sad to move to the kitchen and make it myself. It was ok to feel lost and useless because I’d felt this way before. It was ok if I did have nightmares because I’ve faced them many times over.
I’m not for one second saying that this is the answer to mine or anyone else’s nightmare problems, and I’m fully aware there are demons of mine that don’t need me to leave the door open because they already have the key, but maybe relieving a little of the pressure I put on myself to fight those mental health day to day battles had a part to play.
Fear is such a strong emotion. It’s so primitive and ingrained that it can be almost impossible to overcome. My fear of nightmares I feel is still strong, but perhaps not as strong as it was. Could this be to do with my acceptance of my mental health state and my willingness to live with it rather than run from it? I have to accept that nightmares are a part of my life. They’re a part of my illness and something that can flare up and calm down just like a rash or an allergy.
So maybe the answer isn’t to try and tip the scale of mental health and sleep in either direction, but instead to accept the existence of problems within both and try to stay stood in the middle. And if one side does tip over, I’ve got a pretty good track record of waking up.
[If you need any help with sleep there’s some great advice provided by Mind]