Blog / Mental Health

How I Cope With Really Bad Nightmares


Sometimes my fear of what could happen when I’m at home alone emerges in the most vivid of dreams, waking me in the night and making it impossible for me to get back asleep. I sit up gasping for air and wondering which place is safer: my sleeping mind or the physical space I occupy… Which is real?

It’s 3:21 in the middle of the night as I write. I was surely in REM cycle when suddenly I find myself sitting here in the dark listening for noises beyond my apartment door. I’ve had a nightmare, and I can’t seem to cope with rational thought. I can hear my own heart beat and it’s terrifying me. Was that a footstep? A knock? Is someone inside? In this moment on this particular night, I am afraid of being attacked by a trespasser. Do your dreams manifest your fears? Because mine make them very, very real.

I always forget why I have cats… until I have this nightmare, of course. This one’s recurring, and it began eight years ago. I had a kitten and a roommate and neither of them were home (my kitten, at my mother’s… my roommate, I cannot recall…). I was in my Ottawa apartment alone when I had the nightmare. Later, I lived in Berlin and, on a couple nights, it was there too. Later again, I lived alone in a tiny box in Vancouver. The nightmare followed me there… many times. I was, after all, living in a pets-free apartment.

Sure, the nightmare differs each time, but the point is always the same. I am alone in the dream when I am attacked by a man. When I was a young child, we had a trespasser a few times, and I know it’s these nights that I relive. I felt weak and scared then, though I wasn’t alone. In my dreams, it is much worse, because I have only me to count on, and it never ends well.

Sitting here in the middle of night, wide awake and shaking, things always worsen as I find myself buried beneath a surmounting mental list of crippling terrors. The worst is the fear that, if I don’t deal with this dream, it will morph into my waking life and I will no longer feel safe being alone at home… ever. Even in daylight. Where my mind takes me is absurd: a fifty-year old Andrea sitting in the corner of her little shack scared out of her wits. Or worse: I’m a drunk.

I don’t think these dreams are fair and I try to comfort myself by saying they’re not rational but I know they are. I know where they stem from and what may fix them but since they’re sporadic I can brush them under the rug most days. It’s easy to ignore something if you’re not enveloped by it, but on a night like tonight, at 3:21 in the morning,  I wonder of they’ll ever go away.

Writing about it helps.

This time I dreamt that I was home alone in a bungalow I was renting with my mother. Filled with someone else’s things, I was there with my mother’s dog Lily, working on a photography project on the patio at night. The BBQ was open, as was the patio door into the house.

A man entered the backyard and started picking things up; a laptop that wasn’t mine, some tools and sellable goods in the house. I was frozen, praying that he’d see I was young and harmless and leave me alone. My thoughts were that we were similar in age. Maybe he’d understand. See something in me he could relate to. Maybe he had a sister. Or daughter. He looked at me, then he reached across me for my expensive camera. “No,” I said softly, holding on to it with him. His hands were full but he nodded, yes. “Noooo,” I whined and pouted. Didn’t he know that I live and breath through this camera? It was my lifeline in this dream but I let go, knowing that he could do more damage to me than the camera is worth. This happened before, I thought. I bought a new camera, and I’ll buy one again. My stomach turned as I let him win. He lit the BBQ on fire and then got in a blue taxi and left but not before eyeing me to see if I was calling the police. My hand was on my cell phone but I waited for the taxi to pull off before calling.

I stared at the license plate on the car but couldn’t repeat it back to the police. I begged for them to send someone over. To protect me. I was shaking and scared out of mind. I sat down at the table where I was working, wondering what to do. Another man entered and licked his lips at me. I knew then that I should have left…. So I backtracked in my mind. The good thing about dreams is this. The art of protection. I hung up with the police and, this time, I took the dog leash and put it on Lily, starting to sneak away when the second man entered licking his lips at me. I didn’t go soon enough. I felt trapped by my own mind. My own invention. I wake up here because my fear is at its worst. I know what is going happen because I already feel it. I don’t want to dream it.

There are things you know about your dream without them happening. I knew the police wouldn’t arrive and they wouldn’t save me. That the dog would just stare at me. That I was at the weakest and most powerless that I’d ever felt. But as I sit here and sweat, I convince myself I would have got away had it all been real. I remind myself to sign up for those kickboxing classes I’d been meaning to take. The fear of being alone by myself at home scares me, and I don’t want it to anymore.

I spend the next hour in bed, telling myself things I know to be true. I am strong. I am resilient. I am in an apartment building on the 10th floor. My door is locked. There is no one inside. It was just a dream. I feel frustrated that this has happened again, and wonder if, two years from now, I’ll be in my next apartment, frustrated again.

In the dark, I plan escape routes and listen for sounds in the hallways as I do so. I think of all the people in my life I am grateful for. I think about how loud I could scream and if anyone would come running if I did so. I think about hearing someone else’s scream and if I would go running to them. Then I write. Writing about personal experience is how I cope. Sometimes words help. Sometimes words hinder. But what is always of service is thinking of things I know to be true.

I know adults are susceptible to nightmares if they eat before bed or are on certain meds. Sleep deprivation, depression, anxiety, sleep apnea, and PTSD are all factors as well. I know leading a healthy and active lifestyle will keep me aware, knowledgeable, and safe. I know that talking about how I feel with those close to me will help me handle situations better. I know that, if I feel I can’t talk to them (because it’s 3:21AM), then I can write.

Believe it or not, nightmares can be tackled. They can be talked about and listened to. Actually, any thoughts that scare or negatively affect you can be talked about and listened to… and healed. This, I know to be true. It may not happen overnight, but it can happen. I may still be having these nightmares when I’m 50, but I know the root just by writing, and I can positively bet than taking steps to talk about and listen to my own fears, I can overcome them.

If you don’t write, you can talk. You can talk to me. You can talk to someone in your life that supports you. You can talk to someone on the other end of a phone line. There is always someone. Even when it feels like there is no one.

Here are a list of Canadian help lines that you can call if you find yourself adrift at 3:21AM (or any other time) and in need:
The Mental Health Helpline 1 866 531 2600
Kids Help Phone for kids and youth 1 800 668 6868
Tele-health Ontario (access to a registered nurse) 1 866 797 0000
Suicide Hotline see link


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