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When You’re Afraid to Go to Sleep

It used to surprise me how many of the trauma survivors I serve enjoy horror movies. It took me a long time to get it. Unlike the imagery in your head, you can make the movie stop anytime you want.

She talks about Nightmare On Elm Street and tells me she’s like the girl who has already been up for days and eating ground coffee because she’s afraid to fall asleep and see Freddie. In her case, “Freddie” is her past abusers. “I watch the same movies every night in my sleep. If I don’t stay super busy during the day, I see them playing sometimes when I’m awake.”

She shakes her head vigorously, trying to dislodge the memories that just surfaced. We talk about forgetting and why it doesn’t work. Acceptance is slow when the truth hurts this much.

When the thoughts and memories are triggered, she has no sense of being an adult. She is a little girl who is exposed, defenseless, and terrified. She sees that child clearly, sees what she was forced to do, and hates herself anew. Grooming ingrains lies upon the soul of a child.

I hasten to remind her, “You’re an adult today. You don’t need to run or hide.” She sees herself as crazy and repeatedly says, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me!” She’s been diagnosed with everything from Bi Polar disorder to Borderline Personality disorder. She’s none of these things. She’s a survivor.

She’s both relieved and angry when we talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Understanding flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares and night terrors help her to feel less “crazy” but she’s understandably outraged to look back on decades of misdiagnosis and countless medications. “Why didn’t anyone ever ask me about what happened?”

“Because you’re a recovering addict and too many doctors and clinicians understand very little about addiction and the symptoms people present both when active and when in Recovery.”

(People who don’t understand ask why we don’t volunteer this information in therapy. It’s simple – we were taught not to tell and were generally not believed when we did). The percentages of people – both in active addiction and in recovery who have survived childhood abuse and trauma are very high. Our stories too often remain unspoken. Opportunities to work through past trauma are conspicuously absent from most professional efforts and are outside the scope of AA & NA to address.

Too many of us suffer silently and alone, all the while unaware that many of our peers, friends, and family are struggling in very similar ways. This needs to change. My favorite question in therapy is, “How do I…?” It’s good to talk about feelings, experiences, and ideas. It’s important to get down to concrete steps and strategies that promote change. I talk to survivors every day who pay a very high price for being chronically sleep deprived. I explain the impact that this has on emotion and memory.

The questions remain: “How do I slow down my brain so that I can sleep?”

A lot of us depend on mindless activities like television or Facebook to wear us out. I urge folks to journal. Take all the things that are on the hamster wheel of your brain and write them down. This works in two ways: Write out everything you’re concerned with/afraid you’ll forget/anticipating. This will relieve stress and promote a healthy perspective if we are willing to separate what we can do something about from what we cannot. The former we plan for and for latter I recommend the Serenity Prayer.

The second form of journaling is to write down what you’re trying not to think about. (Counterintuitive)

We push away thoughts and memories because we find them intolerable. They act as boomerangs and return, only to be pushed away again and again. This is a constant battle with self. It doesn’t require conscious thought but it’s very draining, promotes anxiety, and undermines any sense of safety we might have.

We don’t need to write out the whole story – rather we can simply acknowledge what the thought is. We make conscious decisions regarding what we will do with this (ideally work through it in therapy or in other safe places with folks who understand). The point is to make conscious choices because what we do automatically too often is unhealthy.

No matter what else we achieve in life, the basics remain vital to our health and happiness: nutrition, exercise, sleep, self care. If you have questions about these ASK! If you don’t have folks to ask, email me

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