“1 AM Night Terrors” or “My Brain Can Be Kind of a Dick”

As a part of my condition, I have nightmares. If you do a little online Interweb research, you’ll find that adults rarely have nightmares as compared to small children. In fact, the specific type of nightmares I have, night terrors, are only experienced by 6.4% children and 2.2% of adults. You have a better chance getting Reynaud’s Disease than having night terrors as an adult.

I always knew I was special.

According to HealthLine.com, night terrors are “A form of sleep disorder in which a person partially awakes from sleep in a state of terror.” Basically, something in your sleep activates your terror fight-or-flight response and you kind of wake up. I say “kind of” purposefully here – you’re not really quite awake enough to laugh off your terror.

So, here’s how it feels. You go to bed like a normal person. While asleep you have a nightmare that you’ve jumped out of a plane and your parachute has a tear in it. The earth is careening towards your vision while Jesus parachutes next to you, floating gracefully to the ground. He says, “You should have made better choices.” You wake up as you plummet into the earth’s fiery core, not really knowing what is real and what is a nightmare. You sit straight up in bed, flailing and screaming. Then, over a 10-60 minute time period, you become fully conscious, trying to fight off the nightmare that has fused with your waking existence.


Fun, right? Errrm…no.

I have been having these night terrors since I was 19. Not to brag or anything, but that was 15 years ago so I am a pro at being terrified of sleep. Each of the 5,475 nights I’ve lived since the first one has been a total crap shoot. Actually, it’s more like roulette, as every night either lands on a normal black pillow of peaceful unconsciousness or a red Terror from Beyond. I have no idea if tonight’s dreams will be about playing Super Mario with a life-size Barbie, or something that’s horrible and forces me to enact my worst fears. It’s a 50/50 chance every night.

I euphemistically call these 1am moments “bad dreams” since, “The-wallowing-pit-of-terrifying-sleep-stealing-dream-demons” is super-long to say. My dreams are terrible, awful things that make me feel like I am evil, maligned, and a victim of fate. My mind runs me through mental mazes that I ultimately and inevitably lose, proving nightly that I am not as kind, thoughtful, and good as I think I am or seem to be.

This is kind of what a typical post-nightmare 1am conversation with my brain sounds like:

      1AM Brain: You’re truly a terrible person, Willow. You know that, don’t you?

Me: Are you sure? I don’t feel like a terrible person normally…

      1AM Brain: Yeah, but think of all the things you’ve messed up in your life. I mean, if screwing up decisions was the Tour De France, you’d be Lance Armstrong.

Me: Well, maybe you’re ri…Hey! I do nice things for people. I call my mom. I even made that guy on the bus laugh, and he was really surly.

      1AM Brain: Doesn’t make you a good person does it? Inside, you just suck.

Me: Yeah, I mean…that could be true. On the other hand, I taught high school Math to a class of 65 Freshman boys. That seems like something a good person would do…

      1AM Brain: Doesn’t count. You just did that to look cool and make money. 

Me: That’s not true, self! I was trying to make the world nicer.

      1AM Brain: Boo, you whore. You’re just one person and you suck at making the world nicer.

Me: Hey, you know what? I think you’re full of shit, self. That’s what I think.

      1AM Brain: Whatever. See you at 1am or so in about a month. When you’re least expecting me. 

Me: See you later. Oh, also – remind me to pick up eggs at the grocery store, mmm-kay?

It’s really like having a horrible abusive relationship I can never escape. You know. Because it’s MY BRAIN. We are quite attached to each other. Co-dependent, even.


I used to believe that it was some kind of curse. And, if I was being honest, I would admit that I still can’t quite 100% shake that feeling. I would think, “I would never wish this experience on my worst enemy. Not even Hitler. I wouldn’t want even the most evil person in the world to wake up feeling as though they were a soulless, damned creature that could never do anything but make the world worse.”

That approach was just not as positive as it needed to be. So, instead, I’ve gotten into the habit of seeing my 1am times as a gift – a space to reflect not about what I fear the most, but what I believe.

You see, the time between 1am and 3am is my time. It’s the time the universe has set aside for me to really reflect on who I am and what I’m doing on this planet. Yes, I wake up shaking, wondering if I will die today. Yes, it begins with me pleading to know what I’m doing wrong so that I can find the magic trick that will make my sleep demons finally rest. But, when all the things in my subconscious are whispering that I am damaged beyond repair, I always eventually find that I don’t truly believe them.

WLW Features- Cartoon 3

So, what is the purpose of this little insight into my insanity? I’m not really sure, except that I think I’m not alone.

Most people have these dark conversations with themselves. We don’t talk about them often (or ever), but they are the ones that really matter. Sometimes, the dark 1am brain wins, and that’s a sad day. Some people end up believing the lies that they are evil or worthless. It eats at them little by little until there is nothing left but despair and death.

What I think I’m trying to say is that the 1am brain – that dark shadow that feeds on fear and tells you the worst – is a friggin’ liar. You are good enough, just the way you are, right now. What I’ve learned over the last 15 years is that if you argue with those nightmare lies long enough and hard enough, the sun rises and burns away all the shadow poison that your worst self whispers in your ears.

Every. Single. Time.

As for me, I know the sun will come. I have wrestled these demons before. Each time I wake afraid, it gets a little easier to remember that there will be another tomorrow. There will be another chance to make the world better one word, one smile, one song at a time. And, if this is my last sunrise, I won’t be ashamed that I met the dawn believing that I am a person who can make a difference.



You Have Time for Just One More:

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6 responses to ““1 AM Night Terrors” or “My Brain Can Be Kind of a Dick””

  1. I have 2 brothers that had night terrors when they were kids. One is now 20 and still has them. Also, my 4 year old son has them. Could it be genetic? The only thing that helps my son is praying that he won’t have nightmares or night terrors. Since we started doing that they’ve become rare.

    • From what I’ve read, some doctors think that night terrors as an adult have to do with a sleep cycle transition problem or a sleep cycle disturbance. Your brother and son might benefit from a sleep study, where they’ll actually look at the brain activity during the sleep cycle where night terrors happen. As for genetics, you’re probably right in thinking there is a connection.

      Honestly, I think prayer can be a great tool for dealing with night terrors. The mind is a powerful tool. If your son believes that prayer helps, that’s 80% of the battle right there. And, as a person of faith, I believe that God can overcome any physical ailment. Just be aware that if your son does get one after praying, you may need to help him recognize that there are just some things in life that we are born with to help make us stronger. For me, I’ve realized that I’ll probably never live completely without mine. It doesn’t shake my faith, but it does make me look at them more like being born with only one arm. It’s just a physical problem that the Lord wants me to learn how to accept with as much grace as possible.

  2. I very rarely have night terrors but have a lot of nightmares and very vivid dreams. Also, the moment my head hits the pillow I get story ideas and dialog. If I stopped to write them down I’d never sleep at all. Right now it’s 6 pm and I’m fighting off a nap. I’ll likely be wide awake at midnight. I really wish I could control when stuff comes to me, and also have it get out of the way when I need to do practical things like filing.

    • Oh, Alana! You are so right. I always get the best stories right as I’m falling asleep, too. Then I have to answer that age-old question: Do I get up and write it down or stay comfy in my bed and “remember” it in the morning? Hint: I NEVER remember it. So, inevitably, I end up staggering from my bed in my underwear and hunting for writing utensils in the dark…

  3. Thank you. Nice to know I’m not alone on the night terrors. Mine usually feature various kinds of bugs, but the results are the same. I end up spending the rest of the night with the light on.

    • That’s awful! I’m sorry to hear about the bug thing. 🙁 You’d figure since we’re grown ups, we wouldn’t have to deal with the midnight creepies. Oh well. Just more fodder for writing scary stories. 🙂

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