Content warning: This is a post about PTSD and sexual trauma, among other things.
After my sexual assault when I was fourteen, I attempted suicide. It’s hard to describe the feeling of a simultaneous overdose on contraindicating substances, but it left me with a feeling of physical unreality that took months to begin to pass. I damaged my brain, changed the way it physically understands sensation. And this was, for a time, a blessing. Learning to live in a body that felt alien, that I could not relate to, that I could not understand, gave me a deeply effective distraction from the trauma of rape.
I did not begin to process that trauma until my second rape. And then, I did not process it well.
Through my omnipresent adolescent depression, I did not sleep. In the aftermath of my second assault, I slept far more than I wanted, and my dreams were a non-stop parade of horrors and torments. I would often wake from these dreams screaming, sweating, shaking, nauseated, both exhausted and afraid to return to sleep. This pattern, combined with ongoing stalking by my assailant, led me to move away from my beloved studio apartment and into a shared apartment with two male friends. I hoped that the sense of security, having two men in my home to deter my stalker, would help me feel safe enough to sleep without incident. It did not. And as my living situation deteriorated, my nightmares only got worse.
And then, I started sleeping with Mike.
We weren’t having sex, we weren’t even kissing, but the first night he slept in my bed, the nightmares were gone. He was prepared to expect waking up to me screaming and hardly slept at all himself, but when my dreams did wake me up, they woke me with laughter. It was the only time in my life I have awoken laughing from a dream.
We thought it might be a fluke, but he offered to try the experiment again. Night after night, I slept. Like a normal person. But only when Mike was in bed with me.
When we started dating in earnest, I already knew I was in love. What else could explain why every place that my skin touched his felt like my own, not alien and painful? What else could explain that when he wrapped his arms around me and pressed his stomach against my back, I could breathe peacefully into sleep, and dream mundane or beautiful dreams? What else could explain that when he told me there was nothing wrong with me, I felt like I was whole?
The first time he took me to “back home,” his parents refused to let us share a bed. “We’re adults in an adult relationship,” I said. “Their house, their rules. You’ll be fine,” he told me, but I was not. The first night, I could hardly sleep at all. And after that, the nightmares seeped in. I woke at dawn from one, there was a desert, I remember, and burning sand, and I was being hunted down by a machete-wielding mob of sadistic cannibals, hiding in dry river beds and in overturned garbage bins while they searched for me, laughing. Looking back, my stomach sinks when I recall how many of these dreams featured the nearby laughter of unseen men.
I crept out of the guest room, and as silently as I could, let myself into Mike’s bedroom to curl up next to him and hope the magic of his presence would erase the nightmare. He got up to use the bathroom and did not return for a long time. My heart felt broken, completely broken that when I needed him so much he could be as callous as to spend half an hour using the toilet instead of laying next to me where I needed him. And I felt ashamed of myself for needing him. Ashamed of myself for resenting him for something as simple as what must have been a critical trip to the bathroom. But I was scared, and although the bedroom scenery had changed from the room where I had slept, I was alone with my fears in alien skin and a strange place.
We moved in together only a few months later, and I dreamed blissful dreams every night for three glorious months. Then came the cancer.
Despite the stress and the fear, I still slept peacefully. I dreamed less, or remembered my dreams less, but the nightmares didn’t come back. Once in a while, after Mike left for work in the morning and I went back to sleep, they crept in. But they didn’t plague me the same way. And the better Mike did with his treatment, the fewer and farther between the nightmares were.
Seven years later, when the cancer started growing again, I moved my children into my bed for the hardest nights of his absence. Though I slept poorly, my nightmares remained in the range of normal anxiety dreams. Returning to high school because of a clerical issue, not having studied, appearing in the hallways naked, that sort of thing. And when Mike came home they went away again. Mostly.
When we moved into our new, big house, we bought a new, big bed. Big enough to be comfortable when children with their own nightmares climbed in with us. Big enough to hold the whole family when the need arose. Big enough that when it’s too hot, I can squirm away from the furnace of a man I fell in love with and sleep contentedly under the ceiling fan. Big enough that when it’s freezing outside and the moist heat coming off him makes me sweat and shiver, I can cocoon myself in my own blankets and slide only my icy toes across the bed to warm them on his back.
But sometimes now, I wake up from a nightmare and I reach out for him, and he’s too far away. Sometimes, I roll over and put a hand on his shoulder and feel him breathe, his skin hot and healing as it always has been, and breathe with him until I am ready to sleep again. And sometimes I crawl across the bed to him, drape my body over his, and even in his sleep he wraps his arms around me and kisses my head and tells me he loves me.
It’s been fourteen years since he began sleeping in my bed, and I still need him there. Fourteen years that he’s made my nightmares go away.
But the nightmares are waiting. The nightmares live inside me, inside my alien skin, inside the damaged bits of my heart and my brain. And now, when the days feel so interminably long and frustrating, waiting for the arrival of another surgery that means my bed will be missing him for weeks, I need him closer. I need less space between us. I need a smaller bed again.
Read more about glioblastoma and PTSD here: Brain Diseases are Real Diseases
Read my most recent post here: What Nobody Warns You About When Your Husband’s Recurrent Glioblastoma Returns
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