The Nightmares

Sunday night brought a nightmare, one I used to have as a child. In this nightmare you are awake, it seems, and you can see the bedroom as it will be when you finally do scream or gasp yourself from sleep: black and gray shadows, the soft frail light of the moon or perhaps a streetlight trickling through a gap in the window shade, even your hand rising from the bed, weakly pushing or pointing at the presence that you can’t see but which you can feel as it approaches. In this dream there is always a sound; sometimes it is a growl, or a harsh laugh; once it was a lion roaring. This time it was three loud knocks, as if the presence wanted permission to enter.

You try to scream in this nightmare because you know the dark thing is coming, but you are breathing syrup. You can feel it draw near, and sometimes it brings a shadow, but other times everything looks the same, which is somehow worse, because the feel of it makes your skin shrivel, and you think that if only you could see it then perhaps you could scream and then you could wake up.

Then I did wake up, only this sense of something dark and malicious didn’t lessen, and for the first time since I was a child, I had to keep myself from screaming even after I was awake. I closed my eyes and whimpered all the names of God I could remember, thinking the sound of them might drive it away, this darkness that forgot it is supposed to depart when I wake. The names didn’t work, and so I stood from the bed, shivering and electric, and left the bedroom for fear that if I lay there another moment I really would scream.

When I was a boy and I dreamt this, sometimes I wouldn’t wake, and the presence would lift me from my bed, and carry me through the dark house. It was always dark, everything dark, and I would try to twist and scream but I was always paralyzed, which is how a creature about to be devoured by a spider must feel. I used to believe that if I went to sleep in the tightest possible ball, then the nightmares wouldn’t come. I would wake sore and stiff, but safe — passed over.

I don’t remember when I stopped sleeping that way, or why the nightmares stopped. For the longest time I was afraid to go into a dark room, because in some of my dreams that’s what would happen, I would walk into a dark room and then all the lights in the house and the world would extinguish, and then it would come for me, that darkness blacker than the absence of light. Eventually I was able to go into dark rooms, and then I forgot the nightmares for a time, though every few years they come for me.

Sometimes I wonder if there is something buried beneath my skin, and if this is how it tries to escape. Maybe all those years of curling myself into a ball was actually holding it in. But as I lay in that place between a dream and sleep, first trying to scream and then trying not to scream, I felt like prey, not a cage. Maybe things inside can devour us, so that we become the Ouroboros, feeding forever on ourselves. Sometimes I worry that the writing causes this, when I go into places that are best left sealed like tombs. In The Book of Nightmares, Galway Kinnell writes:

learn to reach deeper
into the sorrows
to come — to touch
the almost imaginary bones
under the face, to hear under the laughter
the wind crying across the black stones
.

I wonder if I will ever look full in the face that darkness that sometimes comes in a nightmare, and if the terror of it will melt my bones. I slept in a ball last night, my wife’s arm around me. She knows that her presence sometimes keeps the nightmares at bay. I will sleep in a ball again tonight. Gradually, in days or perhaps a week, I will sleep like a man who isn’t waiting for something to return for him.

Until it does. Then I will whisper the names of God, and pray that they are enough, and that whatever haunts me will only ever come to my room, to my side of the bed. You can endure anything as a parent, I am learning, because even in the worst of it you are grateful that it is you.

Comments

  1. Karen

    Tony,

    the things we almost choose to keep hidden, but then choose to say aloud are a road to courage-and in the saying of them, offer the best to our fellow pilgrims-even as we find ourselves wound tightly in a ball and looking for the names of God. You, my friend are Godsend. Thank you.

  2. JP

    The Lord bless you and keep you
    The Lord make his face to shine upon and be gracious to you
    The Lord turn his face to you and give you peace

  3. Adam DeVille

    During Vespers in the Byzantine tradition of which I am a part, the priest, during the so-called Prayer of Inclination, when the congregation is bowed down to the Lord, prays thus: “O Lord our God, You lowered the heavens when You came down for the salvation of the human race. Now look upon your servants and upon your inheritance; for they have bowed their heads to You, the Judge, both awesome and loving. They do not await human help, but look for Your mercy and are ready to receive Your salvation. Guard them at all times, this evening and tonight, against all enemies, against the devil’s assaults, against vain thoughts and evil dreams. May the might of Your kingdom be blessed and exalted, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever and ever. Amen.”

  4. Jim Ratajski

    I don’t presume to have answers.

    Neither have I had the same wounds, fears, dreams that you have.

    I have had some of these dreams though.

    One time several years ago. I wasn’t sure whether I was asleep or awake. Satan was standing at the end of my bed. Fear siezed me. In my fear I shouted out. “I rebuke you in the name of Jesus!”. He disappeared. Never has returned. I am not saying that I am no longer attacked by him. He does. Just not in the same way. The Lord is your shield and your sword.

    Grace and Peace to you and your family.

    Jim

  5. Tom

    Tony,
    Just a suggestion – before you lay down tonight pray Psalm 91 in the first person. He will deliver you…He will cover you…you will not fear the terror of the night:
    “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
    I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
    For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence.
    He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
    You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day,
    nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
    A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.
    You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked.
    Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place– the Most High, who is my refuge–
    no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.
    For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.
    On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.
    You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.
    “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name.
    When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him.
    With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”

  6. ron williams

    Tony,
    I’m one of the men with guns–I will come and help you bring the smack and bring Eli back from the carnies. Guns have no power over this fear, or most fears for that matter, but God who keeps you in the day will keep you at night. I pray for the presence of His Spirit to drive the dark away.
    Sometimes Bobbi will dream painful things that will awaken me with her crying–I hold her close. You too are in good hands.
    ron

  7. MMM

    When I lie down, I always say to God, “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for You oh Lord, make me dwell in safety.”

    Dwell in safety, my friend, and know that these uninvited guests will be rebuked.

    and I thank God for my husband’s arm around me, so I don’t think you’re crazy. 😉

  8. Katy McKenna Raymond

    I’ve had these dreams. Not recently, but I am now 53. I did the paralyzed-and-something-ominous-is-coming-for-me dream all through my 20s and 30s. Maybe 50 episodes altogether. It lost some of its punch along the way, as sheer terror gave way to ho-hum familiarity, but don’t let me fool you: I never stopped being scared. I, too, have a loving spouse and a true God, both of whom comforted me.

    I think it was Smith Wigglesworth who used to be “visited” by Satan in the dark of night. The evil one would stand at the foot of W’s bed, for the sake of terrorizing him. W would WAKE UP, be fully awake, and there Satan would be. W finally got to where he’d yawn and say, “Oh, you again…” and then roll over and go back to sleep! I think of that story often when the night terrors threaten….

  9. CS

    Delurking to say that I have those nightmares once in a while too. I dream that something is looking at me from the foot of the bed. Then I feel a huge wieght on my chest and all my breath is pushed out of me. I try to move but I cant. I was plagued by them from the end of highschool to the end of graduate school. Once the stress was gone (and we got a sleep number bed) they seemed to have stopped. But I learned a long time ago that to begin respeating scripture to myself when I come out of it. I start with Psalm 23 and move my way thought the OT into the NT. It’s the only thing that has kept me calm after that type of nightmare.

    Bathing ourselves in Scripture is powerful;more son than I would have believed as a teenager in high school. The Lord has amazing ways getting our attention.

  10. aimee

    I’ve struggled with nightmares in that “genre” ever since early high school. They still come for me occasionally, and I wake up whimpering and refuse to go back to sleep, because I know it’s waiting for me to close my eyes again. In HS, after weeks of staying awake with the lights on all night to keep the darkness at bay, I began reading the Psalms … and when I finally was brave enough to try to sleep at night, I too would repeat to myself “I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety” and “Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.” (I grew up with the KJV, can you tell?)

    I can’t have children, and that inability has nearly torn apart my marriage so that my husband’s comforting arms are usually sleeping in another bed … and your last line, “You can endure anything as a parent, I am learning, because even in the worst of it you are grateful that it is you”, shredded my heart with the longing to have the chance to experience that gratitude.

    Thank you for a beautiful post that made me feel less alone, even while it broke my heart, Tony.

    God bless.

  11. Andrea Harris

    Oh, the paralyzed, floating, everything-is-dark dream, with the Things in the corner staring at you! Yeah, I had those dreams. I had to have a night light for ages. They stopped, eventually, though occasionally they’d come back in shortened form.

    Okay, maybe I will leave the light on tonight.

  12. "Aunt" Denise

    Tony,

    I too have had nightmares much like yours. For me they seemed (I say “seemed” because they won’t be torturing me any more) to occur during times of major spiritual growth. The enemy’s attack, if you will. Don’t know if there’s any correlation there for you or not. It got to the point where the only thing I could do was call out the name of Jesus to drive it all away. And He did. He can do the same for you. Hallelujah!

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