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Just breathe

It wasn’t that I couldn’t sleep, necessarily, or that I didn’t want to, but that I didn’t dare. Too many things might happen. Something might peek out from within the closet or slither out from under the bed.

But if I didn’t fall asleep soon, I would witness the extinguishing of the light my parents left burning in the hallway outside my room, which would mean they had gone to bed. And then nothing was safe for a child alone with her insomnia in the dark.

Except that I had the god-given gift of a twin sister, sleeping silently in the bed so close to mine that we could clasp hands across the divide. And every night she would reach out and hold my hand just so I could be sure of her — at least until she drifted off to sleep and her hand slipped out of mine.

Once the hallway went dark, I would slide out of bed and, with no more than one step across the forbidden floor, spring onto my sister’s bed and slip into the space between her and the wall where nothing, not even nightmares, could get me.

At some point in the night, she would roll over and, finding me tucked beneath her covers, slip her hand into mine and drift back to sleep.

My sister never mentioned my sleepovers, never betrayed my fear of the night, not ever.

I must have been around 10 when the night terrors began. Perhaps it was because, having moved to a larger house, I suddenly had my own room in which to navigate the night. My sister, now sleeping peacefully down the hall, lay sprawled across the empty expanse of her own twin bed while I huddled under the covers of mine, convincing myself that the light was still shining under the door of my parents’ bedroom.

My night terrors were not merely the stuff of trauma, those terrifying moments when I would startle awake to find my heart racing, my body damp, and my mind grasping at the shadowy figures retreating back into my subconscious. Surely they were born of greater anxieties than the ghosts and monsters of childhood that could usually be quelled by avoiding movies like The Wizard of Oz, The Birds, or The Creature from the Black Lagoon just before bed.

My night-capades resulted in previously unfinished homework being somehow completed correctly by morning, a once-cluttered room left clean or, on occasion, my possession of something belonging to one of my sisters, which left me wondering what I had done and where I had wandered.

I was nearly 30 when friends convinced me to spend the night in a sleep center. I had been regaling guests with stories of seeing figures in the night, getting ready for school at midnight, and the time I led a Spiderman-looking assailant on a chase out of my room, down the stairs, throughout the house, and out into the garage where I actually got into the car and started the engine in an effort to save myself from a dream.

But one friend didn’t laugh. A respiratory therapist, she had treated many patients with sleep disorders. And although mine was not rooted in sleep apnea or other breathing problems, she insisted it was time I stop the night terror train before it really went off-track.

Until that moment, I had never actually labeled it a problem.

At a sleep center, a technician ushered me into a pretty pink room with a double bed covered in a handmade quilt. Before I slipped under the covers, she glued electrodes to my head and limbs, affixed a strap around my chest to monitor my breathing, and positioned a fiber optic microphone just below my mouth so I could express any needs or concerns.

She assured me I would be safe and said someone would be watching me on a monitor all night long. I, in turn, assured her that with such security measures I was likely to slip into an easy sleep. I suggested that to make the experience more authentic and have a true test, she might want to hide outside, leaving me feeling a little more vulnerable.

Moments after she shut the door, leaving me anchored to my little experiment, I felt unexpectedly cold. I thought of the hair-like microphone tickling my lip and decided to give it a try. “I’m really cold,” I whispered.

The door opened, and in walked a technician with an extra blanket. I drifted off to sleep like a baby.

The next morning, the same technician showed me pages of jagged marks that looked like a lie detector test. She told me I had a very young, active mind.

“Are you calling me immature?” I asked.

“We’re telling you that your mind never slows down, never settles into a deep, restful sleep. You spend the majority of your sleep hours in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, during which the brain’s neuron activity is most similar to that of your waking hours. Therefore, your dreams are more clearly recalled, you are more easily awakened during those dreams, and you definitely are not getting enough rest.”

She suggested I eliminate sugar, caffeine, exercise, scary movies, and all other stimulating elements from my experience during the hours right before bedtime. She also recommended deep breathing exercises, soothing rituals like a warm bath or a massage, and practices to clear my mind from daily stresses before embarking on sleep.

And so I do, and it helps.

Twenty years later, I have my own little twins who suffer from night terrors. So I close their closet doors and check under the beds, draw the drapes and leave a few lights burning throughout the night. And on those occasions when I can’t seem to soothe myself to sleep, I get up, read a book or write a story, and check to see who’s sleeping and where.