Sleep is one of my favorite things.
I often choose a nice long nap over other, more important experiences, such as class and parties. I’m not shy about professing my love for sleep (it’s even in my Twitter bio).
But my relationship with sleep has always been complex.
Falling asleep isn’t easy for me, and it doesn’t get any easier once I finally do. I have knack for spotting faces on darkened walls, ghosts in black mirrors and eyes in cracked doors. I hear breathing in the wind and footsteps in silence. My waking paranoia translates seamlessly into my dreams, where adventures in faraway places can quickly turn into interactive hellscapes.
Until second grade, almost nightly, I would find myself at the edge of my parents’ bed, some ungodly hour illuminated on the nightstand clock, tugging on my mom’s sleeve after waking up from a nightmare. My parents thought I was just scared of the dark, that it was a phase that would fade with time.
I experienced terrors both waking and in dreams, seeing monsters in shadows boogeymen in the closet. My mom would hum along to “All the pretty little ponies” and rub my back before I went to bed each night to try and calm me. But I usually ended up sheepishly wandering into my parents’ bedroom with a stuffed-animal companion and a sad look on my face.
Some nightmares I had as a kid scarred me so deeply I can still retell them in vivid detail. A notable dream from my childhood involved the Horned King (the villain from “The Black Cauldron,” a movie that did so badly at the box office, I’m ashamed that he terrified me to such an extent). He would sneak under my bed and shake it, cackling as he did so. I’d wake up screaming, with the uneasy feeling that the mattress underneath me was still softly swaying.
As I got older and my night terrors clearly started to plague my parents as much as they did me, I found other ways to cope. I spent hours watching YouTube videos, playing games, reading — pretty much anything as long as I didn’t have to sleep. After a week of so little sleep, I spent my weekends taking afternoon naps when I was too tired to let my imagination deprive me.
After getting to college, the problem somehow got worse. Probably a result of the additional social and academic stress, my simple nightmares turned into vivid episodes of sleep paralysis.
I once had a dream where a sepia-toned girl with three red eyes in a pinafore dress stuck a long, sharp fingernail into my back. I tried desperately to scream or move, but it was a difficult feat and it seemed to take hours before I was able to wake up. Even after I opened my eyes, I swear I could still feel something piercing into my back.
What’s even scarier about these types of dreams is that they occur in places and feature people that could be there when I open my eyes. The dream I mentioned above happened in the same room I was sleeping in. I often have dreams that feature people and conversations that could happen, but never have, which makes even the completely outlandish aspects of my nightmares feel all the more real.
As this problem became increasingly worse over time, eventually I decided to do some research. I found few actual solutions, but one thing stood out to me. I found that those who have lucid dreams often use their fingers as a reality checking tool. Since reading this tip, I often look down at my fingers during dreams and see that I have six on each hand instead of five. For some reason, this tangible aspect of my dreams has allowed me to wake up before things get too creepy.
During my worst nightmares, I take a moment to look away from the monster and stare at my hands, open-palmed, relaxed, one, two, three, four, five, six fingers on each. I take a breath, and both my dream body and my real body somehow find the ability to control themselves again.
I look at my fingers a little more fondly now. Lately, I find myself counting them as a way to cope with the stresses of waking reality. The more I interact with my five real fingers, the easier spotting the rogue sixth in my dreams has become. I still find myself in dreams without a voice or control, but that sixth finger has allowed me to grasp onto reality just a little tighter.