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I Was Very, Very Afraid of the Dark

Most kids suffer from nightmares and hallucinations; but mine were abnormal —debilitating—and were eventually diagnosed as mental illness.

by Patrick Marlborough
16 November 2016, 12:00am

Illustration by Michael Dockery

I suffered from acute night terrors and paranoia as a kid, and I still feel the after-effects today.

Night terrors, aka pavor nocturnus, is one of two non-Rapid Eye Movement sleep arousal disorders in the DSM-5. It's a lot like sleep paralysis, but instead of being stuck in a sort of limbo waking state, you're frozen by sheer terror. They often come accompanied by screaming and panic attacks.

I always had a hyperactive imagination: no trouble conjuring up stories and bullshit. And sure, most kids suffer from nightmares and hallucinations; but mine were abnormal —debilitating—and lasted well into my teens.

The main problem was the way my sense of horror and paranoia bled into my awake hours as well. I remember once in 1999, my parents have left me home alone for two hours to attend an Australian Labor Party branch meeting. When they left, I was sitting in front of the TV playing Lylat Wars on 64, telling myself I was fine.

But as soon as that front door close, I ran around the house switching on all the lights and barricading the doors. I barred the entrance to the living room with a sofa. My parents—once big in the world of indigenous education and worker's rights—had a large collection of aboriginal weaponry from their years up north. I set about arming myself: boomerangs, clubs, a throwing spear.

My great-grandfather had come back from the Boer War with a quiver of poison-tipped arrows and a bow, so I slung it over my back, put myself in a brightly lit corner, and waited.

I was certain that murderers were out to get me. I was certain that ghosts were waiting for me to fall asleep so they could snatch me out from my bedroom window. But of course, nothing happened and I just stood around heavily armed for hours.

I grew up in Fremantle, and people were fond of saying that it was "the most haunted town in the world." That didn't help. Plus our house was convict built; a duplex, only half of it got sun. It creaked and shuddered while atmospherically throwing up strange shadows and tricks of light. You could hear my neighbours stomping down their hallway, but it sounded as though they were walking past my room.

It didn't help that my father exposed me to media that a therapist aptly described as "somewhat inappropriate." Gremlins, The Frighteners, The Evil Dead, Scream, Nightmare On Elm Street, all the postmodern satirical horror classics.

A Dr that looked like (an even older) Dumbledore eventually used hypnosis and cognitive behavioral therapy to redirect my paranoia. It worked, for the most part. The most important advice he gave me was to use the very thing that made the nightmares so bad to begin with: my imagination. It's a tactic I employ to this day—well, that and medication.

In retrospect all that paranoia was—I've been told—an early warning sign of my borderline personality disorder, bipolar, and severe anxiety. The same sense of dread that comes with those diseases was present in my late night panic attacks about the scarecrow from Playschool (THE WORST!).

It's fascinating how these dreams shaped me as an adult. I became an insomniac, so I'd stay up reading until around 2 AM. That's a habit I still keep. Plus, very few real life events have managed to scare me as badly as my own dreams. I barely reacted while held at gunpoint in New Orleans, and I felt nothing while being assaulted once in a Perth kebab shop.

In the end, my night terrors subsided. Panic sweats over invisible murderers and Gremlins were replaced with the every day panic of fear of death, life-choices, and crumbling relationships. People use meditation, medication, and imagination to get around their fears. For me it was the acceptance that this was my version of normal, and that the horrors offered up by Goosebumps didn't come close to those offered up by real life.

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Illustration by Michael Dockery.

Tagged:
mental illness
mental health
Sleep
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Horror Films
Night Terrors
personal essay
Nightmares
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