The “waking up from a nightmare” experience

For the last two years approximately, I have entered a living situation that was a continuous, multiple-times-a-day “trigger” (however much I dislike the term) for a long and partly intergenerational C-PTSD story around migration. In brief, I was living in the country whose mere language sets off reactions in me that are (seriously and by far) not reasonable to go through on a daily basis.

I wanted to write I was “stuck” in this living situation, but the truth is a mix – it was either that or extreme economic and social stress. So I chose being triggered daily over having no social and financial perspectives in the (less wealthy and less Western) country I would have otherwise preferred to stay in. I guess it’s a kind of choice, too.

Point of this post being, recently, after a year or more of scheming and planning, I’ve managed to test-move to another Western country in which I can go out into the street and hear the language without it being a massive trigger (yes, I have been going out almost exclusively with headphones these two previous years. That’s not even the worst or weirdest. I felt it’s “enough” when I realised I’m being mean to children who chat me up just because I can’t stand having to respond in the local language. I guess while it was acceptable that it turned me [even more] into an eccentric a hermit, I didn’t like the situation turning me into a child-hating jerk.).

So in the “new” location, I gradually got used to taking walks and exchanging little phrases with passersby, or taking pleasure in overhearing random conversations in the farmers’ market, or just being in public space without the persistent need to wall myself off. It took a few weeks to get used to this, and not have the habitual startle reaction every time I hear a human voice (that only calmed down after the half second it takes to identify that it’s in an “Ok” language).

When I took notice of this change, after several weeks of being out of the triggering context – I noticed it in part by realising I felt less lonely, or at least not more lonely, despite being away from the 1-2 friends I had still been seeing more or less regularly during the pandemic; and then I figured it’s because I don’t have the need to wall myself off in public space, so I feel less lonely just when hiking outside, shopping, etc. – my emotional reaction was also kind of novel or at least a bit “unclassifiable”.

I guess so much so that I felt it merits a blog post, in the current C-PTSD series.

After noting the above observations, there was no euphoria. Not really joy. Perhaps some cautious, very cautious relief, but always with the caveat that it might be temporary and its accompanying “stay small and don’t get too excited” tension.

But above all, what struck me was a frontal wave of terror – I think exactly the feeling I had sometimes when waking up from a particularly long, complex, and realistic nightmare – only to not be sure whether I’ve actually woken up or not; whether the “waking up” is just a brief inter-dream, so to speak.

I’m not sure you’ll “get” it if you haven’t had the experience of waking up multiple times into multiple meta-dreams, or nightmares. It has happened to me many times that I “wake up” into another dream, I think once it happened even 3-4 times in a row until I “woke up” into our conventional reality.

I never had this feeling in “real-life”, though. The feeling that I’m just gradually waking up from a prolonged nightmare that I had kind of accepted as reality (well, because it lasted years, or decades – what else would you do?). But I’m not sure whether I’m actually waking up, or whether this (brief?) waking experience is just part of the overarching dream (nightmare) – it will turn out to be illusory or futile.

Having resumed my communication with my friend who is the child of a Holocaust survivor and correspondingly is in the habit of pulling Holocaust jokes at every turn (for which every leftist would lynch him if he wasn’t a Jew), it made me of course think of people who survived that kind of thing (myself not having the license to pull jokes or comparisons, I voice myself cautiously) perhaps had a similar experience at the end of the war. Not quite believing that the nightmare could really be over, and being swept up in a gush of panic every time you start to cautiously believe it based on evidence+hope.

It’s also a bit like the wave of the accumulated dread of the last years only really dares to cautiously hit (or tickle) the shores of consciousness after your head is just a tiny bit above the water. On the other hand, it also seems to hit as soon as the tip of your had ceases from being submerged by even a millimetre. “Delayed processing,” but heck, then not that delayed.

It seems that the pain and dread of the bizarreness of situations that one has lived wants to be processed the instant your little toe is “out”, or isn’t even sure whether it’s out yet at all (might be a dream within the nightmare, right?).

My “learning” or “message to humanity” (or the bunch of readers who are into C-PTSD recovery) is perhaps just an alert that says, hey, this can happen. It can happen that as soon as the situation improves somewhat, the mind goes into finally paying attention to the nightmare and flashing right back into it (which it couldn’t fully do while you had to live it somehow – it was necessary to repress some things that are really not pretty to see); and/or, the mind goes into something for which you’re maybe better prepared if you’re used to psychedelics (I’m not, but as a drug-loving friend said, I generate my natural ones) – or perhaps if you’re a Zen student or a student of the Bardo books or such – you get caught “between stories” (using Charles’ Eistenstein’s term here) and can’t decide what’s reality, or flash back and forth between a bunch of them, which is not only bewildering but exhausting emotionally (especially if some of the realities are less gruesome than others).

In a sense, it does not necessarily take less energy to move out of a more horrid story to a less horrid one than it takes to stay adapted to and coping with the former – it’s not like it’s a downhill slide; it’s more like a confusing experience with a broken TV set that switches between channels for weeks on end. And some of the channels are “you’ll live”, while others are “you’ll die” or “you’ll live your life in misery to the end of your days”. And it’s not TV, it’s more like a full-body VR simulation. You take each switch fully seriously, or at least the body does, perhaps until exhaustion and distraction (I’ve taken to reading comic books, somewhat political ones and in new languages, but still that’s as close to distraction-by-entertainment as I’d get).

I haven’t been in the situation (or actually I have, but I was emotionally disconnected), but I think it’s akin to waiting (passively/powerlessly), for weeks, to find out whether you or someone you now has survived a serious surgery. And flicking back and forth between the scenarios in a bizarre network of parallel universes.

On the side of philosophical consolation, I still get a minor kick on and off out of these psychedelic voyages that life offers to those with fickle minds (joke, actually really not only – I’m sure it offers these to many of us, and perhaps especially at specific junctures in history?). Out of the “zero points” (old post on one that occurred years ago, I can’t find it, but I’ve written on this concept before) where one is unmoored from the story, or movie, of reality as it has become habitual, and has really no clue where it will go. Ever since I read about the concept in several Buddhist sources, I have become more comfortable with the unmooring and don’t panic that much when I panic. Without this guidance everything would be much harder, I imagine.

I still have the impression that I go through these “turning-point” experiences (whether they are that objectively or not, it’s a very strong subjective experience) pretty periodically and frequently (a major dizzying one every few years, minor micro-ones every few months or weeks?). I’d like to know if this is a universal – while I can observe it in some people, it seems less evident in others. If I take some book’s word for it (Malidoma Some’s book on indigenous ritual), then it’s a universal in the life of adults (and occasionally children). Various (niche) people call it by various exotic names (initiation in this case, I can probably throw in half a dozen other terms by now), isn’t it odd I haven’t yet observed an established concept and word for this in the various cultural mainstreams I occasionally have to partake in?

6 thoughts on “The “waking up from a nightmare” experience

  1. Hi, I’d just like to let you know that your post has been featured here:

    When I read this, I knew it was perfect to share. So many people are struggling with trauma and trying to improve their lives. Improving your external situation doesn’t translate to automatically better mental health. Things take time. I feel like reading this piece could really help people understand that and be patient with their healing process.

    1. Yeah, although I think part of the “slow translation” can be insecurity around whether the improvement is permanent (there are no guarantees in life, but I think people with PTSD can often expect impending tragedy even against all evidence).

      I would still argue that on the other hand, *some* types of improvement *do* translate into better mental health instantaneously. Specifically, in my experience housing security and basic financial security gives people instantaneously improved mental health (and more than you’d get from therapy or whatever). At least I have both experienced and witnessed that.

      I think improvements beyond this basic survival / security level might be a bit different, they sometimes do need mental processing to really benefit the person. It’s like you have to learn how to use and navigate the good situation, e.g. how to trust friendly people etc.

      1. Oh, yes. I’ve heard of people getting nervous when they’re happy because they’re used to having good things in their life get ruined.

        I agree that some things make it better immediately, too. If someone doesn’t have security in some way, and then the danger is resolved (housing, financial security, new job, etc.), then that can be a weight off the shoulders.

        I wonder if part of it is how much you trust in the change that happens. For example, if you feel like a new job is likely to work out, you’ll probably feel more comforted than if you’re afraid it’ll get taken away.

  2. The language you use is especially relatable- I’m not so much enjoying the waking phase of complicated CPTSD nightmares of frequent occurrence.

    They’re all so subjective and vividly laced with variations of my trauma profile.

    Thank you for sharing.

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