ACA: When the Childhood Nightmare Possesses Your Sleep:

Frederick A. Levy LCSW

Once again, John fell fitfully into fathomless pits of sleep. Tossing the covers from his fleeing sense of safety, he felt pulled, zombie-like, into the oven's fiery dance. In the dreamer's twilight, he could hear his late alcoholic father, repeating his son's name with a low, trembling voice, standing guard with the chilling patience of death.

"The fire will set you free," father called, as John came closer, feverish with a mixture of trance-like longing and terror for the flames. Silently, he screamed a scream which squeezed his throat, choking his final breath. And there he remained, frozen between wakefulness and his final descent into Hell.

When we try to bury our pasts, the bones of our childhood fears may float to the surface of our dreams, the archive of human emotions. However horrifying, night terrors, like physical pain, alert us to attend to a long repressed source of torment with compassionate urgency.

Feeling overwhelmed, we pushed our feelings underground, and paid a steep price. Like survivors of death camps, we found that only the psychically numb could make it out alive.

Out of touch with our feelings, we felt driven to success, caretaking, and rescuing, but never learned sufficient self care. Over time, our dreams kept our pain, and only now send graphic reminders that inside ourselves a child screams who refuses to suffocate in silence.

This crisis may emerge as a chance to reclaim our lost emotions. Hearing our inner distress call, we allow our dreams to guide us to understand the language of a lost childhood.

Usually, as adult children, we only sense our feelings in the extremes; daily irritations may never make a dent until they accumulate, driving us to distraction.

But night terrors penetrate the void, sending graphic images of a concentration camp existence, of flames of fear about to consume us, and a drunken parent standing vigil, taking us to our destruction.

Remembering, we honor the tiny inner survivor who resisted, who still trembles at trusting the love of family and friends, and struggles to subsist within the walls of loneliness and hidden heartbreak.

Our hearts start to heal when we recognize the depth of our wound; hope emerges when we cherish the courage in our coping.

Understanding that we are not "going crazy," but following the pain that takes us on a path to ourselves, we begin, using tools that can help us in our healing journey.

Keeping a dream journal can organize our efforts to utilize our sleeping advisor. As we write, feelings and themes emerge which link us to our past, and help us make sense of our present. Writing heals, creating connections that set us free.

Our living nightmare consisted of booze, terror, loneliness and isolation. Today, in Adult Children of Alcoholics groups, we can share our stories with fellow survivors, and display the dirty linen that our families never not let us acknowledge.

As we gain insight, we may risk sharing our discoveries with sympathetic family members, and friends who can hear us. Emerging through the years-long silence, we may begin to reconstruct our families, while forming a network of friends.

However, if we feel too frightened, overwhelmed, or ashamed to share our fears with someone we know, we can see a therapist who can help us find our way back to ourselves.

Nightmares are creatures of the darkness, that die with the light of insight, support, and love. We have suffered and coped; today we possess keys that can unlock the future waiting to be born within us.


Copyright Fred Levy, LCSW all rights reserved