I used to wake up in the morning to a full-blown panic attack. I would have this nightmare that I’d wake up to find my father standing over my bed. He’d reach down and put his hand over my mouth and against my nose so that I couldn’t breathe. I’d fight, and kick, and try to pry his fingers off but nothing would help. I’d feel myself slipping out of consciousness and I was very aware that I would die soon. It was always around this time that I would actually wake up gasping for air. My heart rate wouldn’t come down and I’d continue to hyperventilate for the next half-hour or so. I always assumed that I’d have a panic attack in my sleep, and that the nightmare was my mind’s way of trying to explain the physiological responses I experienced while sleeping.. The first time I had that nightmare was a few months after I moved back to my hometown and things were going downhill with my dad. I had that same nightmare nearly every night for the next two years.
After being in therapy for a year, I began EMDR. My therapist had wanted to try it sooner, but I panicked and didn’t show up. She held off for a considerable amount of time until I felt more confident in myself. She explained after our first completed session that I would likely continue to process things for the next few days while I was at home, and she was right. I saw images of different things that had taken place either the year prior when I had lived back home or images of things from my childhood. Even though a lot of the images were negative, I managed to roll with it pretty well and continued to carry on with my day.
The following afternoon, I came home from work, dropped my stuff off next to the front door and made my way to my bedroom to change into something more comfortable. I stopped in the hallway a couple feet from my door. I watched my father place his hands over a child’s mouth and nose. He had her pinned against his body and she could barely reach the floor with the tips of her toes. Her green eyes were wide with terror as she tried to pry his fingers off her mouth with both of her hands. His hands remained tightly clasped to her face despite her efforts. This girl was probably about ten years old, and I knew her well. She was me. I knew that whatever was going on, he had been beating her and she had made too much noise. They were in public and there were people in the room next to them that he didn’t want to hear. This scenario wasn’t a one time ordeal. It happened often. I remember how my mind would quickly snap over from focusing on the pain of being beaten to not caring at all about the pain but simply panicking because I couldn’t breath and I didn’t know if he would let go. Eventually, he’d let go, pull me over his knee again, and this time I’d make certain that my tears fell silently.
After this memory faded from view, I took a big breath and made my way to my bedroom before getting dinner on the stove. Most of my memories were this intense, but for some reason, the things that happened to me when I was younger typically don’t distress me. Even this one didn’t bother me too much, except that it kept playing itself over multiple times that evening. The rest of the memories would play through once and that was it. I’d seen this same image multiple times and I couldn’t figure out why this memory was different from the other ones.
I don’t remember what I was doing or what I was thinking about, but suddenly a realization sparked. The nightmare I had been having for the last couple years, was very similar to what my dad did to me as a kid. How come I never put this together before now? I rushed over to my husband and excitedly told him what I had pieced together. I watched a look of horror wash over his face as I described how my dad would intentionally suffocate me, and I started to gather that something in what I was saying should feel disturbing, but I didn’t have time to think about that. He was familiar with the nightmare, I didn’t have to explain that part to him, I complained about it often enough. “Babes, THAT’S where that dream comes from!” I told him. I was elated, and I think he was a little traumatized.
The realization that my dream and the memory were so similar messed with my head a bit. I’d been having a dream about something that had actually happened to me as a kid but I had forgotten about it until now. Okay so what else do we dream about or react to that our subconscious remembers but we don’t? I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I went into my therapist’s appointment with nearly the same level of excitement as I had when I told my husband about the memory. I started off by describing the dream to my therapist. She interrupted me, “Wait, Danielle, okay is this a dream or something that actually happened?” “Well, I guess both really. I thought it was just a dream but apparently not.” Okay, so, here is what happened…..” The look on her face mirrored that of my husbands from the night before. “Man, you push stuff really far back” she stated.
She’s usually not to shocked about anything I say, either because she has heard it all before or because with my history what I say shouldn’t be of surprise. But to see her horrified expression made me understand that something about this was really disturbing. I almost hate when I have to gauge other people’s reactions to things in order to gain some sort of insight into the severity of what I went through. Sorta like how people will find themselves in abusive relationships over and over again because they can’t recognize the signs. What other people see as red flags, a person who was abused sees as normal. That isn’t to say I thought my dad’s behavior was acceptable. I know it was abusive, but I think I normalized his behavior to a point where I didn’t see it as being that bad. I hate that I do this. I feel like I can’t trust myself or my own past because I have nothing normal to compare it to.