I’ve been seeing…Them… for as long as I can remember, even though the earliest actual memories aren’t until I was in my 20s.
What I mean is, I have snippets of memory from when I was younger— I can remember seeing Them, telling friends about Them, not wanting to fall asleep because I didn’t want to deal with Them; I even had a notebook (probably still have in a box somewhere) where I would write down where I was and who appeared each time they showed up— but aside from fuzzy mental glimpses, I can’t recall any specific episodes, encounters, or visits.
I also don’t remember any panic associated with Them from when I was a kid, but I also found out I’m good at forgetting things like that. When I was… hell, for my entire childhood and lasting well into high school, I would get these really intense leg cramps. Like— screaming pain, couldn’t move, get me in a hot bath and give this kid a Vicodin -style pain. The kind of pain you can feel when you remember it. And it happened often enough, and the pain was severe enough, that I saw several doctors about it. It lasted until I was old enough to drive at least, but at some point it stopped (I guess), and until it happened again, decades later when I was in grad school, I had completely forgotten about it. Like an imaginary friend who I’d blocked out and had now returned to derail my Big Promotion at my Adult Job (… not that I was up for any kind of promotion nor had any kind of adult job). Point is, if I was able to forget that, forget a level of pain that shaped how I interacted with the world each day, it’s certainly possible that I was just as scared by Them when I was a child as I am now, even if I can’t remember it.
And a forgotten panic that was caused by Them would help explain some other things, too. My sleep habits are less odd now than they historically have been, but they’re still odd. I’m still afraid of falling asleep.
I’ve always read that people can’t read in their dreams. Can’t make out words and letters, can’t see numbers clearly, can’t do math. I can do all of those things in my dreams. Just two nights ago, I had a Very Adult Anxiety Dream about getting a job, and I was able to figure out— on a piece of notebook paper while in line at a grocery store (it was the Vons in Normal Heights, specifically, but “backwards”)— how much I’d be getting paid per hour if I took this job I’d heard about (I would have been a very well paid delivery driver for Meals On Wheels / Whole Foods). So I can certainly see numbers and even do math in my dreams (and, fwiw, the math works out, too), and I can read, and I dream in color, and I can look in a mirror, and I feel pain in my dreams. Saying my dreams are ‘vivid’ doesn’t really make sense to me… they’re as ‘vivid’ as my waking life, however vivid you take that to be, it’s just that the narrative progression makes less sense.
And I’ve had my share of ‘somnias, too: insomnias where I can’t get or stay asleep, parasomnias like sleepwalking and sleep-talking, sleep apnea — my husband says I stop breathing when I’m asleep, nightmares more frequent than non-nightmares (usually I’m being chased, but not always, and I finally had the ‘teeth falling out’ nightmare last week— first time I’ve had that one!), “exploding head syndrome” as I’m drifting off, and, of course, night terrors, which is at least partly what I’m talking about when I’m talking about Them.
But not entirely.
See, though the appearance of Them sounds like a night terror, it’s not a one-to-one relationship. There have been a few night terrors that ended up being a classic mistaken coat rack or tree branch against a window pane; one time, I even mistook my husband for a bear (there are many things I have mistaken my husband for during the night), and with each of those, I wake up screaming, quickly rousing from sleeping to waking, the dream projecting onto the waking world only briefly, and it’s all over in a matter of moments. When my husband isn’t the focus of the project, my scream wakes him up, too; if we had a household, my screams would wake the whole house. Very scary, heart pounding, sweat inducing moments, but they’re only moments, and they’re gone almost as soon as I’m awake.
But with Them, with the tall, spindly, shadows who stand at the edge of my bed, watching over me, poking at me, whispering about me… with Them it doesn’t end quickly, and it takes me forever to find my voice and scream, and I never really know when I’m finally awake.
I wake up, I think (but how would I know?), and find them standing over me. I can’t make out their faces, but their fingers are so incredibly long, and they’re dark, like a shadow at night. Sometimes there are three or four of them, sometimes just one. Sometimes one will stand over me while another creeps around the edges of the room, digging through the corners like he’s looking for something. He’s definitely a he, the one that creeps and digs, though I couldn’t say much about the others, nothing beyond their gaunt shadows.
Sometimes they just stand there, about where my legs are, and whisper. As I try to find the power to scream, I’m aware that they aren’t really doing anything, so I have nothing to be afraid of yet, but I can feel something coming. That’s when I realize that not only has my scream still not come to me, but that I can’t move at all. And I need to move. I need to kick my feet and wave my arms because even though this one (these two, three) are just standing over me— and the one in the corner is harmlessly digging through my dresser— there’s another one coming. He’s just below my feet, coming up from the foot of the bed, and he’s coming for me. He’s the one they’re waiting for. He’s the one they’ve been whispering about, not me. I need to wake up before he gets here. I need to move. I need to scream. He’s almost here.
Finally the scream comes, but already as an echo of itself, a weak reverb of a dread that I couldn’t give voice to when I first felt it, and that’s the scream that begins to pull me out of it, and the ones at the edge of my bed disappear. And I scream again, full-throated this time, and the one in the corner finally goes away. And then I know I’m awake, and that it was just a dream, but I can still feel the one at the foot of my bed, I can still feel the one that They were waiting for, it’s still in the room with me. Now that I’m awake I’ve gone from paralyzed to frantic, and I pull my feet up and under my body, and I rip the covers off just in case he’s hiding under them, and I look all around the room, and I look over and see that Shawn’s still asleep, and Rocko is still asleep, and no one is awake but me, no one heard me scream, and something is still in the room, but it’s fading, and it was just a dream, and they aren’t real, and nothing is going to hurt me.
Usually, I get out of bed after that, turn on all the lights in the house, turn on the TV, and sit on the couch or whatever, as long as I get out of bed. I need to prove to myself that I can get out of the bed and let my feet touch the floor where I know he isn’t, because it was just a dream. And I’ll always fall back asleep on the couch, no matter what time it is when They first come to me, no matter if I’ve made a cup of coffee or just grabbed a glass of water to calm my nerves, I will always fall asleep again, because before I have time to really think about what happened, I’m waking up— waking up again? waking up for real? when in this story was I asleep and when was I awake?— with a sense of dread that won’t have left, and it will take a few more days to shake, and the feeling will never go away completely, and I’m always a little afraid to go to sleep.