Night Anxiety Woes


As a child…pre-teen…teenager…sleeping alone was defintely not one of my strengths. Just ask my younger sister. The summer between my third grade and fourth grade year, my family moved into a new house. My sister and I finally had our own rooms! I was super excited until it was time to go to bed. I can easily transport myself back in time and vividly remember the fear that crept into my mind, took hold and refused to let go. Wide awake, my heart racing, my senses heightened, I alternated between being hot and cold. I tried to convince myself I was safe in my bedroom. Every normal household sound transformed into a murderer, kidnapper or evil spirit slinking down the hall to get me.

I wanted to fall asleep on my own. I really did. I knew I was old enough and it was embarassing to me that I couldn’t. More often than not, I would sneak down the hall to my sister’s room and beg her to come sleep with me in my room (I had a double, while she had a single). I admit, I was relentless and wouldn’t give up until she followed me back to my room. With another person, next to me I was finally able to sleep (although, I don’t know about her).

Granted this didn’t happen every night. I went months and months able to sleep alone, until something triggered the fear. This something was usually a scary movie of some sort. The first time I remember it happening, I was at an elementary school friend’s birthday slumber party. We stayed up all night and watched the movie Halloween. Not knowing any better (although I should have as I was afraid of the Wizard of Oz and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), I watched unable to pull myself away, not wanting to look like a baby in front of my friends. It was months before I could sleep again. In middle school, the offending movie was Poltergiest. Again I watched this movie at a friend’s house. It was only rated PG, so I figured it couldn’t be that scary. I was wrong. This one freaked me out even more as it involved the supernatural. Once again, the night-time anxiety gripped me. The creepy clown, the TV set static replayed in my mind as soon the lights went out and I tried to sleep. You would have thought I’d learned my lesson in caving to peer pressure, but no. A sophomore in high school, once again I found myself at a friend’s house (this time a boy was involved, whom I wanted to impress) and against my better judgment watched, A Nightmare on Elm Street. As this horror movie, involves falling asleep and being murdered in your dreams, it was at least six months before I slept in my bed alone again and longer than that before I could turn the hall light out too. I even found a poem I wrote back then describing how I felt…

A poem from my “Nothing Notebook” of poems I wrote in middle/high school

To this day, I avoid watching scary movies or television shows. I know my limitations. As an adult though, if I were to watch a scray or unsettling show (scroll through my Twitter feed or watch the news?), I am much more capable of turning off the emotional side of my brain to discren what is a real threat and what is not. Although, even now I admit that worry can still keep me awake at night…my left arm hurts…could I be having a heart attack? I can’t fall asleep and I have to get up early…will the alarm go off? Could I be an asymptomatic COVID-19 carrier? What if I give it to someone I love? As you can see, my mind can be dizzying with the “what if’s” even now. Throw in the lyrics of a new Taylor Swift song that plays over and over in my mind, the dog scratching at the door to go outside, the thermostat alarm going off for no reason, there are many nights when sleep is a losing battle for me. So I get how thoughts can trigger emotions and become obessions that keep sleep away.

Which brings me to my youngest daughter. When I hear her voice call to me quitetly, “Mom….mom…I’m scared… I can’t sleep…Can I sleep with you?” My first and foremost inclination, is “yes, of course you can.” When she tells me she can’t stop thinking about the scary “well lady” from Lock and Key or that she hears a weird noise outside her window, I can totally relate. I remember how it feels to lie awake trying not to think about that one thing that makes your heart race and prevents sleep only to think about it even more. I chide myself for trying to convince her there is “nothing to be afraid of” and remind her that “she is safe in her room.” When anxiety is in overdrive, no amount of logic will put it at bay. And so, we’ve both taken the easy way out. She crawls into my bed and drifts off to sleep within 20 minutes. We’ve tried it the other way around. Where I sleep next to her until she falls asleep and then sneak back into my own bed. But, she always feels/hears me leave and then we are back to square one.

I realize allowing her to sleep with me and not setting boundaries has helped put us in this sleepless place. By allowing her to avoid learning to sleep by herself and deal with her sleep anxiety, I have perpetuated it. I kept thinking, hoping she would outgrow it like her older sister did. I tell myself, she’s not going to need me forever so what does it matter if she sleeps with me? She does really good for a few weeks, but then something triggers the fears again. I know she wants to sleep alone in her room. She has gotten to the point where she is almost more afraid that she won’t be able to fall asleep than she is of the obsessive thoughts keeping her awake (a self-fullfillng prophesy). The times I’ve sent her back to her room were torture for me. I laid awake, reliving my own childhood night time fears and wanted nothing more than to take them away from her. The thought of her lying alone and afraid makes my heart hurt. I really don’t want her to need me to fall asleep (although I know I’ll look back at this time in our lives and miss her). I want her to be an independent sleeper as much as she wants to be one.

And so I did, what any mom would do and Googled, “how to help your child sleep alone.” I just order the book called, Anxious Kids Anxious Parents by Reid Wilson. I downloaded a sample to my Kindle and read the first chapter. It seems promising. Time will tell.

Does anyone else have any ideas?

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