Night Terrors, Depression, and the Brain.

I haven’t updated in a bit but not for a lack of thoughts. Life has just been busy. First thing is that I fell down the stairs earlier this week and that really put a damper in my energy both mentally and physically. I was thinking about it after it happened and I wondered when I’d be “100%” but then I thought, does anyone ever really recover 100% from an injury? I wondered if there is really a logarithmic curve involved with physical injuries where you continue to heal towards 100% but never actually reach it again. At some point you get so close that it feels functionally the same but your body is never actually the same.

Now I have no medical knowledge to back up that thought, its more of a mental blip that birthed from the event. I suppose most of these updates are, really. An event happens and I react by trying to understand it. One thing that has been bothering me lately is a little tickling in the back of my brain related to those depression comics. I couldn’t find the particular one that originally caused this but the usual message is something like:

*Guy 1 has a broken arm*

Guy 2: Get over it.

*Guy 1 is impaled.*

Guy 2: Get over it. You are just thinking it hurts.

– You wouldn’t think these are ok, its not ok when someone is suffering from depression either.  –

The jist is usually that some people are insensitive because they look at physical injuries and depression or other mental illnesses as “fake” ones. Injuries that you can just “Stop” from happening. The message is that you can’t fix your depression any easier than a person can fix their broken bone. It’s not something you are in control of. Originally I heard this and being someone who has experienced some extreme mood shifts (even now) I remember relating to it and liking it. I thought back to that decade or so of night terrors in my childhood and how it impacted me.

But then I thought about how I responded to those night terrors. For a while I let them overcome me. I was an absolutely miserable child, I didn’t express it outwardly much but I knew that with every oncoming night I was going to be visited by the worst horrors I could imagine. Not figuratively speaking either, I would dream and the worst things I could fashion together would torture and slaughter me, once, twice, perhaps even a dozen times before I awoke. Sometimes I would wake up and feel actual physical pain wherever I had been stabbed, cut, or dismembered. I suspect it was similar to phantom limb pain, I was experiencing very real pain to body parts that had no injury nor illness.

Over time I became better at recognizing when I was in a dream. I began to see familiar locations, or horrors, or feel similar sensations. These would trigger a lucid state and I would be in control. Initially this didn’t stop the horrors from getting me, I couldn’t just will them out of being. But it gave me a chance, no longer was I a passive victim in this ever changing horrorscape, I could now run and perhaps survive long enough to wake up.

I don’t know if you can imagine living ten or so years where every night you are visited by agony. I’m not saying its the worst childhood someone could have, it probably isn’t even close, I could name a thousand worse lives that could be had and likely a thousand more that are being had. Your quality of life isn’t relative to the suffering of others, however, and anyone who tells you otherwise is deluded. If other people spent ten years being immolated that wouldn’t have made my night terrors any more pleasant. But I digress.

I ran from these monsters across various landscapes meshing both imagination and reality. One of my most common locations was the library from my Elementary School (which would later be replaced a few times by the library from High School when I had another bout of night terrors many years back). It would seamlessly transition from there to a long pathway. This pathway was bordered on either side by acid and at the end of the path was a doorway with bookshelves on either side of it. From that doorway would come my monster of the night. Perhaps a knife wielding murderer, or some kind of magical beast, or maybe someone I know. Big or small they would come for me and I would be tasked with fleeing long enough to squeeze my eyes shut. It was difficult to concentrate enough to pull myself out, the hysteria and fear of being gutted again would often cause me to panic and I’d be trapped for just too long.

Over even more time I became even better at becoming lucid. I started to immediately leave the library (or other familiar locations) the moment I noticed where I was. Basically I’d open my eyes in the dream world and say “Fuck this mess.” and leave. For whatever reason, most of the time, the monsters would not leave their eminent domain. Some exceptions existed that I remember quite vividly. The vampire like monsters that would burst through my window were some of the most persistent. I would run across seemingly endless plains to escape them, the horror that they instilled in my was so great that until I was nearly 16 years old I couldn’t sleep near an unobstructed window without my heart racing. Because I just knew that the moment I did those glowing red eyes would shone through and what would follow next was not desirable.

I remember the monster that lived in our hallway (within my dreams that involved our home). It moved quickly covered in a thick mist around the knees. It tried to split me open like a watermelon many nights, sometimes I would not open the door to my room, knowing it was outside, and it would reach with long spindly arms beneath the door and tug me through. My body cut and crushed beneath that small gap between my door and the floor.

At any rate, as the years past I got better and better at it until I no longer feared sleeping. I knew exactly what every night entailed for me, I would enter a dream and I would take control immediately. I would fly around the world, build skyscrapers on a whim, I would bring people into being. What came at the end of that long arduous mental road was godhood. It would be many more years after that until I suddenly stopped having dreams altogether. That was a weird experience, closing my eyes and then just waking up the next day. No intermission to remember.

Recently I’ve started having vivid dreams again. They’ve not been malicious, thankfully, but I ponder where they’ll lead in the long run.

Throughout that whole mental episode of mine I never once took medication for it. It wasn’t until much later (last year) that I took a shot and found myself feeling incredibly out of control of my own emotions. It is one thing to be falling down a terrible hole and to feel utterly worthless, it is another to be soaring into the stars and to not feel real. I’m sure I could have tried something else, maybe those were just not the pills for me, but really I don’t know what that path would have had for me. Medication in the US is not used as a recovery aid, it is used as a crutch and that’s just not something that I personally want to get into. Which is the crux of the end of this post.

I don’t know if it is fair to compare a broken arm or a gashed knee to a mental illness. Yes they are both debilitating and they are both serious but there is something exceptional about the human brain. If I cut off your left leg, your right leg will not pick up the slack for it. I suppose it would get a little stronger because it would need to support your body but it would not take up the job of being both your legs. However your brain benefits from plasticity, when you wound your brain (presuming the damage doesn’t kill you or render you vegetative) the unwounded portions of your brain will attempt to take up the slack. Blind people see an increased sensitivity in all their other senses, people with only a single hemisphere don’t suddenly become drooling mental cases, they live on similar to two hemisphere people.

That doesn’t mean that you can just “will” away depression. Certainly not quickly or easily. It took me the majority of my life just to overcome my own mental problem (one of them). I suspect a portion of the messaging that makes depression (or other illnesses) sound like lifetime problems is that it is incredibly profitable to convince people that this is the case. If you convince people that they’ll never be whole or happy without your (expensive) pills, then you are in the money.

Of course I also think that some people are exceptional cases. It might even be a large number of people, but I also think that number is proportionally smaller (perhaps by as much as a factor of 10) than the number of people being told that they need medication and being put on life long regimens. Is this the case? I certainly can’t say for sure, this is mostly coming from my own anecdotes and thoughts. Maybe the world really is full of people who suffer great chemical imbalances that can only be righted by medication.

But I just don’t know. When you break a leg or an arm, it heals over time, and you go into rehab to get it back up to par. That rehab might be personal with you lifting things at your own home (or walking on it) but you don’t just leave it in a cast for the rest of your life. That cast might keep support on it for you but it will never grow stronger. I worry that people might be looking at crutches but seeing rehab, a rehab that doesn’t end until they do. The brain seems like it would have far more agency to heal, all the parts that can take over the roles of damaged parts are adjacent.

If I’m wrong and we really do have this epidemic of depressed people, and if that epidemic doesn’t exist merely because of broader diagnoses, perhaps the real problem is the culture we find ourselves in? More specifically those pieces mandatory for survival. Maybe they’ve become so far removed from something sensible that our brains have given up (or perhaps can’t) conform?