It’s hard to get 7-8 hours of sleep – or, heaven forbid, the 12-14 hours my wonky nervous system would typically prefer while still not feeling rested – with nightmares. In the absence of sleep, a clever girl learns to approximate sleep through other mindless trance tasks that keep the brain from thinking too hard (and her body from thrashing and hurting her.) In addition to coloring books, I have been substituting the tv series Supernatural for sleep this week. The series has thirteen seasons! I once got two months out of using Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a sleep surrogate. (Granted, that was during the writing of my thesis, not specifically due to nightmares, but close enough.) Buffy only had seven seasons. I can mine this new mindless entertainment goldmine for much longer, it appears. Re-activating my Netflix account was worth it for Supernatural alone.
Nightmares are a criterion for the diagnosis of PTSD. The DSM-V doesn’t give nightmares due credit, though, despite their prominence as a diagnostic marker. It simply lists them as one expression of Criterion B: Persistent Re-Experiencing of the Traumatic Event(s), alongside intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and emotional distress and/or physical reactivity after exposure to traumatic reminders. For a feature of PTSD that is so iconic for both sufferers and for the public stereotype – and media portrayal – of PTSD, psychologists and sufferers alike fail to appreciate the true art of the nightmare. There is a deep, if twisted, vein of creativity shown by the PTSD brain in the myriad of ways it shocks and alarms its captive audience and in the reams of material it creates to keep its viewers hooked.
I’m ready to remedy that lack of appreciation with the first wiki review of the classics of PTSD cinema. Why? Because someone should, given that 71%-96% of the 24.4 million Americans with PTSD experience nightmares. That’s a bigger “fanbase” than most tv shows ever earn, and most tv shows get their own fan wikis nowadays. Also, if I’m not sleeping well anyway, I guess I have some time on my hands. At least enough time to add the first few features:
- Night of the Living Dead: This nightmare has very little to do with the trauma itself. In fact, it probably has more to do with whatever scary movie the viewer most recently saw or horrible news article they most recently read. This nightmare has bad-movie-night quality writing, and a horror movie plot. In it, the viewer is the villain, not the hero, even if that is an inversion of their original position as a trauma victim. Did the trauma victim recently see a news article about a “flesh-eating” bug like MRSA? Expect a zombie nightmare, with a unique-to-the trauma twist. Expect them to have to put down a loved one who was hurt in the original trauma again and again when that loved one keeps coming back as a zombie. Did the trauma victim recently travel to Iceland where there are active volcanoes? Expect a Dante’s Peak-style flight from a pyroclastic flow, with the twist that their cat will somehow have made that trip with them and disappeared between the time they got the call to evacuate from the hotel and the time they must leave. Expect the trauma victim in this nightmare to make the choice to flee anyway – leaving their darling kitty behind to die – even if they would never do such a thing in real life. Expect the trauma victim to take actions that will probably further convince their PTSD brain that it deserved whatever happened to them, but, in this nightmare, don’t expect that same brain to be so cliché as to tell that same old tired narrative of self-loathing when it can show it in such original ways.
- Logan’s Run: The clock is always ticking in this nightmare, and time is always about to run out. Maybe the trauma victim must try desperately to prevent something terrible from happening. Maybe they must flee something that is already in the process of happening. It doesn’t really matter which version is playing on any given night – and the trauma victim likely won’t even remember what terrible thing the clock was ticking down to when they finally wake. The what isn’t the important part of this nightmare: it’s the when. This nightmare will linger long after the trauma victim wakes in the form of a foreboding that a terrible thing will go wrong soon. The original reason for the urgency may not remain, but the sense of urgency will. The trauma victim will have to go somewhere, take some action, just do something – in the nightmare and after it – even if they don’t know what that something should even be. They will also suspect that whatever something they need to do probably won’t work. A person doesn’t get PTSD because they were able to act quickly, optimally and successfully to thwart all threats within their own environment. A person gets PTSD because they were once powerless and unable to act. Thus, even as their body tells them they must act, their brain will counter that whatever they end up doing won’t matter anyway – either in the nightmare or in its waking aftermath.
- Memento: This “nightmare” isn’t so bad, if truth be told. That’s likely because it isn’t really a nightmare at all. It doesn’t even take place during REM sleep. It is the PTSD version of night terrors. Even though night terrors are usually considered a childhood phenomenon, they make appearances in the adult trauma victim as well. The symptoms of night terrors are terrifyingly ostentatious, but – as the trauma victim doesn’t remember any narrative or somatic after effects from them – they are only actually hell on anyone with the trauma victim, not on the trauma victim themselves. (Don’t tell my partner this makes this type of nightmare not that bad.)
- Love, Actually?: This nightmare may be unique to the C-PTSD flavor of PTSD. There is limited evidence from others that this type of nightmare can occur with PTSD stemming from natural disasters as well as from relational trauma, but – as my trauma is relational – I can’t personally speak to the veracity of that claim. This nightmare is a romantic comedy, but one that ends at its climax: the point when an unforgivable thing appears to have broken the lovers apart forever. Unfortunately, its climax is never followed by a dénouement, and the nightmare never has a happy ending. Nobody ever apologizes or shows up with roses. The C-PTSD brain wants to remind the trauma victim that the fear and lack of trust they learned from their traumatic experience(s) really were protective all along. Trusting someone – anyone – is just another way to be betrayed again. That real-life loving partner who has been a source of support for years? Expect him to take a page from the asshole ex’s playbook in this nightmare and cheat on the trauma victim – then blame the victim for it. That boss who grouses and grumbles, but generally sees value in the trauma victim’s work? Expect him to tell the victim that their mistake brought down the company in this nightmare, and that they should never have been hired in the first place. Does the trauma victim happen to have any dark things they call themselves deep within their heart or that linger as echoes of past abuse? Expect those labels – stupid, selfish, and crazy, oh my – to become real and defining character traits for the main character in this nightmare, too!
- Groundhog Day: This nightmare, like its film namesake, made the top lists for PTSD cinema, but – behind the director’s back, of course – everybody whispers that they don’t know how that ever happened. The script for this nightmare shows no narrative originality, and it could threaten anyone’s sanity. The Groundhog Day nightmare is the stereotypical PTSD nightmare. The trauma victim is frozen – in body, in spirit and in time – and forced to replay their trauma over and over. The nightmare trauma might deviate slightly from the original trauma – or it might follow it word for word – but even when the script differs it will never do so in any way that could lead to resolution or even partial relief from its monotony. In this nightmare, the life the trauma victim built for themselves outside of the trauma – and especially anything good within it – will not exist. Anyone who might be a potential support system during the trauma will not exist. The loving partner who could help face the continuous trauma if he was present in the nightmare will, of course, not be there. He won’t be there to betray the trauma victim, as he would be in a Love, Actually?-type nightmare. He will simply never exist in the first place! The trauma victim won’t fail at the job they love, because they won’t have the job to distract them from the trauma – even if they did in the real-life version! The victim may not be an adult in the nightmare, if their trauma happened early enough, or they might re-live childhood trauma in the form of an adult in the Groundhog Day nightmare. If they re-live it as an adult, they will likely feel even worse for being older – but still not better – as they face the same hell again and again. In this nightmare, all that exists in the world is the hell of trauma. Period.
These are my top five entries for the wiki. Anyone have any other classics to add to the list? If not, I’m off to watch a few episodes of Supernatural, then find out what’s “coming soon” to a sleeping brain near me. Night all.