Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
It’s 4 a.m. and I’m skulking about my Vancouver apartment with a knife in my hand. I’m looking for a man who appears regularly in my nightmares; he lurks in my bedroom and finally comes in for the attack. I’ve awoken screaming, and then begun this ritual of checking every room in my home to see if the nightmare is real.
I didn’t use to have such difficulty distinguishing between dreams and reality. Ten years ago, I was a world champion sleeper, but that changed when I woke up one night to the sound of heavy footsteps on the creaky floors of my apartment in Montreal.
A man had broken in, and he was coming toward my bedroom.
Hours earlier, I had been delighting in an evening alone. My boyfriend was away and I felt a calm happiness as I considered the recent turns that fortune had taken. I’d gotten over a terrible breakup. I had a new job and a new love interest. After a difficult period, life felt sunny and that night I revelled in its warmth. But at 2:45 a.m., I lay as though pinned, unable to will away the nearing footsteps. In an instant I sprang from my bed, pulled back the covers to make it look as though I’d never been there and hid in the closet.
Two thoughts pumped through my mind: I made a decision that, if I had to, I would try to kill my attacker before he killed me; and I said goodbye to my parents and all my other loved ones. I apologized inwardly to my brother for having fought with him recently and to my parents for how they would suffer if I were murdered. I prayed that if I did die my body would be found and there would be no unsolved mystery leaving my family waiting endlessly for answers.
I had managed to bring the phone with me into the closet, and in the darkness I began to dial 9-1-1. The noise of the buttons was too loud and I had to decide whether to blow my cover with the call or wait in hope that my silence would stave off the approaching menace. I vibrated with terror: No one could help me.
The closet door didn’t quite close into the frame, which meant that I had an inch or two to see out. I watched as a tall man hovered at the bedroom door then entered, arm extended. I guessed that he was holding a weapon. He approached my bed, pulled back the covers, and felt his way through my blankets. He must have sensed the warmth.
Then he came to the closet, and I remained crouched like an animal while he groped his way through my clothes, touching this dress, that blouse. Then he squatted down, reached in and grabbed me.
I think I surprised him, because when I jumped up, fists ready, screaming at him to get out, he backed away for a moment and I streaked like wildfire for the door, ran out of my apartment and down the staircase to the street, all the while thinking that if he had a gun he might shoot me from behind.
He didn’t have a gun, and in what must have been a rare spectacle, I bolted into the all-night bagel store on my street and ducked behind the counter, pleading for help. I was wearing pink flannel pyjamas and blue knitted socks.
The St-Viateur bagel store remains an oasis for me, though I’ve moved to the other side of the country. The men who were in there still give me a free bagel or two when I come by; sometimes we discuss that night. This is the nearest thing I have to feeling that someone shared the terror with me. The bagel men make me feel a little less alone.
Living with post-traumatic stress disorder means inhabiting a world where life-threatening danger lurks constantly. Since the chances are good that these dangers are not real (any more), you live alone in that frightening world. PTSD sticks around, because when you have experienced a real threat to your life, it seems adaptive to remain on high alert. The brain is reluctant to turn off the fear response. My nightmares are exhausting, and I recognize that they, and my subsequent checking behaviour, are maladaptive – but I can’t always turn them off.
One therapist taught me something called dream rehearsal, a technique in which you mentally review the usual nightmare but give it a new twist. I imagine this version: I awake to the sound of footsteps, go to investigate and it turns out to be a giant kangaroo just looking for a cuddle buddy.
Even with an imaginary kangaroo to snuggle with, I remain haunted by the way my life was cleaved from me that night. When you hide in a closet imagining your imminent demise, the awareness of your forlornness becomes acute.
Many of us – perhaps particularly sheltered North Americans – can go a lifetime without feeling derailed by the demands of mere survival. The knowledge of how proximity to death feels has made me, I hope, more thoughtful and more compassionate. But it has also – especially when I slink about my apartment with a knife – made me feel profoundly alone, and that feeling casts a long shadow of grief.
Jill Goldberg lives in Vancouver.