Night Terrors

One moment, it’s typically quiet. There’s the periodic dump of the ice tray, the snoring of the dog and the click-whoosh of the heater kicking in, but otherwise there are no sounds. It’s dark. It’s warm. It’s quiet. Typically quiet.

And then Isaac begins screaming. The night terror has begun.


Like any storm, Isaac’s night terrors start with a whimper. By this point, it’s already too late – there’s no turning back. These are not an issue of comfort or fear – night terrors are 100% parasomnia, occurring in a place in between wakefulness and sleep. They are unstoppable. They are frightening.

The whimper is heartbreaking, but the wail is exhausting. Isaac’s night terrors have three distinct steps. First is the warning. We’re awoken by a sound, we rub his back, he pushes us away. We can no longer help this situation; we are bystanders. We are useless.

Second is the terror. This involves a screaming that’s not unlike a vocal sleepwalk, rising and thrashing despite our voices and distractions. During this time, nothing is comfortable for Isaac. He doesn’t want anyone to touch him. He refuses to open his eyes – and when he finally does, he’s not necessarily in the clear. Light bothers him. Touch bothers him. He kicks off any blanket, rolls out of any lap. It’s a period of unbearable frustration, where nothing brings the terror down and everything is a problem.

Third is the calm. A switch is flipped. He’s back with us. It’s relief in its purest form.

These things last for minutes, or they last for hours. They happen 90 minutes after falling asleep, or they happen in the middle of the night. They happen because of stress during bedtime, or because of sickness, or because of the whims of nature.

They are completely normal. They go away with time. They are horrible.

Pavor Nocturnus

Night terrors are known scientifically as pavor nocturnus, a arousal disorder that causes a person to experience fear- and pain-like symptoms despite not being in danger or in pain. They present as an uncontrollable screaming, sobbing and general malaise, though they can be much worse.

Some children are more violent during night terrors. They punch, and they kick, and they flail around, causing harm to themselves and those around them. Isaac does not do this – sure, he’ll flail at times, but he’s relatively safe. His night terrors are almost 100% aural. They are a sound. A very long, frightening sound. The sound of a child in excruciating pain, despite the fact that he is safe and in no danger.

It’s been suggested that bedtime stress or a fever can trigger a night terror. An argument over a toy, or an already uncomfortable bout with the flu, or simply being overtired from a big day can all factor into whether one will break loose. As routine deteriorates for the night, night terrors begin their build. If we’re lucky, they never manifest.

They are a certified disorder in the DSM-IV-TR. This is serious stuff.

They affect less than 6% of children, and they go away as the child gets older. But not soon enough.

The Growth of an Anxiety

Helplessness isn’t learned. It’s acquired, like a new vehicle or a tax break. In this way, one is never prepared for its arrival – helplessness doesn’t RSVP, and it doesn’t bring a bottle of wine. It just happens. It just happens, and your mind accepts it.

For me, helplessness is a combination of sleep deprivation and fear. The fear I can handle, because I know what to expect. I know that Isaac is not being harmed, despite the fact that he’s breaking my heart. The fear goes away, in time, with peace, once things have calmed and the only sound is the tail end of Yo Gabba Gabba. But when exhaustion is added into the mix, a new level of anxiety rises, smoking and bubbling over, burning the beaker and scalding the countertops.

All we can do is hold him. And wait. We dodge kicks, and we let him writhe, and we cuddle him up and talk loudly and try to snap him from the trance. But mostly, we wait. Because that’s all you can do. Wait for his cries to stop, for his imagined pain to go away, for his life to return to normal.

The screaming is cosmetic, nothing more than mind tricks, but there are few sounds worse. The next morning, he doesn’t remember a thing.

But we do.

This was lovingly handwritten on October 18th, 2012