My neighborhood has loved spooky season as long as I’ve been here. There’s this house on the corner with a raggedy ghoul that they usually fix in a tree in their front yard such a way that it seems to be looming over the whole block and our first few Halloweens here I had to walk with my daughter on the other side of the street and distract her from the actual scariest image she’d ever seen. The ghoul is gone this year, though those neighbors still have an eight-foot spider inflatable on the porch, so I’m wondering if maybe they retired the ghoul for being just a little much for a neighborhood that’s crawling with small children. I hope that’s not the case, in part because in recent years my daughter has developed a weird affection for ghouls and now she misses it, and also because the rest of the neighborhood is so terrifying that one less creature of the night hasn’t made a whit of difference. The neighborhood–like much of America, I suspect–is hitting Halloween extra hard this year. COVID can take away fall festivals and trick-or-treat and parties, but it can’t kill the deep-seated human tradition of conjuring up spooks and spirits as a way of coping with the real-life horrors tapping on our doors, pulling up a chair inside our homes, rooting down inside our hearts.
My daughter loves Halloween as much as anyone and picked out our first legitimately creepy decoration this year: a strand of grimy looking skeletons from the Dollar Store that she asked me to put up above the dining table so she can see it when she is “at school.” Though her burgeoning love of skeletons, ghouls, and ghosts makes walks around the neighborhood easier this year, she still hates severed limbs and blood, a not unreasonable position for a seven-year-old, and closes her eyes when we walk past the butcher’s tree and the house with the foot hanging from the doorknob. She also has a severe fear of werewolves–irrational only because she loves big, vicious-looking dogs–but it’s bad enough that she straight up refuses to go down a street that I’m dying to show her with a ten foot skeleton and a motion-activated werewolf with huge feet and a ripped up red plaid shirt. She’s gets what we’re trying to do with Halloween this year, though, how we’re making the monsters beautiful before they eat us in our sleep. This week, when she popped her eyes open after the bloody tree and found herself staring right at Ghostface, she took it in stride. Her voice went up an octave and she squealed, to the delight of the woman sitting on Ghostface’s porch, “Ohhhhh look at that cute little ghoul! I LOVVVVVE HIM. He has PUPPY dog eyes!” So, no, we’re not in denial at all over here, folks.
If you’ve been reading here for awhile, you know about my daughter’s nightmares (all about dead animals, recurring since March), but you don’t know about mine. I’ve been a terrible sleeper since childhood, when I started hearing footie pajamas with nobody inside them shuffling around in the basement at night and facing my own recurring dreams about oversized disembodied faces looming out of the walls and hands scuttling across the floor. In high school, the demons crawled under and over and through my bedroom door and started visiting. There was the sensed presence, the shadowy figure that stood at my bedroom door or sometimes the foot of my bed or sometimes right next to my bed, staring down at me. There was the girl with all the hair from The Ring lying in my sister’s bed. There was the sinewy humanoid crouched on my chest pressing down so I couldn’t breathe. There were the actual demons getting up in my face, breathing, leering, readying themselves to steal my soul. The creatures visited at all hours of the night whenever I was in the liminal state halfway between wake and sleep and when they came I couldn’t move or scream, though I tried to. Sometimes I hallucinated myself flipping and spinning bodily getting all tangled up in the blankets in my bed of an accord another than my own, like the little girl from The Excorcist, but I was mostly immobile save for my fingers twitching on top of the sheet. Sometimes I imagined that I was groaning loudly enough to stir my sister or summon my parents but in reality I was silent save for heavy breathing that didn’t disturb anyone but me. These nightmares, night terrors, whatever they were, scared the living shit out of me, but I never breathed a word of them to anyone. I guess the nightly battle for my soul seemed like something I should keep private? I couldn’t fathom what help anybody could give me. I already knew how to banish the demons. I never remembered the trick until the terror just about overtook me, but eventually a bit of religious folklore I’d picked up being raised in the church would come to me and I’d start praying the demons away like my life depended on it, casting them out in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. It always worked. Not right away,but eventually.
Ironically, the incubus crawled in and landed on top of me around the same time Incubus was dominating the radio airwaves with Make Yourself, without me having any idea it had a name, a history, or scientific explanation, and the waking nightmares, night terrors, whatever they were stayed with me for years, even after I got on the internet and figured out that what I was experiencing was sleep paralysis, a phenomenon that is well-documented, well-understood, and common. Well, how about that. I wasn’t uniquely haunted. I hadn’t broken my brain with teenage substance abuse.
I mostly sorted my sleep problems out when I learned about sleep hygiene from a therapist some five years ago. When I collapsed on her couch I was a hot, tangled mess of anxiety and depression and compulsion and fear, and the only homework she gave me out of that first session was to fix my sleep, which made me figure it was pretty important, so I did. I’m still a light sleeper and vivid dreamer but the nightmares are mostly gone and I haven’t had a bout of sleep paralysis in years.
Until this week. You know that was coming, right? You know this pandemic is clawing back all our hard-won mental health victories. You know the novel coronavirus isn’t the only part of this pandemic that’s deadly.
This past weekend was great, really great, it felt almost like a regular summer weekend. We went mini-golfing on Saturday morning and it felt safe enough being outdoors, with timed entries, masks on until we got on the course, one group to a hole. Afterward, we drove out to Dairy Queen for Blizzards to celebrate our seven-year-old’s hole-in-one, a pandemic miracle for a kid who swings her club like a granny with a bowling ball, and that felt safe enough, too with the restaurant rejiggered for people to order and pickup at the side doors with masks on and six feet of distance between customers in line. We are our ice cream in the car. Saturday evening we hosted an old friend driving through Chicago on our porch and stayed up late into to night chatting a little about the last decade and a lot about the last six months. Sunday morning, I had promised my daughter a beach day, and I worked hard to make it a responsible outing, waking up stupid early and throwing breakfast in a ziploc baggie for the car so that we could be at the beach by 7:30 and out in under two hours. We kept our masks on until we found a good spot for our towels far away from the other early risers and I was vigilant about maintaining a buffer between us and everyone on the sand, in the water, all the time. Sunday afternoon I saw that our town’s summer art fair was still on for that weekend–another pandemic miracle–so I signed up for a late afternoon entry and spent a glorious masked hour talking to artisans and looking at art (including dropping serious money here and picking up a print from here). Sunday night we grilled. The rain was coming down hard so we ate inside just our family but first we dropped a plate of food off at the neighbors’ since they’ve been sharing all manner of cheesy, chivey breads and braised pork with us since May. God, it was such a good weekend. Before bed, my husband and I sat on the couch drinking tea and half-watching our current go-to series for comfort TV and one of us mentioned how much this winter is going to suck when we are all stuck inside the house again and our favorite festivities are cancelled and my seasonal affective disorder kicks into high gear.
Drifting off to sleep on Sunday night should have been easy, I was so worn out. Instead my brain lit up with rapid-fire images of death and fear, scenes from every horror movie I’ve ever seen and every violent news article I’ve ever read plus some grisly originals courtesy of my own overactive imagination. Lots of Pennywise, lots of children suffering, spliced with shots of evil men and psychologically tattered mother figures. I’ve learned a lot about how to get along with my mind in the last half decade so I practiced not resisting the thoughts but letting them float in and out like clouds against a blue sky. I reassured the scared child inside me that it’s okay to be scared, and perfectly understandable, because we live in scary times. The pictures peeled away and I fell asleep.
I woke up screaming silently at 2 am. The dream had been disturbing. I was trying to make tea in the kitchen but kept fumbling, dropped the bag, spilling the water, knocking over the mug. Every time I righted the mug and looked away it was upside down again when I looked back. I turned to call out to my husband in the next room to laugh with me and reassure me that I was clumsy not crazy, but he was staring in horror at something off to the side behind a wall I could not see. I knew without knowing that it was an intruder, that someone had let himself into our house and come up stairs without either of us hearing, and I knew from the way my husband wasn’t saying anything that we were in trouble. When I joined him in the living room I saw that I was right. The creature was huge, hulking, a man without a face, just stubble sprouting out of the vast pink expanse on the front of his head. He turned his mass toward me and, unable to cope with the menace, my brain startled awake. Unfortunately, my body didn’t, and I found myself pinned to the bed with the old hallucinations, clawing the sheets with stiff fingers and moaning my husband’s name through closed lips. After a miserable eternity he came to and pulled my physical form to safety.
The dream logic is obvious. The faceless intruder is COVID, impersonal, invasive, impervious to locked doors. The return of the sleep paralysis is my powerlessness in the face of the pandemic. The reel of death as I drifted off to sleep is because the tradeoff for a fun summer weekend is a whole lot of risk. Nightmares are the new hangovers, inflicting maximum shame and regret for too much fun the day before. Even if we were careful, even if each activity felt safe, even if we followed all the protocols, we did too much. Last year, cramming too much into a weekend meant we’d end up exhausted and grumpy. Now, someone might die.
I don’t know how to strike the right balance between preserving my own mental health and somebody else’s physical safety. I don’t know if it’s unforgivably selfish to even consider the former in the same breath as the latter. What’s the line between catastrophizing and respecting the severity of the global health crisis? What’s the line between anxiety-induced hypervigilance and obsessive over-responsibility and being a good citizen? How do I responsibly care for myself and my family and you? If mental health starts with a good night’s sleep, what do we do when the nightmare of daily living infiltrates our dreams?
Let’s talk about the nightmares. Not the waking nightmare that is life in a pandemic, but the regular sleeping kind, and not my nightmares (though they are wild these days), but my kid’s. Pre-COVID, my seven-year-old went to bed easily after an involved but mostly pleasant bedtime routine, sweetly sang and chattered to herself for fifteen minutes or so after I left the room, and then promptly passed out. She slept through the night, every night, and generally didn’t disturb the household until she popped out of bed refreshed and ready to play at 6:30 the next morning. She averaged maybe a nightmare a year.
A few weeks into COVID, that all changed. First she had one bad dream: I had given her an owl for a pet and she kept it in a cage in her room, and after a week she realized it was dead, that it had been dead the whole time. We got her back to bed without too much drama, but the memory of it lingered, and scared her off sleep for the next week. Just as the fear was starting to dissipate, she had another , and then another a few days after that, and then it was three nightmares three nights in a row, and then there was one hideous night where she had three separate nightmares, each necessitating a trip to my room, my husband and I trading off increasingly drawn-out and unsuccessful attempts to comfort her, and much begging to just sleep in our room. Bedtime became an anxious, pleading affair. She desperately wanted to sleep in our room or us to sleep in hers. I tried to be her soft place. I held her in my arms, sang songs, prayed, breathed deeply, and talked her through guided meditations, but turned to stone when she tried to disrupt the family sleeping arrangements. I am the jealous guardian of sleep: of my own, my daughter’s, and everybody else’s. I know about kids climbing into bed and never getting out, and wasn’t about to let that happen on my watch. Even with me policing the parental bed, none of us were sleeping much. Most nights I spent hours lying in bed, wired with adrenaline, just waiting for the next scream.
The nightmares were all variations on that first bad dream: dead owls, dead squirrels, a dead guinea pig, a dead anthropomorphic fried egg named Gudetama. It was the animals that threw me off, made me slow on the uptake. That and the exhaustion. What is going on??? I fumed. Why is this happening to us now??? How can we make it stop???
It wasn’t until the specter of the nightmares manifested in the middle of our daylight hours that I realized. D had been resisting taking walks outside with me for days. I knew she had seen a dead squirrel in the park with her dad and was afraid of seeing another one, so we kept strictly to the sidewalks. Still, every time we saw a squirrel scamper in the distance, she flinched. “The squirrels aren’t going to hurt you, kiddo. They’re more scared of you than you are of them.” She looked up at me with fear in her eyes: “What if a squirrel runs up to us and dies?” I started to respond—“Why would a squirrel run up to us and d_____”—and then trailed off when it hit me. She knew all about the virus. She knew she wasn’t allowed to touch anything outside because it lingered on surfaces. She knew we had to cross to the street when we saw the neighbors coming because it traveled through the air. For all she knew, coronavirus was everywhere, all the time, infecting all the animals she ever loved, and probably all the people too.
This, of course, was the result of us trying to keep our kid informed while shielding her from the worst truths about the pandemic. We didn’t talk about the death toll. We reassured her that most people who got sick got better. But kids aren’t stupid. They know life doesn’t shut down for a bad cold. I asked my therapist what to do. “It might be time to talk to her about death.”
I did start talking to my kid about death, but those conversations are complicated and controversial so I’m not going to get into it now. Instead, I’m going to tell you the bedtime hack for anxious kids that I discovered while I was trying to sort out what I could possibly say to my daughter about death that would provide her with comfort and security given that my belief system has been abstracted to the point of being unrecognizable to believers and non-believers alike.
This is how I tricked my daughter into going to bed relaxed and happy instead of working herself into the kind of fearful frenzy that only breeds bad dreams–i.e., how I taught my daughter to stop worrying and learn to love bedtime:
Every night, the moment I hear the words start to come out of her mouth–“Mama, I’m scared I’m going to have a bad dream”–I shush her and say, “Echo: play music by the Beach Boys.”
Every night, without fail, the lush harmonies and dulcet tones of “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Sloop John B,” which now form the soundtrack for entire evenings in our house, sometimes beginning right after dinner, lull her my daughter into a sense of well-being better than any drug I’ve ever taken. She dances and sings and climbs into bed at ease. I promise to stay outside her room for five minutes in case she needs me and listen to her chatter herself to sleep. If I stay longer than five minutes it’s only because I’m writing these diary entries. She hasn’t had a nightmare in about two weeks now. I’m still having freaky dreams on the reg, but can’t complaint. At least we’re all sleeping through the night.