“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
-Lewis Caroll, Alice in Wonderland
My Childhood Demons
Peering out from beneath a pile of stuffed animals, I saw the shadowy figure sitting at the foot of my bunk bed. It stared at me from between the rungs of the ladder which led up to my snoring little brother; I felt the shadow watching me. A few days later, two more shadows would join the first and crowd around me.
I sunk further into my animals, desperate to avoid its gaze.
So goes my earliest memory and the beginning of my night terrors.
Until age ten, night terrors were a routine part of my childhood.
And it wasn’t fun. Night terrors are not your run-of-the-mill bad dreams; they usually occur in the first four hours of sleep, are accompanied by a paralyzing (often inexplicable) feeling of fear, and do not terminate upon waking. The trademark difference between the nightmare and the night terror is an absolute inability to be consoled; terrors are a prolonged experience.
My own childhood episodes were bad and became fairly frequent – so frequent that I started to sleep in the hallway under a nightlight when I realized that constantly waking up my parents wasn’t exactly fun for them. Instead, I hugged the carpet and cried myself back to sleep.
Dreams accompanied the terrors more often than not. I dreamt about death, torture, and a variety of monsters that would attack me, my family, and my friends. There were, for example, the white blobs which turned the sky purple, came down in ships, and started shooting people at my grandparent’s house with a substance that turned them into white blobs just like the invaders. In another dream, green blobs had descended upon our house in Tehachapi and proceeded to absorb family members into themselves, their faces still protruding from the blobs’ sides. I threw nails at one blob, but it ate those too.
(I guess I had a thing about blobs).
Then there were the demons. They would visit my room at night, show up in my dreams, and talk to me. They tended to show up whenever I had this repetitive, eerie sensation of darkness closed in around me. During those moments of sensory distortion, every object in the room would begin to feel far away, almost as if I was looking through the wrong end of a telescope. It terrified me.
A few of the demons were regular characters in my night-time episodes. One in particular tormented me when I was eight; he was a large creature that resembled a raptor with both the potbelly and curly tale of a pig. He even served as the inspiration for one of my journal entries at school.
His name was Fred Mary Winkle and he would come from “the black, dark and deep space” at midnight, eating lizards, and haunting my dreams.
I would see Winkle, along with a cadre of demons, both in my room and throughout the house, usually on my way up to my parents’ bedroom on the second floor.
So I responded to their torment in a variety of ways. I clearly remember sitting on the edge of my parent’s bed, sometime in the first grade, alternately flipping off the devil and giving God a thumbs up, these being the highest forms of praise and insult that a six-year-old could muster. I tried hiding under my stuffed animals, praying for a forcefield of angels to surround me and each member of my family, reciting prayers that my aunt had written (when I was older), and praying to everything including Jesus, the Easter Bunny and Santa, to the Tooth Fairy and the Lucky Charms leprechaun. Some of it calmed me, but nothing fixed my situation.
The soothing sound of my mom singing and playing the guitar in the hallway outside of our room, however, seemed to do the trick, if only temporarily.
My wider family eventually stepped in when I hadn’t improved by age ten. In an effort to help, the Catholics made signs of the cross on my forehead, the Charismatics spoke in tongues while anointing our house, and the Baptists read out passages from the Bible.
Still, night terrors and demons.
Then my aunt made a suggestion. She told me to say the name “Jesus” the next time I had a nightmare. I remember thinking about how ridiculous it sounded at the time, after everything that we tried to do. I didn’t believe saying one word would help.
But it did.
I was dreaming at the time, standing in my dining room and watching two miniature figures fighting on the ground – one yellow, one red. The bad one (red) pushed over the good and started to chase me. He followed me around the kitchen, through the hallway, and into a corner by the entryway closet. I was huddled over and shaking in terror when I remembered to say “Jesus.” So I did.
At that moment, the little figure transformed into a beast with a huge head (which looked like ground hamburger meat), a variety of eyes, a bulging neck, two sets of dragonfly wings, and a small body. It roared in my face, turned its head (I could see the veins bulging in its neck), flew out my front door, and I never had a night terror again.
I continued to see “demons” on into my adulthood and still have what I believe to be spiritually significant dreams, but that’s too much to set out here – and it would likely further erode your confidence in my sensibility.
So let me try to win it back a little.
Alice in Wonderland Syndrome
Not much is known about “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome,” the neurological condition which distorts human perception and appears to affect mostly children, named after the manipulation of Alice’s size in Lewis Caroll’s classic novel. Most of the information we have is anecdotal, as it relies heavily upon self-report. Researchers have discovered that hard numbers on the syndrome are difficult to come by, partly because people do not have the vocabulary to express the phenomena and partly because nobody wants to come off as (admittedly) crazy.
Sufferers of AIWS report symptoms of perceptual disorientation which include the feeling of one’s body (or specific body part) feeling abnormally large or small, the feeling that distances are too great or small, and even a distorted sense of time.
Early analysis points to abnormal electrical activity and increased blood flow to certain portions of the brain as likely causes. No final connection between night terrors (specifically) and AIWS has been established, but children often report distortions in perception prior to terror episodes.
The reports on AIWS reflect my own experiences as a kid; the “closing of the darkness” and a feeling that “everything was far away” often coincided with my dreams. I, like a few people whose accounts I’ve read on AIWS forums, stopped experiencing the syndrome as often around the age of ten (after the final night terror), but continued to experience its symptoms a handful of times a year, for no more than five or ten minutes at a time.
I still experience AIWS, though less as an adult. The strange feeling that once terrified me in my childhood has become somewhat nostalgic for me and, at times, even pleasurable (a few people on the forums liken it to being on LSD).
So what am I to make of it all? Especially in light of my faith?
There are other types of dreams I had growing up which cause me to stop short of throwing everything out as inconsequential. I’ll be writing about these in a later piece.
In the meantime, I have come to a few working conclusions. I fully realize that measuring metaphysical significance is a much softer exercise than science or psychology and can easily see how someone might disagree with any of these five points, but putting them out there for others to interact with is my process. And this is my blog.
1. AIWS is a real syndrome.
2. AIWS sponsored many (if not all) of my night terrors.
3. Episodes of AIWS, in general, are not necessarily “spiritual” in nature.
4. My own AIWS episodes are not necessarily “spiritual.”
5. Some of my night terrors and AIWS trips, however, did have spiritual significance (if not causally in the immediate sense, then at least coincidentally).
I have arrived at these conclusions in no small part due to the fact that I no longer divide the world into hard-and-fast dichotomy between “spiritual” and “physical” (though I continue to use these terms loosely). As I’ve said elsewhere, spiritual experiences might have 100% correlation to chemical processes in the brain and miracles might have coherent physical explanations, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that these are illegitimate.
Even those which arise in the context of AIWS.
–More posts on this subject to come–
SPECIAL NOTE: If you or your child are dealing with night terrors and AIWS, let me be the first to say that I’m sorry. This stuff is not easy to deal with. At the very least, you can know that you are not alone and probably not as “mad” as Lewis Caroll’s Cat might suggest. I have not intended to construe any of the previous content as suggestions for handling night terrors – all I can say is that you might consider using white (or pink) noise machines while sleeping and would recommend seeking professional help if your symptoms are disruptive.
Supposedly 1%-6% of people experience night terrors at some point in their lives and even less the symptoms of AIWS. Have you?