My Life With Night Terrors, Demons, And “Alice In Wonderland Syndrome”

“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

caterpillar_sans_alice_by_revolverwinds

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.

Fred Mary Winkle.

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.

Down the Rabbit Hole

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.

Down the Rabbit Hole by LordColinOneal1. 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?

Allen Marshall O'Brien

Allen Marshall O’Brien is the pastor of a UCC church in Northern California and co-host of the Irenicast. He believes in the importance of education, peace, and ecology, throws things to his border collie Sonata, and writes for multiple platforms.

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  • Connie O’Brien

    I have vivid recollection of AIWS episodes as a child and never even heard another person refer to or describe it till just over a year ago. When you described it as a child, I didn’t realize ‘distortion’ played such a big part in what you were feeling. It never occurred to me that your episodes were similar to my own. From my perspective of that time in our lives, your AIWS was a separate experience from the terrors. At the time, we paid close attention to anything that coincided with or triggered the night terrors, but couldn’t. (Although both were repetitive, legitimate experiences – just independent of each other.)
    I don’t feel that your night terrors were a ‘spiritual battle with demons’. We did battle them with prayer always, but felt it was almost a physical crisis – similar to that of a seizure. Also, the terrors started before your earliest memories ( barely 2 years old). You’re right, there is a big difference between nightmares and night terrors. This is a difficult and important topic causing such isolation for both parent and child – my heart is heavy and I would love to pray for anyone going through it.

    • I was hoping to get your perspective, mom 🙂 So the three things – night terrors, AIWS, and hellish nightmares/demons/etc. might have been separate elements. Everything from that time period sort of blurs together into one horrible reality for me.

  • Super interesting, Allen. I have memories of experiencing this sort of thing and still experience it every now and again, I just never knew it has a name 🙂 I used to wake up in the middle of the night feeling like my body was (specifically my face/head) going numb as well. I used to think I was having panic attacks, but some of what you described sounds pretty similar to some other things that happened to me.

  • Diede

    What you described, Allen, is what I experience, but can’t put in words. Not all of it, however, like the night terrors you had, but only about the AIWS is familiar with me. I’m now 17 years old, and lately (about a few months ago) the symptoms are getting worse. I see ‘evertything far away’ almost every second of the day. But I’m glad I don’t see it at night anymore. For me, that was the most terrible time to experience it, because I just couldn’t sleep and felt all alone. What I did, was put the light on and sleep with a stuffed animal, so I didn’t feel all alone. I thought, and hoped, that it would go (almost) all away, like most of the people. I’d like to know how you experienced it when you didn’t ‘see far away’ anymore.

  • Elizabeth

    As a child I experienced AIWS (I am now 50). My earliest recollection of being awake and “seeing” scary things was from my crib. My experiences involved things being big, small, fast and/or slow. It always seemed to start with a sound that would start in a low register and then very very quickly rise to a very high sustained note. On occasion when my mom would come in to try to comfort me I felt terrified to look at her afraid that she was going to change and appear evil. My perception of things was really off. It continued only occasionally until I was around 12 and then stopped. In my mid to late teens I experienced what I can only describe as a falling backwards into darkness and feeling as though I was losing my very being or being annihilated – this happened three times to my recollection, once when I was watching t.v. with family and twice when I was in bed. The last time it happened I felt a very strong presence of evil.
    I am now a mother of 4 children aged 24 – 10. My 24 year old had horrible night terrors until the age of about 5 or 6 – she would never remember them after she had them and always had a peaceful and sweet countenance after. However, around the age of 6 – 7 she started to remember them and described more or less what she felt or saw. Looking back I think that she has experienced both AIWS and night terrors but at the time I didn’t know that there was a difference and thought that perhaps she was simply old enough to remember what was happening with the night terrors. My son who is 17 has also experienced the AIWS with terror (my description as many people say that when they have experienced AIWS they haven’t really felt any fear – it’s more of a strange experience that they are highly aware of and can observe without being overwhelmed by it) plus sleepwalking. He remembers very well the terror of AIWS and what it felt like. What he doesn’t remember is that quite often he would sleep walk before the onset of AIWS. Just last night, my 10 year old who has been sick with mild fever had an AIWS episode. It started out with sleepwalking. I went upstairs to guide her back to bed and in the process, she started to experience AIWS with terror. Once it had passed and things were settled down, I asked her if she remembers coming out of her room and asking for assistance with her pyjamas. She told me she didn’t remember that at all but that she remembers everything about her AIWS episode.

    What I find interesting is the research I have done online regarding AIWS says that it starts very shortly before falling asleep or just shortly after falling asleep. With myself and my children it seems to follow after the pattern of a night terror – it has only ever happened in the hour to three hours after falling asleep. It often follows after sleepwalking and has always come with a strong sense of terror. My youngest daughter and son say that when someone is talking the sound is distorted and causes them to feel terrible pressure and fear.

    My personal opinion with regards to the spiritual side of things – while I believe that there are natural reasons for the episodes I also believe that “old hairy legs” likes to cast his darts where he can and fear is one of those places he likes to try to get a foothold in.

  • Linden

    I have also experienced many of these same symptoms from as early as I can remember until now (I’m almost 30). Night terrors were common for me as a child and I said the exact same words to my parents “everything looks far away”. I experienced a pressure, a sense of evil, and terrible dreams of things that words can’t really describe.

    Into my childhood I had debilitating migraines. although I can’t correlate them to aiws syptoms, there is obviously a link. Now as an adult, I am prone to headaches and migraines but they are much less severe. I will still occasional experience aiws mildly before falling asleep. It’s a pleasant feeling of floating, and my body feels both very large and very small at the same time. And by large I mean like I can’t place myself in space at all. I could be as large as the universe or as small as nothing. It’s very strange but not unpleasant.

    What I haven’t heard mentioned is another syptom I have had. I occasionally will have sleep paralysis, which I had as a child accompanying my night terrors. It’s a very dynamic experience, but there is sense of terror, of being sucked down into blackness and also not being able to move. I know it’s sort of the opposite of sleep walking. Our bodies are supposed to be “paralyzed” while we sleep. But mine happen while I’m still quite conscious.

    Anyone experiencing these sorts of things has my sympathy. They are not widespread or understood. But the human brain is very interesting. If Lewis Carrol had them then we are at least in good company.

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  • Anonymous

    Thank you kindly for this post, as it has helped me with my son, in a tree do us way.