Some nights you can set your clock by them. Mentally I do the math — if Liza falls asleep between 9 and 9:30 the first one should hit between 11pm and 12:30am. Should I go to sleep early and stock up on rest before the first cry comes from her room, or stay up and hope to nip the first one in the bud before falling into bed myself? Night Terrors have stalked my child from the tender age of three and made every night a waiting and watching game. “She’ll grow out of them,” pediatrician after pediatrician has assured us. She’s nine and I’m still waiting.
I remember the first times I heard those screams in the night. I’d rush in prepared to do battle with whatever demons invaded my baby’s sleep. To wrest her back from whatever dark place she had gone to. But over time I learned, through experience, through research and through just plain sleep deprivation these nightmares could not be woken from. No mother’s hug can soothe and comfort these away. I have to let her battle them on her own.
They always begin the same way. A strangled gutteral ‘NOOOOOOOOO’ from the next room, often followed by nonsense, gibberish, or the occasional phrase that makes sense “that’s mine!” “i need more!” “stay away!” . But the refrain is always the same, “no no no no no no no no no.” Sometimes a sob. Sometimes a cry that scrapes her throat raw . Often on those long nights I”ll channel my acting days and think idly “she’s hurting her vocal cords.” Has it really come to this that I can lie in my bed listening to my child scream in the next room?
Sometimes I can calm her with a light touch on the back, rearrange her covers, put on her nightime cd (“American Idol Season 2 Greatest Hits”, now worn and scratchy from nearly seven years of nonstop play) and her breathing will regulate and quiet will fall. Those are the easy nights. The nights the terrors leave her after one visit and let us both fall back to sleep. But sometimes we’re in for the long haul. They strike in 45 minute intervals, each one louder and more violent. Wild eyes that look but don’t see me, hair snarled in and matted with sweat, pajamas twisted sometimes even removed, pillows thrown from the bed, and epithets hurled. “GET OUT momma!” “COME HERE momma!” and always, always ,always, “no no no no no no no.” On those nights I know I can’t touch her or even go near her. She swings and flails, hits, throws, scratches and shrieks and all the time remains unbelievably asleep. On those nights I sit on the floor of her room and wait… wait …. wait for that magic switch to be thrown and for her to fall like a broken doll back onto her pillow in soundless sleep. My thoughts wander on those nights. “It’s colder now, i should keep a sweatshirt by my bed so I don’t freeze while I sit here.” ‘I must remember to tell my neighbors Liza had a night terror tonight so they don’t think I was beating her at 2am.” She will not remember this night. She never does. She will wake rested( her body slept after all) and wonder why her pillows are on the floor, why her nightgown is so tangled, why her throat hurts. But she will not remember the way her face twisted in anger and fear -the way black eyes shot beams of hate at me while I sat wrapped in a blanket next to her bed. She will only say “did I have one momma?” Yes honey. Yes you did.
Liza has always been a child of fears — of thunderstorms, and fire alarms, of clowns and the sound the wind makes in the trees behind our house, of big dogs, and falling off her bike. But those fears are the easy ones for momma to fight. We see them, name them, and face them together. Not so these desperate moments of the night that stalk her, invade her dreams, and drag me from my bed to sit by her side until they pass. I can not fight them for her. I can not fix them for her. I can not even name them as only she knows what forces she battles alone in the night. I can only sit, and wait , and pray. And in those dark nights at 1;30, 3:00, 4:15 I am more alone than I have ever been or ever will be as I settle in to wait out the night terrors.