When your partner has night terrors

PAUL DONOUGHUE
Last updated 13:28 29/07/2013
Kate Seabrook
Kate Seabrook

TRACKING THE PROBLEM: Paul Donoughue and his girlfriend Lizzie.

Night terrors
Kate Seabrook
PERCHANCE TO DREAM: Paul with his girlfriend Lizzie. "I've learnt the full, hard-core truth. Night terrors: not fun."

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What's the significance of the girl with the glasses?" my girlfriend once asked, for no reason, like we had been discussing a Hitchcock movie. It was in the middle of the night on a Thursday. I was, until that point, asleep. So was she.

Sometimes it's funny like that. Other times it's not. "Hey, someone's trying to kill us," is one of her favourites - said in a calm voice, like she's about to diffuse a bomb.

When we first started dating, Lizzie told me what to expect. "Night terrors," she said. "It's a thing!" She told me she regularly woke her housemates with horror-movie screams. She told me that it runs in her family: her father does it, as does her sister, Jane. She swore that one time she awoke next to a boyfriend, screaming, and he got such a fright he fell out of the bed and ended up with a black eye. I didn't believe her. Now, three years on, I've learnt the full, hard-core truth. Night terrors: not fun.

I've discovered a pattern. The first event comes almost exactly 30 minutes after she's fallen asleep. If I move about in bed at this time - cough, roll over, scratch my leg - it sets her off. Perhaps most importantly, the visions almost always involve something awful. Someone's trying to pry open the door! There's a rat in the bed! You're trying to bludgeon me with that literary novel!

Screaming is not uncommon. It surprises and slightly worries me that the police have never knocked on our door. We lived for a long time in a Brisbane apartment complex, the walls just thin strips of timber. Did the neighbours just think we were having wild sex?

One time, as I reached above her to switch out the reading lamp, she shot up: "No, don't kill me! Don't kill me!" I felt like saying, "And I would have gotten away with it if it weren't for you darn kids!" But I was not available, at that particular moment, for Scooby-Doo impersonations - I was too busy freaking out. Another time, words weren't necessary. She walked briskly into the kitchen, took a steak knife from the drawer, came back to the bedroom, put the knife on the bedside table and went back to sleep.

We are not talking about nightmares here: night terrors, or pavor nocturnus, are much more rare - and extreme. In our house, the events usually last 10 or 20 seconds. For some sufferers, it can be five minutes. There's rapid breathing, sweating and an increased heart rate; some people throw punches, walk into walls or even walk out of the house. One of the scarier characteristics is that it's impossible to console the sufferer when no amount of gentle words, yelling or shaking wakes them up.

Growing up, if Lizzie was sleeping in the same room as her father, or Jane, their night terrors would feed off each other and they'd have the same visions. Once, when Lizzie and Jane were sharing a room on holiday, both thought there was a "man in the fan". They started screaming. Their father ran into the room wondering what was going on. He started screaming, too. "He had his arms up, like he was ready to fight someone," said Lizzie. Her mother came in and turned on all the lights. It took several minutes to calm everyone down: "In the morning, we woke up and realised there wasn't even a ceiling fan."

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When it happens among family like that, it's easier on the sufferers. Families understand, families forgive. Later in life, though, it can be more testing. At least one housemate stayed under the bed covers, certain Lizzie was downstairs being chopped into tiny pieces by some masked bogeyman - and that they would be next.

Lizzie's mother, who obviously has a lot of experience dealing with night terrors, says objects like night lights and Native American dreamcatchers seem to help, if only as a placebo, a kind of reassurance. There's also yoga and other relaxation techniques - not checking Twitter before bed is one of my helpful suggestions - that tend to slow down the mind. And as scary as night terrors are, they pass, while the retrograde amnesia that often accompanies the disorder is a mercy. Tonight, my girlfriend is terrified; tomorrow, she won't remember a thing.

Night terrors can be tough for the sufferer's partner, too. Early on, if Lizzie sat up and started screaming, I would sit bolt upright next to her, in a kind of reverse domino effect, and scream right back. If we weren't in a bedroom, half-asleep, we could have been football players trying to psych each other out, or maybe the worst choir you've ever heard. Later in the relationship, there was more frustration. Maybe I've had a long day, maybe I'm just starting to sink below the surface of sleep again as the second or third episode of the night yanks me back up. I think, "That's it. Tomorrow, I'm going to confront her. You need to do something about this! I sleep in this bed, too!"

By the morning, though, when she's already risen and dressed and put the coffee on for me, and I'm still in bed and I tell her what happened - "You did this thing where you kind of stood up on the bed and then kicked all the sheets off" - I forget about how I felt the previous night. This is the nature of a relationship: we give and take, we make sacrifices and compromises. We sort it out and laugh about it over breakfast.

A sense of humour is paramount, after all, for the sufferer's partner or family. On those nights when Lizzie's outbursts are more whacky than distressing - "Oh my god, that is just ... wow, you are on fire" - I keep my eyes closed, stifle a laugh and go back to sleep. My girlfriend, during the day, is a sweet, selfless woman - small-framed and big-hearted - and that's what makes this whole situation remarkably lovable. She is always apologetic, though she doesn't have to be.

And as much as night terrors are not fun - for the terrorised, for their partners, for their housemates or visiting relatives - they are a part of our relationship. They are special in their own way. I love telling Lizzie what her alter ego said the night before. It's like an in-joke for us, something nobody else gets. And for that reason, despite the midnight vocal theatrics and the slim possibility I may be stabbed in my sleep, it's something about her I wouldn't change.

 

The facts

Night terrors, also known as sleep terrors or pavor nocturnus, are a type of sleep disorder, closely related to sleepwalking. They are characterised by sudden fear, hallucinations and a piercing scream, and happen during the first few hours of sleep. They affect about 6 per cent of children and 2 per cent of adults.

For centuries, people thought night terrors, sleep paralysis and other sleep disorders were an omen. "I suspect the exorcist was called in for children or adults with this condition," says Ron Grunstein, professor of sleep medicine at the University of Sydney.

There have also been attempts in different cultures to describe and explain the phenomenon. The Japanese call it kanashibari (literally, "bound or fastened in metal"), while European folklore had the "old hag", a noxious woman who sat on your chest and infiltrated your dreams. Modern theories are more accurate, if less exciting: activity in the brain's fear centre during the first few hours of light sleep. Why it happens at all - whether it's related to daytime anxiety or something psychologically deeper - is unknown.

"During a sleep terror, a person may act in an agitated, anxious and panicky manner," says Grunstein. "They cannot be consoled and typically the sufferer does not want to be touched or comforted during the event, which can be distressing to parents. Speech is often incoherent and they don't seem to know where they are." People with night terrors can run into walls or try to climb out of windows.

Attacks can last between 30 seconds and five minutes, and are different to nightmares. "Nightmares typically arise in REM or dreaming sleep, occur later in the night and are thematic," Grunstein says. "They have a storyline - the movie script may be bad, but it's a script. In night terrors, there is no script, just a frightening image. Most sufferers don't remember the event in the morning, but some maintain a very scary image, like a large sword dangling over their head or something frightening about to attack them. When they have a sleep terror, the sympathetic nervous system is activated with a fast heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, and flushed skin, as if they are terrified, hence the name."

Several studies have pointed to high anxiety levels in affected children as a cause, and there also seems to be a genetic element. A 2008 study of 390 pairs of twins in Canada found a "substantial effect of genetic factors in sleep terrors", with about 80 per cent of sufferers having at least one affected family member.

Grunstein explains that, contrary to what was believed in the past, sleep is not an all-encompassing phenomenon inside the brain; while some parts can be asleep, others remain awake. "So night terrors and related conditions are caused by an imbalance during sleep between parts of the brain that mediate emotion, movement and 'clear thinking', allowing activation of fear centres and movement without the cortex, or thinking part of the brain, kicking in. The result is a scared, moving but not clear-thinking human - part awake, part asleep."

- Daily Life

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