In the past few weeks my sleep has been disturbed by nightmares more than usual. This is an ever present symptom of my trauma, but lately it’s been worse. The nightmares have been violent and scary, usually grotesque and deadly. The way someone with DID experiences nightmares and dreams is different to a typical person. Sometimes I’m watching other parts in the dream. My dreams are like my life, they are often filled with blank spaces. Usually I’ll wake up with a bad feeling but not remember what I had been dreaming about. Sometimes I can remember bits and pieces of my dreams, but I don’t remember all of it. I’m sure people without DID experience this too, but I’m always amazed at how others can recall so much of their dreams when I only get fragments of information. For example, I recall a protector part yelling at my father in a dream and telling him what a horrible person he was. This is actually a dream I’ve had many times. My therapist asked what happened in the dream after we yelled at him, and I said I didn’t know. It’s like the dream just stopped. I didn’t remember anything that led up to that interaction, and there was no memory of what happened afterwards. I doubt the dream ended at that point. It feels like I only see the parts of my dreams that the others let me see, and often I am just a bystander. Another example is I had a dream in which I witnessed a younger part experience denial over my friend’s death. She kept saying she was still alive, and in the dream she was. I usually don’t get to see their dreams, but when I do, it can help me help them (and myself).
I think that the reason I’m seeing so many dreams of serial killers and sadistic murderers coming after me and other innocent people is because of the bad things that happened to us in the dead of winter. Our poems have always contained a lot of imagery of death, blood, gore, and fear during this time of year. In general they do anyway, but there are specific themes that appear in January and February. I’m not going to write too much about the images and flashbacks other parts have shown me, because they’re extremely difficult to share with my therapist, let alone strangers. In summary, my father was a sadistic bastard who killed animals and enjoyed watching me suffer. There are a lot of poems about blood on the snow. There is something very striking about the contrast of bright red blood staining white snow. White is traditionally the colour associated with innocence and purity, and in my memories this untouched white snow in the woods is suddenly splattered with the bright red evidence of evil. In fact there are so many poems written about this image since we were teenagers, that we’re not interested in describing that scene anymore because it’s at the point where we’re just spinning our wheels. We used to avoid the snow and cold because it triggered us, but now we force ourselves to go outside and witness the beauty of winter as it should be, without the evil and torture we were subjected to as a child.
I ask myself what they’re trying to tell me through the vivid and violent nightmares. The images are always different, but there is usually a killer and a knife, ax, or other sharp metal tool. Sometimes there is a gun, but it’s usually a sharp object. There is always a sadistic person who delights in scaring his victims before killing them. There is also always more than one victim, and often a part is trying to save the other victims, usually in vain. We had a nightmare a few days ago in which I wasn’t actually a part of it, I was just somehow witnessing it like a movie. There was a killer who had multiple victims in his apartment on a top floor of a building. It was weird because sometimes the victims were kids and then some of them became animals. We witnessed him stab, kill, and dismember one of the kids. The fear and horror was overwhelming, paralyzing, and so real. Somehow the dream shifted from that scene to a moment where the killer was distracted, and we tried to free as many of the trapped victims as we could through a window. Last night there was an angry man with a gun who was hunting people, and we escaped unharmed. We felt extreme guilt for getting away, so we decided to go back to save others despite knowing that we’d probably die. I don’t remember how it ended.
I’ve found that the details of the dreams, although they contain literal elements of the abuse and torture we experienced, are not as important as the actual emotions we are feeling at the time. It’s the emotions that clue me into what the others are trying to tell me and what they need to heal from. These nightmares all contain extreme terror, helplessness, the inability to get away and save ourselves and others, and therefore an overwhelming sense of grief and powerlessness. In one of the dreams last week where I confronted my father, he admitted what he had done, but he also blamed me. He said I was just like him, even if I tried not to be. He said there was no denying how similar we are. He was a smart man, and he used twisted mind games to keep me quiet and fuel my self hatred. I know that myself and other parts definitely grew up hating ourselves, thinking we were evil, and blaming ourselves for what happened. He wanted us to do that. If we believed that we were also to blame, then we were more likely to keep quiet. It’s a long, slow process to help the others see that they were just children and had no choice. They’re young, so they see the world in black and white: I was witness to this evil, I didn’t stop it, so I’m bad. When I tell them what I know, as a logical adult, they don’t always listen. I tell them that it wasn’t their fault, and I know they wanted to save the innocent victims, but they couldn’t. He threatened to kill us. After witnessing his ability to harm and kill another living thing, as well as being tortured by him, we truly believed he would kill us.
Some of these parts are very young and say they should’ve chosen death over allowing that to happen to other victims. They only see one answer, that we should’ve died trying to save them, and the fact that we didn’t makes us cowards and just as bad as him. I tell them that every human being has an innate desire to save themselves. Self preservation is built into our genetic code in order for our species to survive. It’s not our fault that we feared death. Some of them get angry with me when I say this, and I feel the pressure of their anger inside. “We don’t fear death!” they yell at me. It’s true that some of them don’t, they have learned to fear nothing to survive. They think that being so brave that they can face death without hesitation is helping us. Honestly that skill isn’t needed anymore. We don’t need to be that brave anymore. Now I tell them it is brave to feel the fear. It is brave to admit that we were small and powerless and wanted to do something but could not. As I said, it’s a slow process, and it will take them a while to accept this. They have to experience it for themselves to believe what I’m saying. For now, I realize that the frequent nightmares are showing me that these feelings of powerlessness and fear are unresolved in them. This time of year activates a lot of parts who survived those living nightmares. They are desperately trying to tell me their stories. I’m trying to listen with compassion and not let their fear take over.
Later I will go out into the snow and run. We no longer let the snow and cold weather keep us inside where we feel trapped and powerless. We push through the pain. We do something that makes us feel empowered. This is how I help them experience a new reality, it is the only way. Some of them like the way the sun makes shadows on the snow. I point out to the little ones that the snow sparkles in the sun, and they enjoy this. I feel them take over momentarily, and it is like my body is not my own when they gaze at the glittering snow and smile. I feel something from them I usually don’t feel- they are filled with wonder and happiness- if only for a few seconds. I usually feel their overwhelming pain, so when I feel their joy it’s powerful.
The other day we were running in about 3 inches of snow, and it was difficult, but we kept going. It reminded us of our determination in life. We thought that maybe we’d be able to wear a path down in the snow as we continued to run laps, but in some areas the wind destroyed our footprints every time we circled back around. It was frustrating because we hoped it would get easier, but it never did. We decided that this would be a good analogy for the way we feel about healing from trauma. The idea of neuroplasticity is that our brain can always forge new paths, new ways of thinking and perceiving. If you practice a certain way of framing your thoughts over and over again, the idea is that it becomes easier. However, there are challenges to this with DID. How do you build new pathways in your brain for healthier coping when there are so many different parts? It often feels frustrating because I personally can gain insight, but they do not. It takes a lot of time, compassion, and patience to bring all parts of me out of the darkness and forge new paths for all of us to walk on. The answer, I suppose, is that we have to keep going. Even when every step is difficult and painful, we have to try.
(We’ve been writing a lot lately, which is a good thing. It means I’m living in my window of tolerance. It also means that other parts are feeling heard and able to communicate their experiences. Often we want to write but feel too depressed and shutdown. When we write, the chaos becomes clearer).
During the dull death of winter
We cursed its muting grip,
Trees wept leaves and broke,
Left bare, lost skeletons,
Silent all but for creaking limbs
Feeling lost in the season
Void of colour and sound
Tense while the earth sleeps
And we cursed the stillness,
blind to its power for years
Forgetting the beauty of rest,
As if slumber is not needed,
Wishing away the white washed world,
Cold blankets used to suffocate,
Cracked skin and dry eyes peering
Through salt stained windshields
So I left that place,
I left the streets,
And I found the magic here,
Where patient trees bearing weight
Would bend to reach me,
Bridges over a quiet path,
Running through the pain,
Leaving marks as footprints,
Evidence we’re still here,
And we are all moving now
As one, somehow,
Sleepy and broken but here,
Differing and dissected as
Walls come down sometimes
Trudging through this snowy
strangulation and hoping
The path we create will stay,
But every time we circle around
The wind has ruined our plans,
And the snow, like sand,
fills the spaces
Of silence and craters
Until there was no more trail
left to see, just me, just them
standing here beneath the trees