Fathom Mag
Article

Between the Real and Unreal

“I see things that aren't really there at night.”

Published on:
March 10, 2020
Read time:
4 min.
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My heart raced. My eyes went wild as they adjusted to the darkness. I was in full fight-or-flight mode. Since I found myself standing in the living room, I clearly chose flight this time. But my adrenaline said I was ready for a fight too. Maybe I hadn’t screamed too loudly. No. I was sure I did. If I’d removed myself from the bedroom, the shrieking had likely been as blaring as a trumpet.

David, kind and drowsy, slipped out of the bedroom to find me. “It’s ok,” he reassured me. “It wasn’t real. Let me walk you back to bed.” 

He’s possibly the best husband in the entire world. I feel bad for ever complaining about his snoring.

I curled up under the heavy covers again, infuriated with myself. I felt unbearably foolish. The last thing I wanted was to startle anyone awake in the middle of the night. And I was weary of my nightly unpredictability and lack of control. 

Fear of the Unreal

If the acronym for fear is accurate—False Evidence Appearing Real—then sleep hallucinations surely fall within the definition. The kind of sleep hallucinations I experience—hypnopompic hallucinations—happen as I transition from one stage of sleep to another, from deeper to lighter. It’s during those tiny windows of time that the slightest noise or sensation can make my eyes flutter open. Once they do, my mind plays tricks, showing me things that aren’t real. Sometimes the images are vivid and scary. In the moment, they feel as true as I am.

My adrenaline said I was ready for a fight too. Maybe I hadn’t screamed too loudly.

From a lady floating on our ceiling to my long-deceased dad standing next to the bed, my hallucinations seem to know no end of creativity. One time I saw a small helicopter hovering over my head. I don’t know why. I once thought I saw a giant spider in our bed and used my husband like a pommel horse to vault out of the sheets and away from danger. Either I don’t believe in his ability to fight a massive arachnid or I have some hidden dream of being a gymnast—my form was outstanding.

The sleep hallucinations don’t seem to happen as often when I take reasonably good care of myself. Getting enough sleep, limiting my caffeine consumption, and managing stress usually help to keep them at bay. And it is comforting to know that sleep hallucinations like mine are actually fairly common. I guess no one brings them up in small talk because “I see things that aren’t really there at night” is a poor conversation starter. But sometimes my best self-care efforts don’t do the trick. I can go to bed relaxed, decaffeinated, and carefree only to find myself in the living room, ready to fight like a ninja at three in the morning. 

More than Hallucinations

It’s exasperating being afraid of things that aren’t real. I wish I could convince my brain in that split second between sight and scream that what I’m seeing isn’t real. Of course a Boy Scout isn’t standing next to the dresser trying to sell me popcorn in the middle of the night. And no, a raccoon did not just come out of the master bathroom looking for food. No one is coming in through the window, either. For the love, brain!

It’s during those tiny windows of time that the slightest noise or sensation can make my eyes flutter open. Once they do, my mind plays tricks, showing me things that aren’t real.

I’d love to be able to say that the only time I truly fear imaginary things is during those annoying nocturnal occurrences. But that’s not true. I don’t have to be half-asleep in order for false evidence to appear real. I do plenty of that when I’m wide awake. Only instead of seeing imaginary people or animals, I see a scary future I can’t predict or control. It only takes the slightest noise to make the eyes of my heart open wide with imagined fears and worry.

What’s going to happen in the next election? (The political dumpster seems to be on fire. Where is the water?) Will that estranged family member ever get in touch with me again? (I miss them so much it hurts.) How many years do I have left to enjoy my life? (I’d love to grow older and grayer with David.)

These are all questions I can’t answer. I know I’m not alone in asking them, though. There’s plenty to be afraid of these days, no doubt. But maybe there’s a better question we can ask ourselves when false evidence appears real.

The Realness of Hope

With so much to be afraid of, where do we turn? 

Psalm 27:1 says, “The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life of whom shall I be afraid?” King David wrote those words when he had plenty to fear. And yet he wrote a song of victory and faith. King David knew that, while it was dark and danger lurked around every corner, God would not let him down. God would be the light that would lead him home. 

With so much to be afraid of, where do we turn?

The psalm ends with: “Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage. Wait for the Lord!” That sounds like solid advice to me. Let’s wait on the God who will never—not ever—let us down. He’s the one who sees the past, present, and future in full and clearly. Our provider and king knows what we need and won’t leave us alone to figure it out. He knows we fear the things we can’t control and wants us to trust him to handle it. 

And if you sometimes find yourself in the living room of your soul, out of breath and braced for a fight, rest assured. God is there. “It’s okay,” he’ll tell you. “I’m real. Let me walk you home.”

Tracie Collier
Tracie Collier is a writer who believes in the power of storytelling, that laughter is some of the very best medicine, and that God is truly good. She enjoys spending time with her family, looking for any excuse not to cook, and seeking God in the ordinary days. You can connect with her on Twitter @traciecollier and Instagram @tracie.l.collier.

Cover image by Steinar Engeland.

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