When Nightmares Intrude


Self-portrait with Prisma Filter


Trigger Warning: This post is about surviving sex abuse. Please take care of yourself first and foremost.

So last night I had a dream–a nightmare really, or a series of nightmares–in which I was assaulted again as I was when I was a child. I don’t know exactly what happened, just as I often didn’t as a child because it was so often in the dark. But I knew that I was being abused and that I could not stop it. I tried to stop it. I struggled. I fought hard. I tried to escape. But he was too much bigger and too much stronger and I could not get away. The whole thing was like a flashback in my sleep, which as far as I know has never happened to me before. I’ve had flashbacks before, but not in my sleep.

When I woke up I was pretty shook up, and exhausted from the struggle. I tried to figure out what might have caused it, what little thing in my day might have triggered such a horrible thing in my sleep. I speak publicly about my childhood sex abuse. I have dealt with it. I help others learn about child sex abuse and about male survivors. And yet, there are times when something can trigger a dream or paralysis or a fear that seems to come out of nowhere. This is the horror of surviving sexual abuse. You can face it and deal with it and seemingly move on from it, but there is a whole world out there and one moment or one image, sound, or smell, or god only knows what–something that might not even be noticed at the time–can throw a person backwards in time to those very moments of horror that were supposed to be left in the past. It can feel as if you are in that moment that was decades ago and it is as real and terrifying as it was when it was really happening.

I try not to dwell in the negative. I try not to stay mired in the horrors of the past and I generally do a good job of living a positive life in the present. Last night’s dream was a reminder that anyone who has suffered trauma, of any sort, can fall back into that trauma at any time and sometimes it can seem like there is no apparent reason.

The nightmare images from last night were significant and I knew that I had to share the experience for some reason. I am okay this evening. I recognize it was just a dream and that I am fine and that something in my subconscious brought it forth for me to face again. I wanted to document it because it surprised me by how real it was. Perhaps it is to try to help others understand what it can be like. Perhaps it is to ask for understanding, so that when you have a friend or family member who is in crisis, suffering an unexpected setback or in some way triggered, that you try to imagine what it might be like for them. You may never fully understand what they are going through but you can still be there for them.

Often–I think most often–those of us who have been through horrible experiences and are triggered by something just need most of all to know that someone is there who loves us and will listen and be with us. The best gift when these kinds of feelings are brought up is someone who will simply be with me and accept me in all of my complexity. There is really nothing more that I can ask.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on Amazon.com (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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