One night, on my way to a night out after drinks at a friend’s house, I was walking down a street of shops in Brighton with some others. Suddenly I felt an instinctive urge to jump forward, unconsciously registering that something heavy was falling towards me from above. A drunk girl at a party wearing only a t-shirt and pants had fallen (or thrown herself?) from a third storey flat window above one of the shops. She hit the concrete pavement loudly right behind me, face first like a limp doll, at almost the same second as my brain flipped into the fight or flight response. I had heard her skull crack and she hadn’t even screamed.
Immediately the cogs of public solidarity started to turn, passers-by called an ambulance, a blanket was fetched and draped, other horrified party goers emerged drunkenly from the house and had to be prevented from moving the victim. I could do nothing but stand transfixed by the sight of her still body lying face-down on the pavement and the widening pool of dark blood spreading from beneath her head, shaken by the thought that if I had reacted one second later, she would have landed on me. When there was nothing more to be done and the paramedics had taken over, we carried on into town, trying to forget the experience and enjoy our evening, hoping she would be alright.
However, I just couldn’t shake the intrusive thoughts from my mind, and as we staggered home later to pass out ourselves, we deliberately walked a different way to avoid seeing the stain of her blood on the pavement.
The next day, after an alcohol numbed, short and fragmented night’s sleep, I was still finding it difficult to forget about the incident. Tearful and preoccupied, I was haunted by the sight of her body and blood on the pavement and the sound of the hideous bone-crunching thud and I felt irrational guilt about how little I had done to help her. I couldn’t recall the experience without great emotional arousal, I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it and it took me a while to click that I was actually suffering from mild trauma symptoms.
That night, when I eventually did fall asleep, I slept far better than I had the previous night, and I know I dreamt many dreams. I woke up feeling refreshed and normal again. When I recalled the horrible memories of the falling girl, they were still there, but the emotions surrounding them had completely disappeared – leaving me able to rationally consider what had happened and remember the event objectively. (I later found out that the girl had lived, and was recovering well in hospital).
The connection between the REM state and unresolved emotional arousal has never been so clearly demonstrated to me.
As Joe Griffin’s research on dreaming shows, my brain had successfully done what it is programmed to do – ‘de-aroused’ my unresolved emotions through dreaming and render me functional again. For the first time, I got a taste of what it would be like for someone whose brain, for whatever reason, hadn’t ‘de-aroused’ such memories, and who has to live with PTSD or a debilitating phobia without respite. You can never relate to anything quite so well as when you experience it for yourself.
Posted by: Eleanor