I have been afraid of the dark for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of vivid, terrifying nightmares (more evidence my brain’s been broken since the get-go?). But along with the panicky night awakenings is the soothing memory of my dad. He would sit right in our bedroom doorway – three of us shared a room – and wait with us while the dark descended. He wouldn’t talk, nor would he let us talk (as a parent now I’m amazed at his patience, the gotobedalready!! battle is one of the toughest moments of my day) but he was simply there. By the end of the day my fledgling nerves were shot and I lacked the ability to calm myself so it was with utter relief I let him take over the night watch. So I could sleep.
It is this memory that I return to when, every night, Jelly Bean asks me “Sit next you?” meaning that she wants me to sit on the floor next to her bed while she falls asleep. Despite my insistence that all our children learn early on to sleep on their own, lately I’ve been “sit next you”, for a few minutes while she settles. Tonight as I watched her breathing even out and beads of sweat appear at her hairline (she is seriously the sweatiest little sleeper ever!), I realized the great honor of being a Night Watchman.
Growing up I learned to love parts of the night: fireworks, lightening bugs, meteor showers, capture the flag wearing glow-in-the-dark face paint. But writing this out, I realize that even those all revolved around light. As a teenager, I was the ironic goth who dressed the part but secretly hated all the darkness that came with it. I don’t like horror movies, haunted houses, vampires or ghost stories. As much as I hated to admit it at the time, deep down I’m a pretty cheery soul. And yet I spent a lot of time in dark places, both physical and metaphorical.
One of those was my brief run-in with a night watchman of a different stripe. This past week I’ve had to stare down some serious demons (I know! I didn’t think I had any left either! Surprise!) and while I initially thought I wouldn’t write about it here, I keep getting this feeling like I should, for whatever reason. I’ve learned not to ignore those feelings (the voices in my head, on the other hand…). So. I wrote briefly about my incident with the night watchman before – he was one of my two “not rapes” – so I won’t recount the whole story here except to say: He was a night guard at a place where I worked and moonlighted (daylighted, since his main job was at night?) as an assistant teaching self defense classes. He offered to “help” me one night with some skills and instead scared the everloving crap out of me. The night ended with me looking down the barrel of a (what I can only presume was) loaded handgun. But that was it. Nothing else happened, thankfully. After telling my roommates about it I didn’t think much more of it.
Until last weekend when a friend pulled out his loaded handgun at a restaurant and I freaked the heck out. Despite the fact that it was not a threatening situation and he wasn’t pointing it at me, I even scared myself with how intensely I reacted to it. In the moment I didn’t know why. And then the nightmares came. Reliving that experience with the night watchman was awful in a way I don’t remember it being the first time around, thanks to the perspective of adulthood. Listening to my teenaged self beg him to not hurt her was even more harrowing than when I actually did it (adrenaline?). But thanks to the magic of PTSD (like 3-D but with more letters!) I could only watch it happen over and over.
Part of the problem was that back then, as now, I was woefully ignorant of guns so I had no idea – even while looking straight down the barrel – whether the gun was real or a prop, cocked or uncocked, loaded or unloaded. In my mind, that made all the difference. Obviously a real, loaded and cocked gun warrants the terror and the tears. A fake one and I’m just a gullible idiot. So my friend unloaded his gun, handed it to me and let me look down the barrel. Which you’re never supposed to do apparently, even when it’s unloaded. But I just needed to see it. It was a weird moment. I’d never held a handgun before. I felt nauseated, hot, scared, sad, blank and a whole slew of other unpleasant emotions.
I also felt sure: The gun was real. Was it cocked and loaded? It probably was – it was the same gun he carried on his rounds and I can’t imagine a guard carrying an unloaded weapon – but I learned that you can’t tell just from looking down the barrel, especially not if it’s pressed to your forehead. And you know what else I learned? It doesn’t matter.
I was entitled to my own experience the way I lived it and given the situation, it was probably the most rational option to treat it as if it were real and loaded. Telling yourself not to feel what you feel is like telling Bravo they don’t need another Real Housewives franchise – the chain of events has already begun and denying reality only lands you on TMZ. Plus, not to get all Dr. Phil up in here (I used to loveLOVElove him when he was on Oprah… and then he got his own show and it kind of went Jerry Springer from there) but you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge. I literally had to face down one of my worst fears. And… it worked. No more nightmares. No more PTSD. Like a summer thunderstorm, it was loud, scary and too close but then it was over so quickly. I still don’t love guns. If I go the rest of my life never holding one again that will be just fine. But at least now I have one less reason to be scared of the dark.
Because here’s the thing: You can’t stay awake forever. Everyone needs a night watchman sometimes. Whether it’s a friend, a parent, a sibling or a lover, we all need a person we trust so intimately that we can sleep in their presence. If you think about it, sleep is the (pen)ultimate surrender and therefore the Night Watchman is the ultimate manifestation of trust. Sometimes people betray our trust but that doesn’t mean it was wrong to trust in the first place. But it makes it even more important to find the good watchmen, to be the good watchman. And so here I sit now, next to Jelly Bean’s bed, listening to her breathe and knowing that I will, inevitably, disappoint her as a parent. But I hope that someday she’ll remember that I stood guard next to her in the dark. So she could sleep.
Who is your night watchman? Ever been one? Any of you had to face down a big fear? Anyone else still afraid of the dark?
P.S. I got all the way through this and still don’t know why I felt compelled to write it. Honestly I’m not sure this makes much sense.