You know those dark, silent, undistracted moments right before you go to sleep, in which you are occasionally filled with baseless, chittering dread?
Those moments at night, between waking and sleeping, where some nameless, shapeless anxiety slips into the front of your mind and spreads itself there like tar over clear water, becoming equally difficult to remove.
It strikes at that moment where you are most defenseless. You’ve relinquished all distractions, all demands on your attention, and are patiently waiting for sleep. You have nothing to save you from these thoughts, except maybe you’re partner beside you in bed. Even then, it seems a silly thing to wake them up about.
In the morning, the feeling has passed. You may even forget about it. But the next night, or maybe a few nights later, it returns. Then, you remember all the previous nights. You say to yourself, “this is a problem. I should do something about this tomorrow.”
Of course, you inevitably forget about it once the sun is shining and you are holding your morning cup of coffee. Or, you realize how silly it is.
It doesn’t seem silly in that dark, quiet moment though. It seems dire. It seems like life or death. It seems like you are missing something crucially important — like a hooded figure is rapping at the door on a stormy night, but when you answer the door they refuse to speak, only deepening your dread.
And it stays there, churning in your gut, unresolved and refusing to give you any ground until the void swallows you and you finally drift off.
These are moments that nobody talks about, but I’ve found that everyone I’ve discussed it with has related to the experience.
It’s the kind of thing you experience first in your childhood. It woke you up in the night, and you went to your parents to seek answers and comfort. But in their tired, groggy haze, they were unwilling or unable to help. They offered some hollow words of reassurance and sent you back to bed.
After that, talking about it seemed useless. Nobody had any answers for you if they even experienced it at all. It was just something to get through, on the nights that it appeared.
This nighttime existential dread has struck all of us at one point or another, yet very few of us have an answer as to why.
Here’s my experience, and a theory I’ve derived from it, after comparing notes with some friends and family.
I got this for the first time at around the age of eight. I had just watched a documentary about the ice age, and a particular scene depicting a mammoth freezing to death stuck in my mind.
Laying in bed that night, I couldn’t quite get it out of my head. Suddenly, that image had made the concept of death real to my eight-year-old mind. I was stricken with images of what it would be like to not exist.
And what terrifying images they were.
I woke up my father, but as I mentioned above, he couldn’t help. What could I have reasonably expected of him? To engage in a protracted discussion on the philosophy of the afterlife at 1am?
He asked me what would make me feel better, so I came up with the most distracting thing I could think of.
We played a round of the Pokemon card game.
It didn’t really help, but I felt good having beaten him with my premium Charizard (that he bought).
Anyway, these sessions of quiet dread became a regular occurrence in my teen years. My anxiety about most aspects of my life was at an all-time high. I’ll spare you the details for now, but suffice to say I wasn’t very happy with my performance in the grand game.
At around age 20, they calmed down and became more of an infrequent nuisance. I got thinking about it again recently when I was hit with a few nights in a row of yawning void greeting me when I closed my eyes.
So, I decided to sit down and try to figure this thing out. I talked to some friends, looked back through my admittedly faulty memory archive, and tried to clear away some of the black fog that was mucking up my brain circuitry.
Here’s what I’ve figured out.
We have very little time to think.
We’re always doing something, and when we aren’t doing something, we find something to do.
This leaves us precious little time alone with our thoughts.
Even while doing something mundane and repetitive, like driving or jogging, we often further occupy our attention with music or podcasts.
No moment is safe for our minds to give us messages or to resolve anxieties.
Except, that moment where we turn everything off and will ourselves into sleep.
This is our subconscious’ one and only opportunity each day to unravel itself and tell us what’s going on.
And your subconscious usually has something pretty important to say.
Here’s an example.
Why was I suddenly stricken with this void-anxiety recently?
After deciding that it would be worthwhile to figure it out rather than just trudge through, it took some quiet thinking for the answer to bubble to the surface.
I remembered a few dreams I had experienced on those same nights — all related to romance.
I connected that to a series of feelings and circumstances that, once understood, became an obvious source of stress.
I’m a single guy, with dreams of a big family. At 24, I’ve gotta get my tires rolling if I want to get where I‘m going in a timely manner.
Normally, I’d be out dating and flirting to my heart's content. But COVID has done a good job of keeping me locked inside. Needless to say, that makes romance hard.
At the beginning of the lockdown, I had satisfied this predicament by resolving to just be patient and use the extra time on other projects.
But after a month, with the end of the lockdown at least another month away, I was starting to get anxious.
This was taking too long.
And my subconscious wanted to let me know. But I was so busy all the time, that it had no way of reaching me.
So, when I lay down to sleep, it spoke up.
Unfortunately, I’m not very prone to listen when I’m tired and trying to go to sleep. I’d wager most of us aren’t.
So, I was left at an impasse. Some circumstance in my life was deeply and subtly bothering me, yet I had given myself no time to come to any understanding of the problem.
To put it another way, I wasn’t listening.
So, to summarize, these events of dark terror are generally a very real indication that something is amiss. It’s rather like physical pain — it tells you something is wrong, and more often than not, there is an immediate action available to you that will calm that pain.
And ignoring it only guarantees that it is going to get worse.
There are some kinds of pain that cannot be fought immediately, but even then, understanding the source of the pain allows you to minimize it and work towards relieving yourself of it.
Take the time to understand what is eating at you, and you will surely find that it is easy to resolve (at least, easier than living with sleep-terror).
So how did I deal with my romance anxiety?
Well, I did something I had previously decided to ignore. I got back into the online dating scene. I found a way to put the effort in, even if it wasn’t ideal.
Sure enough, I was back in alignment with myself and my desires, and the yawning void closed up shop.
The next night after sending some tastefully flirtatious messages, I laid down to sleep and was greeted with a blissful, peaceful quiet.