NIGHT TERRORS ESSAY IN THE SPRING ISSUE OF MYSTERY SCENE
In my latest Daniel Rinaldi mystery, NIGHT TERRORS, the Pittsburgh psychologist and trauma expert is asked by the FBI to treat one of their recently-retired profilers. After a twenty year career inside the minds of the most infamous serial killers, Special Agent Lyle Barnes can no longer sleep through the night. He’s tormented by a cascade of horrifying though indistinct images, along with intense feelings of dread and imminent danger. Until, sweat-soaked, heart pounding, he wakes up screaming.
He’s not alone. Once considered primarily a pediatric diagnosis, more and more adults are currently being treated for Night Terrors. And, researchers suspect, many more are suffering from the condition but are either too ashamed to report it or underestimate its long-term negative effects. A nightly experience of disturbed sleep can result in chronic fatigue, emotional fragility, a weakened immune system and reduced concentration.
Why the upsurge in Night Terrors in adults? Most clinicians—-including therapists like myself--are blaming the increased uncertainty of contemporary life. The economy, terrorism. Even natural disasters, like tsunamis, earthquakes, and super-storms. The daily anxiety suppressed by adults during waking life, now invading their sleep.
However, since science isn’t exactly sure what causes Night Terrors, developing approaches to dealing with it has been difficult.
Most experts believe the condition is caused by a sudden disruption in the central nervous system, usually triggered by stress, sleep deprivation, or substance abuse. With such a broad range of potential causes, treatment options are limited to medication, hypnotherapy, stress management techniques, and good old talk therapy. That is, as long as you have something to talk about.
And there’s the problem. Patients suffering from garden-variety nightmares can usually recount the content of their dreams, which perhaps leads to interpretation. Often, once the meaning of a patient’s dream becomes clear, the therapist can aid the patient in working through its various themes. The patient may find support in leavening the anxiety and dread left in the nightmare’s wake.
Unfortunately, people with Night Terrors can’t find the same solace, for the simple reason that, unlike nightmares, they don’t occur during REM sleep. Typically, Night Terrors erupt during Stage Four of the sleep cycle. Which means the sufferer doesn’t remember the dream images, giving both patient and therapist very little to work with.
In my novel, Rinaldi’s approach is to get the retired FBI agent to open up about his years as a profiler. His thousands of hours of contact with the most heinous and notorius serial killers. Since Barnes’ work was his life, Rinaldi believes that the best way to address his nocturnal demons is to get him to open up about the real-life demons with whom he spent most of his career.
Not an easy task, since Lyle Barnes is also the target of an unknown assassin who’s already killed three others on a seemingly-random hit-list.
A fictional reminder that in crime novels--as in life
--the real terrors occur when we’re awake.