Are we asleep or awake right now? Why it matters.

Much of our life–including right now as we type–we have been confused as to if we are (1) dreaming, (2) awake, (3) in-between dreaming and waking, (4) or in a delusion (we call them “delusions,” while some of our dissociative friends call them “daydreams” or “fantasies.” We call ours delusions because they are almost always negative–victim-based–and self-harmful.).

Our awareness of this confusion is at the heart of our life having come to its current state of limited and different ability, which is this: We are scared. Right now, as we sit in our kitchen and type, traffic noise, construction noise, and garbage trucks rattle our nervous system. We can feel the vibrations, and they disturb us to our core. We do not feel safe. Are we?

We do not have employment, leave the house primarily for mental health therapy, avoid running errands or going to the doctor for physical ailments, and generally do not interact face-to-face with people who do not live in our household or somehow support our mental health therapy.

Psychologically, we are fractured. Doctors and psychologists have described the fracturing as dissociative identity disorder (DID).

Our situation became worse because we could not sleep at night because we did not feel safe. We’re not sure if this inability to feel safe at night preceded the abuse or was a result of it. Regardless, our inability to sleep on our own over the course of the many years of childhood took its toll on our ability to perceive reality and time as the synchronous, predictable unfolding that we read it is for many people.


The chronic sleep deprivation was a major contributing factor to our being unsure if we are asleep, awake, or somewhere in-between. Surviving the actual sleeplessness–moment-to-moment panic of straining to listen for an abuser come to murder us or other imaginary dangers (when a child is suffering abuse that isn’t supposed to happen, why would the risk of an intruder or even a monster seem any less possible?)–contributed to our fourth state of confusion: delusion. This sleep terror continued for years.

The challenge in differentiating between reality and the other states has persisted now for about forty years.

The challenges to recognize reality and try to dwell there are numerous and persistent. For starters, we have been asking therapists for years why it even matters which state we are in because they all feel equally real to us. A nightmare of being raped that occurred last year feels as real as actual trauma that occurred forty years ago. One therapist’s answer to, “Why does it matter whether we are in reality or not?” finally has generated an intellectual resonance:

Because you are safe in this moment from a nightmare, delusion, and even from the abuse of many decades ago. If you dwell in reality, you can learn how safe you really are.

Wow. Conceptually, that’s full on atomic. It gets right at the heart of PTSD’s hypervigilance.


In practice, how long will it take to recognize reality and begin to dwell there on a regular basis? This is unknowable and contributes to feelings of hopelessness.

Still, reality–specifically, this moment as we write this and this moment as you read this–is distinguishable from being asleep, semi-asleep, or in a delusion because it is safe. No one is attacking us as we write this. We hope no one is attacking you as you read this.

This doesn’t mean we don’t have problems–you and us. This means that we can limit our threat assessment to actual problems and actual dangers, as opposed to including imagined or dreamed ones.

Practicing mindfulness/presence, after using dissociative states to survive for the past forty years, feels the same as if a doctor told us, “You’ve been living wrong all these years. Breathing air is harmful. You’re supposed to be holding your breath forever, not breathing.” That is how automatic dissociating has become.


Something triggers our PTSD–we are startled at the sound of a leaf blowing across the driveway, a traumatic memory leaks out, we experience the stress of living–and we dissociate to survive. That is what we know.

Our analogy is backward. In reality, we have been holding our breath as much as possible for the past forty years. Clenching our muscles to the point that we suffer muscles spasms all over our body that last for weeks at a time. Straining to perceive danger with all our senses, especially hearing because that was how we-as-children would first perceive if the abuser had broken into the back door and was coming for us.

The real living will have to be about breathing deeply, unclenching our body, using our senses to perceive the safety of the unfolding now.

This sounds so foreign. So unattainable. So hopeless. We don’t know this, and we want this more than we want food or water or shelter or love. To be safe and know it. This is why we go to therapy. This is why we practice. This is why we persist. This goal.

Some parts of our psyche attempt to protect us by banishing hope. “We will never get there,” they warn. They cling to the old way (dissociate) or the ultimate out. Do you see how hard this is for us? Layers upon layers of barriers exist: decades of reinforcing the neuropathways of dissociation, banishment of hope, shame, self-blame, anger, fear, OCD.

Still, we got up today. Went to therapy. We’re writing this. Letting our voice be heard.

Hear our voice.

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