Fire Life

A Firefighter Wife’s Struggle with Night Terrors, Part 2

By Anne Gagliano

My night terrors began in the fall of 1986 when my husband Mike became a crash firefighter with the Air Force and began working 24-hour shifts. The terrors were a direct result of my anxiety over having to sleep alone. They continued regularly and grew in intensity until the spring of 1987, when a climactic event occurred that resulted in a reprieve.

It was a night in March, and Mike and I headed to bed. Mike was particularly fatigued; he was taking a life-saving course that required massive amounts of swimming. He swam miles a day as he trained to become a certified lifeguard, something he felt would add to his firefighting resume. His shoulders were tight, growing stronger, and sorer. He drifted off to sleep easily.

I, on the other hand, struggled to fall asleep. My recurring night terrors over the past seven months or so had turned bedtime into a daunting and very frightening event. I was trapped in a vicious cycle of unrelenting anxiety—anxiety over sleeping alone, and anxiety over sleeping at all, for the horror of waking up to someone standing by my bed was too terrifying for words.

I sensed Mike’s concern and frustration at the utter helplessness of the situation. He wanted to help, but couldn’t. He wanted to work a day job to be home with me at night, but didn’t. He wanted them to just go away, but they wouldn’t.

I was so ashamed and frustrated with my night terrors, but I didn’t know how to make them stop. They weren’t every night, but nearly. I never knew when I’d have one—it didn’t seem to matter if Mike was home or not. I began to despair, to believe there was something really wrong with me. I prayed. I cried out to God to make them stop; I was so very tired of living in fear. It was beginning to cripple me. In a roundabout, seemingly awful, way, God did answer my prayer.

That March night, I finally began to drift off to sleep. Then he was there, leaning over me in the darkness, reaching for me, the faceless man who terrorized my sleep. I sat up, screamed, and scrambled away. Mike sat up, too, from the shock of my cries. I was fully awake now, Mike was comforting me. I began to cry with frustration, shame, and fear. “It’s okay,” Mike said in the dark, patting me once again. It had become routine. To his credit, Mike has never once said anything cruel or derogatory about my night terrors.

“I’m so sorry,” I sobbed, wishing with all my might that I would quit disrupting my husband’s sleep. It was burdensome enough to disrupt my own, but to do it to him as well was simply unbearable.

I began to calm down; my pounding heart began to quiet. “Go back to sleep, it’s okay,” Mike said again. I laid back down. Mike remained sitting up.

“My shoulder hurts,” he said. “It’s really starting to hurt.”

I got up and turned on the light. I looked at Mike sitting there. Something was askew. I came closer; we both looked at his right shoulder—it wasn’t there! To our utter surprise, the arm was about six inches lower than it was supposed to be; his shoulder was out of the socket! He must have been lying on it as he bolted upright after hearing me scream. This, combined with the strain from his swim training, was apparently force enough to dislocate his shoulder. My problem had now actually caused physical injury to my poor husband.

Mike began to moan and writhe in agony as the pain hit him full force. We had to get him to the hospital and fast! I helped him up, still in shock at what I had caused, and left him to try to throw on some clothes. I ran into our baby Michael’s room and snatched him up. Mike could barely stand, the agony was so overwhelming. I loaded him and Michael into the car. Thankfully, 10-month-old Michael sat quietly in his car seat, wide-eyed and bewildered by this late-night adventure. He’d never heard his dad moaning and carrying on in such a fashion before.

We fought a bit on our way to the base hospital, as I only knew one way to get there and that way was blocked by the longest train in the history of trains.

“Go the other way!” Mike yelled. “I can’t wait any longer!”

What to do? I didn’t know the other way, and he was in no shape to tell me. Eventually, after many cries of “I’m in hell” from him, I got us there.

The hospital staff had never heard of anyone dislocating his shoulder in bed before. Needless to say, we got many looks and we heard lots of snickers and suppressed laughter. Mike and I would be the butt of many jokes on base for months to come.

As a result of Mike’s injury (which I had caused), he was put on light duty for about eight weeks. He worked days and was home at night. This reprieve broke my cycle of night terrors. His being home regularly helped me to completely calm my anxieties, which had been compounding and spiraling out of control. And during that eight weeks, we found out I was pregnant with baby #2—Ricky. The jokes about that fateful night are now the stuff of legend!

With this new pregnancy, my fatigue level caused me to fall asleep very quickly. Even when Mike returned to shift, my night terrors did not. I rejoiced! Then once I had Rick, I was so tired from caring for a newborn while chasing a toddler that I continued to sleep easily. Night terrors occur within the first 15 to 60 minutes of sleep before reaching the deeper stage of rapid eye movement (REM). The more tired you are, the more quickly you reach REM, decreasing the likelihood of having night terrors.

I did not have a single night terror in Louisiana after the “shoulder incident,” as it came to be known. But unfortunately, my saga does not end there. The night terrors returned some years later. I’ve been forced to learn much on this topic, as it seems to be an ongoing issue. For one thing, this tendency runs in families. I’ll share all that I’ve discovered as I conclude this topic in my next column. 

Image found on Wikimedia Commons, with permission, “Lampely,” by Eyolf Soot.

 Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 25 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.