A Firefighter Wife’s Struggle with Night Terrors, Part 1

By Anne Gagliano

This is something I’ve never really talked about or told anyone about outside my immediate family, because it is quite embarrassing. I’ve worried that if people knew about it they’d think I was nuttier than an outhouse rat. To be honest, I’ve secretly feared that maybe I am. Since I’ve never discussed it, I don’t know if other firefighter wives struggle with it or not; I’m taking a chance, baring my soul, and exposing a weakness with the intent of perhaps helping or encouraging another wife out there who may share this problem and is, as I have been, keeping it to herself. Ever since my husband Mike became a firefighter nearly 25 years ago and began working 24-hour shifts, I’ve struggled on and off through the years with a phenomenon known as night terrors.

A night terror, or “Pavor Nocturnus,” is not a nightmare. It is far, far worse. How did mine begin? I’ll tell you. It’s 1986, and I am a young wife and mother living in an apartment with my husband and newborn son Michael in Pineville, Louisiana. I am far from home, far from family and friends. Mike is stationed at England Air Force Base, where he is serving as a crash firefighter in the United States Air Force. We’ve been in Louisiana about six months now. With this new career, Mike works 24 on/24 off, then every two weeks he has a “Kelly day,” or day off, giving him a three-day break. For the first time in our marriage, I have to get used to “sleeping single in a double bed” every other night, which gets a little confusing. We’ve just moved to this apartment from our old apartment across the river in Alexandria. We moved here because a woman was raped at the old place and I could no longer bear to live there, for that was my worst fear. This new place is much nicer and I’m beginning to feel safe again.

Then one day I get a crank call, a “sex call,” while Mike is on shift. At first I think it is Mike, because it sounds just like him, so I laughingly go along with it. But I soon begin to realize it’s not him and, in horror, I hang up. Mike and I later chuckle about it, but the problem is, the guy keeps calling back, and he happens to call every day that Mike is on shift! I begin to fear that this person is watching me, that he maybe lives nearby and can see when Mike’s car is gone. Or perhaps he’s another firefighter who knows Mike’s schedule. My anxiety mounts as day after day he calls.

One night I go to bed, alone and afraid, for I’d had another call that day. Our room is never quite dark because of the street light outside. I hear something. I open my eyes—a man is standing by my bed! I gasp in surprise and begin to scuttle away from him to the other side of the bed. I blink and blink, trying to see in the dim light. He’s there. I can’t believe what I’m seeing—a stranger is in my house, threatening me! I continue to blink, trying desperately to get a good look at him. I turn on the light; there’s no one there. My heart is pounding with a rush of adrenaline that is coursing through my veins. I’m breathing rapidly, even sweating now; I am in full fight-or-flight mode. I cannot even begin to describe the intensity of my fear, for the person standing there is as real as real can be, if only for a moment. My subconscious mind, in the early pre-REM stage of sleep, has played a horrible trick on me and my body couldn’t help but respond. I’ve just had my first night terror.

A few nights later, I again open my eyes to see a figure standing by the bed. I scream. I begin to scramble away. Someone grabs me. I fight. I kick. I am, after all, alone, so who’s touching me? A light is turned on. It’s my husband. He’s frantic, asking, “What’s wrong?” He, too, is in full fight-or-flight, as his wife has just screamed. In my subconscious state, Mike had become part of my night terror. His erratic and irregular presence in my bed has confused my sleepy mind. I apparently have a problem, and my problem has now become Mike’s problem, too.

I’m horrified, embarrassed, and ashamed that my anxieties over being alone at night have affected my husband’s sleep. He’s already sleep-deprived as a result of being on a firefighter’s schedule at work. Now his sleep is being disrupted at home, thanks to me! My only desire is to help my husband. Instead, I am adding to his burdens.

We both intuitively know that this is a result of his new career combined with my phone stalker, as I’ve never had these night terrors before, but what to do? Mike has to work a 24-hour shift; I have to be okay with that! Fortunately, the phone calls end. One day he calls when Mike is home; he was scheduled to work that day but he’d made a last-minute trade. The calls always began with the guy saying, “How’d you like me to …?” (Add your favorite dirty thought.) This day, Mike grabbed the phone and angrily yelled, “How’d you like me to kick your @*&!!” That was the last crank call. I began to hope that my anxiety would diminish, putting an end to my night terrors. But they didn’t end.

Mike put wooden bars in the windows and sliding door for added security. We bought a gun, and Mike taught me to shoot it. We got involved in a great local church and made friends. These things helped. The terrors decreased from nightly to weekly, but they continued, so it wasn’t over. It was the schedule. It was sleeping alone, and it wasn’t going to change. I, as a young wife, began to realize that I had a defect, a flaw that rendered me somewhat inadequate to be a firefighter’s wife. I was afraid to sleep alone at night, and this fear was manifesting itself in a horrific and disruptive way.

In my next column, I will share with you what I’ve found out over the years about night terrors.  For example, they are not linked to mental illness—good to know! I’ve discovered ways to cope with them and ways to diminish them. I hope it helps anyone who may be struggling with the anxieties of sleeping alone in a dangerous world; it is, after all, a price we spouses must pay to be married to a firefighter.

Image found on Wikimedia Commons, with permission, “The Scream,” by Edvard Munch.

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.

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