A single hair is growing from the center of my tongue again. It is wiry and impossibly long. It dangles out of my mouth and gets caught in my crumbling teeth. I try to pluck the hair. It hurts, but its root is attached much deeper down than my tongue. It goes down to my core, in fact. If I pull it out I will die.
There is a dark presence in the room. It watches me struggle with my tongue hair and disintegrating dental work. If I can scream loud enough, the stranger will not harm me. I fill my lungs. I bellow…
And find myself transported back to my bedroom, where my wife has just kicked and nudged me awake. It's the wee hours of the morning and I sense myself hyperventilating.
"Was I screaming?" I pant.
"No. You were going, 'Myeh.'" She offers a pathetic bleating, the complaint of a scrawny goat as opposed to an adult human determined to live.
"No way," I say. "That was a scream. A shriek. This was a night terror."
"No," she corrects me. "You don't wake up during night terrors. You generally don't remember the content of a night terror episode."
We decide to call it a scream dream. It's become the subject of some contention in our household.
Sometimes I have several scream dreams a week. Other times months go by without a single instance. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I find myself bleating into my pillow again. Of course, within the dream, I'm letting out a mighty wail.
The Stuff Nightmares Are Made of
It reads like a checklist of my not-so-commendable lifestyle decisions. No wonder I have scream dreams.
Causes of nightmares in adults, according to the NSF, may include:
1. Feeling more stress than usual. Extreme forms of stress, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorders, can certainly cause nightmares.
So can periods of increased non-pathological stress, such as a promotion at work or a serious life change.
2. Sleep deprivation. Oddly enough, your brain's reward for finally getting a bit of the rest it so desperately needs can be terrible nightmares.
This, of course, can lead to even less sleep. It's a tough cycle to break.
3. Late-night snacks. Sorry, but I feel like I have to quote Dickens here: "You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato," Scrooge tells Marley's ghost in A Christmas Carol. "There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!"
Scrooge's reasoning is solid, even if he happens to be wrong about this particular ghost. Eating boosts your metabolism, which boosts your brain activity, which can lead to nightmares.
4. Certain prescription medications, such as antidepressants. If you notice changes in your sleep patterns or have more nightmares after a change in your medication, talk to your healthcare providers about it. They might be able to suggest a workaround.
That's the word from the professionals.
Now, my advice: If you find a six-foot, wiry hair growing from the center of your tongue, don't try to pluck it. To do so might cost you your life.
Also, know that what sounds like a blood-curdling scream inside your dream might sound a bit less impressive to your spouse, kids, or roommate.