Thu 20 Jul 2006
I have had a recurring night terror for as long as I can remember, and if I never have it again I will die a happy man. It is a flashback of my circumcision when I was three days old.
It is a memory that surfaces while I sleep and wakes me up in a hot sweat, gasping for air, and feeling like I am narrowly escaping death. It is not your usual nightmare that awakens you, and you tell yourself it was only a dream and fall back asleep. This is much different, extremely powerful, and unique. It is so frightening that I have to get out of bed and move around until my heart stops racing.
The imagery and feelings are always the same. My arms feel like they are at bound at my sides, they feel held in place by someone, a woman standing at my head. I have a sensation I am lying on my back and something is close over my face making my face hot and suffocating me. I fear for my life. My skin is hot and damp, and breathing is difficult. My legs are spread and there is a man standing there, handling my genitals, and there is a bright light over his shoulder. Thankfully, I have no memory of the circumcision pain.
When I awaken from the dream I am gasping for air and even a large bedroom feels too small and claustrophobic. To make the feeling go away I quickly toss away the blankets and jump out of bed and walk around, waving my arms maddly about to tell myself that they are free. Sometimes I go outside where I raise my arms outstretched and move, reassuring myself that I am safe and not restrained.
As I write this it is 3:46 am and I’ve just awakened from being frightened by this memory. I don’t know how to write just how frightening this surfaced memory is. The closest I can come to describing it is by comparison: I imagine an evil person dangling me by my ankles off the top of a tall building, my arms are bound and my mouth gagged, and then I feel the grip loosening.
There is no story or dialogue that goes along with the memory. It is an image with feelings. Like a snapshot with imprinted feelings. I am convinced that it is an early recollection of my circumcision at age three days.
Over the course of fifty years, the night terror has never changed. Nothing has been added or subtracted. It is always the same image combined with intense feelingsof being overpowered, helplessness, suffocating, and imminent death.
However, during the day a less intense version of the same feeling can arise with the right ‘trigger.’ I cannot watch a televised surgical operation, or listen to someone talking about his or her recent surgery without feeling restrained and suffocated. Rape scenes at movies are very distressing for me. I’ll close my eyes until its over and my wife says that it’s safe to open my eyes. Not very ‘manly.’ Once, while watching a movie in a theater, I had to escape to the lobby to get relief from a rape scene being projected on the screen. Reading a description of circumcision, or looking at pictures or a video of a boy having a circumcision produces the same feelings.
When my wife chooses to tuck me in for the night the same intense feelings can arise. Like in my night terror, I am flat on my back, arms tucked under the covers and she is leaning over me. I cannot receive her kiss as affection; it is so threatening despite the knowledge that she means me no harm. Only if I free my arms and loosen the blankets can I get to a safe place where she is not threatening. This never happens if we ae standing.
I have claustrophobia, especially when on my back and in a confined space, like working under a car doing repairs. Seeing Charles Bronson in the Great Escape as the claustrophobic tunnel master will trigger the memory that night. Or, when pulling off a tee shirt or sweater and it gets stuck, can lead to an anxiety attack.
There is a scene in the movie Nevada Smith, where Steve McQueen’s Indian mother is tied up and then skinned alive. I can’t even begin to imagine this scene without breathing becoming difficult. When I first saw this movie as a boy (15 yrs.) I was frightened and became frantic, my brother had to take me to the lobby. I watched the rest of the movie with the projectionist in his booth. It was the most intensely personal feeling I’d ever experienced at the time. I am sure it is linked with my feelings of being ‘tied up’ and ‘skinned alive.’
The frequency of the terror varies greatly, from months to weeks apart. Once, it reoccurred three nights in a row. By the third day I was exhausted from lack of sleep and having to deal with the emotional upheaval of the memory. As a result, I almost lost my job. My employer warned me to fix whatever was going on, or else. Not that I needed any encouragement to want it stopped. I felt that if it happened two or three more nights in a row I would kill myself to escape the horror. That was the only time I have ever considered suicide.
I firmly believe that as a result of being circumcised at age three days, it has had a permanent effect upon my life. I have a general and ever-present feeling of impending doom. I feel inferior to others, and strive to improve myself. I feel my life must not be worth much and I may be called upon to scarifice it, without consent, for others. I feel that I must be ready, to be ready, to sacrifice myself, should the situation present itself.