Don't look back! Don't looks back!
January 7, 2013 7:23 AM   Subscribe

I'm a 29 yr old female, married, and have two children. Yet, I am terrified of the dark and being home alone. For as long as I can remember darkness has petrified me and I can't enter a room that's dark, or even look into one. When I'm home alone, no matter the time of day, I get so scared that something is following me, in the house, or about to get me. I jump at every noise and will often just stand in the middle of the room looking back and forth quickly, so nothing can sneak up on me. I'm tired of being so scared and it's hard to comfort a child who's scared when you get just as scared as them.

Here's some examples of my level of scaredy cattedness:

- Slightly open closet doors must mean someone or something snuck in there and is now peeking at me from the small gape. Full blown panic will set in, I will run from the room and yell for my husband to come shut the door. If no one's home, I'll just avoid that room till they are home.

- Walking up stairs I brace myself to be dragged back down the stairs by whatever crazy thing I believe to be there. Most often I will have my husband walk behind me up the stairs for protection, but when alone I will bolt up the stairs no matter how much I tell myself nothing will get me.

- I always jump into bed, because I'm terrified something will grab my ankles and yank me under the bed. I won't even get out of bed to use the bathroom during the night, because I'm just to scared of the dark hallway, stairwell or what's under my bed.

-Darkness paralyzes me. If I need to get somewhere, but I must pass through or by darkness I just won't go. I will stand there in a corner till my husband can get to me and escort me.

-Showering during the day is my biggest challenge. I can't hear a single thing when I'm in the bathroom. It makes showering incredibly hard if I'm home alone, because I'm convinced something is sneaking up on me, waiting outside the door for me or is staring directly at me while I have my eyes shut. My anxiety level will skyrocket and I have to get out of the shower quickly whether I'm done or not.

I'm not afraid of outside darkness, but inside darkness. I could stand outside in the dark and maybe be a little uncomfortable, but something about the house and darkness just get to me.

I try to tell myself this is nonsense, there's nothing to be afraid of, you should know by now that there is no monsters, but it doesn't work. I feel like I live in some sort of horror show and every second is the second I'm about to be dragged down the basement stairs and...i'm not sure what I think is going to happen.

When I get scared I become unable to move, my heart starts pounding, my anxiety is through the roof and all the hair on my body stands up. I feel like a small child locked in a dark basement and I'm tired of it. I don't like being scared of my own shadow all the freakin' time and I want to be able to get past this so I can feel like a normal adult. I can't pinpoint any one reason that would explain this, i've just always been this way. It has gotten worse the older I get and now it's to the point that I will curl up in a ball and cry if confronted with darkness or anything that scares the crap out of me.

So, help me metafilter. To those who have been or still are scared of the dark, what were/are the tricks or tips you use to calm your irrational fears? Am I forever stuck being scared of every bump in the night or can I overcome this?
posted by Sweetmag to Grab Bag (34 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Others will provide advice about therapy for anxiety; this is probably the best advice you could get.

I'll just jump in to suggest a dog. I am not nearly as frightened as you are, but when my husband is out of town I get slightly jumpy at noises, and having a calm dog in the house reassures me that there is nothing to fear. So not for the "guard dog" aspect but rather as a warning; if the dog is calm, there are no strangers around. A dog is a big enough responsibility that you probably shouldn't get one for this reason alone, but if you were thinking about it anyway...
posted by teragram at 7:29 AM on January 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

IANAD, but to me, this sounds like a deeply ingrained anxiety issue or phobia. I can't suggest any coping strategies beyond going to a medical professional and telling them what you've told us. You don't have to fight this alone.
posted by fight or flight at 7:31 AM on January 7, 2013 [23 favorites]

I think that anxiety over irrational fears that is only getting worse as you age requires professional help. My mother was (and still is!) terrified of the dark. Consequently, I was terrified of the dark myself way longer than my peers. If you don't want to do it for yourself, get help so you don't pass it on to your kids.
posted by crankylex at 7:32 AM on January 7, 2013 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: I should mention that I do have a dog. While he has eased my fears a bit, I find he causes me anxiety. I'm always waiting for him to give me signs something isn't right. Or if he pops his head up fast...I'm done and running for safety.
posted by Sweetmag at 7:34 AM on January 7, 2013

- I always jump into bed, because I'm terrified something will grab my ankles and yank me under the bed. I won't even get out of bed to use the bathroom during the night, because I'm just to scared of the dark hallway, stairwell or what's under my bed.
- Showering during the day is my biggest challenge. I can't hear a single thing when I'm in the bathroom. It makes showering incredibly hard if I'm home alone, because I'm convinced something is sneaking up on me, waiting outside the door for me or is staring directly at me while I have my eyes shut. My anxiety level will skyrocket and I have to get out of the shower quickly whether I'm done or not.

These are not "scared of the dark." These are symptoms of a much larger issue. As per above advice, you need professional help, not tricks to get past the under-bed monsters more quickly.
posted by Etrigan at 7:35 AM on January 7, 2013 [15 favorites]

This is absolutely something to see a therapist about. There are pretty well-established psychological treatments for phobias - they're much more straightforward to treat than something like depression. Find a therapist who specializes in phobias - you'll probably want someone with behaviorist leanings. Don't let embarrassment stop you - I 100% guarantee that whomever you go see will have treated patients with much, much stranger fears.
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:36 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a great modality for treating phobias.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:36 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Bloodwork - to test for medical issues that might exacerbate your fight-or-flight responses - and therapy, which is very effective for phobias.

Don't make your children grow up like this; you could have this effectively done and over with before the end of the year, if not by summer. Get the bloodwork from your GP or OB/GYN; you may have to do some googling and phone calls to find a therapist but it's not that hard.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:41 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

No one here (or anywhere else) is going to be able to reason you out of beliefs that you know are unreasonable. I think that you are probably diagnosable with an anxiety or related disorder. You need a psychiatrist.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:45 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

This thread has some suggestions that seem potentially useful for dealing with fear of the dark. Ewkpates in particular had a good way of approaching the problem.
posted by TedW at 7:51 AM on January 7, 2013

Best answer: I am not a doctor, and this is not medical advice. But as a layperson with an anxiety disorder, this sounds to me like the symptoms of an anxiety disorder. This means it is not your fault -- you're not immature or weak or anything for having this powerful fear of the dark as an adult. It is a genuine brain-chemistry imbalance. It also means there are established medical treatments that work.

I highly, highly recommend talking to a doctor about this. Talk to a psychologist or psychiatrist if possible. In the U.S. at least, you can talk to your primary-care doctor and get a referral to a psych doctor. You could honestly just print out your post and hand it to them -- it does a good job of explaining your symptoms and how they are affecting your life.

Medication can be very helpful. I also like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety -- it has been very practical and effective for me.

I used to spend whole nights on high alert, listening to every creak and bump in the night, convinced that it was a rapist or murderer coming for me. Like you, I couldn't shower in the house by myself without panicking, and whenever I was home alone at night I was in a constant state of fight-or-flight anxiety. With SSRIs and CBT, I no longer have to live that way. You don't have to live this way, either.

One resource recommended by one of my doctors is The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, by Edmund J. Bourne. It contains practical cognitive-behavioral exercises that can help re-train your brain out of anxiety reactions.

However, I don't think you should try to use the workbook all on your own. Seriously, go talk to a doctor. It was beyond worth it for me.
posted by snowmentality at 7:52 AM on January 7, 2013 [11 favorites]

I used to have the same types of fears. And one day I sat myself down and basically told myself to get over it. I used my rational mind to combat the irrational fears by thinking how unlikely it is that something will grab my ankles when I get into bed, or that someone is hiding in that darkened room. I realized that these fears were holdovers from my childhood and that as an adult I simply could not live my life with these irrational fears. I had to be brave. This worked for me. Perhaps it could work for you.
posted by Pineapplicious at 8:01 AM on January 7, 2013

In addition to the more serious and excellent suggestions above for dealing with your anxiety, I just want to add the suggestion to look at what sort of stories you're surrounding yourself with, in terms of news and entertainment. Try to consume less news and entertainment that encourages or reinforces the ways your anxiety manifests, and seek out stuff that's more empowering or that deals with a different sort of conflict or threat.

Trivial anecdotal story: If there's such a thing as a really haunted house, I worked in one for a couple of hours once when I was an electrician - it was seriously creepy as fuck and my boss and I got progressively creeped out as our time in the basement progressed, and we could not get out of there fast enough. And the whole rest of the day, I was fucked-up twitchy and freaked out. Like, I showered with my eyes open even while (carefully) shampooing my hair because I was that twitched and afraid. My solution was to go out that evening and see "Aliens" again, which was in the theaters at the time, because I decided what I really needed to see was a visible overt threat that gets its ass kicked, burned, and nuked from orbit (it's the only way to be sure). It worked, and that started me thinking about how things I watched and read could encourage or discourage the thoughts about things that were bothering me. A more pedestrian example is blacklisting news sites from some of my browsers when I'm really strung out about the state of the world (like before the election this past year); for a while in October, I decided I need a break from things that were outraging me that I couldn't do anything about - I prescribed myself less political news and more ravelry and cute overload. And it helped me chill out.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:05 AM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The advice to seek counselling is wise. Until you do, here's something you can try at home.

I used to have the same sort of problems. Then I ended up playing murderer #3 in an amateur production of the Scottish play. I spent a lot of time with a mirror perfecting a sadistic grin, got formally trained in knifework and spent several months lurking in shadows and stabbing people in the back. Apparently I was projecting sociopathy so well that friends of other cast members were unwilling to meet me.

This picture says it all. Become the thing that goes bump in the night. It's all about the evil smile. Seriously, spend some time with a mirror and thank me later. Train in daylight with the weapon of your choice, be it flyswatter, iron poker, nerf gun or fake kung fu. Never walk into a dark room. Tiptoe. Stalk. If you should meet the boogeyman, come up on him from behind.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:14 AM on January 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: To those who have been or still are scared of the dark, what were/are the tricks or tips you use to calm your irrational fears? Am I forever stuck being scared of every bump in the night or can I overcome this?

As others have said, you do not need tricks or tips, you need treatment for what you've described, which is substantially disordered thinking. There could be all kinds of reasons for that disorder, and no one can diagnose you over the internet, but the well-meaning suggestions here for ways to self-treat are not likely to have a big impact on what you are describing. The good news is that this kind of things tends to be very treatable. The bad news is that it might look untreatable if you don't go get treatment.
posted by OmieWise at 8:17 AM on January 7, 2013 [8 favorites]

Re: your dog. Try to keep this in mind.

Dogs growl when they sense a threat. They have much better hearing and smell than we do, so they notice things we don't and their heads pop up. But dogs also have a much better sense of "something is not right" than we do, and they signal it by growling.

A barking dog is just excited and announcing. Maybe it heard the mailman, maybe it smells your husband coming home.

But if your pooch isn't growling at something, nothing is behind you sneaking up on you.

Best of luck.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:25 AM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

I just wanted to point this thread out to you. In it, we have a thoughtful, excellent parent with the best of intentions trying to do the best thing for their kid while self-describing a set of anxieties that is far past normal and not really realising that. We also have a ton of people beating the OP over the head with the anxieties their mothers unwittingly foisted on them and that they still need to deal with now as adults.

So what I would say to you is: your anxiety is outside the range of normal adult anxiety and you should get help from a phobia specialist. And, you should do this if for no other reason than that your fears are not engendering a great environment for raising carefree kids.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:29 AM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Having lived in places where lack of electricity made pitch darkness the evening norm, and real danger indeed existed, I will share the following that helped me:

- Your brain is your friend. But, right now, it's your enemy. You need to let it "do its work." Fright sets in because your brain doesn't get a chance to work through the logic fail. Instead, you flush your mind with even more thoughts of dread, and soon panic sets in.

Example: someone lurking underneath your bed who's going to "grab your ankles and pull you underneath" fear. Try this: have your husband lie under the bed and attempt to drag you under by grabbing your ankles. You will very quickly realize how very difficult this is to do, if not impossible. One cannot "swiftly pull you underneath the bed into the dark portal of hell" so easily. And, if they were a bad man, or intruder - under the bed hiding would make him far more vulnerable and trapped then to pose any threat to you.

The brain likes to have a chance to work with logic and can easily figure out real vs. Imagined danger. Make the effort to go through each scenario you describe (shower fear, gape in dark closet etc), type it out if you have to, and you, will see how well your mind deconstructs the fear into much more manageable "chunks."

If these exercises do not help, you should explore professional therapy. Good luck.
posted by Kruger5 at 8:36 AM on January 7, 2013

Please try therapy, this is what it's for.

But here's a small suggestion about the monster-under-the-bed:
Switch to a trundlebed or a bed with drawers underneath: something that goes right down to the floor on all sides. That way, there won't BE that empty space under there. And if you don't already have a bedside lamp, try one of those 'Clappers', so you can get comfortably in bed before turning the lights out.
posted by easily confused at 8:42 AM on January 7, 2013

Try this: have your husband lie under the bed and attempt to drag you under by grabbing your ankles. You will very quickly realize how very difficult this is to do, if not impossible. [...]The brain likes to have a chance to work with logic and can easily figure out real vs. Imagined danger. Make the effort to go through each scenario you describe (shower fear, gape in dark closet etc), type it out if you have to, and you will see well your mind deconstructs the fear into much more manageable "chunks."

This is HORRIBLE advice. Truly, outstandingly bad. It would be contraindicated by everything that you have written in this thread. You are describing the kind of thinking that is not at all linked to logic, and there is a substantial chance that imagining or acting out these scenarios will make things worse rather than better.

I cannot stress enough that, given what you have described, the advice to play-act your worst fears is simply awful and potentially very harmful.
posted by OmieWise at 8:42 AM on January 7, 2013 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for the responses so far. Especially to made me feel so much better about this.

I do plan on calling my doctor today and getting a referral for this, because I am seriously sick of it. And it would make my husband so very happy, and would help him feel better about leaving me alone.

I try very hard not to let my children know I'm scared of the dark. I hide it the best I can from them. As far as they know, Mom is fearless and will charge straight into a dark room to show them nothing is there. What they don't know is that I'm about to pass out from doing said charge and I want to lay down in a corner to cry the fear away. Thankfully, they seem to have more guts than I could ever hope for myself and I have never had to actually show them there is nothing there. My husband helps balance that out if need be and usually will do the soothing if there is something they are afraid of (they don't really scare or care much about darkness).

I was diagnosed with OCD when I was around 12-13, but my parents put me through lots of therapy and medication. I have that managed and go about my life without to much interruption from it. But sometimes I wonder if this it manifesting itself in a different way, since I have control over my triggers.

Thanks again, and I will be getting hold of a therapist one way or another.
posted by Sweetmag at 8:44 AM on January 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

I used to be you, to the point where I had my kids sleeping in the bed with me if my husband was out to sea so that if they needed me at night I did not have to wander the house at night to see to their needs. Yeah, it's bad. It's so difficult to explain to people who've never looked a half open door and thought that someone was peering out at you even though you logically know there's no way anyone could have walked across the house and hid themselves in the closet during the day. Logic plays no role in this.

I never went to therapy for this, but I hear it helps. However, I did see a psychiatrist and went on meds for my bipolar. Voila! quite a bit of these went away. Not completely, and not all at once. I still had to talk my mind into behaving itself at night. One of the things I did (and, as always, ymmv) was tell myself that if there was a person hiding in the closet waiting to get me, there's no reason for them to wait so many hours until nighttime to jump out and get me. In other words, if they were there, they'da got me by now. So bam! no more closet boogeymen. Same with things that go bump in the night. There's no reason for things to stand around waiting for night to fall, they have better things to do (not logical, but logic has no play in this), and boom, no more things that go bump in the night.

I still banish shadow ghouls by turning on the light in dark rooms, but the boogieman in the closets have disappeared and I don't lie awake at night and wait for something to grab me. So you might ask your mind why these things you think are hanging around are hanging around and why you think they're out to get you. That's what helped me.
posted by patheral at 8:57 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, motion-triggered nightlights. Those helped too.
posted by patheral at 8:59 AM on January 7, 2013

Do as above, but carry a flashlight on your person. Don't go cheap on this, get something with at least 150 lumens, and carry extra batteries-- if you haven't spent $50. You can drive back the darkness. You can illuminate any watching eyes and blind onlookers.

Dark corners and mystery noises are places where you lack information, and it sounds like your brain is assuming the worst. Feed it information.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:12 AM on January 7, 2013

I can only give you short run type advice to help you until your therapist sorts this out.

First, I would take my box spring and mattress and put it on the floor. Get rid of whatever frame has your bed in the air. (Lou Brock, the St Louis Cardinal and hall of famer told a story of him being scared of monsters under his bed when he was little. His father solved the problem by sawing off the legs to his bed.)

Keep a flashlight type lantern next to your bed. Use it at night whenever you want light.

Call ADT and get an alarm system put in. Or get a panic button.

Get one of those alert things for old people to press a button and it calls for help.

Some people would consider getting a hand gun. (While I think that is a reasonable solution in some cases, I think with children in the house, it is a big mistake.) It is really as a confidence booster. Maybe carry a can of mace or a stun gun?

Before dark, go around the house and turn every light on. I know some people who willingly sleep with the light on in their room. You could get a mask to make it dark in your eyes, but when you get up to go (since you bed is on ground and no harm can come from under the bed), just take you blindfold thing off and viola, light and a clear path to the bathroom.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:27 AM on January 7, 2013

Think about how brave and tough you are, enduring this fear for years. Think about how great it will feel to overcome this fear, and be able to occupy your home in peace.

For the time being, you may want to consider motion sensitive/ light sensitive LED night lights. I like darkness, but have them in the bathroom; they're cheap to operate, and no-maintenance.
posted by theora55 at 10:46 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Maybe you already know this since you've had OCD most of your life, but do expect that "tips and tricks" may not help much. Just like your dog, any other measures you take to protect yourself against your fear may just be absorbed right up into the fear itself. As a short term method of coping, alarms and flashlights and such may help you get through the day until you can get professional assistance--but phobias and obsessions tend to grow the more you feed them. When you seek professional help, I agree that CBT is a good idea, but also look for exposure therapy to desensitize yourself to the scary. Good luck! Your life will be so much better when you tackle this and win.
posted by epanalepsis at 11:24 AM on January 7, 2013

Best answer: Husband here. Thanks so much, Askme. We are both thrilled about how hopeful and helpful your advice is. Sweetmag is an amazing (and definitely brave and tough) person and deserves to feel safe in our home.
posted by history_denier at 11:39 AM on January 7, 2013 [7 favorites]

You've been given some great advice.

As a person with a severe, specific phobia (totally unrelated to yours, but of course the experience of anxiety is the same) I have just 2 important things to tell you:

1. This is absolutely, 100% NOT a character flaw, and I can guarantee you have learned things about compassion and suffering from your experience having this phobia. Reflect on the bravery you have shown and the understanding you have gained from living through this experience.

2. Your problem is not the dark, the stairs, the closets, or the inability to hear in the shower. Your problem is fear. It is both appropriate and useful to modify your environment somewhat to suit your needs, but no amount of "hacking" or "tips" will ever solve this problem for you. You MUST confront your experience of fear in a safe, gradual way, preferably with professional help. Again: you need to understand how to handle fear, not how to handle the dark.
posted by Cygnet at 12:02 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I understand that you think you're hiding this from your kids, but it's quite possible (maybe even likely) that your kids are picking this up. Part of the problem is that we only have conscious control over a fairly small section of our behavior. If you are breathing quickly, doing startle reponses, sweating, whatever - all those involuntary responses to fear - your kids might be seeing right through you.

If that's the case, your kids are getting the message that not only are you frightened, but the very fact of being frightened is so bad that you can't even talk to them about it! Maybe they'll learn that they shouldn't talk about being scared either.

This is typical anxiety behavior - that you become anxious about being anxious, which leads to a spiraling of anxiety/panic.

This does *not* mean that you should become better at trying to hide your responses. You might want to consider coming out of your anxiety closet with your kids. Depends on their ages and their ability to comprehend, but you might want to tell them that mommies gets scared too! You could tell them that you're trying to become braver. If you want to learn something new, ask them what *they* do when they are scared to help them feel better. You might get some amazing ideas from them that will hearten you and help you out on the journey ahead.
posted by jasper411 at 12:26 PM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Your therapist can best guide you through the process of actually getting over your fears, but if you want something to do in the meantime, let me suggest you simply imagine yourself already comfortable in the situations you've just described to us. Imagine yourself closing closet doors, walking calmly up the stairs, getting in and out of bed, being comfortable in a dark place, etc. All the things you have been afraid of, you won't be, and that will be your new reality.

I remember the basement of the house I grew up had the playroom with all our toys but there was only the one light switch down there. When entering we had to run down and turn it on. When leaving we had to turn it off and then race up the stairs to get out of the dark. It became a habit and a fearful mentality that occurred when and wherever it was dark. One day I decided that instead of pretending to run from a monster in the dark, it would be was more fun to pretend to be the monster in the dark. The transformation was both instantaneous and cruelly delightful. To my younger siblings, I'm sorry.
posted by wobh at 2:12 PM on January 7, 2013

Best answer: I was like you, until getting treatment (drug therapy + CBT) for my GAD.

One day, I flipped off the lights in the room, and realized I had no urge to run into the light of the next room. Huh. Just happened silently along the way... somewhere between the first pill/session and a few months later.
posted by IAmBroom at 3:19 PM on January 7, 2013

Sweetmag - I was going to say it sounded a lot like my own OCD-related issues, but you brought up OCD on your own. So instead I will say: you are not alone. I have intrusive thoughts like these too, and I know how powerless it can make you feel. Fluoxetine (Prozac) helped a lot with my symptoms, for the record.
posted by tacodave at 4:33 PM on January 7, 2013

Not sure if it will help, but my trick to get around my minor fear of the dark/creepy things is to think: "Well if something kills me now, at least I won't have to go to work tomorrow/finish this boring report/clean the kitty litter/"
posted by Cattaby at 6:40 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

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