I think my nyctophobia turned my partner into Sandra Bullock in Bird Box. At least, that’s who he most reminded me of the other night when I saw him wearing the sleep mask he uses as a shield from the light I desperately need to stay on all night. Without it, my anxiety soars sky high and my heart pounds. All of this is because—to answer that famed Nickelodeon-prompted question—I am indeed afraid of the dark.
Or, maybe I’m just afraid of Samara from The Ring. I don’t find it a coincidence that I started sleeping with the light on after watching the film in 2002, but many find it puzzling that my fright has extended so many years. I’ve found that being an adult and simultaneously having a fear of the dark prompts so many questions from the few people who know about it, and the tonal subtext is often, “Why—and why would you ever share that information?”
I get the judgment. See, nyctophobia, as Healthline has taught me with a not-so-necessary air of condescension, tends to dissipate with age. However, my fear really isn’t that huge of an anomaly. One doc says an estimated 11 percent of the United States population is afraid of the dark, making it a more common phobia than a fear of heights.
And unlike with heights, where the visual stimuli is responsible for the palpations, nyctophobia is more rooted in the anxiety of having impaired vision, invoking a feeling of defenselessness. The small lamp on my desk is typically enough to keep me calm and happy, but anything from a bad dream to a before-bed horror movie to even the Sunday Scaries can push me to light up the whole room. The more fearful I get, the more bulbs are necessary, as if illuminating my room is shrouding me from anxiety bogeymen.
There were, once upon a time, some stipulations. I didn’t force my freshmen-year roommates to keep the light on or alert my random hookups that they needed to save me from the monster under the bed. Historically, having someone with me kept me from freaking, which is a real Freudian take on things. Old Sigmund thought a fear of the dark correlated with separation anxiety, writing in his General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, “I once heard a child, who was afraid of the dark, call into an adjoining room, ‘Auntie, talk to me, I am afraid.’ ‘But what good will that do to you? You cannot see me!’ Whereupon the child answered, ‘If someone speaks, it is brighter.’”
Word, little dude.
I found myself waking up in a full-force panic attack, terrified by the stillness surrounding me. Forget whatever I was wrestling with in the throes of REM; waking up in darkness is the real nightmare.
And so, for years, having a body in place of a night light made the room brighter until it…didn’t. When my S.O. and I went to the Catskills for his friend’s wedding, I found myself waking up in a full-force panic attack, terrified by the stillness surrounding me. Forget whatever I was wrestling with in the throes of REM; waking up in darkness is the real nightmare.
What’s especially fun and great about this is that it sure as hell cuts into the quality of my sleep. One small Ryerson University study on 93 college-aged men and women found more than half of the 42 who suffered from insomnia reported a fear of the dark. And it’s a real catch-22 because you know what helps you go to sleep? Um, the effing dark. Like, it’s why our iPhones keep us awake every night. According to the American Medical Association, blue or white nighttime light suppresses melatonin release and interrupts circadian biological rhythms.
Perhaps, then, the best cure for a fear of the dark is, well, getting used to the dark. So why can’t I face that fear? Truthfully, on my mile-long list of “Things to deal with in therapy,” this doesn’t crack the top 10. It’s concerning and something I’ll need to confront directly…yet it can be bandaged. Maybe I’ll switch out my lamp for something more subtle, like an adult-friendly night light—maybe something gemstone-y. I just don’t want to shut off the brightness entirely.
Because even if it’s counterproductive, the reality is that I don’t like being left in the dark. Alone. Defenseless. Wondering what kind of person I am, what kind of person I’ll be, and contending with the horrifying stream of consciousness running through my mind, not willing to quiet itself for sleep. I’m just lucky to have a partner who’s willing to support me through this—even if doing so opens him up to the risk of the joining the dumbest internet challenge of the year when he wakes up at 4 a.m. to groggily go to the bathroom.
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