My Dangerously Active Nightmares


A thief was in my room. I saw him plainly. He was big, but that didn’t stop me. Screaming, I jumped up and grabbed him.

A photo of my bed
Photo by author

I am off to dreamland a few minutes after I get into bed. I’m gone so fast that I almost never notice my wife coming to join me a little later. Aside from getting up to pee once or twice, that’s it. I’m out of it until morning.

Most of the time.

Sometimes my dreams become more alive than they should. There’s a name for this; it’s called REM Sleep Behavior Disorder (RBD or RSBD). It apparently happens mostly to men over sixty. I am well over that age, but..

The Thief

The first time it happened to me I was sixteen. I thought a thief was in my room. I saw him plainly. He was a big guy, but that didn’t stop me. With a blood curdling scream I jumped up and grabbed him.

I had him by his arms. I was trying to get him down on the ground so that I could subdue him. He was amazingly strong and I wasn’t able to control him. We thrashed about, bumping into furniture. We spun, I was trying to get him down. My arms hurt, I was losing my grip. I could not hold him much longer, he was winning the battle.

I yelled for help. “I’ve got him! I’ve got him!”

When my sister came running, she found me holding my own wrist, twisting and flailing about wildly. She yelled at me until I woke up. I was a bit confused, but realized I had been dreaming. My arm hurt for a week after that one. My family talked about it much longer. “Remember the night that Tony caught the robber?”

Yeah. I could laugh at it too.

REM Sleep

REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep is the period when you are dreaming. You are supposed to be paralyzed (atonia) at this time so that you don’t act out (parasomnia). Sleep walking is an example of parasomnia, but REM Behavior Disorder is more aggressive: kicking, punching, running. People do get hurt. I’ve never hurt anyone else, but I have hurt myself several times.

I’m a fighter

My dreams that trigger this are usually that someone has broken into the house. I jump out of bed to attack them, screaming loudly. My wife thinks that I am afraid. No, not at all. I’m out to destroy that thief or would-be murderer. That yell is my battle cry. I will attack!

When I say “attack”, I mean precisely that: On one memorable night, I ran across the house to literally tackle an imagined intruder who was running away. As he was only a dream, there was nothing to tackle, so what really happened was a painful slide across the living room floor. My knees were skinned badly and I hurt a finger.

In 2008, I caught an intruder, had thrown him to the ground and was kicking him viciously. I thought I broke a toe that night, but it was only a very bad sprain. My doctor was quite amused and suitably impressed by the angry swelling.

That one worried me more than previous incidents because that was the year I came across an article that described the symptoms and put a name to it. I learned that WebMD has a whole page on it. They told me that it “may occur in association with various degenerative neurological conditions such as Parkinson disease”. Oh, great. That was not anything I wanted to hear.

Is it a disease?

I wasn’t sure how I felt about having a disease. That word seemed extreme to me. It was just nightmares. Very active nightmares. I joked that I got extra exercise while sleeping. My wife did not laugh. I pointed out that if anyone ever did break in, they probably would quickly regret picking our house. She was not at all comforted by that.

Back then, I realized that I was likely to have these incidents when I was overtired or stressed. I read that treatment with drugs such as Clonazepam might prevent it, but I didn’t like the idea of taking things with possible side effects that are much worse than a stubbed toe or some rug burns.

On the other hand, my wife had to suffer with me. She worried that she might become the object of my aggression. That never happened; even in my dreams I knew that I was protecting her. I am a warrior, at least in my dreams.

I tried a sleep mask. I tried drinking less coffee. I tried melatonin. None of it worked and I just resigned myself to living with it. My wife learned that touching my arm and calling my name was safe; I would not turn on her. It’s good that she was with me whenever this happened. Who knows how far I might have chased a burglar. I might have woken up in another town!

But then it stopped. No more intruders. I’ve had a few nightmares since 2008. I’ve sat up in bed flailing about with my heart racing and yelling loudly. But I have not been out of my bed. I have not chased or wrestled any intruders. It’s been many years since I last hurt myself. It seems to be over. I hope it’s over!

I don’t miss it. But every now and then one of my sisters will say “Remember the night that Tony..” and I know what’s coming next.


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