We should have been enjoying the Portugal sunshine as we sat sipping our cocktails and staring out at the cliffs and wave-splashed caves of the Algarve coast. Instead, my parents, husband and I found ourselves suspiciously eyeing any man with a backpack, scanning the crowds for any guy even remotely resembling the man who had been standing at the foot of my father’s bed in the middle of the night, just a few hours before.
We were staying in a two-floor villa in the family resort of Albufeira. After a supper at a local restaurant, we put our little boy down for the night and enjoyed a drink on the patio as we planned the next day’s activities.
A little while later as we all snoozed, a man broke into the gated community, scaled a wall into the pool area, chose our villa, and climbed up a drain pipe to my parents’ bedroom balcony.
My dad recalls waking upon hearing the patio door slide open. By the time he could react, the burglar was looming over his bed. I am not quite sure what this intruder was expecting, but when pushed, my father reverts to his youthful persona of an East End lad, rough around the edges and ready for a ruckus. Even though he’s in his 70s, he launched out of bed in the nude, screaming obscenities in his Cockney twang and practically frothing at the mouth.
This performance had the desired effect, and the interloper turned on his heels, ran to the balcony and jumped right off, landing awkwardly and smashing through a lawn chair, splintering it into smithereens.
My parents watched in shock as he ran through the gardens and hopped over the fence, his empty backpack the last thing to disappear around the corner.
We dealt with this in the traditional British way, by drowning it in liberal cups of tea. By the time the kettle was put on for the second round, we were proclaiming my dad a hero and trying to find some humor in the break-in. We joked about the lack of concern the Portuguese police displayed, about my dad’s immediate slide into a Hackney barrow boy, and hoped rather sadistically that the intruder had broken his ankle falling.
Despite our attempts at lightening the mood, this rude intrusion into our family vacation left a bad taste. We had lost the frivolity of vacationers. And my dad, especially, was finding it very difficult to sleep.
An inability to sleep is a natural reaction after a trauma like a home invasion, according to Ramani Durvasula, a professor of psychology and licensed clinical psychologist. If the experience occurs while you are sleeping, that can be incredibly damaging to normal sleep patterns, she added.
“After a trauma, and certainly in the ensuing days and weeks, and sometimes for months and years afterward, a person can experience a host of symptoms characterized by hyper-arousal, avoidance of activating situations, intrusive thoughts, social withdrawal, and changes in mood,” Durvasula said.
Difficulty sleeping can lead to a host of other problems exacerbated by sleep deprivation, which can make it even more difficult to recover from trauma.
“The chronic fatigue induced by the sleep difficulties can also augment difficulties in living and adjustment after a trauma such as this,” Durvasula added.
Jason Eckerman, a licensed psychologist with expertise in sleep improvement, said traumatic events such as the burglary that startled my father can lead to a range of sleep problems.
“The two most common ways that trauma affects sleep are increased arousal and nightmares,” Eckerman said. Victims can have a “hard time falling asleep after traumatic events because their minds are still actively searching for threats and for ways to protect themselves.”
Eckerman described one patient plagued by nightmares concerning a trauma.
“He would avoid going to bed for as long as he could and limit the amount of sleep he got because he didn’t want to have to face the repeated nightmares,” Ecklerman said.
The National Sleep Foundation says an excess of the neurotransmitters epinephrine and adrenaline can follow a trauma, leading to further stress and an inability to wind down enough to rest. The group recommends sufferers take a warm bath before bedtime and avoid stimulants such as coffee.
Once our vacation was over and everyone had calmed down, we continued feeling slightly more vulnerable than before. We enjoyed our vacation (mostly because toddlers have a way of making you smile despite yourself), but the break-in did play on our minds.
If you have a similar sleep-disturbing traumatic experience, these tips can help:
Talk about it
Although my dad confronted the intruder alone, it was important that we were all together and able to talk about it.
Have all the feels
An intrusion such as this is bound to make you feel a range of emotions, including sadness, anger and shock. Let them come and go. You have every right to be upset.
Don’t give in to fear
Horrible things do happen all the time, but you can’t allow anxiety to dictate how you live your life.
Sometimes it takes a crisis to realize what you’re made of. Turns out my dad’s made of pure 100-percent East End geezer ― and that bloke scaled the wrong balcony!