When I dream, most of the time I am in the same city. It is equal parts “generic American city,” Bangkok, and some weird historical place that I can’t peg to any specific time or location. I always know my way around and all the people I know in my waking life wind up there, too. They wander around with the strangers, the people who feel familiar and yet aren't, the ghosts of individuals I will one day maybe meet.
Maybe it’s a parallel world. (I'm super fascinated by the concept of parallel worlds, actually.) Maybe it’s my subconscious. It’s my favorite place to find myself when I realize that I’m asleep.
But it’s also even money that I’m going to have a nightmare while I’m there — that’s the part of having a reliable dreamscape that stinks. In fact, sometimes it just amplifies how terrible the nightmare is because I'm in a location that so often seems like my ultimate home in a weird way.
A while back I dream that, in a house that was an amalgamation of two different great-grandparents’ homes, wolves with human fingers locked me and my husband Ed into a room and shoved crayon drawings that were really threats against my baby cousins under the doors. Once, in a series of place that were mostly the condo I lived in when my family lived in Pattaya, ducks killed a couple of my ex-boyfriends.
Ducks. That sounds ridiculous, right? But, like any nightmare, it was scary when I was in the middle of it. And it was built out of the same thing that occasionally plagues me when I’m awake, making tasks that should be super easy into palm-sweating ordeals that I’d rather not face: anxiety.
Slowly creeping anxiety without relief is often so much scarier to me than anything else. That might be why I used to play Japanese horror video games (the Fatal Frame series, for example) and also why I had to stop (because I was a little freaked out leaving the house in the dark after playing them). That's why I have dreams about hiding in the back of serial killer's vans and hoping they don't catch me or about hiding in the backseat of a Camaro outside of a vampire's house and hoping they also don't catch me. Oh, look, it's a theme.
Complicating the issue is that vivid dreaming is a side effect of a couple medications that I take. It's not the most common side effect ever but it does happen even with some over-the-counter sinus medications. If you've ever taken Sudafed and then woken up crying because monsters were eating you, it might have been your decongestant.
My usual straight up nightmares feature my husband being a great big jerk. Sometimes I can just turn my pillow over to its cool side (this is what I’ve always been advised to do after you wake up alone and scared) and fall back asleep. Sometimes it’s bad enough that I have to wake him up just to make sure that whatever scenario woke me up, chest tight and eyes hurting from dream-crying, isn’t real.
And sometimes I have to wait because whatever I dreamed about isn’t so close to home and anything feels possible in the middle of the night, no matter how terrible a thing it might be, but I have to wait to make sure it isn't true.
I dreamed I was sort of at work and sort of at someone’s house. I dreamed I got fired because I wouldn’t shut my mouth (I mean, I write for the Internet for a reason). I dreamed there was a hot tub and weird outdoor bathroom setup that was also a really beautiful wetlands area full of duckweed and lilypads.
The hot tub might have been a gratuitous detail. But I’d really love a hot tub like that.
There’s something superstitious in me, probably kept in the same mental pocket where I keep my gullibility about people’s good intentions. So I resist thinking of dreams as portents but sometimes I can't help it and I wind up trying to interpret them.
Dream interpretation, like tarot reading, relies so much on personal instinct on top of the usual archetypal symbolism. Dreaming about your job can either mean you need to work harder or that you are overworked. Job loss is supposed to symbolize insecurity. But what that hardly narrows it down enough to be useful. I mean, I've been in therapy for more than half my life because I have a deep inner well of insecurity (as does basically every writer I know). Tell me something I don't know, dream symbology!
I guess this is a thing about which I find myself very skeptical as much as I want to believe dreams offer some meaningful psychological insight. I want my recurrent childhood nightmares to have been about more than a fascination with herbivorous dinosaurs and the rock formations of Moab. I want that dream I had every single summer about the flying swing ride at Six Flags to mean more than waking up actually screaming.
What I want, I think, is a useful tool for self-analysis instead of a random grab bag of neuroses, the last thing I read, and how dinner has been digesting. Maybe it's because I want all of that fear in the middle of the night to be valuable somehow, instead of just being sucky and useless.
Obviously we don't always get what we want, thus: skepticism. But I want to believe (hey, X-Files) and so I keep considering it. What about you?