I suppose it is fitting that an essay about nightmares starts in a dentist’s chair. Last month was my first time at the dentist in seven years. Gross, I know, but it turned out I had minimal cavities and great hygiene.
But when my dentist showed me my X-rays, she pointed out massive gaps where apparently I was supposed to have bones. She noted that several of my teeth were loose. It was something I had felt but thought I was imagining, like when you’re convinced that your eye is twitching but no one else can see it.
I had apparently ground my teeth down enough to put me at risk of losing some in my 20s if I didn’t get a mouth guard and swear off baguettes and apples. And as much as I aspire to be a scary old spinster with missing teeth that scares neighborhood kids off her property with a broom and an ornery cat, I don’t feel quite ready to look the part. I miss my baguettes.
Lots of people grind their teeth for lots of reasons. I do it because of the distress of chronic nightmares. And when I say nightmares, I don’t mean dreams in which I lose my job or am broken up with unceremoniously. I mean blood-soaked hellscapes populated by a cast of villains, often including some insane version of myself, so sadistic and morally disfigured that they’d have Patrick Bateman making the sign of the cross.
And when I say chronic, I mean every dream I remember. And I remember a lot of them.
It’s a world of rape and torture and corpses and humiliation. There is never an escape or a nice twist ending where everybody gets out alive. I won’t bore anyone with the full narrative of any one nightmare but here’s a small sampling to give you a snapshot.
Being forced to carve a love letter into my body with a glass shard and Exact-o knife. Rape via turned-on curling iron (had that one at 9). Trudging through a forest, knee-deep blood-soaked soil in a heavy wedding dress with a severely burned woman sewn into the train, wriggling desperately to get out so she could kill me. Watching a woman with a human body and a pig face sponge bathe my sick roommate with blood while stutter-whispering “Shhhhh.....Shhhhh” to me as I lay paralyzed. Accidentally suffocating more people than I’d care to count. And with curious frequency, piles of disemboweled dead horses that I have to hide under. Sick shit, bro.
And I’ve had them since my earliest memory of dreaming. And I don’t have other kinds of dreams. And even after 27 years of dealing with them, I’ve never known I was dreaming during them so I might wake myself up before the shitshow (sometimes literal, those are gross) begins. It’s kind of fucking with me.
As a child, my mother had to cut my nails short because I would wake up with deep scratches across my face from the stress of the nightmares. I still get the scratches occasionally and use my poor cat as a scapegoat. Keith, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry.
I sleep with a stuffed animal because I often need something to clutch when I emerge from one of them. I tell dudes that the mangy creature is purely decorative but I’m starting to suspect they’re not buying it.
But scratches and age-inappropriate bedroom paraphernalia are minimally upsetting compared to the toll it takes on my mental well-being and even my relationships. When you’re the perpetrator in your own nightmare, it makes you call into question whether that person is some variation of who you really are. And it’s difficult to look at friends in the eye when you’ve witnessed their gruesome murder the night prior.
Spending between one quarter and one third of your life asleep, the terror moments accumulate into a deeply unsettled baseline mood, too. It makes the prospect of sleep less appealing, even when I need it most. It makes it hurt a little bit when people wish me "Sweet dreams" cause I can count those on one hand.
Some Google investigation to see what the issue might be has shown me that I don’t suffer from most of the probable causes. I don’t have PTSD. I had the tremendous good fortune of a childhood free of physical and sexual abuse. My mental illness is treatable and treated. I’m at kind of a loss.
I’ve done imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT) where you write out your nightmares then imagine a way of changing them so they don’t go so nightmarishly. It’s supposed to be remarkably effective but it hasn’t done as much for me as I had hoped. Therapists are sympathetic but their verdict is generally that I’m just a stressed and anxious person and that alleviating those symptoms will stop the nightmares. Maybe I’m just hard-to-please, but this conclusion leaves me wanting.
I will cop to this: I am seriously morbid and kind of a creep. Trent Reznor and Voldemort are in my Top Five. My apartment is decorated with several renderings of medieval images of Hell. I love horror movies and that weird museum of medical oddities in Philadelphia. A theory among friends is that I’m just a seriously grim person whose dreams are naturally going to reflect that aspect of my personality.
But I don’t know how to change that and I’m not sure I want to. I have been this way my entire life and attempting to reconfigure so much of my thinking and my general preoccupations and tastes seems like an unfair solution that will ultimately fail anyway. So I’m wondering if I’m just destined to be haunted by these grim episodes forever.
Now it would be melodramatic and inaccurate to say that a third of my life is spent in terror. I don’t remember them every night and dreams don’t actually last that long anyway. I'd have far fewer teeth if they did. But going to bed night after night, unsure if this will be another sweat-producing, sitting-up-all-night-watching-cat-videos-to-try-and-shake-off-the-fear, obsessing-over-the-serious-fragility-of-human-flesh kind-of-night is making me tired. And tired isn’t good for me.
The truth is, I have a feeling that these dreams reflect something really simple and super transparent. I have a paralyzing fear of death. Both my own and of those that I care about. It’s brutal and inescapable. It makes me feel helpless and kind of lonely.
When you combine this fear with an overactive imagination that veers back to death despite attempts to steer it elsewhere, of course you get a lifetime of nightmares.
But unlike heights and spiders, the fear of death is not entirely irrational. It is arguably worthy of my fear.It also can’t be confronted on any old day like in those mean Maury Povich episodes where they chase people around the stage with their feared object or creature.
In the meantime, when I put “overcoming the fear of death” into Google, it returns approximately 1.65 millions results. I’m currently on the third. Fortunately, I anticipate having some time to kill a few nights per week for the foreseeable future.