In dreams we aren’t ourselves.
Publish date:
January 7, 2015

I knew eventually in the therapeutic process that we would talk about my dreams. To be clear, I don’t mean my aspirations, which are simple enough (take over the world), but rather, my sleepy-time adventures. If my therapist herself didn’t bring them up, I knew that I would. Because I am fascinated by dreams, my own and those of others. This is not uniformly the case.

The way anyone reacts to the phrase “I had this one dream where...” is either with enthusiasm or the hissing distaste of a person just asked to smell Dom Deluise. I’ve met several hundred people in my lifetime who abhor hearing about dreams. If their reasoning was that it feels too revelatory and too private, that it’s like a vivid description of a stranger’s latest trip to the bathroom, that would be something I could understand.

But usually dream-haters roll their eyes and scream “THEY ARE SO BORING” when confronted with the dreams of another.

Dreams aren’t boring at all, they’re just almost impossible to tell well. Dreams are weird and disjointed and so characterized by the atmospheric that they at times defy description. That’s when you get hour-long hot-fork-in-eyes type sessions with a stranger on a bus about their mother-in-law shaking them in a Bolton’s department store, “only it wasn’t really my mother-in-law,” the teller might add cryptically.

When I was a kid, I used to pour through dream analysis books at the local bookstore, carefully making sure I didn’t crack the spines or drip bright pink splotches onto the pages thanks to my Strawberry Coolatta (served with extra whipped cream). I know that flying means sex, I know that losing teeth means anxiety, I know that a door can mean a change, that in certain cultures seeing yourself in a dream is often taken to mean that you will die.

I was positive at the age of 12 that my dreams held the secrets to unraveling the mysteries of adolescent life, like why no one wanted to squeeze my boobs or French me. After reading about lucid dreams, wherein the dreamer can become aware of their dreaming state and change the dream’s course, I spent roughly a month trying to master this fine art in the hopes of seducing dream-Ted Danson in the back room of Cheers.

As an adolescent, it’s not arrogant to think that your dreams contain the secrets of the universe. But hopefully as you get older you see them for what they are: Your subconscious mind working out waking-world problems, sometimes at their most helpful, directing you toward unresolved emotional issues or states of mind. That said, I recently had a dream where I was teaching a camel how to do the Bernie. This does not seem to have any actual bearing on my life as it is. I chalk it up to an ingestion of way too much cheese.

I’m not sure how I brought up the dream the first time in therapy, but I’m sure I did it with chagrin. I am one step away from a New Yorker cartoon at any given moment anyway, telling my therapist about a strange dream is almost more than I can handle. I also owe her two months worth of dollars and although I know she won’t, I’m terrified she’ll hear me out and say something like, “That represents a financial obligation you have not met.”

Of course, that doesn’t happen. I only talk to her about the dream because it has changed for the first time in years. Yeah, now you have to hear about it. Sadly for us all, Ted Danson makes not even one appearance.

It’s not recurring, but there are recurring elements. One, in particular, has been omnipresent in my sleeping life for almost as long as I can remember: I’m surrounded by tornadoes. Since I can feel so massively out of control and frightened and overwhelmed when I’m awake, you don’t have to be Freud or even a budget dream-analysis book to figure out what these funnels of fury (oh alliteration, I love you, in a prison-bitch kind of way) represent: Penises.

I’m kidding, I’m kidding. The tornadoes are everything I fear, they are constant looming destruction that I can’t run or hide from because I am not Bill Paxton (and more’s the pity) and this is not Twister. In fact, were life the cinematic disaster epic to end all cinematic disaster epics (sorry, Dante’s Peak), I’d more than likely be that one cow who is hurtled past the storm chasers' windshield not once, but twice, lowing in hopeless, comedic helplessness.

But here’s what is different about them now: How I react to the tornadoes. In the past, I'd react like a panic-stricken lunatic. You know, because, tornadoes. But the last time I had the dream that wasn’t the case. Instead of spotting the funnels and feeling horror strike my guts, I just took notice of the storms and continued about my business — which, in this dream, was trying to find my friends at a terrible house party and get a cab home.

My therapist thinks this is good. “You’re recognizing that there are things beyond your control and you aren’t trying to change them,” she says. I like this interpretation so it’s easy to swallow. But it doesn’t allow for one thing. In dreams we aren’t ourselves. Even when we are, we aren’t, not always. The way I feel when I see the funnels in the dreams now isn’t confident, but full of icy acceptance: Disaster is coming, and there is nothing I can do, so in the meantime I’d better try to carry all of this falafel with my bare hands and no shoes on for some reason.

Dreams are weird and also now I want falafel. Maybe the funnels and how I react to them don’t mean anything at all. If they do, what does it mean that it’s still so easy for me to accept the terrible and the painful than it is to accept the good? Maybe they mean the destructive parts of my personality aren’t as far away as I think they are, maybe instead they have all just been pushed back to the edges where they wait for the next unsuspecting cow to happen past them.

I say to my therapist, “I wish I’d figured out lucid dreaming as a kid. Then I’d just run into the tornadoes and see what happened.”

She wisely pointed out that whatever the storms meant, I’d been running into them for long enough.