Taking a break from sweating the upcoming Presidential election, and now that the Chicago Teachers’ Union has settled its war with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and returned to the classroom, I would like to explore another nagging plague in my current existence: bad dreams.
In college, newly fled from the stultifying influences of a broken home, a paradigm shift from survival mode left my subconscious flooded with psychological disruption. At that period in my life, sleep was not a problem. If anything, I availed myself of way too much of it as an escape from past wounds I had not the tools to heal, as well as present demands that I had trouble meeting. That said, nocturnal adventures were punctuated by disturbing, bizarre, often threatening images that belied the waking image of a good time girl without care. It was at some point during my sophomore year that I began relying on depressants to put me into a deeper trance, providing a certain amount of insurance from waking in a disturbed sweat.
But like any substance routinely ingested, the drugs lost their edge and before I knew it, no amount of chemical shield was enough to stave off the nightmares. In time, therapy, self-exploration and the accrual of newer, less intimidating experiences dulled the edges. The dreams never left completely, but they became less frequent and less menacing.
What was old became new again in the fallout of painful separation and divorce last year. Dormant fears of abandonment were realized in ways that felt inevitable yet impossible all at once. Naive as it sounds to my own ears, to love as much as I did must yield success. And when it didn’t despite my every effort, I was right back in the shoes of that broken college student: disoriented, despairing, yet by this time old enough to understand that a youthful pattern of interpersonal injustice and failure was one I might be unable to transcend.
This time even a light sleep was not so easy to attain, and fitful slumbers were accented by violent, wretched visuals that once again had me reaching for over the counter reinforcements. But I couldn’t drink enough Nyquil to medicate the root causes of my nighttime horrors: fear, shame and a broken heart.
In 2012, I am somewhat a different woman than I was the year prior. Not only accustomed to, but thriving in a solitary living environment, ensconced in a supportive, healthy and loving relationship, and surrounded by friends and contacts who inspire, buttress and move me to strive for what never seemed possible in the dark ages, this 34 year-old female feels more whole than at any point in the past.
Yet my pesky subconscious continues to remind me that all is not well. Recent weeks have borne witness to a vengeful return of the nightly phantasm. Several evenings ago I dreamt of my estranged mother. In the dream she was scheduled for brain surgery and my sister and I arrived at her bedside only to hear her castigate her unwanted children to anyone within earshot. In a fit of rage, I began choking the patient with a force so inhuman that her head severed from her neck and rolled onto the operating room floor. Blood sprayed everywhere. Have I mentioned that in my waking life I am a skittish pacifist who watches episodes of Grey’s Anatomy through her fingers and cries when her boyfriend tries to show her Google images of a spinal tap? Yet when I awoke, I had to confront the reality that I am suppressing a great deal of maternally-directed rage.
I have discussed these sleeping battles and waking aftershocks with my therapist who seems perversely pleased despite a general concern for my restfulness. Dr. T has long held the theory that the internal compartments built to house the pain of childhood neglect were made of the flimsiest plaster. Her theory is that I have to open those hiding places at some point in order to mourn and move forward. I have resisted this work in the diurnal hours but it seems that latent emotions will have their say no matter what locus of control I contrive to own.