What Dreams May Come (Though I Wish They Wouldn’t)

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

If you asked me whether I'm prone to nightmares, I'd say no. I don't see monsters or dream of murders. The macabre content I consume during the day (lookin' at you, true crime) doesn't seem to penetrate my sleeping mind.

But that doesn't mean I sleep peacefully, either.

When I was in college, I went through a period of time where I consistently had the world's most mundane dreams — mundane dreams that were also incredibly problematic during my waking life. I'd dream about things like studying for a test or picking up my prescriptions from the pharmacy. I'd dream about completing a class project or calling my grandmother. 

It was like my to-do lists were too long to accomplish during the day, so my brain tried to make its way through them at night. Come daylight, I'd get confused, thinking I'd already done things I'd only dreamt of.

I don't do that anymore; it hasn't happened for years, and even when it did, it was only in times of maximum stress. I know, now, how to catch myself from getting that wound up. I know that if I have even one mundane dream about a to-do list item, there are probably more to come, and it's time for me to get my stress levels under control.

But I still have anxiety dreams, ones I haven't been able to stop even when it feels like, during the day, I'm not anxious about anything at all. 

I have normal anxiety dreams, though there's nothing normal about them. Maybe I should say "common," the ones you see decoded in dream books. 

Sometimes, I dream that I'm not quite flying but floating, that when I jump, I can stay in the air and keep the momentum going so that I soar above the ground and transport myself easily from place to place. Sometimes I dream that my teeth are falling out, crumbling into gravel in my hands as I spit them out. They grow back in as quickly as they fall apart, and the sharp pieces just keep coming. 

Even my less-common dreams are common, I suppose, because no one's brain is all that unique, is it? Certainly not my own. And yet, these dreams feel much more personal, somehow, much less rote and predictable than the good old flying-and-teeth tropes.

Sometimes I dream that I'm 38 years old, in this moment, and I have to return to my high school or even my elementary school, to request transcripts that they can never find. Sometimes, I have to retake a class, something that the administrators realize I never completed or that I never passed; in some cases, I simply never attended at all. I have a college degree, but they tell me I don't have a high school diploma yet. They tell me, without saying so, that my entire life is a fraud.

Sometimes I dream, inexplicably, that I am back in my sorority house, and oftentimes, there's no one else there, everyone out at parties and sisterhood events. The ones who are there don't notice me because I am nobody, just like I was when I was in my sorority in real life, and the ones who do notice me aren't kind about it. Sometimes I still have a room waiting for me there, or I have secretly co-opted the room of a sister who's out of town, and I always feel the dual comfort and terror of play-acting that their life is my own, as though I ever belonged.

I dream that my high school musical performance is in progress, but I haven't been coming to rehearsals and don't know the choreography. I forget to bring at least half of my costume — my shoes, maybe, or my dress, or the entire thing — and I run home to get it or I dive into the vastness of the costume closet, and every time, without fail, I miss the show, frazzled and behind and a perpetual failure. Occasionally I make it on stage for the very end, as the final song is in progress, just in time to catch the furious eye of the choir director who never liked me. 

There's a theme, I know. The theme is my past, but that's the funny thing: When I'm awake, I feel pretty OK with my past, and even better about my present.

I enjoyed high school, where I was relatively well-liked and had a close group of friends. I was the chorus in our school musicals but never had more than a line or two, and I certainly never missed a whole performance. I have some open wounds from my time in my sorority, yes, but that was nearly two decades ago, and it was followed by two decades of great friendships that do not make me feel like an impostor. 

So why are all of these strange elements of my past haunting me in my sleep? What do I need to work through that I don't even realize I've not dealt with? And why does it insist on coming back to me during times of happiness and very little stress? 

I do all the right things. I take medication, I go to therapy, I'm in boxing, and I meditate multiple times per week. I work a 9-to-5 job, I get enough sleep, and I eat green smoothies for breakfast, and my life doesn't feel all that stressful. Yet these stress dreams plague me sometimes, and nothing I do can stop them.

I just can't figure it out: Why won't my brain leave me alone? And what the hell do I need to do to make that happen?

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