Coping with Nightmares

Let’s admit that, as much as we’ve wanted some dreams to come true, we’ve had more than enough that we’d rather stay on the shelf.

The dreams we remember have been powerful phenomena for as long as human beings have been able to record them. But some dreams–the kind from which we awaken in a tense, fearful state–we hope are, in the words of Charles Dickens’ Scrooge in confronting the ghosts of Christmas–“an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are.”

The best “natural cause” of a remembered dream I’ve heard is that it is a relic of the neurochemical processing our brains perform when we sleep. This processing is a kind of filing system that stores memories of some of our waking events, and purges others.

This explanation fails to satisfy when we recall the dregs of dreams that are so outrageous that we are confounded for an origin. What did I ever do, I wonder when a nightmare hurtles me out of sleep, to deserve this?

Part of the Freudian psychoanalysis is based on the fatalism that that nothing happens to us by chance: our dreams, our “slips” of the tongue, our careless errors, our preferences for one ice cream flavor over another, are the strange fruit of our subconscious, and by analyzing these things, we may come to understand our behavior better.

This is a nice idea, but it quickly grows cumbersome as we look at so many, many seemingly random blurts of behavior. Surely some are more significant than others? Why must those bad dreams survive our waking memory? Where’s the psychological equivalent of a flush lever?

My nightmares of late share two general themes. One is incompetence, in which I must perform some kind of important task and discover that I’ve either failed to prepare sufficiently (I’m dressed wrong, I did not to study, I did not bring a necessary tool) or an unforeseen, frequently slapstick catastrophe makes a mess of everything.

The other is betrayal, that scorching paranoid fantasy when you discover that the people you thought were out to get you, really are out to get you, and, in the nightmare, they get you.

Perhaps because I’ve spent so much time learning and teaching, the majority of these dreams occur in an academic setting. What is it about public schools and a well-meaning, unquestionably liberal liberal-arts college, that can leave this dreadful motif in me, especially when I’m far away from the places where my nightmares occur? Not only did I study for, and pass, the last standardized test I had to take, but, way back in my 30s, when lecturing about history, I showed up for class and discovered I’d left my lecture notes at home. I had to do it from memory, and I not only delivered the talk, but I discovered that the audience responded better to what was a spontaneous event, rather than the recitation of a text.

So the guy who lives in the waking world knows these bug-a-boos aren’t real, but, they keep happening. What to do?

I came up with a tactic that certainly won’t “cure” me of these nocturnal delusions, but will make it easier to live with (and without!) them.

And that is to come up with an alternate dream, a brief fantasy that is as wildly improbable as the nightmare, but upbeat, wish-fulfilling, ridiculous good fun!

So, when I show up for the lecture and I realize that I did not prepare adequately, or that, instead of professorial tweeds, I’m wearing cargo shorts, sandals and a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of a competing university, I give myself a few seconds of head-on-the-pillow time and–

I begin a stand-up comedy routine about the academic pettiness and everybody laughs at my jokes! They forget what I’m was supposed to talk about and tell me that they had the best time listening to me!

Or I use the magic of imagination and everyone in the lecture hall is wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt, each from different periods in the band’s history and, smart guy that I am, I demonstrate how the shirts reflected, not just the band’s image, but that of the surrounding American culture that embraced, or ignored it.

And, as ludicrous as this fantasy is (though the band’s Skull ‘n’ Roses shirt shares the same colors as the later Lightning Bolt skull logo, it’s difficult to tie in the mix of cowboy country music and psychedelic noodling of that period to the later, more regular, pop-music influenced “disco” Dead of the 1980s), it negates the ominous dread of the nightmare. At best, the twin fantasies cancel each other out. At worst, you accept the fact that there is no benefit in letting the cumbersome processes of a sleeping brain taint the dawn.

If only so many other afflictions were so easily banished! Living clearly, living honestly, living happily (and for those of my age, in reasonably good health) in the sunlight–that’s a dream that has come true, and should come true as many times as possible.



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