Confronting Nightmares

photo by Benjamin Davies, courtesy of Upsplash

I dreamed about the two worst traumas of my life last night. They were separate dreams, though both were in present time. In one, I’m talking to a classmate from Vermont College who was widowed earlier this year. In the real world, I’ve written on her posts on Facebook and we’ve exchanged emails. The dream was just an extension of those conversations, though it was in person. We’re both 2013 MFA graduates and seemed to be at an alumni gathering. Maybe that was the point, because in widow terms, I’m class of ‘02, and she’s ’18. I was trying to comfort her—to be an example that it’s survivable.

The dream was so straightforward and realistic that it didn’t seem very dream-like. But it’s interesting that it was juxtaposed with a dream about Bill, my mother’s predatory second husband who terrorized our household when I was 12-13. Bill whiplashed my life, sending out ripples that lasted decades, so it’s notable that in the 43 years since I’ve seen the man, I’ve dreamed about him only once—until last night. The first dream was when I was a junior in college. In it, he was chasing me with a huge gleaming knife, as I ran down dark alleys, terrified. As with the real-life situation, I was helpless—I didn’t have any way to defend myself and there wasn’t anyone I could turn to for help.

In the dream last night, I had to sleep on the floor and Bill was there. I lay down, pulled the blanket up, settled on the pillow. And then he was there and somehow my clothes were off and he was groping my bare breasts. I ordered him off and he retreated. My feeling was more of annoyance than violation and unlike when I was 12, the power was all mine. I told him to get off me, and he did. The dream was a lot like the final dream I had about my mother. For more than a decade, maybe even two, I had nightmares with my mother chasing me through Indiana Jones situations—sheer, icy, mountain faces, suspension bridges trembling 1000 feet above rocky, roaring rivers, and so on. In these dreams, no terror was greater than being caught by my mother, so I always charged right into danger, with her in close pursuit. Until the final dream—when I turned around and confronted her. I said, “This isn’t real, and you can’t hurt me anymore.”

As I write this, I’m watching my 100-pound Labrador retriever pant and “run” with far more energy than he exhibits when awake. Whether he’s chasing rabbits or just frolicking in snow, I’ll never know, but for myself, dreams can be a window into a real-life state of mind. I’m grateful that my dreams and my life have moved from helpless to empowered.


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