I've Had It With These Snakes in My French Class
I have a few different classes of anxiety dreams—I’ll try to catalogue them here.
I tend to remember few dreams, so I may have current, recurring anxiety dreams without knowing it, but occasionally if I’m nervous about an upcoming thing I have to do in work or life, I’ll have a stress dream about it, and those are fairly literal. In my dream, I’ll be doing the thing I’m supposed to be doing in real life, and invariably my brain will think of a problem that could occur, and then in the dream, that same problem I imagined will fulfill itself, which is kind of interesting.
For years out of school, I had the dream where I’ve shown up for my French final, and I somehow forgot to go to class for the entire semester, and I know nothing. That seems to have finally tapered away. Oddly, I did fairly well in French, and I studied two more languages in college, but the dream never switched to Latin or Ancient Greek. It was always French. It was always my 8th grade French classroom—a class I did super well in and enjoyed.
I’ve also had, since childhood, an irrational fear of snakes. If I have a nightmare, it will usually involve some type of snake or serpent. In 2013—the year of the snake—I decided that this fear was silly, and that I could overcome it by familiarizing myself more with snakes and normalizing them. I was going to start by reading about them, looking at pictures, meeting one, and eventually holding one. This plan got as far as me reading a couple articles online and then having two weeks of terrifying nightmares. I decided that my aversion to snakes must be genetically programmed in me, and that I should just leave well enough alone.
Other than the occasional work dreams described above, I tend not to even appear in the few dreams I do remember. I am usually a third-person observer, and there is another main character, and I am feeling emotionally his/her journey, but I am just a passive onlooker. Someone once told me that this was because I was a writer. I’ve read though that having 3rd-person dreams is a way to psychologically distance ourselves from our own feelings and desires. If I had to guess, I’d probably say the real answer is that it’s both.
I have a two-story duplex. It is amazing what is downstairs. It's enormous. It's like an industrial loft with 20-foot ceilings and secret doors. I don't know why I rent it out and live upstairs in my tiny apartment.
How long has this been here, looking like this? Did the tenants do this? Am I charging enough in rent for this?
Who are those kids going in that door? Wait. Fran and Kim are running a day care, or is it a preschool, down here too. That's nuts. Are we even zoned for some commercial use like that? I can't believe I've never noticed these children trouping down the stairs. There is plenty of room in here, though. It's like an indoor playground, or one of those Gymboree play spaces. Do the other neighbors know about this? It seems like the kind of thing people might complain about. This is way worse than running an Airbnb, I bet.
I should get these people to move out. It's not going to be pretty, though. They aren't going to want to give up this huge space. But really, it's far too industrial for little kids. Do Fran and Kim even have a license for a preschool?
What's through this other door? Jesus. This part alone is big enough to be a whole other apartment. Oooh. I like that lofted sleep area. That kitchen? Very eclectic, but in a cool threw-it-together kind of way.
How have I been living upstairs from all this for 20 years and never known it was here? What have I been missing? Ignoring? Why am I just 10 feet off from the kind of living space I've dreamed about -- wait, maybe I am dreaming about -- and yet have let other people use it? I wonder if I should show this to Amy. She'd like this. She might wonder why I've been keeping it from her.
It's odd how different this feels from the rest of my little Spanish bungalow box. It's like they must've dug down two stories. It is a bit dimly lit, but still, vast. I could have a jazz club here. Or an art studio. Or a yoga studio. Or all of those things. What a waste.
The Ski Frustration Dream
The wind is swirling and the snow is coming down lightly on a grey New England day for my first time on skis at age six. I have my mother’s old pair –the antique skis and poles hung on the walls at ski lodges. I hike up the hill and then ski straight down, never turning, just speeding to the bottom. Right then I fall in love with the thrill and exhilaration of skiing.
Soon after come the frustration, or anxiety dreams about skiing. The basic dream is always the same. I am going skiing and just as I arrive at the slope, I realize I have forgotten a key piece of equipment, like my skis, or boots –always something basic and necessary. Each dream is a variation of this theme with other obstacles scattered around to make it all the harder to get going and ski. In my last dream, I am lost in a city on the way to the ski lift and have to climb obstacles to find the path to the ski area. When I finally arrive, I have forgotten to bring my skis. Each dream ends with no skiing, just distraction with all the problems and people I encounter on the way.
Why does my subconscious create these travails on the way to skiing? Maybe because there is a checklist of equipment and it is easy to forget something, or lose a glove, or drop gear from a chairlift. Lately, I try to tell myself in the dream to forget about skiing and just ride the dream wherever it takes me. But that does not work, and I am always trying to get to the lift, or the mountain to start skiing. And in every dream I never make it.
A crazy wad of goo
Freud believed that all dreams have meaning - they subconscious is trying to tell the conscious mind something important. But often, dreams are just bizarre and crazy and if they have any hold in reality, we are totally and utterly screwed. Other times, however, dreams do in fact tell us what we need to know.
I have had two reoccurring dreams throughout my adult life. I have learned over the years their meaning, and try to find some way to do what they are compelling me to do, if for no other reason than to make them stop. Reoccurring dreams, especially ones that make you feel like you are quickly going bat-shit crazy, are troublesome at best.
My first reoccurring dream that I have figured out is one in which my teeth are falling out. Like, literally, falling out of my mouth and either into my hand (conveniently place near my mouth for such an event??) or onto the floor. I am then left to deal with the shockingly enormous hole in my mouth and my feelings that I am a meth addict or homeless drunk pretending to be a capable human being. In my dream, my tooth, or teeth, would feel wiggly when I was speaking, and I would move it with my tongue while speaking only to have it pop out. To my horror, the neighboring teeth would also jump in line, or out of line as it were, and soon I would have a palm full of teeth, from incisors to molars. Now, in reality, I do in fact have a missing tooth, and while it is merely the result of an adult molar never forming and the baby tooth giving up the ghost after something like 35 years of dutiful service, this real life missing piece has never caused me concern. Losing every tooth in the front of my face, however, leaves me feeling vulnerable and naked, like I walked into an auditorium to give a speech and forgot to get dressed.
My other dream also involves my mouth (I talk a lot - perhaps there is a connection there??) but rather than losing something, I get the feeling I cannot get rid of something. If you have ever eaten something, find it less than palatable, but then cannot actually spit it out - well, that is my other frequent visitor. It feels like I have straw in my mouth, but no matter how often I rinse or try to spit, I cannot get the stuff out. It feels awful, in my dream state, and I find it hard to carry on conversations, or even complete thoughts, as my mind is dragged back to the sensation of crap in my mouth.
Freud did have a point. I disagree that all things go back to the need for a penis, but with these two dreams, I needed to learn something from each of them, and now if I have them, I see them more as harbingers rather than demons. My teeth falling out? Pure and basic insecurity. I have realized over the years I have that one when I do not feel good enough. Imposter syndrome extraordinaire. If I take the time to examine my current situation, I almost always find the area of need, and once I see that, the dream goes away. It showed me what I needed to see and completed its task.
The straw dream tells me there is something I literally need to spit out. Something I need to say to someone. And until I do, this dream will come back again and again, teasing out my gag reflex as I desperately try to get rid of the straw.
The brain, the mind - they are amazing structures, and it is nearly impossible for a mere mortal to fully grasp what they can do. If we listen, our minds will tell us what we need to know to make our lives better. At least that is the hope, right? Otherwise, that strange wad of goo between our ears is simply that - strange, amorphous and random.
Hard to Understand
There are several types of dreams that I have repeatedly and perhaps I find them so memorable, they're also reflective of my anxieties.
Or, other subconscious fears and uncertainties.
One thing I frequently find myself doing in dreams is repeating myself, getting frustrated, and nearly yelling at people in an effort to be understood. I know, at least in my dream, what I'm trying to say, but it seems whoever I'm talking to just can't get it, can't see what I'm trying to say.
This is especially troubling because I pride myself on being clear and precise and not being understood is a fear of mine. Like, if people could just know what I mean, they'd agree with me or like me or see just what a great fella I am.
In these dreams of failures to communicate, or even coming close, as often as not I seem to be speaking a language others don't understand and we have no common way to communicate. I'm at a loss in these dreams for how to proceed and that merely increases my frustration with the situation or with what point I'm attempting to get across.
It usually isn't profound point or highly technical matter I'm failing to describe in these dreams, as often as not it's something mundane, like directions to my home or asking what shirt I should wear. No matter the subject, though, my inability to be understood is always the same, a constant feature of the dream.
I think these dreams usually resolve themselves, and my problems in them, by my actually becoming so frustrated and unsettled that I wake myself up. I certainly can't remember ever solving the problem in the dream, of achieving some sort of successful resolution. The dream goes from being mundane, if not mildly entertaining, to including and stopping with this failure to be understood, and stops there, leading me to an unhappy and uncomfortable return to life and consciousness.
REM (not the band)
Anxiety and I have become old and wary friends these past 5 years since I finally finished my MA, and there was no more school to go to. (Except for a PhD of course, but then even I knew my academic drive majored more on the "I love ideas and hate reality" side of life than the "I think I can study what I love so well and so much that I can find something new to add to it, and then devote my life to teaching others to love what I love for little pay and no health care" side).
So I had to get a job, and there the anxiety began. No more hiding within the pages of my term papers and the all-consuming grind of 3 classes in a 10 week quarter--it was time to be about the business of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness! Passion, and Meaning, and all that.
But Meaning still eluded me and the wolves of Sallie Mae were soon to be at my door, and 2 weeks into my job I was suddenly stone-dead certain I'd fail at this like I'd failed in my goal of Better Living Through School.
So, the anxiety dreams came. In the beginning there weren't even images or context, just sudden waking multiple times a night that wrecked my REM sleep and left me full of existential dread. After working with a therapist for some time and learning some breathing exercises, the terror processed enough into the much more preferable mundane: spreadsheets of endless numbers I didn't understand, or spreadsheets I'd forgotten to fill out with crucial data that no one told me I needed to track.
The last time I shared a hotel room with my sister, she told me I'd woken her once when I suddenly sat up, breathed deeply 2 or 3 times, and then rolled over. Did I remember this? she asked. I didn't. It was a little unnerving, but I also had to smile. The worries I feared would consume my life had actually become such a part of it that I didn't even have to fully wake to quiet my racing heart and go back to sleep. Perhaps not an ideal way of life...but it's something. For now.
The Battle Inside
I have anxiety dreams every night. I have never had full on wish fulfillment in a dream. If I get close in a dream to something I want, I start getting desperate and it's even more clear that the circumstances are out of my control. Even when I have a lucid dream —awakening inside my dream to the fact that I am dreaming — I do not get to run around eating all the candy I want and riding dragons. No matter how hard I focus I am just stuck wherever my brain left me, able only to open cabinets and poke around, wandering uselessly staring at the sky wishing a dragon might appear. What's that, dear Therapist? You think it's pretty telling what a self sabotage-r I am based on the fact that I won't let myself be happy even in my dreams?
Last night that we were at a school or institution that was about twelve stories high. Like you might imagine an elite international school in the middle of Paris or another sunny European capital might be. It was next to an exclusive country club, also a many storied building-- no lawns of green but a delicious looking pool. I was at the school as a worker but in an unclear capacity. I went every day and had insider knowledge but my old boss, his kids, and wife were there and I had to do them favors. I wasn't really working for them, I just still felt beholden to them. Their kids were attending some program there but they also still went to their usual school, because my main duty was to unobtrusively set up an umbrella from their usual school at the institute that would record the weather conditions. There were some subtle places on the campus and I felt sure the gardeners would help me figure out. They did.
More importantly there was a big room where I realized that I could perform a magical spell. It was a ritual that Buffy (yes, the vampire slayer) would do to gain skills. She would, with a few magic motions/potions, routinely summon a physical manifestation of her greatest fears and then she could deconstruct that fear bit by bit using only words. Not totally dissimilar to confronting a Bogart in Harry Potter, it was both a physically intimidating and mentally challenging exercise. Because I realized this exercise would be beneficial to so many people, I went about hosting sessions where I acted as the guide. I was on the list to go through the process myself -- I had only accidentally discovered this room allowed magic but hadn't gone through the process. Of course, as stated aloud in the dream, I had realized my greatest fear was that I would never get out of my own way and go after my dreams because of fear of failure. My greatest fear was, in essence, the fear of self sabotage. People's greatest fears usually physically manifested into a creature resembling a humanoid. Usually it was weird and monster-y. Again, you had to start talking at them to kill them -- You'd say "And now her arms fall off" or " And her hair disintegrates" and you had to keep your cool enough to break them down into nothingness. You couldn't physically fight them. Your way out of danger was all a mental strategy... which is profound since my issue is a mental/ internal one and not an external one I can physically fight, per se. I kept letting other people go ahead of me, instead of getting over my fear. It was all very justified and logical letting people ahead of me. There was a celebrity who went and instead of performing the fear ritual (if you want to call it that but it was very logical not witchy) showed a short film about family history. Fuck things were going off the rails now and were missing the point of this room. When people who hadn't visited the room called me crazy, I took them through the tunnels/bowels of the school to the head security guard. He confirmed that someone's dead daughter haunted the school (and this was somehow corroborative of the magic because it proved the existence of the supernatural).
Instead of facing my fear, I instead got sidelined helping my old boss and his family have a meeting up in some precariously strung up boats, hanging off the side of the building like window washers. It was nerve wracking because I kept worrying this dog was going to fall off. It was from up there that I noticed the country clubs pool and asked my bosses wife details about it to strategize about how to get in. She first forcefully said she wouldn't help me get in and I was completely cool with that. I assured her I assumed they wouldn't help me -- I was just looking for some details about other members of the club who may be more generous and help me swim in that pool.
Then we got off the boats and I thought, shit I really should have stayed in the room and worked on overcoming my fears.