Yes, I had nightmares—children do. After all, it takes some time to get used to being alive. And how else, except in the clarity of dreams, are you supposed to see the world all around you that’s hidden by the light of day? —Deborah Eisenberg
Exactly eight days until I officially move out of my parent’s place. After four months and fifteen days, I will be a woman of my own manor (apartment). To be fair, the four months were easy. The last fifteen days were like chewing metal.
Not because of anything anyone did. I have to say the last 120 days have been almost serene. Kind of like when you’re running and at first you think you’ll never make it but then you hit your stride and suddenly the pain isn’t as bad, the steps not as hard -you’ve settled into it. The last fifteen days, however, I’ve felt like collapsing.
The main reason? I haven’t been sleeping. And the fear of not being able to fall asleep at night keeps me irritated and agitated during the day. When the sun starts to set I become restless and nervous, like the night is a friend of my parent’s I don’t want to see. But I know it’s not the night. I used to love the night. It’s what happens when I’m alone in it, when I finally do fall asleep. It’s my dreams.
I’ve been having these crazy dreams. In these dreams –and they have been happening at least once a week for the past month or so– I am screaming. Not screaming out of pain or fear or anything dramatic like that. It’s more of an agonizing, deep wail of frustration.
It’s the kind of aggressive pleading I experience when I fight with my husband. One of those rare fights that happen maybe once a year where I can’t get him to see my point. Where he’s missing it so completely, I am questing if he understands me at all. Or when I used to fight with a friend, when she thought I said something or did something and I’m screaming at her to see my side.
Two weeks ago, the dream was with my family. We were on vacation, I recall tropical trees shorts, the feeling of water and myself, screaming, pleading, whaling to my mom over crab salad. I didn’t want her to order it. I wanted her to order the beef wellington. Considering I can’t remember the last time I ate crab salad or beef wellington, I can safely assume the dream was not about the food.
A week later it happened again. I was back at work in some office and a friend or a boss was doing something I didn’t agree with and I was screaming at her. Pleading. Seething. The week after that I was screaming at Danielle Staub, a woman I only know by name from The Real Housewives of New Jersey.
The details are always hazy and out of reach, and as the day wears on they become increasingly opaque, eventually dissolving into blank space. The only thing that remains is the feeling – a feeling so strong and real that even now I can recall it with clarity. Because the feeling, though it happened in a dream, is real.
The feeling haunts me during the day. And that feeling, or rather, the fear of that feeling has kept me in a state of anxiety and I’m starting to believe that these dreams are the reason for my difficult relationship with sleep. It’s not the lights or the pillows or the firmness of the mattress beneath me. It’s the dark abyss I know I’ll be cast into and after so many years I just don’t want to have these dreams anymore.
While I’ve always had bad dreams, nightmares, sometimes even terrors, I’ve never had consecutive screaming dreams before. So the same way I googled what does it mean when your teeth fall out. I googled, what does it mean when you can’t stop screaming.
There are answers to falling and flying and dying. Women dream of pregnancy when something in their life is growing –a promotion, a new relationship, a child. We dream of falling when we’re overwhelmed or insecure. We dream of being late when we feel that life is moving without us, when we’re not achieving our goals in time. There’s even answers to what it means when you’re dreaming and you want to scream, but nothing comes out. But no answer to this kind of screaming.
The screaming, it seems, isn’t a symbol for some obvious problem in my life. The screaming is just a sign of my dreams doing a good job. Because what I learned after more googling, more rabbit holes, is not just what our dreams mean, but why we have dreams. And more importantly, that our dreams aren’t supposed to be nice. They aren’t there to entertain us, to pull us into a whimsical world of our favorite things. Our dreams are there to do a job—to do the emotional processing for us, to clean up all the emotional baggage we didn’t deal with throughout the day.
Jeffery Kluger wrote in Time’s article What Your Dreams Actually Mean, “The least glamorous explanation for any dream is that it serves as a sort of data dump — a clearing of the day’s useless memories and a caching of the valuable ones.” Our dreams are built by our memories. That’s why they say that you will never see a random face in your dream. Even in a crowd, each face can only be made up by people you’ve seen before. Our memories are built by our feelings, our emotional reactions to events that occur during the day.
Throughout the day we experience hundreds of encounters, awkward moments, clashes, feelings. We don’t have the time or capacity to sit down to process all of these emotions and events. Our dreams process these moments for us. According to sleep researcher Rosalind D. Cartwright, “In this way, dreaming diffuses the emotional charge of the event and so prepares the sleeper to wake ready to see things in a more positive light, to make a fresh start.”
When we’re dreaming, we’re cleaning. We’re healing ourselves. Our dreams aren’t supposed to be magical. Our dreams are the midnight crew that comes in to clean up the mess. The stains and chipped paint and overflowing garbage—the tiny infractions and slights you incurred throughout the day. By trying to re-create memories, our dreams are trying to hash out unresolved emotional conflicts. The brain, however, can never replicate an exact memory, so it makes up a new one that has the same feeling.
You didn’t slash your husband’s tires, but something happened that had the equivalent effect—or that made you want to respond in that way. Maybe you said something that was hurtful, the words replaced with a knife in your dream because your brain didn’t remember the words but rather the sharpness of them. Maybe another important male figure in your life hurt you during the day but left you unable to respond or retaliate. It’s why we wake up in the morning with a weird feeling about someone and sometimes have a hard time letting it go.
Before understanding this, I felt my subconscious was betraying me. I was scared of it. Scared of all the monsters and feelings it wanted to bring out when I was caught off guard. Now I understand my dreams are just trying to help me. They’re there to put all the emotions, memories, and feelings I don’t want to deal with to bed.
I’ve noticed something else that’s changed since I’ve had these dreams. It seems the more I scream in my dreams, the less urge I have to scream in waking life. In fact, in the past six months of living back home I haven’t lost my cool once. Not really anyway. There have been no major arguments. No fights. I’m starting to wonder if maybe these screaming dreams are a sign of maturity. A rite of passage into adulthood. Maybe only those so in control in their waking life are subject to the wild energy they absorb throughout the day. Like a lightning rod.
And now, I’m sleeping again. I’m sleeping better. I’m not scared of what will happen, I’m excited to see what my body, my mind will unpack for me. I feel like I’m cleaning my room. Making my bed. Vacuuming in my sleep. And I get to wake up and walk into the day fresh, unencumbered, in a state of peace.
Photo is Frida Kahlo 1950 in the hospital