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Waking on a Scream: Nightmares, Theories, and Living with Uncertainty

November 11, 2010

I won’t say that my sleep issues rival the ones my son once had, with the up 36 hours straight down 14 hours that we dealt with for way too many years. They don’t. I do sleep. I just don’t sleep well and I wake up every hour to hour and a half. The meds I was taking that gave me three and four hour blocks of sleep quit working, and I am getting worn out with the frequent wakings and the sudden-onset panic attacks that tend to come on at three in the morning.

I’ve got an incredibly noisy mind, and for whatever reason, each time I wake up at night, it starts running full tilt, examining the dream I’ve just had, the book I was reading before I went to bed, the things I want to do the next day, or worse, it starts writing a piece or a story (don’t ask why I just referred to my mind as an it). I don’t want to write in the middle of the night. I’ll never get back to bed. I won’t. I’ll write for hours and then be too tired to do what I need to do the next day. As best as I can, I ignore that steady stream of words and try to get back to sleep. Sometimes that works, but most often, there I am, lying on the couch having an internal argument with myself. Those I consider good nights.

Bad nights, on the other hand, frakking suck. Instead of that internal pull and tug to write, instead of a busy haven of thoughts and musings, I awaken on a scream, in full panic attack. When it’s on the end of a far-too-real nightmare, it’s easier as I know why my heart is bursting out my chest, why my gut is down at my feet, why I am feeling the way I do. I can talk myself back away from that horrible experience, reason my way out of it. I am, at least, grateful that there are clear reasons for the mood that coats me today like molasses, refusing to loosen its grip. Other nights, there are no clear reasons, and I am left with telling myself that sometimes there are no explanations, just really crappy rides we have to hang onto until we get to the end. Not much comfort at all, that’s for damn true.

Last night was one of those waking on a scream nights (but at least I know why) and it weighs on me this morning, despite my attempts to work it out. It was a horrible nightmare and made me wonder if perhaps I’d tarried too long in sad places.

There are various theories on dreams and their purpose (We’ll just throw Freud right out, though, if you don’t mind and Jung, too. Throw out your dream encyclopedias, as well, please. No woo here! ), but two that I teach in my general psychology course are activation-synthesis hypothesis, which means simply that our dreams are the results of random neural firing. The other theory the textbook highlights is the extensions of waking life theory promoted by Rosalind Cartwright, where “emotional problem solving takes place during dreaming.” There are other theories, of course, like the neurocognitive theory of dreaming, which are promising areas. Yes, when I’m having a rough time, I take comfort in science, in theory, in what others have tried to empirically validate. Freud, Jung, and other folks promoting theories based on their own conjecture rather than what can be validated are interesting to discuss (and things I do discuss in class, making clear that it’s terribly easy to just talk and much harder to prove things) but I find that I take no comfort in fairy tales or philosophizing. I am, at heart, a show me kind of gal. I can live with no hard answers and a “well, this is interesting, but who the frak knows?” kind of mentality.

So when I awakened this morning at four on a scream and realized that sleep was done, I set about talking myself away from my nightmare. I dreamed that one of my children died; who and how are not important. It was real, visceral, gut-wrenching. At the end of the dream, as I awakened on a scream in both the dream and real life, it was a few days after and the tangibility of the loss had just set in, the realization that I would never see the child’s face again, never touch the child’s cheek in a loving caress, never hear the child’s voice.

In the dream, I crumpled, crumbled, collapsed into a ball and began screaming. It’s a hell of thing to experience in a dream, to wake up to, but what I immediately processed upon awakening was that I could do that, I could see, I could touch. I could hear. And I did, I went to each of their rooms and looked in at them, lightly touched their cheeks, and I knew that all was well, and my heart broke anew for my friend and his wife who lost their youngest a couple years ago, for fellow blogger Heather, who lost her daughter three months ago, for all those parents whose blogs I read for the IComLeavWe event last month who have lost their children.

Perhaps I tarried too long in places where sadness touched, perhaps it was a natural extension of waking life. Maybe it was random firings, signifying nothing. Perhaps there are other reasons entirely. I know that many people would not look to science to explain their nightmares, that they would instead call it an omen, that they would pull out dream encyclopedias and look up the elements and let someone else tell them what it meant. Some few would call psychic hotlines and seek answers there.

I do not need hard answers on this; certainty and absolutism are not necessary. Nightmares are all too common an experience for me to seek deeper, hidden meanings. Instead I will choose to look at this past night as an opportunity to appreciate my children, my loved ones, and to feel a deep and abiding empathy for those who have lost. Loss is inevitable and comes to each of us. Most of us do not stay crumpled in that fetal position screaming. I have witnessed, through friends, through fellow bloggers, through others, and through my own losses, that most of us get up. Most of us get up. And I will hold onto that each and everyday, regardless of what happens. Moving forward or lying in a fetal position are choices we make.

So too are the choices we make on how we face this world. Do we look for answers based on attempts to examine objective reality? Do we try to face the world as it really is, messy as it really is? Or do we instead turn to mysticism and gurus? To smoke and mirrors? To hard and easy answers?

I choose the former; I wish to get as close to knowing objective reality as is possible. It’s not an easy path; it often feels like standing at the edge of an abyss, so how can I be surprised when it robs me of breath at times? It’s majestic in how vast it is, how unknowable it is, how it is a lifetime’s work of being willing to be untethered, unanchored.

Scientists, ever-curious individuals, will continue to work to discover why we do the things we do, why we dream the things we dream, why we believe some of the completely illogical things we do. Whether they discover the answers, though, on how to change people’s illogical beliefs and behaviors is anyone’s guess. Which way to go through our own ego tunnels is the best, easiest, and happiest way, well, that’s anyone’s guess, I suppose.

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