Nightmares … “A dream unexamined is like a letter unopened.”
Dream #1 The Landing. December 11, 1988
I am in an elevator in the Harley Court building where my office is on the seventh floor. There are several other people, mostly women, with me but I do not recognize any of them. The door closes and the elevator begins to fall. It falls and falls endlessly and everyone begins to scream and yell in panic. Silently I pray over and over, “Jesus, make it safe,” while out loud I repeatedly assure the others that everything will be fine. After what seems like hours, the elevator gently lands. The landing is the clearest aspect of the dream. Ever gentle, softly the elevator came to a halt bouncing like a child in huge feather pillows or lamb’s wool.
Jung would call this an “initiatory” dream, meaning that the dreamer is reading to begin the work of transformation, the “fall” into the unconscious. In my next blog, I’ll discuss the symbols in the dream and what they have come to mean to me. It would be so easy to change the title of this blog to “Breaking the Silence”. Living with depression and mental illness is not something that is discussed in “polite” circles. In 1983 I was seeing a psychiatrist. I prefer not to name the man as he did what his profession demands of him. However, the fact that I told him about the voices I was hearing, the fact that he asked “Are you telling anyone?” are very instructive. I was a young mother of three, a school administrator, a wife, …. and I was hearing voices. I was on heavy medication. “No,” I told him. “I may be mentally ill; I am not stupid.” Five long years later, I had learned from a book that I could ask for a dream. I had also learned that there was no one who could help except myself.
But, what if nightmares are a function of the trickster? The night world of the unconscious has the capacity to open up in violent fashion the forces that show me the tensions that exist within. My level of consciousness had previously prevented me from awaking to new possibilities. Now, after many years of studying dreams and field theory, I recognize that potential is always present for destructive change as well as constructive change. By the late 1980s, having suffered many years of depression , spent hours in doctors’ offices, and taking multitudes of drugs, I began reading, attending meditation, searching desperately for anything that would enable me to live in what I perceived to be “normal” ways. The only folks who knew my deep pain were my parents and my husband. Somehow, my public mask of normalcy stayed in place. I believe my inner world led me to follow forced moments of deep reflection and caused the first massive cracks to appear to what seemed to those around me to be an stable system. I was forced to confront my inner world through the violent overthrow of the intellect. The initiatory dream showed me that the descent to the unconscious was safe. I surely did not know that during all the years of nightmares.
It was not until the winter of 1988-89 that I began seriously reading about the meaning and substance behind these frightening experiences. Where in our culture do we find serious conversations about the value and learning to be gained from nightmares and dreams? These many years studying dreams have taught me an important lesson. Dreams DO NOT provide answers! Dreams ask the deepest life questions!! What is the question the nightmare is asking?
I was born in 1945 to homestead parents in northern Alberta. A search of books written about dreams in the 1940s doesn’t produce much! As a young child I had massively frightening nightmares. One face returned over and over. The face of a very ugly man with a burn scarred face leered at me from the uppermost shelf of my closet. My mother put a curtain over the opening but as soon as she left the room at night, I covered my head. Mom would come in and open my window, say good night and tell me I needed to sleep with my head uncovered to get fresh air. I kept my head covered. This did not stop the nightmare.
In my teenage years I spent nights falling over mountains, cliffs, off buildings and sometimes into nothingness. I awoke perspiring. arms aching from attempting to hold onto something. My arms ached from the tension of “holding on” and sometimes the palms of my hands were covered in dried blood. In the nightmare, I had clenched my fist so hard that my nails cut the palms of my hands. Often an unidentifiable masculine figure chased me endlessly while I struggled to scream for help.
At sixteen, I escaped into a world of my own. The doctors could find nothing physically wrong with me. In September 1961 I survived drugged on Phenobarbital. At the end of September, I left the private school where I was taking grade twelve and studying piano and voice. I spent that year sleeping, eating when absolutely necessary, always incredibly frightened. Sometimes I simply blacked out for no apparent reason. I do not remember any dreams during this period of my life.
I completed high school, went to business college and worked at two different law firms and then for General Motors Acceptance Corporation. I tried desperately to be ‘normal’ however by 1966 I was seriously struggling again. Fear seemed always to paralyze me. After yet another blackout incident, I went to a psychologist. After a series of tests, none of which I remember now, he told me two things:
a. I was afraid to leave my Dad. Years later, the reasons for this would become clear. At the time, all I remember thinking was, “really? well, I have been living away from home now for several years. Not sure if this guy knows what he is talking about.” By 1989 I would understand what the psychologist meant. My Dad was the rock of my life. He was my protection against a threatening world. His wisdom and stability were absolutely necessary to my psychic or soul survival.
b. I need to go back to school and “use my mind” because he thought I was “bored”. Well, that didn’t make much sense to me then either, but I registered for my first year of University at the Grande Prairie Junior College which was opening that fall. I would go on to complete two years of education and teach a year before I married. Learning,. always learning, became a way of life and I still read obsessively. Completed my doctorate when I was 63, in 2008.
After I married in 1969, the nightmares changed somewhat to what might be considered dream figures often identifiable as students in my classroom. I yelled and ranted in rage as I slept. My husband would try to answer the questions that I shouted while I slept but in the morning I could remember neither the content of the dream nor the questions I yelled. He often teased me about the yelling and screaming in my sleep particularly since I often seemed ragingly angry with someone whose name I would yell out. He joked that he pitied poor Jim or Larry or whomever I raged at. Often in the morning I had nail marks across the palms of my hands, my arms ached from tension and during the worst times of depressions I sometimes woke several times in the night to change pajamas soaking with perspiration. Doctors prescribed Valium, Tranxene tranquilizers, anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs. Outwardly successful, inwardly deathly afraid. I was in psychiatric care in the early 1980s. On tranquilizers and medication for chemical brain imbalance, I slept but awoke more tired than before.
By the late winter of 1988, with my 17 year old son away in the USA playing Major Junior Hockey and two younger children at home, working full time as a school administrator, I became totally desperate. I had struggled with thoughts of suicide for many years particularly in the early 1980s. Thankfully, sanity prevailed.
Sometime in the spring of 1988, a box of books arrived in the mail from a beloved sister-in-law. She was worried about what was happening as I participated in all kinds of alternative therapies, religions and groups. In that box of books, was the ONE that would provide me with the beginning tools to heal my depressions. I gave the book away over the years and just keep buying new copies. It is Savary, L. M., Berne, P. H., & Williams, S. K. (1984). Dreams and spiritual growth: A Judeo-Christian Way of dream work. Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press. It is NOT just for Christians! In fact, the book makes it clear–it is written for everyone in search of understanding.
According to the book, I could ASK for a dream! And it worked. Subsequently, I would learn to write the dream in present tense, immediately upon waking. I learned to give my dreams a title and include some context in my journal so I would remember what was happening in my daylight consciousness as well as my night time consciousness.