I love to dream. Day-dreams, night-dreams – they have always been an escape. Sleep without dreams, or at least, without recollection of dreaming, feels unsatisfying. When I have vivid dreams, I feel as though I have had a refreshing, deep sleep – although in reality, the most vivid dreams tend to occur in the last part of the sleep cycle, when one has already come out of the deepest sleep phases. Perhaps it is simply the fact that when it comes to vivid dreams, I feel ‘fully immersed’ – deep in the dreaming world, if not in deep sleep.
I have always found it difficult to live in the present. My waking thoughts are constantly full of situations and conversations past, or more likely, imagined future conversations and role-plays. Often, those conversations provide a way of escaping the sense of helplessness and lack of control in the face of whatever is hurting me at the time.
Much like the daydreams, night time dreams have also provided a means of escape from whatever has been going on in my life. Dreams, of course, often replay the themes of ‘real life’, but the settings are often different. But even when I feel no need of escape, I still look forward to dreaming in order to try and satisfy that great craving for the one drug that so many with BPD feel they cannot do without – the drug of intensity. Vivid dreams have always been a powerful source of intensity for me. In the strength of their emotion, they feel far more ‘real’ than real life. They have more colour, more depth, more connection, than most day to day events. Intense emotion feels like the ‘gold standard’ that all other emotions aspire to.
It’s not surprising, then, that I should court those dreams and those emotions. I feel extremely fortunate that, unlike many with mental health difficulties, I am not afraid to go to sleep, and my sleep is not besieged by nightmares. I have had some extremely distressing dreams, in which I have felt overwhelming sadness and have woken up crying and afraid. Dreams of illness, of loss, of death. Dreams that made me resolve, in the middle of the night, to try and live in the present, to stop being self-destructive, to try and live a long and healthy life. But for whatever reason, by morning, the impact of those dreams has severely diminished, as has my resolve. The only thing that stays with me, is the afterglow of intensity, and the sense of having felt alive. The emotions may have been intensely negative, but the imprint of intensity outlives the memory of the felt pain.
For me, my nightmares have not been of the sleeping kind – they have been waking nightmares in the middle of the night. The real-life fear of dying or of going mad. The terror of one’s brain forcing the mind to get to grips with its own non-existence. This terror plagued me as a teenager, and when I left home and went to university it transmuted itself into Panic Disorder. In those middle of the night episodes, the fear of death was not so much about existential angst, as about the seemingly inevitable consequence of the terrifying physical symptoms of panic, including tightness of the chest, shivering, and sweating. If that is what sleeping nightmares feel like to so many, no wonder dreaming can be dreaded, and can be the very opposite of refuge.
More recently, my desire to dream has been driven not just by a need to feel, but by a need to know. I have never been convinced by ‘formula-driven’ dream interpretation where dreaming about ‘X’ always means ‘Y’. But it’s becoming ever clearer to me that dream interpretation can be a legitimate and valuable part of therapy. That being said, I think it’s important to remember that there is never one ‘objectively correct’ interpretation of a dream – there can be several different interpretations, working at different layers and from different perspectives, none of which can make sole claim to the truth, but all of which can have something valuable to add by way of understanding oneself or a situation, better.
I have just finished reading Irvin Yalom’s ‘Love’s Executioner and other tales of psychotherapy’. I can highly recommend it, particularly if you have an interest in the process of therapy; but one of the things that struck me most, was the use that Yalom made of dreams, to better understand and get to the core of his patient’s difficulties. One client in particular, though distant and closed-off in sessions, nevertheless had another identity, ‘the dreamer’, who spoke to the psychiatrist about the patient’s deepest needs, through his dream life. The work of therapy was eventually concluded when the patient had integrated the part of himself represented by the dreamer, and the two spoke with one voice.
Over the last few months, I have occasionally been awed by the amazing ability of our brains to take the circumstances of our lives, our thoughts and our emotions (conscious and subconscious), and to weave them into a complex, rich and beautiful dream tapestry that can be so revealing of what is really going on in the deepest parts of our being. About a year ago I had a dream in which I made a cut across the top of my foot, along the base of my toes. I realised there was something inside that I had to get out, and very slowly, I managed to extract what turned out to be one of those clear plastic name-badge holders that one is given at conferences or meetings. There was a white piece of paper inside the holder, but it was blank. It was as if to say: “Who are you? What is your identity? Are you finding an identity in self-harming? Is it starting to define you?”
For years, when growing up, all of my dreams (or at least the ones I could remember) involved being chased. I was always ‘running away’ from someone, though most commonly, in my dreams, running away involved flying, in order to escape. Flying is often associated with lucid dreaming, and it’s certainly the case that I have a number of dreams (not all of which involve flying) in which I am aware that I am dreaming, and can control my environment. Although I cannot choose which of my dreams are lucid, it is perhaps one of the reasons why nightmares are less frequent for me, and why my dreaming holds fewer fears.
More recently my dreams have been not so much about being chased, but about trying to escape. A couple of nights ago, having escaped a ‘prison’ made of glass, I found myself on the roof of a very tall building, unable to climb down to safety. A group of my old school friends stood below, and one of them started to climb up the outside of the building to try and help me down. Half-way up she lost her footing and tumbled to her death, slamming down on her back on to the hard concrete. She was a friend I had not been particularly close to – but she was also a friend who looked (physically) more like me, than the others.
I wonder what my therapist would make of that dream. I wonder if she would think it was about therapy, and about her. The truth is, when it comes to her, I feel locked in an endless idealization/devaluation cycle: one minute feeling trapped and rendered helpless and vulnerable by my efforts at transparency, another minute feeling free and on top of the world, yet all dependent on how I think and feel about her at the time. Is anyone who tries to help me, doomed to fall, metaphorically, to their death? My therapist said she had a hunch this week, that she would be ‘in the naughty corner’, due to a mistake (albeit an innocent one) that she had made. But little does she know that she is not in the ‘naughty corner’, but ‘in the dock’, and I feel as though I am putting her on trial almost every week. Will she ever be able to demonstrate sufficient proof of her caring? Will she ever be able to climb up the high walls of my defences and reach me, even rescue me? Alternatively, is that brave and foolish climber, me, or another part of me? I have felt, for the last few years, that in order to recover and be ‘rescued’, I need to become someone else, and thus put part of me to death. But in my dream, one part of me died, but the rescue was ultimately unsuccessful. What conclusion can I draw from that?
To quote and misinterpret a mis-quote of a famous quote: “we are such stuff as dreams are made of”. Literally, we are the stuff of our dreams, and the more I think on it, the more I am convinced that there is a role for our dreams, in helping the fractured parts of ourselves communicate with each other and express themselves, until one day, they can speak in unison, with a single voice. I have always loved to dream – but now I hope my inner dreamers will love me back, and help me heal.