I’ve always been a dreamer. Yes, the person who has (had) moonshot aspirations, but I’m talking about being a nighttime dreamer when my unconscious goes into rogue storytelling mode. Every. Single. Night. As a kid, I had recurring nightmares. As an adult, my dreams are invariably unsettling. There aren’t too many picnics and butterflies in my dreams.
Since we all dream, you would think science would be able to tell us more about why we do. But there is little consensus around this mystery. For Sigmund Freud, dreams represented buried desires. Carl Jung, another believer in dreams, said “The dream is the small hidden door in the deepest and most intimate sanctum of the soul . . .” That’s heavy duty. Other experts believe dreams are simply a release of electrical impulses in the brain. My mother was into dreams a bit — I remember she had an Edgar Cayce book on dream interpretation — and she also had something to say about following your dreams.
I don’t put much faith in my dreams holding special meaning because most of them are too surreal and many of them are painful. Last night I had a horrible dream: I was told a close friend of mine had died. I fell to the floor and sobbed uncontrollably. I experienced crushing grief, then woke up this morning and went about my day, although I’ve been thinking of my friend, who fortunately is still alive.
I once knew a dream researcher who gave me an opportunity to participate in a dream study. It had a big impact on me, not in a positive way. I used the experience as inspiration for a short scene in my novel, STILL LIFE:
I know something about being stalked in your dreams. Once when I was short on cash I signed up for a dream study at a private research facility that paid me two hundred dollars to record my dreams for three weeks. There was an orientation meeting in which we learned dream recall techniques, such as keeping pen and notebook right next to your bed, promising yourself throughout the day and just before bed you'd remember your dreams that night, speaking into a voice recorder when you woke up, even setting your alarm for intervals throughout the night so you'd be jarred awake during dream sleep. They said you had to remember the dream immediately, there was a window of opportunity lasting only a few seconds after which the dream would be gone forever. Gone where, I wondered; there was nowhere to go but deeper inside the dark gray matter of your own brain. It was the hardest two hundred dollars I'd ever earned, perhaps the worst three weeks of my life. The recall techniques worked great, unfortunately. I'd wake up at night sweating in terror and aching with pain I'd never known. These dreams—many I've long forgotten now—they were nightmares. Every one of them. Some were about my father. He was the one drowning and I was too weak to row over to him. In another, I was digging a hole in the yard which was actually a grave for him; he stood over me and kept telling me to hurry and dig deeper. Or I'd dream of vicious men hunting me in dark, dead-end alleys. Of former lovers I was relieved to be rid of but whose loss filled me with unbearable regret; they'd make love with other men while I had to watch. Dreams of my hands being severed by table saws, so I'd have to paint with a brush between my teeth. Then this one: my father coming into my room one night shortly after Dr. Abrams drowned. He woke me up. “Vinny,” he said. “Could you have rowed faster? We might have saved him.” No, that one is a memory. I got back a fifteen-page typewritten analysis of my dreams from one of the conductors of the study. It was filled with a lot of psychological language about Jung and Freud and integration of the self, the kind of hooey you find in artist’s statements. I was told my dreams were fascinating to study and indicative of great inner turmoil and isolation. My Oedipus complex was big enough to get lost in. My shadow was a substantial force (More than the man himself?). It was suggested I seek out therapy, which I did not. A few weeks later I stopped remembering my dreams.