Sometime last year I had a dream about a guinea pig — perhaps a psychic remnant of Pete, a brown-and-white childhood rodent who boasted both astonishing volume and longevity. But according to a dream dictionary, the dream was a sign of my “need to be more responsible and attentive.” Alternatively, the pig of my somnolence could have represented the fact that “through experimentation and taking risks, you learn how and how not to do something. You learn from your mistakes.”
Now if my dad had had a dream about a guinea pig, and dream dictionaries have any shred of psychological merit (who decides this shit? How much more money could I make if I decided to interpret dreams instead of being a freelance journalist?), this would all come together in a nugget of breathtaking clarity: that deafening guinea pig, who lived years longer than Dad thought any one-kilogram cavy ever could, was no doubt one of the enduring mistakes of his parenting career.
But my real problem isn’t that I need to know the meaning of my guinea pig dream. It’s that a dream about a goddamn guinea pig — and whatever else I happen to dream about any night of the week — can seem as real as my waking life and lodge in my memory, forever, just like something that actually happened to me. After about thirty years, I wish a brain could be selectively cleared out like a computer hard drive.
The group therapy nightmare, among others
Several times a week, I burst out of sleep in the morning feeling dizzy, disoriented, and with my head clanging, as if I’ve been sitting in an IMAX theater all night.
A friend mounts a Fringe Festival play in my apartment without asking. The next night, I’m plunged into a steamy murder mystery at a British bed-and-breakfast villa in India (the pompous owner of the hotel killed a kitchen staffer and thought he could get away with it). The next night, a giant pine tree grows through the floorboards of my living room. The night after that, I’m back in college, sophomore year, and my big orange goldfish has jumped out of its tank onto my dorm-room duvet and I can’t scoop it back in.
The next night? Take your pick. I’ll spare you too many of the details, like how my optometrist came to be located inside a Wendy’s (after the exam, she did tell me I have “great blue eyes, for a human being.”
I also dreamed I was starting a new course of therapy and was riding a hospital elevator with a group of ten friends, co-workers, and childhood bullies. We navigated our way through three floors of the hospital until we found the balding, bespectacled therapist’s office, where I discovered that the entire therapeutic hour, horribly, would consist of each of us sharing, in a five-minute verbal statement, our essential selves with the whole group. When someone did so, the therapist would reward him or her with a white linen tunic.
I immediately thought to spare myself by asking for the restroom. I tried to dawdle but when I got back, everyone else in the group was wearing white shirts and looking expectantly at me. Instead of saving myself, I walked into a worst-case scenario: I had to make a personal statement without having heard anyone else’s.
But the therapist was looking at me the way therapists do. “Well, I’m Alaina,” I said. “I grew up in Maryland but have lived near Philly since I was 17 or so. I have some mental health issues. I have some chronic illnesses that can make my life pretty miserable day to day. And I’m a freelance journalist, copywriter, and editor. Actually I edit some of the people in this room.”
I felt this was a terribly inadequate personal statement, with the last part being superfluous at best and totally embarrassing at worst, but couldn’t say anything else. The whole room stared at me, silent.
I woke up.
T-Rex and whales
The oldest dream on the hard drive is from when I was five years old (a nightmare about a lion in the family dog house). The most surprising was when the T-rex from Jurassic Park chased me around a mansion, and just when he caught up with me on the grand staircase and I thought I was dino meat, he bent down and kissed my cheek. The best dream is the time I biked St. Lucia from end to end and then plunged into the ocean to swim with whales. It’s hard to pick a worst dream because the nightmares are pretty constant (and I won’t include the times I’ve taken narcotics, which for some reason turn my dreams into slasher movies), but I could go with the one where I was being buried alive in a coffin, screaming. I’ll spare you the worse parts. My own real sleep-strangled yell woke me up.
After a childhood friend died when we were in boarding school, I dreamed I walked into the dining hall and there he was, giving me a hug. He cheerfully waved the news of his death away with his hand and for a moment, the dream was real life and real life was the nightmare. I ached with grief when I woke up, and to this day, the vividness of the dream competes with my actual last memories of my friend, as if I was able to see him one more time.
Better than therapy
There’s a moment just after I wake up every morning when I make a decision about whether or not to bring my most recent dreams up into consciousness with me, to look inward and see what “happened” overnight, think it through, and decide if there are any lessons for me in it. Because dreams can be marvelously instructive: they sometimes tell me, in ways I can’t or won’t grasp while conscious, what I’m really afraid of, what I really want, the true dynamics of my relationships with other people, and when I’m being too hard on myself.
Not that I really have a choice about whether or not those types of dreams seep into my consciousness and memory. If I don’t let them bubble up in the morning, they will crash my thoughts at some point during the day, like a TV that goes on when you accidentally nudge the remote.
Try this: don’t see your dreams as you would your ordinary life, with other characters appearing in your own point of view. However zany or well-populated they are, dreams have a cast and crew of one: your own brain. Try re-imagining every person in your dream as a version of yourself — probably one you keep on the back burner when you’re awake.
The 90 percent
So one reason I don’t want anything to do with dream dictionaries is that I don’t have time to look up and try to interpret everything I dream about, and risk lodging it all further into my memory. Yes, some dreams are allegories for toxic or beneficial scenarios in my life; others are just the result of too many episodes of The Walking Dead, my love for cannoli, or my centipede phobia.
I try to casually ask other people about this — “do you remember your dreams?” Occasionally I’ll hear from another hyperactive dreamer, but usually folks just shrug and say they don’t remember much once they wake up. This is in line with the (no doubt peer-reviewed) resource dreamdictionary.org, which claims that we forget 90 percent of our dreams.
So maybe that’s why dream dictionaries are popular: bringing a clear image with you out of sleep is apparently a rare and notable experience that demands explanation.
Say I did look up everything I’ve dreamed about in, say, the last week — theater, glassware, the seashore, ice cream, conifers, kissing, a hospital, keychains, samosas, an eye exam, and goldfish, to name a few — how could that possibly add up to a coherent statement about my life?
Did you know?
Plus, look at the “Interesting Facts About Dreams” heading at dreamdictionary.org.
“Did you know blind people dream?” You mean people with a physical disability retain the basic mental phenomena of being human? WOW.
And there’s no shame in it, guys: “Everybody dreams.” (Just don’t do it in public.)
“Dreams prevent psychosis.” I assume this is based on a piece of research I saw somewhere demonstrating that people repeatedly woken from REM sleep quickly go mad. Should we also infer that people with psychosis don’t dream? Or that we could treat psychosis by inducing dreams?
Finally, and most stupidly because it is not an interesting fact but a question: “Can dreams predict the future?” In my case, I hope not, because that means I will one day be wondering around a college campus desperately trying to figure out where my class is being held.
Forget your pet, go back to school
Which brings me to another sleepy-time problem: recurring dreams. Do you have them? I have two, classified not so much by specific content as by theme.
First, there are the forgotten-pet dreams. They’re awful, and they can be about anything from a hermit crab to a hamster to a dog to a plant. Basically, it’s a dream where I suddenly realize I have been bumping happily along for months while forgetting to give food and water to some creature that depends on me. (One variation has me agreeing to pet-sit for someone, and then realizing in a panic that I’ve forgotten to feed the animal for an entire week.)
Dreamdictionary.org says we can dream only about “what we know and see in life.” So what the hell? I love animals, never forgot a pet’s meal, and have a reputation as a great pet-sitter going back almost two decades. I never starved some poor gerbil to death. So why can’t I get free of this dream?
Then there’s the one about school, and it comes in a couple different varieties. Sometimes I’m striding back and forth across a strange university campus, knowing there’s a class I’m supposed to be in, but not able to find it anywhere. Sometimes I realize that I enrolled in a course months ago and then forgot about it until just before the exams. Sometimes, I’m sitting in class paging through the textbook and realizing I’ve forgotten to do any of the reading or homework, and have no idea what the professor is talking about.
This gives me grief similar to the dreams about pets. I was an excellent student. So what the fuck, dream-brain?
Gained in translation
This is probably the biggest reason I don’t want a dream dictionary. I don’t need some hypnagogic psychobabble to tell me what these dreams mean, and why they’ll never stop.
The nightmares about pets aren’t about animals at all, or even some rational fear of neglecting an animal. They’re just symbols for my terror of ever dropping the ball and my own over-inflated sense of importance, which haunted me into an illustrious yet miserable A-student mold, and now, make my guts churn with anxiety any time I try to take a day off work.
The nightmares about school aren’t about school at all. They’re about what school represents, at least in my brain: ability, preparation, and readiness. They’re the screaming fear, quieted during the day by my penchant for keeping busy, that I’m not prepared for this — “this” being my whole adult life, but I have an inkling that I’m not the only professional writer to brew this perpetual panic.
Hearing that I’m competent, reliable, and maybe even pretty good at my job doesn’t make a speck of difference when I’m asleep, and maybe it never will. Dammit, maybe the dream dictionary is right after all, and that guinea pig was all about my need to be more responsible.
Bedtime is coming up in a couple hours. Despite the nightmares and the screeching inadequacy complex lurking in my subconscious, it is always interesting to wonder. What will I dream about tonight?
What do you dream about? If you remember, will you tell me?