When I was little, I had intense and frightening nightmares. A repeated scenario placed me behind the wheel of a car, forced to drive when I could not yet see over the dash or reach the pedals, ultimately driving off the road into a body of water before I’d wake.
(Strangely enough, when I first moved to Ringwood, NJ in my forties, I recognized some of the local roads from those nightmares. Fortunately, the worst one, the Westbrook Road Bridge, has been recently replaced with a new bridge, so I feel pretty confident that the dreams were metaphorical rather than prescient).
I was a fan of “Dark Shadows,” a daytime serial that featured vampires, witches, ghosts and other preternatural creatures. Characters from this show would occasionally appear in my nighttime excursions.
And there were a lot of anxiety dreams: getting to school too late for an important test, being observed, naked, by other people in odd situations, being walked in on when using the bathroom, and other embarrassing sequences.
The worst was the feeling of falling, followed by sheer terror, unable to move or open my eyes. I’d scream silently for someone to please wake me up. Eventually, I’d shudder awake, breathing hard and feeling grateful to have finally broken the grasp of the demon that held me in that blank purgatory between dream and waking life.
These frightening night sojourns made it hard for me to look forward to sleeping. I would try to control what I would dream about by thinking of every horrible, scary idea I could possibly conjure to inoculate myself before the sandman came. Sometimes, my dreams would be benign or forgettable. Other times, they’d be at least as horrifying as the pre-dream ritual images I’d run through my tortured mind.
Many a night, I’d lie awake, listening to late night talk radio. I’d sit by my window and watch the neon sign from the amusement park two blocks away flash its upward laddering pattern over the top of the row houses across the street. I’d listen to the cars on Flatbush Avenue. Hearing sounds of life outside made me feel better, less alone.
I chose to become a psychology major half way through my undergraduate studies. I learned a lot of valuable things about human nature, including my own.
And I’ve gone for therapy from time to time. I believe we all need periodic “tune ups” to lead happy lives, and I’ve sought help whenever I’ve felt the need.
Over time, I came to understand the meaning of some of my dreams. I believe they are messages my unconscious mind serves up because I tend to ignore certain information during my waking life in order to get through the day. These messages are important. That’s why they’re intense, so I’ll pay attention.
The driving dreams came from my feeling of “being in over my head” as a child. I worried about my parents. I was very sensitive to their anxieties and stresses. My mother was reliant on me for emotional support from a very early age.
Anxiety dreams are pretty common, and they allow us to express our deepest fears without direct consequence.
In the last several years, I have learned some very important lessons about the things we tell ourselves and how these messages impact our lives. The bedtime ritual I implemented as a child to ward off bad dreams, thinking of every terrible thing I could come up with, was actually counterproductive. It was “superstitious” behavior, believing that dreams came from somewhere else. I didn’t understand that everything I dreamed came from ME. I was trying to control the growth of a monster by over-feeding it.
A better idea, and one that I have come to embrace, is to think of beautiful, wonderful, delightful things; things that bring me joy; things that I WANT to happen.
Consequently, now I LOVE to sleep. It’s rejuvenating. It’s a time to rest, and a time to process information and solve problems. It’s mighty interesting, and a lot more satisfying.
What I have come to realize through so much information I have ingested, is that our lives are what we BELIEVE they are. Our original beliefs are based on those espoused by well-meaning adults (parents, grandparents, family, neighbors) that were passed on to them. These ideas have no basis in fact. They are simply ideas that were accepted by the previous generation, adapted and insinuated through teaching and parenting. And mostly, what’s at the basis of every BELIEF is a LIE.
Everything my parents taught me was aimed at protecting me. Don’t go to that school you want to attend; it’s too expensive, in a terrible neighborhood, you aren’t old enough to go there by yourself and we aren’t taking you. Expect the guy driving the car closest to you to do the stupidest possible thing. You can’t go to Europe by yourself! You’ll be kidnapped! Always expect the worst outcome. Fear will keep you safe.
Many people suffer from these fear-driven belief systems. And they tell themselves things like “this is too good to be true.” “If they want me, they can’t be that great.” “Rich people are all greedy and I’m not greedy so I’m glad I’m not rich.”
Here’s the thing: fear is all in your mind. FEAR = False Evidence Appearing Real. When you live your life in fear, you die a thousand deaths.
This isn’t magic, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I will tell you that my life is much bigger, happier and fun since I decided not to be afraid. I allow myself to embrace beauty and prosperity. I am on a journey to become the best version of myself. And I deserve all the happiness and satisfaction that comes with that pursuit.
Is my life perfect and completely awesome? Of course not. But no matter what happens, I find reasons to feel gratitude every day. I enjoy the time I spend with others. I choose to focus on the positive aspects of every relationship I have. And I look forward to getting up every morning, refreshed and ready to take on the world.
I have no need for sleeping pills. Most of my dreams are pleasant, benign or forgettable. I haven’t driven into water in a very long time. And I’m happy to be who I am, where I am, in a very big, unconstrained universe.
I wish you the gift of believing in yourself and very pleasant dreams.