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April 05, 2009

The Nightmares are Back

Unmade Bed I have a few neuroses — who doesn't — but I don't live in constant fear. On the rare occasion when my mind travels down "What If" way, I scare the crap out of myself and do a u-turn as quickly as possible. I'm always afraid if I go too far down that path, there will be no coming back. How's that for neurotic — I'm afraid of being afraid.

But the subconscious is like the highwayman of mental health — it creeps up on you in your dreams and steals your sanity. In times of stress (and with four kids and a dog in a floundering economy, there's not much stress-free time), I have nightmares. I know I'm not alone. According to one recent poll, nearly one in three women has frequent stress dreams. 

Mine usually start with the basic college stress dream. You know the one. It's the day of the final exam and you haven't been to class since the first session; you get to the classroom and the venue has changed and you go from room to room searching for your professor as the exam time ticks away. It's been a long time since college, but I'm still taking exams in my dreams every three or four weeks.

Next come the dreams of never-ending frustration. The kitchen floor that keeps growing as you try to wash it; swimming across a pool that keeps getting longer and longer; the endless search for a public restroom when your screaming toddlers have to go potty RIGHT NOW. These dreams exhaust me, but I understand them. I recognize they are my body's way of telling me that I've got too much on my plate — that it's time to figure out what needs to be done and what can be let go.

But the nightmares are different. I should say nightmare — it's always the same — only the roles change. In my nightmare, one of my children has died. I am in the immediate aftermath and I have to figure out how to go on, how to keep living and be a mom to the children who survive. It's a different child every time, and the bulk of the dream is about the altered family dynamics that such a devastating loss brings and my utter failure in navigating it.

I have friends who would be appalled that I'm writing this nightmare out loud. "Puh, puh, puh, don't say such a thing." It's strange trying to express and dissect such a visceral experience, complete with the hyper-reality that the dream state induces. It's also strange that, while I'm always overwhelmed and fully present in the dream, I am also somehow always aware that it is a dream.

My intellectual self understands that these nightmares are also stress induced, exploring in my sleep the unknown future, dangers and ultimate loss that face my children in a way that my practical, daytime mind won't allow. My spiritual self grieves for those families who are living this nightmare in real life, and is grateful every day for our health and well being. But my neurotic self, the one I try to keep in check, is truly terrified by these nightmares and, frankly, a little pissed off that I have absolutely no control over them. They come when they come and there is nothing I can do about it.

Over spring break, three of my children and I are driving down to Florida to visit my parents and my wonderful, talented stepdaughter. My oldest son is flying out to Seattle to spend time with his wonderful, generous big brother — my stepson. I've been having the nightmare every night for the past two weeks. I know I'll have it every night until we're all back home again. If you have a cure, let me know. In the meantime, maybe I'll just stay up and blog all night.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. When Susan isn't fretting in her sleep about things she absolutely cannot control, she can be found daydreaming about Two Kinds of People and all things pet-related at The Animal Store Blog.

Photo Credit: The Unmade Bed by Richard Pluck.

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