Many people have recurring nightmares, and I’m no exception. The science of this phenomenon is still very young; there is little understood of why dreams recur, or indeed why or how we dream at all. As I mentioned in yesterday’s entry, the prevailing dream research indicates that a majority of dreams have negative or unpleasant content or connotations. As such, unfortunately, having bad dreams over and over is quite common.
I thought I’d indulge a little today and describe my own recurring dream. I’ve had this same dream once or twice per year for the past two decades or so. There’s no monsters, no bad guys, no bogeymen, but it’s absolutely terrifying nonetheless, every single time. Without fail I awaken abruptly at the same point in the dream, drenched in sweat, sometimes literally yelling out in horror. Are you sure you want to join me on my journey back into Hell? Read on.
I’m back in college at the University of Kansas. I’m an underclassman. I’m two-thirds through the fall semester. I’m on an old green and biege campus bus. It’s a bright, beautiful, crisp Kansas autumn morning. The sky is brilliant blue, and white early morning light shines effortlessly through the windows, warming my face. I’m in the back. Nondescript fellow students surround me, sitting and standing silently. I close my eyes, relaxing, taking in the cold smell of diesel and giving in to the comforting, slow side-to-side sway of the bus as it snakes slowly up Naismith Drive into the main body of the campus.
After a couple minutes of reflection, my thoughts turn to the activities of the day. I recognize that I am still enrolled in a course that I need to cancel. It’s an upper-level calculus course, and I haven’t bothered to go to a single class. I haven’t studied a thing for it and I haven’t even shown up for any of the tests. I know, therefore, that I must be failing it. I’m not worried, however: I’ve known all along this semester that I can cancel the class without consequence or penalty, as long as I cancel prior to the deadline. I don’t remember which exact day is the last day I can cancel the class without an “F” showing up in my transcript, but I’m sure the cancellation date is still some time in the future. Or is it?
I wonder now when that deadline is. I’ve got a couple minutes of ride time before the bus drops me off at Hoch Auditorium, so I casually open up my light grey nylon backpack and retrieve my “timetable,” the KU academic semester catalog that describes all the courses and schedules. I look for the deadline to cancel courses. Finally I find the date in bold letters near the bottom of the page. $#!@ me, the deadline was YESTERDAY!
My heart pounds relentlessly now as I take in what this means. I’m on the verge of panic. I’m trying to keep it together, but I can’t see straight. There is an explosion of manic thoughts in my head. I’m going to fail this course now even if I start going to class faithfully and ace every test. An “F” in my undergraduate transcript will immediately put an end to my hopes to go to medical school. I want to scream, but I don’t want to attract attention. I fidget nervously in my seat, wishing the bus would move up the hill a little faster, but it’s crawling. I’m going to have to miss my class now; I have to stop off at Strong Hall, KU’s main administration building, and find some authority in front of which I can plead my case. All the while, I am thinking of what kind of alternative career plan I can come up with that might still provide me a good and happy life. Will an engineering school accept me with an “F?” Pharmacy school? A chemistry post-graduate program, perhaps? These thoughts make the bus feel like it’s going one mile per hour.
Finally I’m dropped off at Strong Hall. My panic and adrenalin send me flying out of the bus and storming down the concrete walk toward the front door of the building. I blast my way inside, unable to think clearly about where to go. I run, out of breath, to a counter built into the wall on the left in the front foyer. There’s an older woman behind the counter; large, imposing gold-colored steel bars separate her from me as I rush over, blustering incoherently that there was some mistake, I need to cancel my calculus course immediately, please please don’t put a failing grade on my transcript. She stares at me, blankly and silently, as I jump up and down like a maniac. I don’t know if she understands what I am saying, but looking at her impassive face one thing is starkly apparent as I blather on: whatever my problem is, she could . . . not . . . care . . . less.
It is at this point in which I awaken suddenly, sitting up bolt upright in bed, sweating and tachycardic, thanking God it was a dream. I’ve had this same dream dozens of times now. Its theme, sequence and outcome are virtually identical each time, but each time it feels new, the horror absolutely fresh.
As you can see, there are no monsters in my nightmare—just me and my own stupidity and foolishness. I feel some vague anxiety even now just thinking about it. The terror and dread come from a place completely different from some rated-R slasher flick: where innocent aspirations and diligent work intersect harshly with reality. This experience never actually happened to me, blowing off a course that I couldn’t get out of. I suppose the recurring nature of the dream exposes some of my deepest personal fears: watching helplessly as the prospects for my future slip through my hands, and loathing myself for getting myself into trouble due to my own irresponsibility. I think it also suggests part of what drives me to be the person who I strive to be every day.
Write me with your recurring dreams. I’m curious to know of them. What are they, and how do they affect you?
From a counselling perspective, sounds like the theme is lack of control. You thought you had a situation under control, and then discovered that control was ripped from you, leaving you vulnerable. A terrifying thought indeed! And, does this dream resurface when you’re experiencing situations in real life where something isn’t completely within your control?
While Lucy would charge 5 cents for this analysis, I’ll offer it as a “freebie” and in exchange, share my similar recurring dream with a similar theme. In my dream, I get notified that I didn’t pass History in Grade 11, and therefore never completed high school, so that makes all of my subsequent degrees invalid. They tell me that unless I can prove that I passed Grade 11 History by providing evidence of my tests and papers, they will revoke all of my academic credentials and I have to do them all over. Of course, I can’t locate my Grade 11 History assignments despite desperate searching through boxes and binders, which is the frenzied end to the dream.
Thanks for the blog! Great topic!
Thank you for reading, Dr. Linda, and thank you for the kind words! You know, I’ve thought about that a lot: do these specific dreams occur more frequently in the setting of something current happening in my life? I still don’t know the answer to that question, probably in part because there’s always so much going on in my life. The issue of control in my life is also a question mark. I’ve never felt I’ve needed absolute control over everything, and thus far in my career I’ve felt like I’ve been afforded as much control as a doc can reasonably have. It’s telling that though in recent months we docs have ever-reducing control of our situations in this country (topic for another entry), I haven’t had this dream in about a year now.
I’ve received another message from a friend today that told me that she had a very similar academically oriented nightmare. It’s interesting that this appears to be such a prevalent theme!
Thanks again for your response!
Perhaps the common theme is that going to school is traumatizing!
You nightmare might be telling you that you should have gone to K-State! – Christina Weber, Wildcat Fan
School does seem to be a popular nightmare subject. For me, it was suddenly realizing I had a final paper and exam in a class I had never attended. The nightmare never went as deep or clear as yours but the feelings were still real.
Now that you have described your nightmare in writing, I’d be interested to know if you ever have the dream again or if the act of writing out your dream makes the bogeyman disappear.
My dreams…I had two very clear nightmares as a child and into my 20’s. One had the bed tilting and me suddenly falling into nothingness. The other was a bit more unusual – I was chewing bubble gum. As I was done chewing, I would try to pull the gum out of my mouth. However, instead of emptying my mouth, more gum would appear and chewing took more and more effort. Finally, the gum would completely fill my mouth, stretch my jaw and start to choke me. Maybe that’s why today I rarely chew gum, much less bubble gum!
Thanks for sharing!
Thank you Sylvia! Surely I will write in when I have that nightmare again. And I WILL have the nightmare again, some time in the future.
Love your description of your dreams, particularly the one with the bubble gum. We didn’t get to chew a lot of bubble gum when we were little, so that dream would have been great for me as a child, that is, until you get to the choking part!