Tag Archives: recurrent dreams

Mefloquine (Anti-malarial) Structural Formulae

In Defense of the Nightmare: Why Troubled Sleep Sometimes Makes Sense

Common formula these days: Can’t sleep or bad dreams; go to the doctor; get a prescription to wipe out your dreams. A 2006 Dissertation by Kimberly-Anne Ford, Mefloquine dreams: Exploring the subjective experience of risk and safety and its role in the regulation of pharmaceutical drugs in Canada, explored the subjective experience in dreams of drug side effects. While that was only a part of the ethical considerations raised in the dreams, it is a step into the truism that something happens in our dreams when we are not taking psychotropic medicine, and something else happens with our dreams when those medicines are introduced.

Mefloquine (Anti-malarial) Structural Formulae
Mefloquine (Anti-malarial) Structural Formulae

I was talking recently with a friend who was riveted one weekend with the coverage of two horrific world news stories unfolding at once: The violence in the Gaza strip around mutual shelling from/to civilian areas, and the Russian Separatist activities including the militant shooting down of a civilian flight killing nearly 300 peFractured Earthople. Whether it is Kosovo of ten years back, Beirut of three decades ago, vulnerability to terrorist attacks since 9/11, or other forms of consistent national violence, it becomes clearer that the world can be unsafe and unsettling.

Pair that with the trauma on a personal level that happens all over this country: One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. The “Ray Rice” situation is horrific for that family, as is every situation in which domestic violence occurs,  and for them it is happening in public. The fact that this and other NFL stars such as Peterson, MacDonald, Dwyer, and Hardy, are all in the spotlight elevates the visibility of a previously invisible problem. One in every 240 Americans will be murdered – at present homicide rates. Aaron Hernandez, a former NFL star, is now awaiting trials on multiple murders.

Today, one in every 34 Americans is either incarcerated or under supervision – meaning there is a lot of crime out there – and a good deal of punishment. And on top of the nastiness that occurs among friends or in our homes, nearly all adults as of this writing watched the horror of 9/11 unfold in real time on live TV just thirteen years ago. There is not an illusion we are safe from THEM (Russians, Terrorists, Asians, Muslims, Drug Cartels) or from US (Excessive Government, Militia, Police, Swat Teams, Republicans, Democrats, Tea Partiers, Gangs, and Dodger Fans). So part of the question might be, “Why don’t we have more nightmares than we actually do?”

Ebenezer Scrooge

Nightmares operate on several levels. Even that statement, simple enough, operates on a lot of levels. There are night terrors, more prevalent in childhood, more present in trauma survivors (and onot always explained by trauma). These are not the nightmares of the nearly well: these are debilitating physiological and psychological events. Recently, I met a woman receiving treatment for PTSD, and one of her prescriptions is in place to take away her nightmares. Where, then, do they go? Should we not be disturbed? Are we paying attention enough? Are we doing enough?

Traumatic events bring about more horror than the mind can process. Imagined fears can bring about a similar effect to realized terrors. And these overwhelming urges arise in our sleep, some say so that they may be dealt with in a way and at a time that we are prepared to handle them. Wipe our our REM state of sleep, and what are the consequences? Where do those images go? Are we simply bandaging our wounded so they can return to the front lines of home, family, war, workplace, and not feel like the bad things that happen really occur? I am asking not because I have answers, nor because I want them; but more, as Rilke said, because I love the questions. Today, I live the questions.

Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is,to live everything. Live the questions now.

– Ranier Maria Rilke



Welsh Rarebit

Nemo, Jason, and Fictional Characters in Dreamtime: A Shout-Out to Winsor McCay

Orca Whales in Play

I have dreams of orca whales and owls but I wake up in fear. . .

– Regina Spektor, “Hotel Room”

So when is a whale a symbol, and when is it “Free Willy?” Do Jason or Freddy Kruger now live in the collective unconscious, and therefore creep endlessly from dream to dream? And what about reading ourselves to sleep and dreaming by extension of the characters in the book? And when we tell our children, “Sweet Dreams,” are we simply making cute conversation, or performing a subtle dream incubation ritual?

Thanks are in order to my daughter, Kathryn, who suggested this post and also introduced me to Regina Spektor returning from a baseball game we saw together. Kathryn, since this post will miss the mark of what you had in mind by a lot, please leave a lengthy comment improving the piece!

In Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the biographer quotes his subject as reading Hamlet so young, “that the speech of the Ghost in Hamlet terrified him when he was alone.” The time of youth is still a magical time. In a recent dream group, a participant shared a recurring dram from her youth; that she and her sister were in an orphanage trying to escape a fire. She was a huge fan of the Musical “Annie” which she saw on Broadway young; her takeaway was that maybe her love for her parents was a fear they might be taken away. So scared of this dream was she that she would await at the top of the steps until they went to bed so she could sleep knowing she was not alone in the house. Ina way, she had developed an inner Orphan who was already watching out for herself.

For a couple of years in the late 1990s, I was conducting a weekly dream group with adolescent males in state custody. Their frequent answer to the question, “Name something that has chased you in a dream” would be a villain from a Friday the 13th or Halloween type movie. I have no doubt that the premature exposure of youth to “R” rated material affects their dreamtime (if nothing else.) And yet the chase dream is a common, terrifying rite of passage for most children, and without a projection figure such as Freddy Kruger, children can come up with their own terrifying images, sometimes distortions of people they know, sometimes apparently made out of whole cloth.

The “Nemo” in the title is unrelated to the Disney character, although I am sure many youngsters of the Nemo era have (mostly happy) dreams of those popular figures. There was actually a comic strip by Winsor McCay running from 1905 to 1914 (and then a shorter run in the 1920s) called “Little Nemo in Slumberland. ” In each brightly colored Sunday panel, Nemo walked the readers through rich imaginative drams with characters of faraway lands and the mythological realm, generally ending with him waking up in such a way to incorporate dream content. The panel below (best viewed HERE) shows Nemo having a frightful encounter with Father Time in which he ages prematurely, only to be comforted by his mother upon awakening.

Little Nemo and Father Time

So the Nemo series actually offers a formula about the effect of the environment on dreams, and the effect of dreams on the dreamer. In a timely note, McCay was pretty phenomenal with his dream strips, as he was also the author of “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend,” the Welsh Rarebitpredecessor comic strip to Little Nemo. The thesis of that strip was the wives tale that eating spicy food, like Welsh Rarebit (pictured at left) could induce nightmares. See also the Gomer Pyle episode of same theme). McCay was also a visionary cartoonist, as we know animation today, and in 1918 finished the production of a silent film on the German sinking in 1915 of the passenger ship Lusitania, which is remarkably under noticed by comparison to the Titanic disaster, but so very timely in light of the recent Russian separatist shooting down of Malaysian Air Flight MH17 over the Ukraine.  A link to the remainder of his production of the Lusitania sinking is on his Wikipedia page, and worth the 10 minute investment of time (as opposed to the 25 minutes to watch Gomer Pyle).


So this post is a tribute in honor of Winsor (not Windsor) McCay, a visionary man (who may have had a little trouble with beverage alcohol) but whose inclusion of dreams in fictional accounts and his fictional accounts of the world of dreams fired the imagination of millions in the early part of the previous century.


Minoan Snake Goddess Image

“Snakes. Why does it have to be Snakes?”

The dreamworld without snakes would be something like a non-dairy milkshake. The prevalence of snakes in dreams – by far – exceeds the interest of the dreamer in reptiles. And maybe it is just the population I work with (mostly people in recovery from behavioral addictions). However, there are books, websites, and even fan clubs surrounding snakes in dreams. Kelley Bulkeley devoted a chapter to snake dreams in his book Spiritual Dreaming: A Cross-Cultural and Historical Journey,  where he notes that “analysis studies performed by Robert Van de Castle indicate that even in the dreams of modern Americans, who presumably have little direct contact with snakes, these animals appear with surprising frequency.”  The novelist D.H. Lawrence was more succinct, saying “a rustle in the grass can startle the toughest ‘modern’ to depths he has no control over.” (Apocalypse, 1932).

There is something universal about snakes that attracts some and repels others, but leaves few people indifferent. Indiana Jones knows which camp he favors. Not a fan. “Snakes,” he says, just before he is lowered into a chamber with a few thousand asps and cobras, “Why did it have to be snakes?” Something deep within us, despite our relative lack of contact with them, does not like snakes. They have “bad press,” especially in the Western world, perhaps, where Muslim, Christian, and Jewish faiths can all trace original sin to the snake. Bruise the heel for generations forward, and all that stuff. Jung would probably say there is something deep in the collective unconscious of mankind that does not like a snake, just as Robert Frost tells us “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”  Now there are exceptions to the rule; many that like snakes, often these people have a few snakes at home and multiple tattoos of them. And often those are people who have been through a good deal themselves, people who know the underworld journey, people who know what it is like to claw their way out of a tight spot.

Snakes and the Underworld: Hillman

The underworld journey, indeed. A client recently came to me with a dream in which snakes were coiled around each forearm, biting into her wrist. She went to her brother for help, and he became frustrated both with the snakes (and his inability to help) and the

A Minoan snake goddess figurine, circa 1600 BC
A Minoan snake goddess figurine, circa 1600 BC

client, whom he told to “stop fidgeting around.” I suppose he could have told that to Indiana Jones with no effect as well. What she and her brother shared in real life is the loss of a sister, who lives now in the underworld, daily pulling at each of them, a biting, painful reminder of the seriousness of life and the finality of death. In her dream, there was no conscious awareness of her sister, yet processing the dream reinforced the significance of the coming birthday of her sister and the coming anniversary of her death, both on her mind and that of the family this time of year. Last year, four women shared one evening in a small group about snake dreams they had had – recently. They shared their dreams in sequence – two were positive, two might be called negative or dreams where fear was present. Many dictionaries will tell you the meaning of snake, but James Hillman (Inner Views) will tell you, “the moment you’ve defined the snake, interpreted it, you’ve lost the snake, you’ve stopped it . . .  keep the snake there, the black snake…see, the black snake’s no longer necessary the moment it’s been interpreted, and you don’t need your dreams any more because they’ve been interpreted.” Hillman urges us to keep the snake alive by meeting the snake in its world – often the underworld, and not dragging it into the light where we lose its meaning. The task was not to find one meaning for Snake, but allowing each of these women to become snakekeeper, a snake goddess, or a snake charmer, as the case may be.

James Hillman (1926-2011)
James Hillman (1926-2011)

Hillman also said (June 2010 at a Library of Congress Symposium on the Red Book) that “Fantasy as imaginative activity is the direct expression of psychic life, and they are identical with Jung’s quote with the flow of Psychic energy.”  For fifty years of Freud in America, a snake dream led to the inevitable phallic image and repressed sexuality embodied in it. We have grown out of that form of reduction and back into the primacy of the image as teacher. Hillman urges us to let the snake be a snake, do not dare reduce it to a sex part, the source of evil in the Christian World, or even the image of healing that winds around the caduceus. Admire the Snake in snake, and let it as image retain its identity and control over the message it brings, whether that be venom or medicine. So ends a brief post, and mostly just an excuse to put up a picture of James Hillman and to reinforce his message. Good night, Dr. Hillman.