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.
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 people. 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.
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 doingenough?
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.
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’sLife 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.
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 predecessor 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.