All my life, I've suffered from nightmares. Dinosaurs, murderers, evil versions of my own family — all have stalked my sleep over the years. Now there may be a cure.
Sarah Kershaw of the Times writes that many nightmare sufferers are also survivors of trauma, but my bad dreams don't have any obvious traumatic source. They seem to come entirely from within, and they've grown up (sort of) as I have. When I was little, there were the giant glue dinosaurs that threatened to suffocate me, the slick mudhole in which I was repeatedly buried alive, the serial killer who crashed through the window of my third-grade classroom. A few years on came the naked dreams, in which my unexpected nudity in public places never failed to enrage the exact people whom I desperately wanted to impress (most upsettingly, the Doctor himself). When I went to college and shouldered a little more responsibility, my dreams started to focus on lost items (my bicycle) or people (my brother). And now, my nightmares revolve around the two realities of adult life: death and exes. Oh, and zombies.
As troubling as it is to wake up sweating and gasping and spend several minutes looking at Facebook to confirm that I don't even have a sister, let alone one who is in immediate need of my liver, I've never thought of doing anything about my nightmares. For a long time, I just assumed everybody had them — I think I was in college before I learned that some people had nice dreams, and many didn't remember their dreams at all. Now, I also know that many people have it a lot worse than I do — Kershaw mentions Roberta Barker, who was kidnapped, raped, and tortured for three days, and whose nightmares about the incident were so severe she could barely sleep. For such extreme cases, new forms of nightmare therapy may be a godsend.
In image rehearsal therapy, patients rewrite their dreams and "practice" them while awake. Barker chose to dream about birds instead of about her rapist, and says, "Now, instead of waking up screaming, I wake up knowing I've dreamed of birds." The technique has significantly reduced nightmares in studies of abuse survivors and post-traumatic stress sufferers. Some clinicians are skeptical, however — psychologist Jane White-Lewis says if you get rid of a nightmare, "you lose an opportunity to really get some meaning out of it."
Over the years, I think I've gotten all the meaning I can out of my nightmares. I know I'm afraid of getting sick; I know I'm afraid of my loved ones dying. I know I'm afraid of losing things, of being irresponsible, and of people being mad at me (although interestingly, the naked dreams seemed to stop right around the time I started using a coed, communal shower). At this point I'm relatively familiar with the dark places in my psyche, and I'm not sure if my nightmares have any more to teach me. Perhaps as a result, in the last year or so, I've started to have them way less. I have good dreams sometimes now, and even my bad dreams often have good elements (like the zombie apocalypse during which I stopped to have a piece of cake). Maybe I'm growing up, maybe I'm happier these days, or maybe having my fears out in the open makes them less likely to crop up in sleep. Whatever the case, I do believe that nightmares can be warning signs of psychic trouble — but sometimes they can outlive their usefulness. And for those whose nightmares of a horrific event become a torment of their own, there's nothing wrong with replacing them with birds.