Dream-Journaling to Have Hard Conversations

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My 5-year-old niece made me do it. Last month while on auntie patrol I awoke to the sound of her piercing cries. There she was, in bed, confused. Arms outstretched, needy to be hugged, ruby-red cheeks decorated with tears pouring from her like a tap.

“Did you have a bad dream?”

She nodded.

“Oh angel, it was just a dream …”

Just. Another sweet little lie.

As I lay my head on my pillow, I reflected on how arrogant an assertion that was. To brush off this sleep state of mind as fully meaningless. Trivial! My mind drifting to a picture: Emma’s Teenage Bedroom. On my wall, sandwiched between posters of the actors I thought I’d marry one day and the pop stars I willed myself to become, hung a tacky purple, feathery old thing. A dream catcher and one of my most prized possessions for a time. A source of protection. From what, exactly? As I got older, to fixate too much over my dreams felt a bit like saying you still believed in magic.

Truth be told, since I was little, I’ve always had a wildly overactive imagination. Both day and night. Though if you were to ask me to detail the specific content of my nighttime visions, I could only provide a handful with any absolute certainty. A recurring one from my childhood, for instance, involved me flying slowly down my staircase. That time I walked into a Salvador Dalí painting — very fun. When a woman started undressing me in the middle of a grocery store — also fun. Mostly though, my dreams long fade from memory upon hitting my morning alarm. Still, those wakeful feelings — of relief, grief, happiness, horniness — linger. So, inspired by guilt at waving off my niece’s nightmare I wanted to try something, a new habitual experiment, tracing and trying to interpret my own hazy sleep-induced hallucinations. To follow my dreams, as the adage goes, to see what, if anything, I could find there.

Initially, I thought I’d write lengthy journal entries in a notebook beside my bed upon waking. It seemed somewhat romantic, but I’m also a realist. I reach for my phone automatically first thing in the morning and I always lose my pens. So, like any self-respecting millennial, I downloaded an app: Dreambook. Essentially, you type your dreams, anything you can recall, in as much or little detail as you like, categorize them via hashtags, and (for a $2 monthly fee) receive various deductions as to what they could possibly mean.

Alarm goes off. “Swimming pool turned into the sea. Couldn’t swim. I tried to find my way out. Adam from school was there. He tried to help me.” Analysis: “If you need someone to help you or you feel helpless then it means you are a bit confused in life. You may need someone to help guide you.” Well, that was an easy judgement call, I figured — too easy. But over time I do start noticing something in my entries. A pattern. I keep getting lost. I’m often alone, trying to find my way back home but unsure where it is, what it looks like, what it feels like. This rootlessness, depending on the context of the dream, can feel either divine or completely terrifying. Alarm. “Matt Damon kissed me the other night, in a van I was driving (I can’t drive), it was sweet (I think) but then I wanted to walk the streets of rainy and moody London by myself instead.” Alarm. “I’m transported to a Lost-like world, stranded on a deserted island, calling my boyfriend [NB: I have exceptionally good Wi-Fi signal in my dreams], asking him how I get back to him. Where are you? He asks. I have no clue.”

During this little experiment, I wanted to pick the brain of someone whose actual job it is to research what lies beneath the deep blue sea of our subconscious. “You’re on an adventure,” Sidarta Ribera, neuroscientist and author of The Oracle of Night: The History and Science of Dreams, tells me. A dream, he says, is really a “product of the reactivation of memories,” ones that get “reassociated and reassembled,” sometimes straightforwardly, oftentimes wildly metaphorically. “They are guided by your fears and desires, so basically what you want to achieve and what you want to avoid.”

“If you have a dream diary you have many pieces of a puzzle,” Ribera explains. “You can start to see what the puzzle is, and the puzzle is yourself. Your inner world. What you gain from collecting a dream series, in my opinion, is insight about the whole picture, of your fears, of your challenges, of where you are in your life.” A mystery maze that is better solved as part of a collective. “Dream-sharing is essential,” he stresses. “As long as they help you find the interpretation that makes sense to you.” Adding that dreams are not just about your desires, they’re also about the desires of others. “The parts of the brain we use to dream are the same parts of our brain we use for empathy, for putting ourselves in other people’s shoes.”

It struck me while sitting on my parents’ sofa. The night before I dreamt me and my boyfriend of four months were in a crowded venue, we both go to the bathroom, arranging to meet back at a spot. Then my phone dies (this happens a lot in waking life at the worst of times). “You disappeared,” I journal. “I couldn’t reach you, I felt like you were off to find someone else. Someone better.” I didn’t know whether it was a tornado of hormones, horrific news headlines, or my own anxieties but I started to cry. Thinking about a potential outcome, one of abandonment, a fear that predates my entire dating history. And so, the next day, motivated by my conversation with Ribera and the fact a make-believe scenario had the power to penetrate my daytime mood — and also my obsessive listening toFree” by Florence + the Machine, a song sent from neurotic girl heaven (“I’m always running from something / I push it back, but it keeps on coming / and being clever never got me very far / because it’s all in my head”) — I recited the dream to my boyfriend in bed.

My storytelling felt like a more abstract, less scary, way of saying, “So, I’ve been thinking, and the thing is, I love you and I’m worried you may leave me one day and then what?” He listened. I won’t divulge the details of the exchange that followed, but it was the very best thing. Like I had exposed a little part of myself so often fastidiously hidden. Had I not recalled, written down, what I saw with my eyes wide shut, would we have had that conversation? Who knows.

On a basic level, dream-journaling has been a relaxing way to ease into the day — much more than auto-responsively scrolling the highlights of strangers lives on Instagram. Instead of filling up my head with data of how other people wish to be perceived, I meditate on how I perceive myself. Beyond that, sifting through the evidence, in all its nonsensical, messy constructions, I’m finding an amalgamation of my past and present and future selves smooshed in there, somewhere. If I dare to look close enough.

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Dream-Journaling to Have Hard Conversations