When Dreams Give Us Pause

I’m not a psychiatrist and I’ve only read enough self-help books to clutter one small bedside stand, but I know about Dreams. Not the kind that fill my days when I plan new undertakings, but the impressive ones that swirl though my nights, which usually evaporate upon waking, like fog in morning sun.

You have that experience, too?

Some dreams, however, stay with me. And that’s when I start to pay attention. because I believe there’s someone communicating with me, someone who transcends the physical world.

Yeah. Me.       

Just like Sigmund Freud, I believe in dreams. Unlike Freud however, who said the “interpreter of dreams should not give free play to his own ingenuity,” I think we should unravel our own subconscious tales and try to make sense of them. After all, who else knows better what the right interpretation of a dream is than the dreamer?


While I didn’t always understand that I could interpret my own dreams, I first suspected something was up when I was in the first or second grade. Yeah, really. Because in one recurring nightmare, a witch—smelly and wrinkled as an old pair of locker gym shorts—chased me around tortuous curves at heart-thumping speeds. Whenever she got close, both of us exhausted from the chase, I would turn to her—arms out—and embrace her. Embrace her? Seriously? I was shocked at my subconscious self even then. I hadn’t reasoned it out, young as I was, but I tried. Because I knew there must be something more to it than this crazy capture. Where was the lesson in hugging a frightful hag who wanted to torture me with horrific brutalities to awful to think about?

But they kept on.

Another childhood dream dealt with similar whacked-out behavior. In this one, I am small, in bed. My lights are out, but there’s a light shining up through the stairwell. I can see shadows undulating on the wall through the hazy light. Eventually, those shadows transform into a red-haired ogre who plods up those stairs. He’s a horrifying Fred Flintstone prototype with thick stumpy ankles and bare feet, and he’s clothed in animal pelts. With each step, my fear escalates.

No duh.

When he reaches the top step, I am utterly without escape, but become mesmerized and leave the safety of my twin bed and go to him. What?! He is seated cross-legged and I sit in his lap, nestled like a cat in a basket. Then he starts to crank my ear round and round. And slowly, slowly my features—eyes, ears, nose, lips—fly up into his mouth as he devours them, chewing with casual dispassion. Good God! That’s all the further I ever got in that one, because my own trembling always woke me up before anything else could happen.

I realize now that these childhood nightmares were speaking to me, warning me of specific anxieties. Yeah. And probably like yours, my childhood dreams embodied adult caveats like this one: Steer clear of people who inhibit my ability to see or hear or feel, or I will surely be consumed by them. Yikes.

Beyond childhood warnings, visits from the subconscious can bring us powerful messages. When my father died years ago, I felt utterly bereft in the hope of ever seeing his wonderful walrus mustache again. Then one night, he visited me in a dream, mustache intact, comforted with his gentle presence and soft advice. He still comes occasionally. I am always heartened by these middle-of-the-night sojourns. I know others who share ghostly appointments with their dearly beloveds, too. After my friend Betty lost her mother, I asked her if she had come to visit her yet. “Yes,” she replied. “When I was very sick, my mother came to me, held me in her arms, kissed my face, caressed my cheeks…” The dream left her with strength and courage she drapes over her shoulders like a hand-knitted shawl.

What do you make of your dreams?

They stay with us if we read them carefully. Symbols within our dreams deserve encoding. In mine, probably as in yours, I’ve walked along suburban streets naked and nervous, searching for keys I’ve lost, finding coins instead, watching for an urban bus that never comes. I’ve been chased by mean-mouthed harpies and fedora’d strangers who take the steering wheel out of my hands, but allow me to outfox them through wit and wile. I’ve flown over landscapes too pristine for reality—self-propelled, of course. And, like many, walked into darkened rooms where the final exam was supposed to be held.

Morpheus, god associated with sleep and dreams, gets his name from the Greek word meaning form, which is the root of the word metamorphosis “the process of transformation from an immature stage to an adult one.” Ah. So dreams, gift of Morpheus, can transform us if we let them. Right?

I know my subconscious is speaking to me—not in words—but through these incredible dreams painted in the most marvelously complex and paradoxically simplest images. I marvel at the subconscious’ ability to communicate. Through dreams. As the Bard once gushed: “How infinite in faculty” we are! Truly. Within each of us lies this intrapersonal system so elegantly spiritual, so artistically designed that it leaves me in thrall.

Which is where my epiphany actually lies: we can learn about ourselves from what we have dreamt. Better, we can then respond through action. You know? Face the witch. Avoid the creep. Pick up the coins. Jump over the puddles. Fly where you want to go. And, of course, turn on the light.

Then let the transformation begin.

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