I have been having recurring memory nightmares for years. There are several different scenarios involving years of physical abuse at the hands of an ex. They are exact replicas of certain fights. Sometimes I also have bad dreams that are not memories. They bring the same fear, they also involve the abusive behavior, but they aren’t memories. It is a though they are happening now. I have not been with the ex in 12 years but in the bad dreams he invades my home and hurts my children. Any suggestions on how to stop the bad dreams?
I’m so sorry that this is happening to you. I’m sorry you suffered that abuse many years ago, and am sorry that you’re still experiencing these memories and nightmares today. I have written before about trauma and dreams, and what Carl Jung said about it back in the ’30s. In that post, I explain a bit why nightmares resulting from trauma are so distinct from normal dream function. I also link in that post to another I wrote about some work being done on “re-dreaming”, that is, working with a clinician while awake to transform the nightmare imagery into healing imagery. This is similar to Jung’s notion of Active Imagination in which dreams, even very difficult nightmares, can be reengaged to find the healing function inside the dream. For instance, while re-engaging a specific dream you might practice discovering ways you can protect yourself: Look at the sword in the corner! Notice the devoted lion crouching by the bed, ready to pounce! See how strong you are! See how capable you are of protecting yourself and your children.
For people with recurring nightmares, the innate function of imagination has been severely damaged or destroyed. Trauma makes life overly literal, ruining our natural capacity of symbol making and the experience of awe in the world. This also leads to depression and a general dissatisfaction with the world, the contrast of Harry Potter living in the muggle house versus at Hogwarts — all gray and sad, no magic or mystery or fun.
Anything you can do to consciously support your imagination to flourish is a good thing. Novels, fairy tales, free painting, sculpture, dance, music, story-telling, writing. Have you ever written about your experiences in that relationship? Have you ever tried to transform that terrible period of your life into art? I know, it may seem an insane notion at first, but if you go for it, and trust that it will take time, you’ll notice a change down the road. This is the alchemy of life: turning the yuck into gold. These nightmares are demanding your attention. The more attention you pay to it all, consciously, instead of trying to make them go away, the more completely they’ll shift.
I know it seems counter-intuitive, but I want to repeat this: don’t seek for solutions to make the dreams go away. Don’t avoid, numb, or ignore them. Embrace them. Like you would with a very sad child, look them in the eyes and tell them you’re listening. This is your own wounded soul you’re speaking to. Listen. Ask it what it’s trying to say. Spend time with the imagery so that you can hear what it is saying.
Since this work can be so difficult on one’s own, I encourage you to find a therapist who works with dreams and has experience in trauma treatment. You’ll want to both process through that time of your life when the abuse actually occurred (perhaps you have already done this a lot), but also to engage in kick-starting your imagination.
I encourage you to also explore treatments like Somatic Experiencing and EMDR. These are two body-oriented trauma treatments that have strong proven results for healing trauma of this sort. There are some books you can read, including In an Unspoken Voice, by Peter Levine; and The Body Keeps Score, by Bessel van der Kolk. Both of these books speak to the fight/flight/freeze responses or trauma, and how our bodies often default to “freeze” states in situations where we are powerless. Women in situation of abuse and rape very often experience a kind of paralysis, after which they wonder desperately why they didn’t do more to protect themselves. If you’ve ever seen a small creature stuck in the paws of a cat, you can see this physiological response in action: when the balance of power is not in one’s favor, the body knows that to stay alive it’s often best to play dead. This is not a conscious choice any more than inhaling and exhaling is a conscious choice. It’s a mechanism for survival. As long as these nightmares continue to haunt you, it suggests that your physiology is still (at least in part) stuck in a freeze state. In conjunction with re-activating the imagination, you’ll want to reengage your body with the support of trauma treatments. Therapeutic Yoga, QiGong, and other martial arts can be other good methods of treatment.
Keep in mind that there is no silver bullet for trauma treatment. You’ll need to be a very active participant in your own healing. The participation is part of what your soul and body need for you to completely come out of the the freeze state and sense of powerlessness you experienced back then. This does not mean stressful activity, however. It means mindfulness, love, effort, devotion to yourself, and the search again for play and comfort. You’ll find it. And those nightmares will go away.
Have you had a dream like this? Leave a comment and share!
Satya is a psychotherapist in private practice in Portland, Oregon specializing in Jungian psychology and the years of Quarter-Life. www.QuarterLifeCounselor.com
Q: Every month or so, I have this dream of a blond woman yelling at me. I wake up feeling horrible! I’m scared to ask, but what does this mean?
A: Well, as I happen to know you’re a brunette, this may just be what’s known as a shadow figure for you. I’m glad you asked! This kind of image in a dream can tell us a lot about an aspect of our character, of ourselves, that we are not able to see clearly. The unconscious mind is like the back of our bodies, a part of ourselves that’s nearly impossible to see well on our own, and dreams are like those lovely full-length bathroom mirrors that help us see what we can’t see easily. I say it may be a shadow figure for you because it represents an opposite of how you define yourself (blond versus brunette), but is still an aspect of you (she’s showing up in your dream, in your unconscious mind). Shadow figures are also generally the same gender as yourself, as opposed to contra-sexual images that represent other aspects (we’ll save that for another time).
It is very helpful to get to know characters like these that show-up in our dreams, especially when they are showing-up repeatedly (and causing distress). I would encourage you to take some time, when you’re alone and not rushed, to write or draw and describe her. Use your imagination and write down everything that comes to you. What is she like? What is her story? Why is she yelling at you? What is she feeling? You’ll be amazed to discover what you know about her, and what you learn will begin to show you what her appearance in your dream is trying to tell you. You’re in conflict with her, that’s clear, but it may not be all bad. Conflict can often lead to greater union in the end, which may be what this part of you is seeking.
Do you have a question about your dreams? Send me an email! firstname.lastname@example.org