Q: This is a recurring dream: I find myself back in high school. We’re approaching the end of the semester, and I realize I haven’t been attending most of my classes. It’s as if some weight or sickness or fog has prevented me from being able to think straight and go to school. In the last version of this dream, I had only been going to gym class. I consider various options about how to deal with this: Can I get it together enough to finish projects, cram, and take a final exam? Will I need to fail and repeat the year?
A: Hrm. Have you shared this dream with other people? If so, I bet you’ve found that it’s one many people can relate to. This is a classic anxiety dream, and it ranks up there with the most common dreams in our culture. One feels on the brink of failing school and can’t believe it, or is certain that he or she is humiliatingly unprepared to sit for an exam. Commonly, there’s a feeling of amnesia, or of having slept through something important. What this dream is reflecting for you is probably pretty common in our society; when it comes to the rules of school, we were all raised in a similar way, with certain expectations and certain orientations viewed as commonplace. These dreams may be pointing to how overwhelmed we are by all the thinking, studying, planning, and testing. Even if we’re long out of school, the same habits of trying to think our way through life can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety.
If we were to work your dream together, I would ask you to explore two feelings that show up: one, the “weight or sickness or fog” that has prevented you from thinking straight, and two, the shock and fear of realizing your absence and wondering what you’re going to do.
That fog that you describe suggests to me a depression that is actually weighing over you in waking life, clouding your thinking and making it hard to attend to what people and society expect of you. I bet you already know what I mean. The other feeling, the anxiety and panic as a result of that fog is probably also a feeling you’re familiar with, that awful effort it takes to plow through exhaustion in order to perform in the world according to society’s expectations. What are the nuances of all those feelings? Don’t be afraid to go into them, there may be some keys to clearing-up this foggy anxiety hidden in there. Often, there are pointers to what other talents you have that are being under-utilized.
I’m glad to hear that you have been attending gym class in this dream! It sounds like you have actually been showing up for your body, despite the fogginess. Good for you. This can be hard when that other sloggy, stuckness is around. Keep at it! The more you let your brain rest and take care of your body, the more prepared you’ll be for those exams in life.
Now, to make this dream go away, I would encourage you to explore the difference between what is right for you, and what other people expect of you. School and exams are not about finding your path, or about knowing yourself, they are about learning what others require you to learn and trying to prove to others what you know. What is lingering from those earlier days of life about how you determine what is right for you?
Have you had a dream like this? Leave a comment and share!
Satya is a psychotherapist in private practice in Portland, Oregon specializing in dream work, the quarter-life crisis, and work with individuals in their 20s and 30s. www.QuarterLifeCounselor.com
There are three memoirs of mental illness that should be included, immediately, in all psychology related training programs. Besides the exploration of one’s own psyche in personal therapy — another must for training practitioners — the exploration of someone else’s psyche through his or her own personal account of illness is an unrivaled opportunity for learning.
Each author in this trilogy of memoirs of madness is extraordinarily intelligent and compelling. Not one can be written off as crazy and ignored. Indeed, the brilliance of these memoirs is that they are utterly identifiable and that through them, crazy becomes identifiable. Each one, in their honesty and humility, mirror ourselves back to ourselves. In their terrible pain, we see glimpses of our own insanity. Through them, we gain appreciation for the thin line between sanity and insanity, and the absurdity of disregarding those who have had the misfortune of falling too far over the other side.
The insights gained into the human experience of mental illness (and the specific experiences of each illness) cannot be taught. The appreciation that will power alone cannot heal an afflicted individual is learned unequivocally. For two of the individuals, it was only through proper medication (after a lot of failed attempts) and highly skilled psychotherapy combined that their lives were saved. That, and a lot of love and support from family, friends, and lovers. For the other author, love and companionship also got him through a lot, but it was only a long endured hospital stay that gave him what he finally needed to survive (in addition, I believe to medication, after very poor psychiatric therapy).
The authors of each memoir are people you want to know, and each book is thoroughly enjoyable (perhaps strangely); they are true page-turners, good Saturday-on-the-couch-with-a-cup-of-tea books.
In addition to a good Saturday excuse to stay in bed, however, this informal trilogy of memoirs should be read by anyone interested in understanding more fully his or her own psyche, and absolutely by anyone working with the psyches of others. In my own training as a counselor, I was assigned only one of these three memoirs. (I regret that not all of them were assigned in the first year.) I read the other two recently (finally) after receiving recommendations from friends. One of these books, in fact, was the key to a friend’s discovery of her own illness, the life-saving lynch-pin to help her explain herself to herself.
For your pleasure and edification, read (if you haven’t already):
The Center Cannot Hold, by Elyn Saks; the inner experience of schizophrenia.
Darkness Visible, by William Styron; the inner experience of major depressive disorder
An Unquiet Mind, by Kay Redfield Jamison; the inner experience of manic-depressive disorder (bipolar)