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: I have a recurring dream that someone is trying to break into my house. It’s usually a very scary man, maybe about forty years old. (I get chills even thinking about him now). When I wake up from this dream, I often have to get out of bed to make sure the door is locked before I can go back to sleep.
A: Oh dreamer, this is such a common theme. I’m glad you brought it to our attention so we can work through it together. You want these dreams to go away and stop taunting you, I know. You wonder what they could possibly mean and why they’re afflicting you. They’re disturbing your sleep and penetrating your waking life with the fear they contain. These dreams are very important dreams, but they rarely mean anything like what you’re likely to think they do.
First of all, I’d like to refer you to a little post I wrote about recurring nightmares. Please give it a read to help gauge what type of nightmares you typically suffer from. It can be important to identify some trauma history around nightmares, in addition to overall symbolism.
Okay, before we go on, I need to ask you to do one more thing: Get a piece of paper and a pen. Go on… I know it’s old fashioned. Now take a moment to go back into the feeling of this dream, then write down as many descriptors of this scary guy as you can muster. But write down what he’s like besides being scary. Does he have a job? Does he have a family? What do you know about him that you might be surprised to know. Then, finally, ask yourself what you think he wants from you.
It’s really important that you try to get to know this guy because he is your shadow. He’s you. I know, it’s yucky to hear that, but keep listening. This is important stuff. When we have an idea of who we are, our perspective about ourselves can become kind of rigid and fixed. Those things you avoid acknowledging about yourself to feel more comfortable don’t just go away. They get cut-off from your awareness and then tend to fester and get pissed. In your dreams, they turn into actual figures, and they can turn kind of primal and wild in their frustration at being neglected. These figures are part of your whole person, but they’re being left out in the cold. No wonder they want to break in.
So, the underlying sense in this dream is that you feel under attack. You likely feel like you’re under attack or in danger in some form out in the world too. But your dreams are telling you something very clearly here: despite all the dangers in the world that may cause a person to feel fear, you are currently under attack by your own self. Nothing more. Get real with yourself here. Try to be gentle and forgiving. Take your time. What are you running from? What are you trying not to notice? Who are you scared of being?
The answer to these questions can be found in gently trying to understand who this figure is that’s trying to break-in. There may also be information in what house you’re in in these dreams. Is it your current home or a childhood home, for instance? Notice what time of your life these dreams are situated in, and you may gather more information about what part of your life they’re speaking to.
As you do this exploration, take heart! There is always a happy ending when these dreams resolve. You will find that this man actually just wanted to tell you he loved you, for instance. Or he may hand you flowers. I know this might sound absurd, but this man is not as scary as he feels. The anticipation of jumping out of a plane is scarer than the jump itself (or so I’ve heard…). Similarly, anticipating an encounter with someone you’re trying to avoid tends to be worse than the encounter itself. Try not to think about this too much, but work on engaging with this man a little more directly–either in your dreams, if you can, or in waking life projected onto strangers or people you don’t like. Get to know him and what he wants. Try not to avoid him internally or externally. Discover what’s happening when you start to feel under attack in waking life. Stay safe, but also bring your guards down a little. Get curious. You may discover that your life changes in positive ways as this happens. And you’ll be surprised by how.
P.S. You may enjoy listening to this Radio Lab episode called “Haunted Dreams” in which a man who has been plagued by the same dreams as you–for twenty years!– finds a way to make them stop. It’s a great episode but–spoiler alert–they stop rather short of explaining why the dreams were there in the first place and what changed for the man after the dreams stopped. Perhaps your own exploration into this territory can illuminate those questions further.
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