Nightmares and Dreamscapes

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For many years, I’ve suffered from night terrors. Or, rather, anyone sleeping in the room with me has suffered from them.

The scenario was always the same–a room that’s too dark (I need a little light) and a recurring nightmare that a dark figure has broken into my house and is trying to kill me. I’ll wake up screaming and thrashing, trying to fight off this would-be assailant, all the while terrifying the person (my best friend on a trip, former boyfriends, my husband) innocently sleeping next to me.

I haven’t had one of those in a long time (*knock on wood*). But I do still have recurring nightmares. Only now, instead of a dark figure trying to kill me, it’s always the real enemy–cancer.

I had one of these last night. In the dream, I found out that there were three new tumors in my reconstructed breast. In delivering the news to some friends, I remember crying and saying, “this is going to kill me. I’m going to die, and my son won’t even remember me.”

I woke up in a panic. Like the recurring dreams I have about my mom, these are always vividly real. I lay in the bed for a moment in terror, until I realized it wasn’t real, and there are no new tumors. Of course, that didn’t stop me from doing a quick self-exam in the bathroom just to be sure.

When I wrote last month for HuffPost about my struggles post-cancer, this was one of the things I didn’t mention. I may have some control over my thoughts and fears during my waking hours, but my anxiety is free to run amok in my subconscious when I sleep. I literally have zero control over it. It doesn’t happen every night, but it happens enough to really rattle me–I always feel nervous and haunted by the dream the next day.

Unlike the dreams that sent me into night terrors, I know there’s a pretty solid likelihood that I will experience the monster coming to get me in these dreams. But until he rears his ugly head, I just have to remember monsters in dreams cannot hurt me.

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In Dreams

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For the first couple years after my mom died, I had a recurring dream about her.

The dream would change slightly, but would always involve her still being alive, and having left us in some other way. She and my dad would divorce, or she would simply go away, only to return later. I would wake up from these dreams so angry. Why did she leave us? How could she abandon us when we needed her? And then once that half-asleep anger subsided, the wave of pain and grief would wash over me.

I suppose this was my subconscious’ way of sorting out her loss. Her death was so sudden, so completely jarring, that my psyche just didn’t know what to do with it.

I haven’t had one of those dreams in a long time–until today.

I took a sweet nap with my son this afternoon, a rarity these days since he’s hitting that age where naps aren’t guaranteed. In the midst of our slumber, she returned.

This time, I found out she’d faked her death to leave us. But she eventually came back and moved into an apartment in my hometown. She would occasionally text me, or send me a card in the mail, but we never saw each other.

In the dream, I called my dad, asking him about her. He said they’d gone to dinner and they’d had a good time. He said she seemed happy, and he seemed OK with whatever the status of their relationship was. I tearfully asked him if she said anything about seeing me or my sister, or ventured to explain why she left. He said no to both counts. Then he changed the subject and started talking about something unimportant that I didn’t care about–this, a bit of reality since he has a tendency to do that when the conversation hits a subject he’s uncomfortable with.

Upset, I went to see my sister. I asked her if she’d seen mom, and she said no, sort of in an exasperated way, like, “Not this again, just let it go.” But I couldn’t let it go. I remember saying, “Why would she go to such lengths to leave us? Why doesn’t she want to see us? Why doesn’t she want to meet Alex?” She didn’t have an answer.

The last thing I remembered before waking up was trying to figure out why she’d gone to so much trouble. I recalled standing in the funeral home, looking at her lifeless body in the casket–the bruises on her forehead from the dashboard, still visible through the heavy pancake mortician’s makeup. The plastic wrapping I could see around her wrist inside the sleeve of her dress–likely some sort of preservation method since we had to wait a week to hold her funeral because my dad was so banged up from the accident. Was none of that real?

I awoke with that same dazed, angry feeling I haven’t felt in years. And then the familiar rush of sadness. Alex was snuggled close to me, and I held him a bit tighter and kissed the top of his head, breathing in the sweet scent of baby shampoo and wild boy. There’s no way she’d miss this.

Grief is a sneaky beast. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, when it feels like enough time has passed to ease the burden, it sneaks back up on you, often in unexpected ways.

I’ve missed my mother so acutely the past few years. Through my pregnancy, motherhood and my cancer journey, I’ve longed to talk to her. To lean on her. To hear her voice tell me she loves me. That it’s going to be OK.

There are some losses you never get over. Some that shake your faith and leave you wondering what the hell just happened. Time passes and you learn to manage it, to move on and keep living. But that grief is always there, waiting to haunt you even on the prettiest of days.