For decades, I have had dreams or nightmares, most that I can’t fully remember, and I wake up terrified, sometimes gasping for air, in a full-blown panic. At times, I can remember the last moments of the dream, the crucial moment when I am about to fall off the edge of a cliff, drive off the road, or be caught by the being pursuing me, which comes in many forms.
The ones I remember the most about are definitely dreams where I am driving a car, but on something like rollercoaster rails, and I keep losing control. I have turn after turn of barely holding the car on the tracks until I finally drive over the edge and begin falling and falling. That’s when I wake up.
It’s no coincidence that the more stressed or worried I am, the more frequent the dreams are. These are all clearly stress dreams, from all the books I have read about their meanings. The worst are honestly the ones I can’t remember at all, I am in a far worse state when I wake from those. I have seen any and all doctors and looked into holistic options, but these particular dreams aren’t thwarted by much.
I have written before about dealing with my worries or these dreams when I was very young, and lately I have been thinking so much about those nights when I was still living with my parents, probably in the third or fourth grade, and the world felt so overwhelming. I would sneak to the hall closet and grab a blanket, then I would quietly slip down the hallway to the den. I would finally reach the sliding glass door and open and close it slowly, then tiptoe across the porch, down the brick steps and into the grass. I would select a spot somewhere near the middle of our huge back yard, and spread the blanket out. I would lie down and look up, trying to slow my breathing, trying to ease my worrying mind.
I can remember that feeling, looking up, the cool air, and the most beautiful splatter of bright stars against the black sky. I would just look up and lie there, sometimes feeling tears hot on my cheeks. I think that lying there, I was hoping the universe would shift, or the world would tilt, or something would happen to make things better. That somehow, after my midnight stargazing, all the things I felt responsible for (my parent’s fractured marriage, my father’s adultery and alcoholism) would be resolved and our family could be happy.
If only it were that easy.
A few months ago, I was having another bad patch of these dreams, and woke up crying and sobbing several nights. On one of those nights, as quietly as possible, I got out of the bed I share with my husband and two large dogs, and tiptoed to the den, finding my pace quickening as I got near the back door. As soon as I got the latch free, I bolted out on to our deck. I surprised myself by literally running into the railing, the top plank almost hitting my chest as I caught myself with my hands. I was out of breath, crying, and completely confused by this desire to run, to get outside, as if that solved anything. To be clear, I have a husband I love, a house full of rescue animals that are my babies, and finally, a job that I love that doesn’t involve working with horrible bosses. I don’t want to run away from these things, or leave my life. It’s just this desire to run when I wake up from these dreams, or when stress overwhelms me.
I have tried to figure out why me running down the street in the middle of the night feels like a solution for anything.
Once in college, when I was first really battling deep depression, I had a horrible nightmare and just felt so overcome, that I grabbed my keys and shot out the door, at probably 2:00am. In just my slight little nightgown, I got in my car, rolled down the windows and started driving. I needed the air, I needed distance between me and (what I thought was) failure at the time. It was as if I was trying to go somewhere, leave all my emotional baggage, and return home, renewed. Instead, on this one night, red and blue lights flashed behind me.
After uttering more than a few four letter words, I glanced in my rear view mirror and saw, not only the approaching officer, but myself. Hair wild from the wind, yesterday’s mascara running down my cheeks, and IN MY NIGHTGOWN. Oh, and barefoot.
The officer approached and shined his very bright flashlight in my car. I had already been crying, and this really had pushed the sobbing to a new level. He told me I was driving a little erratically, and asked for my license and registration. Of course, I couldn’t find my registration, but I gave him my driver’s license, and he walked away.
I sat there sobbing, feeling like this was just a confirmation of all the things I believed about myself, and all the words thrown at me from my father that would not leave my mind.
He finally came back and kind of squatted next to me. He gave me back my license and asked, “What’s going on?”
I am sure it was quite the display as I tried to gasp for air and find my words, and mostly came out with, "I am just so overwhelmed. My parents are so disappointed in me, I can’t do anything right. I can’t make things better. Life is just so painful.”
I remember this part vividly, he stood up and said, with a lot of weight in his voice, “Yes, yes it is.”
He spoke to me a little about the fact that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way, and college was hard, and some other nice things. He said he had a daughter my age, and he would be worried if she went out driving as I was. He asked me to promise not to do this again, added on a few warnings about the dangers of the world, and then told me he was going to follow me home to make sure I got there safe. But before that, he wrote a name on a piece of note paper, telling me it was the name of a therapist he knew and recommended. He handed it to me and assured me he was in the phone book, and I could find his number.
He followed me home, and waved from his car and told me to be safe, as I turned the key in the lock.
I was mortified, touched, and glad I was living alone at the time. Most of my friends knew I struggled with depression, and I felt like it would be one more story to add to all of my others.
Once again, last night, I woke up, panicked, gulping for air and trying to hold tears back, and that same feeling hit me—run. Or get in the car—go. I shut my eyes and held my head in frustration, wanting this feeling to leave me.
Then, for some reason, I remembered running at recess in the park at our elementary school. I remembered tag and “home base”, the place of safety—usually a tree. I thought of fun with friends, being out of breath as we all huffed and puffed our way back to the classroom when it was time to return.
Later, I remembered truly scary moments with my father when I felt the need to get out of my house for my own safety, to really run, or get to my car, and sometimes couldn’t. Those were the worst times. Feeling trapped and scared.
Somehow, I like to think that all this got twisted together.
I know it’s easy to say that the urge to run means I just want to run away from my problems. I am sure that’s part of it. But somewhere in my mind, I am running fast, ahead of whatever or whomever is chasing me, ahead of my worries, my hair behind me in the wind.
I am looking for home base, wherever that is, so I can race up, grab on, and say “Safe”. No… I’ll yell it, scream it, feel it deep in my bones.
Then I'll relax, the dreams will subside, and I will let go of all the worries, all the things I feel chasing me, and all the things I want to leave behind.
Until then, some nights will still find me running, even if it is only in my mind. Hopefully the universe can shift and light the pathway for me to home base.
So for now universe, Tag, You’re It.