“Why do you have nightmares?” a voice addressed me abruptly. I was sitting in an aisle seat in a crowded bus with a heap of hard-bound books on psychology on my lap. I was an undergraduate student in Delhi University at the time, and was returning home from college.
“How do you know I have nightmares?” I asked, looking up at a boy whom I knew as DJ. I must have gone red in the face from the shock of being revealed. DJ was talking to me as if we had been in the middle of a conversation. How does he know, I was thinking.
“No, I mean, why do we have nightmares?” he rephrased his question.
I looked towards my books as if the answer might be there. I’m not sure what wise words I spoke to DJ in response.
To this day, I can’t tell whether DJ really suffered from nightmares or whether he had thought it was a good conversation starter with a student of psychology.
I had been truly startled. Vivid dreams and nightmares have always been my constant companion. Just this morning I woke up from a dream in which my friend was strapped to an electric chair on death row. If I had intervened in time, I might have been able to save him. I had neglected him and now I had to watch him die. My jaw was clenched tight in guilt and grief.
My dreams are often disturbing, sometimes simple to interpret, and at other times just plain crazy. There are dreams of torture, sexual assault, death and helplessness in the face of danger. I become pregnant and give birth in my dreams, sometimes to strange things. There are the usual recurring themes of being dressed inappropriately, but the really disingenuous ones seem to be designed simply to humiliate me.
There are some people who never remember their dreams. Some are not bothered by the dreams that visit them. I have a friend who dreamt of an accident while she was travelling in India with me. Later she discovered that her classmate had died in a similar accident in England that night. There are stories like these in the extended family of many people.
I am writing about dreams partly because I want to engage with my own dreams. I want to shame the ones that tap into the most vulnerable parts of me, while all I am trying to do is get some much needed sleep. I am also writing about them because we don’t talk enough about dreams. We often have no patience with them, or no listener to validate what we have experienced. Dreams are real, you know.
Some dreams are mean. In a recurring theme, I often get into places where I am not welcome and then refuse to leave. I take things that don’t belong to me, either by stealing casually or pretending that they are mine. All my deep, hidden fears of not belonging, not being valued and not being of any consequence come out and enact impromptu theatre in my own head.
I go back again and again to my last school and my first workplace. I wonder what closure I seek. What conflict do I revisit, that remains unresolved?
Sometimes I wake up in the morning, wipe my cold sweat and actually laugh at my brain. Why would you work so hard to torture your own self? It’s creative but what is the purpose of playing this macabre game with myself?
Psychologists tell us that nightmares actually have a purpose. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst, believed that despite all the conflict, order is what our consciousness is seeking through dreams. He suggested that dreams do the work of integrating our conscious and unconscious lives. He called this process individuation—the mind’s quest for wholeness. He did not believe that it was necessary to interpret dreams for them to perform their function.
Dreams provide a window to our inner lives. Sometimes they offer creative insights and if we pay attention, there are solutions we can borrow from. Some dreams may be premonitions, and precisely for that reason they are more disturbing than usual. How can we know?
Over the years, I find that I have become possessive of my dreams. A few weeks ago, my husband mentioned to our Tibetan doctor that I have extraordinary nightmares that disturb me. She smiled a half-smile and added something to the prescription she was writing. I don’t know about cause and effect, but after two weeks of sleeping through the night without any nightmares, I began to miss them.
When the medicines were over, I was sure I didn’t want any more of them. I may curse them when they appear, but my nightmares have become like a familiar map, a kind of inner guide to experiences and emotions I have no other access to.
I have learnt from my own teacher and therapist, Father Oswald Summerton, that even though nightmares make us anxious, once we are awake, we can own our dreams. I can choose to put anxiety away. When I write down my dreams, the words sound rather poetic, even when the plot is ludicrous. My fears may cling to me in my dreams, but I can let go of them when I am awake.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She tweets at @natashabadhwar and posts on Instagram as natashabadhwar.