What my nightmares taught me about myself

“You’ve got discoloration and puffiness,” my esthetician informs me helpfully, wiping a cooling cucumber salve under my eyes that’s meant to send my bags packing. I don’t tell her it’s a fool’s errand—even if the treatment does smell delicious. Ever since I woke up one night as a panicked five-year-old, convinced I was watching a theater production of Cinderella that was burning down, sleep has been a dodgy proposition. Some things you can’t help but wear all over your face.

Strangely enough, spending a lifetime afflicted with chronic nightmares hasn’t been all that bad. Sure, mornings are touch and go, particularly when I’ve woken up several times during the night thanks to the adrenaline rush of running, falling, and fighting. But look at this way, I might not be well rested, but at least I’ve got perspective when it comes to life’s little dramas. Parking ticket? Please—last night I had a nightmare that my car fell into an earthquake fault right out side my front door. And I didn’t have the money to replace it. (Okay, that last bit might be true in my waking life as well.)

Sometimes the terror that my brain provides me each night can even be helpful. As a teenager, and well into my early twenties, the details of my dreams were a bit like mini movies—whole characters, places, and crises springing up from my subconscious that had little to no relation to my day-to-day life. In college, when a professor asked us to keep a dream diary, I was more than prepared. I’m still not 100% sure he believes the amount of detail I was able to provide. So what if I can’t control my nightmares? At least they’re taught me what a perfect three-act structure looks like.

Things took a turn for the worse after I graduated from college. Life as a freelancer allowed me to shift my schedule, working late when I was afraid to go to bed, and setting the alarm for a bit later when nightmares wouldn’t allow me to get back to sleep. But the topic of my dreams shifted. Instead of the kind of freak shows that could be pinned on my love Quentin Tarantino films or even NSFW world events, they went quiet and dark. I’d stand by helplessly while friends would tell me they never really loved me, or family would strategically and wordlessly leave me. In one memorable dream installment, my brother (in real life my biggest ally) refused to let me into his fall-out shelter as nuclear winter fell over Los Angeles. I was more panicked about being alone than the end of the world as we know it.

These kinds of nightmares can be incredibly difficult to talk about. Vivid, threatening imagery, I’ve discovered, gets sympathy. Who hasn’t had the kind of dream where our basic survival is threatened—be it by man, beast, or the weird purple hairy thing that kept me up for several nights as a kid? But try explaining to someone that last night you woke up crying because a well-known indie pop star visited you in your sleep call into question your kindness, talent, and general likeability. Even typing that description sounds like the set-up to a Saturday Night Live sketch.

But isn’t that what being an adult is? Most of us have been fortunate enough to carve out a place for ourselves. Now we want to know that our little patch of existence is important. We want people to share it with. Connections. Meaning. The opportunity to support and be supported. Instead we too often convince ourselves that need is fulfilled with Facebook likes, scheduling coffee dates no one ever intends on keeping, and polite surface-level chat instead of genuine answers to the question “how are you?” I’m no different. It makes sense that the thing I want the most is the thing that would show up in my dreams every night.

I used to think that my nightmares were an inescapable part of who I am, like my hazel eyes or proclivity for using the word dude as every part of speech. But I’ve come to realize that I owe it to myself to be as happy as I am with my eyes closed as I am with them open. I haven’t hit on quite the right cure. Journaling has helped, so has actually being honest with the people around me about whatever I’m feeling. (The old “don’t eat before you got to bed” adage has proven to be untrue…so by all means, bring on the midnight snack.)

Things are slowly getting better, even if some nights are better than others. I’m hopeful that one day, worrying about my dreams (nightmares or otherwise) won’t even cross my mind. Until then, if you find yourself trapped in a haunted house with a zombie who’s more intent on messing with your mind than eating your brains, lemme know—I’ve got your back.