I remember feeling safe. Our bodies were pressed together, recesses and curves paired together as though from complementary molds. His smell was familiar, both comforting and intoxicating, bringing contentment with a whisper of passion. My eyes were closed as we began to kiss, slow caresses that were full of promise and affection. As our lips parted, I pulled back and opened my eyes.
In my dream, I screamed and shoved him away in disgust and revulsion.
In my bed, I sat straight up, my pulse racing and my stomach queasy.
It had happened again.
For the first several months after he left, some version of this dream would visit me on a regular basis. It was one of those persistent ones. The kind that leave a lasting mark like the reddened skin after a pinch, coloring the entire day. I hated those dreams. They embodied my shock and confusion at the discovery that my protector had turned into my persecutor as the dream flipped from love to horror. Furthermore, the dream made me feel violated and dirty, as I no longer felt any sort of attraction to him.
I hated them.
But still they came.
Quickening the pulse and deadening the day.
I tired of them.
I tried ordering my brain to stop force-feeding me those images while I was defenseless.
It stubbornly refused, simply providing variations on a theme.
So I got creative.
It’s impossible to fully control your dreams. Yet you can apply some strategies that help to steer them in the direction you want:
If you fall asleep with a whole bunch of toxic sludge filling your thoughts, it is no surprise that those thoughts will work themselves into an unwanted dream. Before you head to bed, purge your mind of all those worries and fears bu simply jotting them down. This is not a full writing exercise, simply a listing of words and/or phrases that capture the negativity on your mind. Let it go first and perhaps it will let you rest in peace.
If your dream is like mine where the context is fine and the person is the problem, work to replace them in your mind. Before you fall asleep, picture the replacement in the situation. If you awake from the dream, similarly picture the stand-in. It’s often easier to tweak an element of a dream than to try to suppress the entire thing.
Another way to actively modify your dream is to rewrite the portion that causes grief. Most likely, the worst part of the “story” occurs at the point where it awakens you. So, once you are awake and in control again, finish out the story, bringing an ending that is less painful. You’re telling yourself, “Yes, that was scary. But it was not the end of the story. I can still change the outcome.”
Sometimes our dreams contain a message. Sometimes there are themes we need to address in our lives or voids we need to fill. Examine your dream, looking not at the literal components, but at the overarching truths. Is there something there that you’ve been hesitant to face in your real life? If so, this is your wake-up call.
Journal writing exists in the space between the conscious and unconscious minds. It is uniquely positioned to allow your thinking self to dialog with your feeling self. Write about your dreams without censorship. Explore the paths that appear. And don’t hesitate to build new paths as well.
Be cognizant of what you are exposed to right before bed. If your reading or viewing selection if fraught with tension and dark themes, it primes the mental pump to continue these in to slumber. Instead, select media that provides a sense of levity or comfort and allow it to infuse your dreams.
This is perhaps the most important piece. Live while you are awake. Don’t allow your nightmares to limit your dreams.
Once I instituted these ideas, the dreams began to lose their power. First, their intensity was lessened as he was replaced by a replacement. I would still wake up, but I would be left with a feeling more of confusion than of horror. Then, the dreams began to lose their frequency, becoming more and more rare as I addressed the root emotions and continued to build my new life. And now, those dreams are only a memory, safely buried.