The Reality of Mundane Nightmares
CW: rape, sexual assault, night terrors, insomnia
As a teenager, before I had any treatment for my mental illnesses, I would have frequent night terrors - usually where a creature or person would be above me in my bed. I would jump out of bed (in reality) and flee out of my room, to come around and realise it had been a terror. Now, after years of treatment and a somewhat stable state of mental health, such nightmares and terrors have luckily ceased to exist. However, another type of nightmare, the mundane nightmare, comes to me more and more.
These mundane nightmares are insidious. I frequently have dreams of being sexually assaulted, though fear isn’t specifically felt within the dream; the scenario just plays out as normal. The fear of the dream often comes in the abandonment and loneliness I feel in losing my body to trauma. I have dreams that centre on the horrendous aftermath of sexual trauma, specifically processes of in/justice: a few nights ago I had a dream that my police officer and my therapist decided not to show up to my court case (which was incidentally non-existent in reality). I have dreams of being humiliated by my dream perpetrator’s supporters. I have dreams I am making it all up, that I am obsessed with attention, that I am ruining my perpetrator’s life. I have dreams that friends are the ones who hurt me, that my friends don’t believe me, that they abandon me.
How do you deal with bad dreams that make you wake up in a sweat, but don’t feature terrifying creatures and fear? How do you deal when you get stuck in lengthy dreams of being in a room next to your abuser? How do you explain to your friends what subtle subconscious torture feels like, or how it affects your whole day?
When I had, or still very occasionally have, the truly terrifying nightmares, I can actually wake myself up. It’s a nifty trick I learnt as a child and teenager who had many nightmares that were caused by trauma. I could force my eyes open to reality, or I would hear myself calling my own name from the depths of sleep.
With these contemporary mundane nightmares however, my body doesn’t even seem to register that I am in a nightmare. These nightmares don’t need analysing - they are plain and clear in their messages. They tell me that I will never get official, institutional justice. They tell me that there are some people who think I am lying and who will gaslight me endlessly. They tell me that there is a possibility the terrible could happen again. Mournfully, my body recognises such dreamscapes as ‘normal’ - because they are normal in our world. Undoubtedly they are horrific and torturous. But they are only as torturous as the corporeal anxiety and PTSD that manifests when in a location that triggers me, or when learning yet another awful story of how a survivor has been treated by the in/justice system.
These nightmares come to me often. I have had at least one for the past three nights. I may have another one tonight. I do not scream, I do not cry. I just wake up, in a cold sweat, and try to get on with my day. I am, however, trying to manage these dreams more now. I have started recording my dreams in the morning. I found it too hard and too laborious to physically write down my dreams, so I use dictation to release the normal nightmares onto my iPhone notes (you can find dictation on smartphone keyboards). These dreams may not need psychoanalysing, but I believe they need releasing and recognising. Yesterday I didn’t record my dream until the evening, and the day prior had been long and painful. I had repressed the dream as soon as I woke up, scared of focusing on it or remembering it too well. I thought if I didn’t think of it, I would forget, as one does with most normal dreams. But, these dreams are not normal, no matter how much my body may try to convince me so. They are ugly and they are violent; they feel normal only in this nightmarish reality of being a survivor surrounded in an ongoing rape culture.
Following this, I am trying to monitor my use of social media more, especially in the evenings. Though I still use it a lot for more project work and for personal use, I have started realising how much the news cycle, the endless awareness and grief of living in a rape culture, is taking a toll on my sleep life, as well as my waking life. Though I remain strong and relatively well adjusted to coping with rape culture in most aspects of life, it seems that my subconscious is failing to relax in what should be the refuge of sleep. I already have mild insomnia, so when I do get to sleep and my dreams constantly replay anxieties and stresses of my trauma, the exhaustion becomes two fold. No matter how important it is to me to maintain awareness and respect for survivors around the world, I am realising that my health (specifically my sleep) must come first.
I hope that at some point in my life these bad dreams cease to exist. I hope I have ‘normal’ normal dreams, like painting a window pane or peeling carrots (is that what normal dreams are?). More than this, I hope that these mundane nightmares become truly hideous ones. I hope that being assaulted by another human, and a system as a whole, becomes so terrible I have to force myself awake and can’t get back to sleep. I hope that a dreamscape where I am mocked and belittled makes me shake with fear. I hope that any subconscious world where rape culture is normal, where it is not the most terrifying thing in the world, ceases to exist.
This reality seems far off right now - but hey, one can dream.