[Trigger Warning; discussion of nightmares inspired by sexual trauma, child abuse, domestic violence and war. Be kind to yourself, my words are not worth ruining your Sunday.]

We sleep. We must. Sleep is non-optional, even for the sleep-challenged. We sleep, or eventually, we go mad, and we die. I have difficulty sleeping, and struggle with a number of ‘sleep disturbances’, and have since I was very small. My biggest sleep challenge is returning night after night to ‘The Nightmare City’ when my sleep has entered a period of prolonged and frequent bad dreams; the first day or two it isn’t an issue, but after a few days, in spite of clearly understanding how necessary sleep and rest are, I begin to fight the need to sleep, to avoid the nightmares. Yes, nightmares are that bad.

Oddly, I rarely have nightmares if I nap, during the day. How strange is that?

I do all I can, all I have learned how to do, to ensure that when I wake from a nightmare I can quickly recognize I am no longer asleep, no longer threatened, and re-orient myself for sense of place and time, and begin to make willful use of mindfulness practices and meditation to calm myself. It’s nice to have that going for me, these days.  My physician is concerned about my difficult sleep. She’d like me to do a sleep study. Sure, okay, no problem.  She’s a good doctor. I listen to what she has to say.  I know, though, from a lifetime of experience, that medical care will not lock the gates of The Nightmare City.

It’s a quiet Sunday morning. I’m not in much pain as the day begins. My sleep was mostly pretty restful, not dreadfully disturbed.  I woke thinking about cartographers, chaos and damage, the trauma wilderness that so many of us seem trapped within, and it took my consciousness by surprise to find myself fairly calmly ‘looking over the wall’ into The Nightmare City without panic.  Shall I show you around a bit?

Light without illumination.

Light without illumination.

One prominent feature of The Nightmare City is that no matter what the lighting, it feels dark. It is somehow always night, even in nightmares that seem set in day time hours. The darkness is about more than a quality of light. The lights illuminate nothing, they are simply points of other colors, of varying intensity.  Beauty generally seems ‘at a distance’ or in the periphery, illusory and unattainable.  Madness, anger, hurt, fear, confusion, and doubt are generally imminent, and very visceral. The behavior of other creatures and beings in The Nightmare City don’t follow common social convention, or the laws of physics.

Last night the streets of The Nightmare City were empty, deserted; I was alone. I walked, hearing my feet crunch as if walking on icy snow, or egg shells. I did not look down.  The cityscape seemed quite familiar, this time, and very urban. Also vaguely threatening. I felt that eyes were watching me, that ill intent was everywhere, and that the moment was on the cusp of imminent terror. I walked. The air felt icy, and my lungs ached. I found myself wondering if I were holding my breath in my sleep, and realized that this time I was aware that I was asleep, and this was The Nightmare City.  The terror pulled back a bit, receded; demons no doubt checking their calendars for conflicts.  Nightmares are far less terrifying when I am aware I am sleeping. There is a lot of value in lucid dreaming, and I breath a moment of gratitude for awareness that actually has a feeling to it, a feeling of ‘awake’ ‘alive’ and ‘well’ being pulled into my lungs, fortifying and restoring me. In my dream, my phone pings, and I have a calendar alert from a cadre of demons advising me that we’ve rescheduled. I wake briefly, hearing myself laugh out loud, and return to sleep.  I am regularly and firmly schooled by my sleeping consciousness, pwnd by dream world hackers, or taken to task by my demons, and waking only to return immediately to The Nightmare City is pretty routine.

The Nightmare City has streets lined with decrepit town homes and row houses, retail shops, alley ways. There are rarely any cars, not even parked cars.  For some reason, cars generally only show up in pleasant dreams, for me.  I saw a car in The Nightmare City, once, bearing down on me at a high-speed, and me with nowhere to go, back against the wall… waiting. I woke breathless and frightened, holding my breath in the moment before death… waking was a relief.  I don’t trust the sight of a car in The Nightmare City.

There is machinery and industry in The Nightmare City. My oldest nightmare that I can recall, which was a recurring nightmare well into my 20s, when it just stopped, was one of gigantic bees, with huge stingers, operating a system of huge metal gears grinding together. The bees wore pickelhaube-style helmets.  This is a nightmare I think I first had sometime when I was younger than 5 or so. I found it quite terrifying, and incomprehensible.  The bees were operating the gears – and I was caught in the gears and about to be ground up. The worst of it was that I, myself, was directing the actions of the bees from another vantage point, as myself, but separate from the me about to be ground up – but aware that I was one and the same and the outcome would apply to the me directing the action as much as the me being ground up. Quite incredibly terrifying, to the point that I still recall it in detail.

The Nightmare City has cafes, too, and places to stop for refreshment, parks, gardens, neighbors – not any of which are to be trusted or taken at face value. Sitting down to a coffee with a group of women who seem friendly, quickly becomes a nightmare festival of mocking laughter, derision, and meanness driving intense insecurity, fear, and a desire to escape, usually in the face of no ability to do so.  A stroll through a beautiful park in The Nightmare City may seem innocuous, but trust me on this one – the park is filled with demons, and re-enactments of trauma, and oh hey – more derision and mocking laughter.  A good evening stroll through a park in The Nightmare City would be one that was peopled with nothing more vile than mean remarks, and maybe some little old ladies spitting at me, or angry little dogs. It could be a whole lot worse.

Lately, I keep walking up on a very young me, huddled in a white flannel nightgown, weeping and rocking over something held tightly in her arms. I want to help; I recognize she is me. I walk toward her, but my steps bring me no closer. She is so distressed, and as my frustration builds, she cries harder, and her nightgown starts seeming to have a bit of blood soaking through, where it is tucked tightly around her, and touching the ground. She wails, and I keep trying to drawn near to her, to hold her.  She doesn’t get any closer however many steps I take. There’s more blood than I realized, and the nightgown is soaking up more of it. She cries – I cry out to her. She doesn’t or can’t hear me. We don’t seem to be ‘in the same place’. I reach for her, anyway, hoping that the dreamscape will let me reach her. I see that there is blood on my hands, although I still can’t reach her. There are tears on my face, and blood on the white flannel nightgown I am also wearing… I feel so small.  I start screaming and screaming “Please!! Please!! No!” I wake from it, as often as not, still huddled small and tightly, rocking, something trapped in my firm panicked grasp – usually a pillow – and struggling to breath through tears, choking on snot.  “Unpleasant” doesn’t begin to describe it.  This one has been coming up a few times a week for weeks now.

Some of the oddities of The Nightmare City are just flashes of memory; painful enough, they need no augmentation. I get some of the usual human primate fare, as well, dreams of falling, dreams of showing up to work naked, dreams of loss, of insecurity, of frustration, of grief. There was a time I did not understand that those were also nightmares, they seemed so benign in comparison to other things in The Nightmare City.

Last night though, I just walked through stillness. As if the city were largely abandoned. Doors that often opened at a touch were locked last night. The air was cold, and most of the time I felt I was breathing air; sometimes it is poisoned.  There was no one else visible, just that feeling of being watched as I walked.  Perhaps that, too, was only me, noticing myself.  I thought I heard voices in conversation and turned to face them, all was dark and I was alone, and somehow in my room, sitting lotus on my bed (which I knew wasn’t likely with my knees in the shape they are in, and that alerted me I was still dreaming). I looked at my bedroom door suspiciously; my bedroom also exists in The Nightmare City. Trust me when I tell you opening that door is a very bad idea…although it’s been a long time since I was tempted to do so, and I no longer know with any certainty what might be on the other side.

I woke myself with the observation that the candle on my nightstand was out, but the room was bathed in light; confirmation I was dreaming, and that is often what it takes to wake from The Nightmare City, gently. When I woke I knew that I had, because the candle on my nightstand is battery operated and still flickering, and some odd details immediately adjusted from ‘dream’ to ‘real’, like the pillows being just pillows, rather than huge piles of unfinished paperwork – which hadn’t seemed odd when I was actually still asleep.  I used the waking moments to calm myself; it wasn’t exactly a bad nightmare, as nightmares go, but my heart was still pounding, my hair still damp with sweat, and I was shaking with fear; my ‘to go bag’ from The Nightmare City.  I meditate for a few unmeasured minutes, then get up in the night, like a child, for a drink of water.  Bare feet on hard wood, standing in the kitchen, I still feel so small, so young, so vulnerable… as if for the moment I am not me-now, as much as me-then.

I return to my room, to my bed, to the dimness of candlelight, and to sleep, but not to The Nightmare City.  I dream, instead, Dave Matthews’ love songs, breathing the scent of a loved one from my pillow, and wake later, feeling whole, and content, and well.

Today is a good day to share and to trust. Today is a good day for compassion, and not just for others. Today is a good day to open doors, and enjoy gardens. Today is a good day to change the world.