It’s not just you…

I have been thinking a lot lately about things that are, if not universal, at least pretty widespread, but which don’t come up a lot in conversation. Part of this was response to blog posts, part of it was a painting or two I’ve done (The Boar God’s Gift is the one I’m thinking of) where a whole bunch of people wrote in to say “Whoa, I do that all the time.”

Mostly this is stuff inside our respective heads. We are often not good at describing the insides of our heads. (For all I know, this is a failure of English and there are elegant words in French and/or German that sum up these feelings perfectly, but there you are.) Sometimes it’s things like dreams that we don’t talk about much for fear of boring the ever-loving crap out of our loved ones. This is a fair concern.

Many of these are bad or unpleasant or anxiety-inducing. Them’s the breaks. It is astonishing how many of us, while we would deny strongly that we are special snowflakes of mind-boggling uniqueness, are nevertheless willing to believe that our gloomy mental ploddings are not shared by anyone else and that we are alone in our miserable freakhood.

I don’t think that’s the case. My experience is not terribly vast, lord knows, but the longer I live, the more we all seem to be in this together. We may each of us live in our own private hells, but the Devil gets a bulk deal on wallpaper.

I’m not going to say “most” or “all of us” because the minute you say “all” an exception will pop up in the comments, and even “most” implies a statistical majority of which I have little or no proof. So let’s go with “many” and “lots.” Some of these will probably make you go “Well, duh, everybody does THAT!” because they seem obvious. I have gotten e-mails over the years that make me think many of these are not quite so obvious as we think.

Mostly I just felt like talking about it.

So.

Many of us have that dream where your teeth fall out and you can’t find a dentist anywhere.

Many of us also have that dream where there are animals starving to death and it’s all your fault. There are variations on this particular theme—sometimes they’re in cages dying horribly and you can’t find anything to feed them, sometimes you forgot they were there, sometimes it’s fish in aquariums that haven’t been cleaned in a hundred years and goodness, aren’t you a monster?

Many of us have that dream where things are chasing you that won’t die, no matter how many times you chop them apart or drop boulders on them. Plenty of us also have the corollary where you cannot actually fight back and your attempts to hit the monster seem to be going through molasses.

Lots of us have arguments in our heads with people, some of whom have Done Us Wrong, some of whom only might at some point maybe Do Wrong, and it’s good to be prepared. You’d think that since this is entirely in our heads and we get to control the script, we would inevitably win these arguments. You would be wrong.

Lots of us tell ourselves stories of past traumas in long rambling repetitive monologues when depressed.

Many of us have a near-constant “Hey, remember that time in 1985 when you said that incredibly stupid thing and everybody looked at you?” drone in the back of our heads. Memories of past faux pas are on auto-stream. Arguments that nobody else on earth remembers said stupid thing do not make much impact on the drone. (I have attempted to expiate this by assigning a charitable donation to every embarrassment, so that when I start thinking about that really stupid thing I did sophomore year, I can go “No, I gave a chunk of change to Bat Conservation International for that, damnit, I can stop worrying about it.” Sort of an anxiety equivalent of a swear-jar. It would work better if I had a bigger budget and if my subconscious weren’t convinced that every moment of stupidity should cost about a hundred thousand dollars or so. It would also work better if my supply of past stupidities did not so nearly approach the infinite.)

Lots of us lay awake at night contemplating what will happen if we get Nameless Horrible Disease, our spouses/kids/pets/whatever die horribly, what we will do, how sad we will be, how miserable it all is, etc. I have gotten better at going “This is not productive” and working through book plot-lines, but I still catch myself doing it.

Lots of us are scared to look out windows at night, for fear there’s something looking back. Mirrors are also iffy, because what if there’s something moving in there that isn’t you?

I will also confess that despite having written “Irrational Fears” I still occasionally go in fear of the monster under the bed. I am thirty-four. I would be very surprised if I was alone in that.

 

Anyway. That’s probably a short list, but it’s what I can think of off the top of my head. Feel free to add your own (within reason!) We are, after all, all in this together.

  • reply tanita ,

    Gah! The mirror. After midnight. Nuuuh.

    Also: Dreams of headless people. No blood, no gore, just… no heads. Ichabod Crane scarred me for life. I learned today that there’s a word for carrying your own head: Cephalophoric. This word was made up for saints.

    I have way too many more to name…

    • reply Lisa B. ,

      I was not afraid of looking out of windows at night, but I have a feeling that this post will stick in the back of my mind and now I will be. 🙂

      • reply erebor452 ,

        There’s also “Impostor Syndrome”– y’know, that feeling that your boss/advisor/mentor/coach/whoever will one day figure out that you aren’t as good as s/he thought you were, and that you never will be. (Going from my group alone, this occurs in all levels of academia, from “They’re going to tell me that my admission was a mistake any day now,” to “When will they realize that they shouldn’t have given me tenure?”)

        And,oh, gosh, I thought the looping tape of random fails was just me. While I don’t wish it on anyone, I am immensely comforted to know that at least one other person has been similarly tormented.

        • reply Kiri ,

          Oh, I get loop of total failures and miserable embarrassments too.

          Also the duvet is clearly what stops the things in the dark from eating me in my sleep. They’re not always there, mostly they’re not, but every so often, after a bad day, I’m most particular about how I wrap myself up before I go to sleep.

          And empty theatres, at night, are terrifying places, enough to induce fear and madness in the sanest of people.

          • reply Viktor ,

            No, no, erebor452. You are definitely not alone on the fail replay highlight reel. My girlfriend & I have both repeatedly lammented it’s existence. And, apparently, so has Ursula.

            If only there was a way to make it stop. I’d be so much more content in my quieter moments. Alas…

            • reply Ellis ,

              Went to bed last night telling myself it’s fine the husband isn’t home tonight to save you from burglars, you lived alone for years and years and nobody every got you. When you’re a kid you’re not afraid because of Mom and Dad and then suddenly you’re Mom or Dad and dammit who’s going to save you? I like to live with really big cranky dogs.

              • reply Helix ,

                I’m always afraid I’m the main character in some strange dream and everyone else is something fictional. I look out on the world with the view of my own eyes, but I can’t see my own face – so that makes it a dream right? It’s some grand puppetry by the gods who want to see just exactly what I do when poked with a stick.

                That’s the dreaming that happens with my eyes open.

                Then there’s the never-dream-of-monsters or aliens thing I’ve got going, but if I’m going to wake up in a cold sweat it’s because there’s rivers of lava surrounding the house and I’ve got to figure out how to get my people and horses and goats and dogs and cats across it to safety. Or the tornadoes that come bearing down while I’m frozen with fear and can’t move to warn anyone.

                I’m not much afraid of scary people – like Ellis, I live with dogs that give me lots of warning and when properly motivated, I know where the guns are.

                Still get spooked about thunderstorms. See above about tornadoes. I never sleep when they happen at night.

                • reply Tara ,

                  The monsters under the bed thing is me all over. NOT helped by our one mad cat who likes to crawl under there to nap, and then, at 3am, stretch and meow and sharpen her claws on the underside and scare the ever-living crap out of me.

                  Damn cat.

                  • reply TK ,

                    Helix – I have the disaster dreams too. Tornadoes, tidal waves, fire & nuclear holocaust are frequent nighttime guests. It’s like I can see it coming & can only brace myself & then I wake up. That’s when I know I need to take some deep breaths & figure out what is stressing me & how to get rid of it.

                    • reply Hawk ,

                      Disaster nightmares here too; fire in the sky, forest fires, tornadoes, all that sort of thing. Since Katrina hit (I live in Mississippi) I’ve also had plenty of hurricane nightmares.

                      I find the worst part about such nightmares is, like what Helix said: how am I going to save everyone (and everything) I care about?

                      Interestingly, I only started having disaster nightmares after I had my son. The first one woke me up screaming and crying, because in the dream I couldn’t lift my son’s crib.

                      …because I’d also stuffed it with my books as well as perched my son on top of the pile.

                      …uhm, yeah.

                      • reply Mean Waffle ,

                        I only remember having the teeth falling out dream once. I still remember it though, which, if you knew much about my memory, you’d know was significant.

                        In the dream, I was standing next to the old upright piano in the front room (which in that house was in the back – you can call it a living room if that fits your regional vocabulary better) when I felt them loosening and shifting out of my gums.

                        For a bit I was worried. I tried to hold my mouth still so that they wouldn’t get displaced or slide down my throat, but that didn’t fix anything. So, knowing that it was just a dream and that I wouldn’t have to deal with the consequenses for more that the time that I was asleep, I spit them out into my hand.

                        My hand filled with warm, wet teeth mixed with washers and bolts. As I was puzzling over that, I started waking up. As I woke, I heard a voice saying, “Oh, yeah. The old teeth have to fall out to make room for the fangs.”

                        Given my long-established lack of assertion, I’m guessing that last bit was wishful thinking. Felt good hearing it, though.

                        • reply Silvermink ,

                          I haven’t had these in a while (knock on wood), but for me it’s been school anxiety dreams. Didn’t finish the homework that was due today, forgot to study for the huge exam – oh, and my personal favorite, a class I forgot I was taking and suddenly remember halfway through the semester.

                          It’s been almost seven years since I graduated from university.

                          Another experience I suspect a lot of people have is waking up in the early morning and having your brain latch onto something which is objectively silly, but damned if your sleep-fogged brain can just dismiss it.

                          I get the fail-highlight-reel thing too.

                          • reply Chelsea ,

                            The day I graduated from college, I woke up early from a dream in which I was sitting in Mr. Atchley’s AP History trying so, so hard not to panic, because I hadn’t been since the first few weeks and I was afraid I wouldn’t get to graduate and would be dismissed from the university that in real life I was less than eighteen hours from being done with forever.

                            Of course, in my case, I actually did have a high school teacher trying to stop me graduating because I pissed him off with my civil-disobedience hijinks — which is hilarious is retrospect but doesn’t help.

                            And then a couple of weeks ago I started reading the creepy supernatural stories on the SCP Foundation wiki.

                            Hello, nightlight. I’ve missed you since I was 16.

                            • reply Jamie ,

                              “Many of us have that dream where your teeth fall out and you can’t find a dentist anywhere. ” – weirdly, despite having terrible trouble with my teeth being rot-prone (we discovered this thanks to my depression-proneness. You ever hear of being “too depressed to brush your own teeth”? Yeah, that’s always the first thing to go when it starts back up)… I have never had this dream. I have always been quietly baffled at the supposed ubiquity of it – it’s so common it’s been listed as “one of those really common nightmare subjects”, and analyzed all to pieces about how it represents say, a fear of aging and death… and I’ve never once experienced it. Not even when I was losing baby teeth. Not even when I had to have a 12-year-molar pulled because the back got screwy because I didn’t brush carefully/often enough because I had untreated depression. You’d think a combination of ACTUALLY having teeth that have a record of falling apart, and an actual recently-pulled tooth, and active depression… but nope, never an issue. However…

                              “Many of us have that dream where things are chasing you that won’t die, no matter how many times you chop them apart or drop boulders on them. Plenty of us also have the corollary where you cannot actually fight back and your attempts to hit the monster seem to be going through molasses.”

                              THIS. This I have had. Several times. The worst variation, my most common variation, is the “trying to run, but it’s like you’re in slo-mo WHILE THE MONSTER ISN’T”.

                              And what’s weird is they seem to pop up at random, from generalized, random bits of inspiration and anxiety, rather than anything in specific.

                              The oldest one I can remember is simply me, being in my family’s dining room at night, which is really spooky, any place at night, with the lights out you know. And my parents, they have this one room, right off said dining room. It was, and still is, called The Library.

                              It had very bad lighting, since it was mostly used for access to the garage and patio, and for storage, so nobody really used it at night… and so it was usually really dark. Dim even on a sunny day, but at night? Pitch black. Pitch black, and full of weird shapes, because unused furniture, gardening stuff, animal stuff that had no place elsewhere or couldn’t fit in the garage, all of that got put there. And ringed by so many bookshelves (hence the room’s name) that the light from the windows was even hindered. So even though I didn’t mind the room (which was, after all, full of books) during the day… at night, it became one of those primordial places. A gigantic, unsettlingly lumpy shadow; a gaping maw inside an otherwise normal suburban house. Primal fear of the unknown and unseeable, in one convenient little symbol that happened to be like 15 feet away from my actual bedroom. Joy!

                              So, this dream.

                              This dream begins there, in front of The Library. Directly in front of it, in fact; right at the edge.

                              There is a Shadow.

                              A massive, sprawling, oozing, slowly roiling Shadow. It is in The Library. It sees me. I don’t know how I know it sees me, but I do.

                              And I know, without being told, without basing it on anything but pure, panicked Lizard Brain instinct, that it wants to consume me. Swallow me whole. It wants to HURT me, probably kill me.

                              It wants to swallow me whole.

                              I am going to die.

                              And it MOVES. It moves towards me, but that’s okay, at first, because it moves so very, very slowly – snail-like in pace, really, though my dreaming brain doesn’t make that comparison, because my waking brain doesn’t have any problem with slugs or snails and doesn’t see them as the kind of formless terror-inducer that this thing is. The point is, it’s slow, right? Slow. So I figure, I Can Outrun This. I NEED to Outrun This.

                              Except I can’t. I turn, and I’m running past the end of the dining room table, towards the kitchen… but it’s startlingly slow. It’s not even like “being in” molasses – I AM molasses. I am in slow motion. It takes maybe a full minute for the Shadow to move much, but it takes a full minute for me to inch forward, either. And all I can think is, NO. NO. NO.

                              All I can think is, I Don’t Want To Be Consumed! No! Don’t let it swallow me! Please don’t let it swallow me! NO. NONONONNO… but it’s close! It’s so terribly, heart-poundingly close that if it had a breath, it would be literally breathing down my neck… but it doesn’t, so it isn’t; instead I just have the sense that it is RIGHT THERE. ALMOST THERE. DON’T STOP. YOU CAN’T STOP…

                              And just as it’s about to reach me, about to presumably swallow me whole…

                              …I wake up.

                              I think I had this dream in, at the latest, about middle school.

                              That means it has stuck with me for over ten years. At minimum.

                              In later years, I learned that the body self-paralyzes in sleep; hell, it’s NORMAL for it to self-paralyze. It’s a normal part of the sleep cycle (sleepwalking is caused partly by the absence of this self-paralysis), and in fact, the human mind sometimes does it as a form of self-defense even when conscious (one that isn’t as counter-productive as you might think; the one guy who survived the Virgina Tech shooting? Survived because his instantaneous, instinctive reaction was the self-paralysis reflex, so he was mistaken for dead and not actually slain by the shooter).

                              So, naturally, years later I have a variant of the Something Is Chasing You dream that involves actual self-paralysis that I know as such.

                              Out of completely nowhere one night, or rather, one morning, I find myself lucid dreaming. It’s rare, yeah, but occasionally I do it in the mornings as I’m coming out of REM sleep. What’s odd about this is not the lucidity; it’s the subject. I am at my parents’ house, and I am helping someone out to the car with a box of something, and next thing I know two armed gunmen, mob guys, come up their guns are drawn, and I know I have to run, so I do. I run back to the house, and it’s painfully slow, the way I run. It’s like time is stretched out. It’s ridiculous. I reach the door, and I struggle to unlock it.

                              And here’s where it gets weird.

                              See, I know, for some reason, on some level, that I am dreaming, and thus have some measure of control over the situation. I’m still totally, utterly convinced I’m going to die if those guys catch up to me, though.

                              So, what happens with this weird combination of awareness/non-awareness?

                              What happens is that I effectively play it like a video game, wherein I have multiple lives/start over points. Except it’s one where I am, again, totally convinced I could actually die at any moment if I screw up.

                              I try to hide in the laundry room, in a closet, I try to just run through the house even, all of those end with the guy in front looming over me… so I just restart.

                              I start over, from the doorway. From choosing to waste time locking it, or not. I choose different routes each time, different hding places… because my parents are vulnerable too, I end up in my final route running out the back. We have a foresty-looking section here, with a stone bench we never use that’s long since covered in foliage.

                              Having seen that simply running toward the neighbor’s backyard doesn’t help (his plain wire fence doesn’t provide enough cover), I choose to Hide.

                              I duck under the bench. I curl up; make myself as physically small as I can.

                              I am on my cellphone, calling 911. I am telling them, quietly, that there is a gunman and he’s going to kill me if he finds me and I tell them the address, and then I hear him coming, so I shut off the phone. But it takes so long to shut off, and the noise it makes while shutting off… i shove it down in front of my abdomen, I try my best to muffle it with my body.

                              His foot is right next to the bench.

                              And so I will myself Be Still. Be Still. Don’t Even Breathe. Not enough to hear. Breathe single molecules if you have to, or not at all. Be Still. Whatever you do, you need to Be Still. Be Quiet and Be Still. And I feel the feeling leave my limbs.

                              Sirens and voices, the guy runs toward the woods.

                              I lived.

                              I finally snap out of it, mentally. Except not, because I actually realize I’ve woken up crying. Crying, and paralyzed.

                              I can’t move my limbs yet, and it takes ages to get full movement back, and I weep for a solid minute while trying. Not so much because of the paralysis, as simply the fact that I had honestly, literally, thought I stood a strong chance of dying not moments before.

                              The scary part is that last bit? That last bit was AFTER I woke up. It’s not part of the dream; I really did scare myself so thoroughly that I triggered the paralysis reflex, was so distressed that I really was already crying. It’s arguably both the most empowering and most terrifying nightmare I’ve ever had; I mean, I could plan, strategize, eventually “beat” it; but even when I was in control, I wasn’t. I have never been more terrified. Not even when I got struck by a car while riding my bike in real life years prior (giving me a healthy respect for cars, mind). See, because that was quick, and I mostly just had to worry about scraped skin since amazingly enough they were actually going the speed limit. This dream though… ugh. Sustained, life-threatening terror is, as you might imagine, the worst possible kind. >.>

                              Though, on the plus side, I did at least beat it. And also, I learned I can force my own paralysis reflex to kick in as well as how to do it, which is actually surprisingly useful. Hopefully something I won’t HAVE to use, but still useful. Lends a bit of credence to the idea that dreams are sometimes meant to allow us a safe place to rehearse…

                              Of course, that said, most of my dreams aren’t nightmares. Mostly they’re just full of cool weird stuff, like winding up on a spaceship that has Big Bird dressed in burgundy Renfair garb on it, finding the world’s most amazing bookstore (that literally has everything I ever wanted to find and then some), elevators that only go up, or downtown having an evening event that kind of turned into a Steampunk Mardi Gras. Yes. really. With zeppelins and everything. Including people costumed in Victorian and pseudo-Victorian garb sneaking off for a snog in the alleyways.

                              I generally kind of like my dreams. The nightmares are weird exceptions. Which is kind of interesting, given that I’m depression-prone… you would think it would be the other way around.

                              Also:

                              “Lots of us have arguments in our heads with people, some of whom have Done Us Wrong, some of whom only might at some point maybe Do Wrong, and it’s good to be prepared. You’d think that since this is entirely in our heads and we get to control the script, we would inevitably win these arguments. You would be wrong.”

                              God, yes. Rarely, but in one case I found myself dreaming that I was taking so much verbal abuse from a particular relative that I shoved them down to the floor and tried to strangle them… except they just grinned at me in response. Like a Cheshire grin, minus the disappearance. Scariest mental image ever!

                              Also, science time! 😀

                              “Lots of us tell ourselves stories of past traumas in long rambling repetitive monologues when depressed.”

                              This is actually one of the hallmarks of depression! Not only have I experienced it, but I would feel safe in saying most of the severely depressed have done this, if only in their heads. It’s called “rumination”. There are some who think rumination is actually the POINT of depression – that we wouldn’t be so prone to it so easily if it didn’t have a function, and that that function is to devote more time to solving unpleasant, unavoidable problems, especially social ones. It’s an interesting theory, at any rate.

                              I also bet I’m not the only person who does this when they’re in need of a good cry and have built up so much “normal” stress that they just need to be exactly masochistic enough to get out a good cry. You need to poke the pain to stimulate the release of the hormones that relieve it.

                              “Many of us have a near-constant “Hey, remember that time in 1985 when you said that incredibly stupid thing and everybody looked at you?” drone in the back of our heads. Memories of past faux pas are on auto-stream. ”

                              Ugh, yes! Tie this in with the masochistic monologues tendency and I can certainly empathize with it.

                              “Lots of us lay awake at night contemplating what will happen if we get Nameless Horrible Disease, our spouses/kids/pets/whatever die horribly, what we will do, how sad we will be, how miserable it all is, etc. I have gotten better at going “This is not productive” and working through book plot-lines, but I still catch myself doing it.”

                              My fear is oddly both less and more specific than that: every so often, I’ll get struck with the existential panic of Knowing I Will Die Someday… not “oh what if”, but the terror of KNOWING that even if I’m healthy as a horse, someday it’ll all give out anyway, and that’s assuming I don’t get hit by a bus or something first. And then I feel guilty for Not Getting Enough Done, except… and I have to ask my fellow writer(s), do you ever feel like your characters are kind of like your kids? Granted, kids in a very dysfunctional relationship with you. But like you owe it to them to write their story and do it really well? Sometimes I’m not scared so much that I’ll die as the fact that “my characters aren’t written into anything significant or published at all, so they’ll die with me if I go”. Which is… strange, ostensibly, that I care about fictional people more than myself. I sometimes wonder how neurotic this makes me, or if this is maybe somewhat normal for writers of character-driven stuff.

                              “Lots of us are scared to look out windows at night, for fear there’s something looking back. Mirrors are also iffy, because what if there’s something moving in there that isn’t you?”

                              Hate windows at night! Also hate gaping shadows, as from an open closet or bathroom door. Or weirdly-shaped shadows, as from odd arrangements of objects in a room.

                              I also can’t watch anything about cryptids or UFOs, no matter how cheesy, if it’s dark out. Because it triggers my paranoia that Something Might Be Out There Aaaaah!

                              “I still occasionally go in fear of the monster under the bed. I am thirty-four. I would be very surprised if I was alone in that.”

                              You are not. I am 25 and still afraid of the dark. 🙂 I have to make sure I have myself covered up to my neck in blankets or I don’t feel safe enough to sleep!

                              • reply Escher ,

                                Similar to the previously mentioned “impostor” feeling, I often get the feeling that “My god, you people think I’m a responsible adult! You trust me with a mortgage! You call me ‘sir’ or ‘Mister My-Name-Here’! Don’t you realize I still watch cartoons on Saturday morning and play pretend with my friends?!” (We just use dice, y’know.) I’m topside of thirty and I still think of myself as a kid. It wasn’t until the awesome comic XKCD mentioned this phenomenon that I realized EVERYBODY feels that way. (Or at least ‘lots’.) Actually I wonder if that feeling is the origin of at least some of the “fear of commitment” thing some people have going.

                                I have the clips reel of embarrassing moments too. I’m fairly sure nobody else remembers them, but I do, and I get that same ice-hot feeling in the pit of my stomach when I think about them. I try not to.

                                Looking out a window at night hasn’t bothered me since I was in my late teens. (I used to watch a lot of shows about aliens and occasionally got the creepy sense that if I looked out a window I’d see a pale gray head with giant eyes looking bac– oh geeze I just gave myself the willies.) But I still occasionally feel that way when I’m taking a shower late at night and something in my brain keeps insisting that if I close my eyes to wash my face, when I open them there’ll be somebody (or rather, someTHING) standing outside the shower watching me.

                                I still get into this mode where I want to make my walking (or even other activities) symmetrical. If I step on a crack with my left foot, I then have to step on one with my right, or at least keep track and make sure I right-foot enough cracks to keep everything even. Or stepping on colored tiles. Or whatever. It’s weird and stupid and I suspect a lot more people do it than I would have thought. If you see me do a weird little shuffling step, it probably means I needed to adjust my stride so I could hit the tiles the right way.

                                Leave a Reply