I haven’t had a really bad dream—a real nightmare—since I was seven or eight years old.
Before that I had terrible nightmares. Not frequently, but regularly enough that I remembered them. They terrified me; I’d wake up sweating, shivering, and sometimes crying.
These stopped abruptly after I had a dream that started out as a nightmare, but turned into something very different.
I was in a car. It was dark. The car wasn’t moving. I was strapped into the front seat. I was alone.
There was something in the back seat.
I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was there. My skin crawled and a lump of panic climbed up my throat. My first instinct was to scream for help, open the door and run.
But I could’t speak, couldn’t move, and now the something was crawling forward between the two front seats.
I was terrified by this point. Paralyzed and helpless.
And then out of nowhere came a coherent thought:
The something hadn’t actually hurt me. For all I knew, it was as lost and confused as I was. If I couldn’t move, I had nothing to lose by trying to talk to it.
I was able to turn my head far enough to get a look at this thing.
It looked horrible in that nondescript way things look horrible in your dreams. I remember large eyes—too large—and a small, puckered mouth. Everything about it was wrong and it made me writhe inside and whip around so I was staring straight ahead again. But it didn’t do anything, so after a while I forced myself to turn around and look at it again.
It was still there, still just staring at me.
I managed to unstick my dream mouth and said, as politely as I could:
“Hello, can I help you?”
And the something spoke. Its voice was like two wet rubber gloves being slid together, and I couldn’t understand a word it said (in my dream, it sounded sort of like “whup whuhhp”).
That scared me all over again, but when the something still didn’t do anything, it occurred to me that maybe it was telling me how I could help.
Turning back, which was easier now, I said:
“I’m sorry, I can’t understand you.”
And it was like the terror which had encased my mind burst, like a soap bubble pricked by a needle. The something wasn’t terrifying anymore; it was just strange, and a little lost-looking.
“Whuuhp whup,” it said, sadly.
It couldn’t understand me, and I couldn’t understand it. So we stared at each other awkwardly until I woke up.
I haven’t had a nightmare since.
I still have bad dreams, of course. Brought on by anxiety or stress or just a weird, upsetting jumble of images and feelings as the result of my brain uncluttering itself. But they’re not nightmares. Any time I feel that creeping sense of terror that used to develop into a nightmare, there’s a piece of me, stronger than the terror, that turns around and asks the equivalent of “hello, can I help you?”
I’ve kept this experience to myself for over twenty years now, but after recently sharing it with my family, it occurred to me that it might help other people to hear it too. Because I realize now, that dream has had a huge impact on the way I deal with fear in the waking world.
To wit: I don’t run from the things that frighten me; I look at them closely. I try to figure out why they frighten me. A lot of the time it turns out there’s nothing really to be afraid of—or I’m actually afraid of something else. Even when it is something legitimately scary, understanding it helps me deal with it reasonably and rationally, which always makes things less terrifying.
I think we can learn to do this without having deeply powerful and meaningful dreams, of course. But I also think lot of my inner strength in the face of adversity stems from the fact that I was as terrified in my dream as I’ve ever been while I was awake, and I conquered that. There is nothing more frightening than our own imagination, as any writer will tell you. So what’s left to scare you after you’re not scared of that anymore?
Many years after I had this dream, I picked up a copy of Sandman by Neil Gaiman, and was a little bemused to find the message of “DREAMS ARE IMPORTANT” repeated over and over again. It fits, of course, with the theme of the comic, but to me it seemed a little heavy handed. I knew just how important dreams could be. I’d known it since I was seven years old.
Goldeen Ogawa is a writer, illustrator and cartoonist. She is not sure if this anecdote will actually help anyone conquer their own nightmares, but at the very least it’s an interesting example of how powerful our dreaming minds can be. To keep tabs on her waking life you can follow her on twitter @GrimbyTweets, and on Tumblr. You can also contact her directly.