Elisa Gabbert’s previous work for The Butter can be found here.
Years ago, a friend told me that she dreams in the third person, watching herself. At the time, I found this improbable—why wouldn’t you dream as you live?—until I noticed that I often fantasize in the third person. I don’t just mean sexual fantasies, but any time I project forward into an imagined future, and sometimes I replay memories as though I’m watching them from outside the scene. In dreams, though, I embody my body, only seeing myself when I look in the mirror, in which case my reflection is often grotesque or distorted in some way. I once heard that you shouldn’t look in the mirror while on LSD; perhaps the same is true of dreams.
When I was 13 or so, I went through a period of dream obsession. I bought a “dream dictionary” and checked out several books on the psychology of dreaming from the library. (I even read some Freud—there was a volume on the shelves in my parents’ living room, from one of those leather-bound sets of “classics” that aren’t really meant to be read.) The going theory on dreams in the 1990s was that the brain fires randomly during REM sleep, and the conscious mind tries to make sense of this activity by building a narrative around it. In one of these books, I read that some people dream in black and white, more men than women. I’ve never met anyone who confessed to dreaming without color, but there’s some evidence it was common in the mid-20th century, when we watched black and white TV. My dreams are rich in color, sound, and texture, but devoid of smells; I can’t taste my food. It’s tricky to read—I’m dyslexic in dreams. My phone never works. Sometimes I’m not even present in my dreams—I watch strangers interacting, like a movie in which I am not a character.
Everybody seems to dream about the same things (flying, their teeth falling out), which is what makes dream interpretation books possible, but this must be cultural (in Just as Long as We’re Together, a Judy Blume novel from 1987, a character has nightmares about being bombed by Russia) and, further, socioeconomic. One of my recurring anxiety dreams involves getting to finals week in college before I realize I’ve forgotten to drop a class, and now all my coursework from the entire semester is due in several days. My mother always dreams that she’s failing Sociology, specifically. She dreams about owning a haunted house with an indoor pool—always the same house. I dream we’ve just moved into an amazing new house, with much more space, split levels, stunning architectural features; it’s different every time. (If dreams can do wish fulfillment, why do they ever do anything else?)
I often dream that famous and attractive men are in love with me. I recently dreamed of a makeout session with Tom Cruise. (I assure you this was a dream, not a fantasy.) Searching through my tweet history for instances of “dream” or “dreamed” or “dreamt,” I find that in 2011 I dreamed about kissing Jake Gyllenhall; he was a very bad kisser. (I once, in real life, made eye contact with him on the street in Chelsea.) In 2012, I dreamed I was starring in a sitcom and Justin Bieber, a fan of the show, was in love with me. My dream life has its own desires.
The Tetris Effect occurs when you are learning a new activity and it starts to affect your patterns of thought—reportedly, after playing lots of Tetris, people see visions of tetrominos as they’re falling asleep. (Charmingly, L’Effet Tetris, in French, refers to a totally different effect.) I have experienced the Tetris Effect many times, not just with Tetris but when I learned to type and play piano; after joining Twitter I began to dream in tweets. These half-waking dreams are called hypnagogia—the writer Siri Hustvedt has written about her vivid nightly hypnagogic hallucinations, “brilliant mutating spectacles”; Vladimir Nabokov had them, too. When I can’t sleep, I consciously try to induce the hypnagogic state by imagining impossible things, willing myself into synesthetic reveries.
More recurring themes: I am very, very tired and can’t get to sleep. I have to pee and can’t find a bathroom, or when I do there’s no door on the stall and I’m too embarrassed to use it. I’m late for an international flight but I’ve left my bag somewhere in the airport and can’t find it, or I’ve left my boarding pass in the automated machine. I need to get between floors in a hotel or airport or mall but the elevators are rickety or missing a wall or the stairs don’t extend all the way. (Elevators are a dream fear; I’m not afraid of them in waking life.) I’m trying to stop my car but although I’m pressing the brake as hard as I can it won’t stop completely and I crash (very slowly) into a building or another car. I’m very angry at someone and trying to physically hurt them but I’m too weak; my blows are ineffectual and don’t land where they should. Sometimes I’m fighting a woman—my mother, occasionally—and, unable to do any damage with punches, I dig into her face with my nails. Everyone I’ve ever known or cared about is mad at me.
When I was vegetarian, I’d dream about eating meat by mistake. Now that I don’t eat wheat, I dream about absentmindedly eating a sandwich or a slice of pizza. Then I’m subsumed with regret; it’s never worth it, I can’t taste. I often dream that I’ve cheated on my husband, but in these dreams, the act has taken place in my dream’s past; I have a memory of it but I don’t experience it in real time. The guilt is overwhelming. This is a guilt dream, not a sex dream. When I was a kid, about once per year I’d dream that I could take a leap and stay in the air indefinitely, the way you can hum indefinitely without losing your breath. It wasn’t flying, exactly, but it was certainly impressive, this ability to hover a foot or two above the ground. These dreams seemed connected by memories of their own—Oh yes, I’d think in the dream, I had forgotten I have this power!
They often incorporate sensory data from the outside world: my alarm clock goes off and I dream of a truck backing up, or I hear a truck backing up and dream that my alarm is going off. And so I find it puzzling that some dream sensations have no real-world analog. Not infrequently, I feel pain in my dreams, quite intense pain—once I dreamed I was shot, which was excruciating in the dream, but when I woke up I felt fine. Recently, I dreamed of being stung all over by poisonous flies; it felt like being jabbed with dozens of needles. Again, I woke up in no pain or discomfort—I hadn’t been sleeping on my arms; there was no mosquito in the room. But the pain feels real, as real as sadness or happiness feels in a dream. It suggests pain is an emotion.
Once I dreamed I had sleep paralysis, or perhaps I did have sleep paralysis. How would you be able to tell the difference? I have gotten pretty good at lucid dreaming—at some point I noticed that I only ever think This must be a dream when I am dreaming; accordingly, if I have this thought, I become self-aware and can (to some extent) control the outcome of the dream. But there is always a niggling doubt—am I really lucid dreaming? Or is the belief that I’m lucid just an element of the dream?
I grew disgusted with the dream dictionary when I realized I didn’t want my dreams to consist of agreed upon symbols. That dreams could make predictions was obvious bullshit as a proposition, but the idea that a house must be a representation of my self became equally odious. A painting of a pipe is not a pipe, but nor is it necessarily a symbol of a phallus or the bourgeoisie. René Magritte would deny that it’s a symbol at all: “The thought expressed in my work is absolute. In my painting, a bird is a bird.” That’s a seeming contradiction—is the pipe a pipe or not?—but it’s a matter of perspective. Inside the painting, it is a pipe. Perhaps Ceci n’est pas une pipe should have been written on the gallery wall instead.
For years I have had a recurring bad dream that my best friend from high school—I’ll call her M—is furious with me. I’m never sure what it is I’ve done wrong. In some I’m indignant, defensive; I yell right back at her that she’s being cruel and unfair. Other times I just feel hurt and confused—there must have been some misunderstanding? Sometimes her parents are there and they’re angry with me too; our other friends all take her side.
M and I started to grow apart during college. She went to NYU, and I stayed in Texas; I’ve never been good with phone calls and she wasn’t good with email. There was no Facebook then, though even now I’m not on Facebook, so I doubt it would have helped. When I was 22 I moved to Boston for graduate school, and I hoped we’d see each other more often. One evening, I was on the way to a party with my boyfriend at the time. My phone rang while we were on the train; it was M. She told me through broken sobs that her older brother had killed himself. Oh my god, I’m sure I said. Oh my god I’m so sorry. Death is always shocking, but this felt uninterpretable, like a plot hole. It didn’t make sense; he had never to my knowledge been suicidal or even depressed. He had almost died once before, from a drug overdose, but everyone knew it was accidental. (You don’t try to kill yourself by overdosing on peyote.) I couldn’t talk much longer; the train was going underground.
I had no idea what to do, so I did almost nothing. Of course, I sent flowers and a card. We talked more about it in the following months, but I don’t remember exactly when or how these conversations took place. I do know I didn’t do enough. I didn’t call her every day, I didn’t offer to go see her in New York. I didn’t go to the funeral.
Several years ago she got married. At the wedding, a little drunk and emotional as people tend to get at weddings, I was seized with an urge to apologize. I asked to speak to her alone. Almost ten years had passed. I told her I was sorry—I remembered that another friend of ours, her maid of honor, had immediately bought a plane ticket and flown to gather M at her apartment in New York, then taken her home. Nothing of the sort had occurred to me. I’m so sorry, I told her, that I didn’t rise to the occasion, that I wasn’t there for you. I was crying a little. She thanked me, sincerely, and we hugged. She may have said “I forgive you,” but she may not have felt there was anything to forgive.
For a while, maybe six months, I thought I was cured of my nightmares. But they came back, as vicious as ever. I don’t believe I have any lingering guilt over these events; I was 22 and had no relationship to tragedy. I think M is just the shape my dreams give to regret, whatever its cause; she is my mind’s own personal cliché, the worn path I keep going down.
Elisa Gabbert is the author of The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and The French Exit (Birds LLC). Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.