My First Nightmares

There are times when my almost-three-year-old daughter will wake up in the middle of the night, crying inconsolably. Calming her down and putting her back to sleep is a trying business at best. We have been reliably informed that this age sees the child experience her first nightmares; perhaps those nocturnal visitors are responsible for these startled and frightened reactions. I wonder what she makes of them: these strange phenomenal experiences that occur during a period of ostensible unconsciousness.

My daughter’s experiences remind me of my first nightmares (the ones I can remember.) I was then a little over five years, used to sleeping in a bedroom with my elder brother. The nightmares followed two templates; one was of being buried alive. The other is a little harder to describe–and yet, its bare details are still clearly visible to me after all these years.

As the dream began, I would find myself in a boat, moving slowly through a large expanse of, not water, but some other mysterious substance. Sometimes it looked liked pebbles, on other occasions, it might well have been little metallic spheres. I do not remember how I was propelled through this ‘sea’ but there were no oars to be seen. Some mysterious force moved me onwards; as it did so, I could see the furrows our path made, trailing out behind my mysterious vehicle. This by itself, would not have been overly frightening but the setting made it so. I was surrounded on all sides by an encroaching darkness; only the boat, and its immediate surroundings were lit up. Not from on high; there did not seem to be a spotlight shining down on me. There was just a mobile island of light that moved through this otherwise Stygian night. I could sense terrors lay in the darkness around me; I could feel them press in on me, but I could not discern their shape or form.

I found this recurring nightmare terrifying; so much so that I confessed to my parents I did not want to go to sleep for fear of traveling to that god-forsaken body of water. I sensed that one night whatever lay behind that surrounding veil of darkness would reach out and draw me in, never to return to the light.

My mother did what she could; she sat by me as she tucked me in for the night, whispering reassurances in my ear about the unreality of my visions. She assured me I could always wake myself up from a dream, that I could remind myself it was only a dream, that I could always call her if I needed. I do not remember if these words of comfort helped during the actual experience of the dreams that followed. They did make it easier to fall asleep. The nightmares, as might have been expected, ceased after a little while, and my still-developing mind found new preoccupations.

I have never attempted an analysis of this still-vivid experience; someday, perhaps on a couch with an attentive listener nearby, I will. (Or perhaps I’ll just take a crack at it here.) In the meantime, I can only hope that I will be as much of a comfort to my daughter as my mother was to me.

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