We tell our dreams in an effort to interpret them. By voicing the visions that come to us in the night, we believe that we can begin to unravel the threads of fear and desire woven into nighttime encounters by our unconscious minds: we articulate for perspective, and hope, perhaps, that those who listen can help us undo the strands that become knotted. Another way of seeing it is as an exercise in reading. I must admit, though, that I’ve lately become sceptical about narrating dreams, or trying to interpret them. That, or I’ve lost my knack for close reading.
Since my earliest years I have been an unwilling somnambulist, a practiced somniloquist, a bemused victim of increasingly eccentric night terrors. At four years old I started climbing down the ladder from my top-bunk in my sleep, to be found a short time later wandering, oblivious, through the house. Recently these events have escalated, becoming so persistent that I decided I should probably know more about the condition – complaint? malady? – that has disrupted so many of my resting moments. Scientific research has found that adulthood is generally a cure for such ills, although roughly four percent of adults continue to pace and murmur their nights away, unlucky enough to have inherited the tendency from their parents, or to suffer from psychological and behavioural disorders that pour forth in the still and silent hours. A member of this four percent, and unable to say why, I am visited by hallucinations that trigger extreme physical responses about three nights a week. And I have come to realise that the hallucinations that prompt me to sit up, to peer from the open window, to scrabble at the latch on the door, no longer seem to tell me anything.
If I am woken just after entering sleep, I often think I’ve been wide awake all along. The movement of my eyes is slow yet, and my muscles are only just beginning to slack. A slip in muscle tone is scientifically proven to occur, though not enough to lose complete control of one’s faculties. Capabilities. Propensities. I said only just beginning to slacken. There is a certain degree of adjustment to attain comfort: I nestle, keep nestling. The movement of my eyes is slow yet. Light only just getting. In. I say entering sleep like it’s a building and wide awake leaves the doors open. Wide open.
Shadow in a room that’s a black box. Wiping chalk words from a chalkboard. I’m going to stop thinking about this or I’ll never go off. I’m going to stop thinking now. A blackboard in a shadow room that’s a black box. Are there, there are walls and a door and especially very dark are the inknesses in the corners and cornices. Perhaps the walls are a kind of white wide open but it’s really too dark to tell now, really, it’s too dark to tell and it’s getting darker out down there. I’m going to erase those words again now, you’ve really got to stop thinking. Yes, a blackness out down there, out down there, yes there, down and out there, out down
I fall and hit the mattress oh god I was falling. No I wasn’t I really wasn’t there was tarmac I could see it but I wasn’t.
It’s getting darker out down there.
About seven years ago when I was in my first year at university, a distinct vision began to recur which brought a terrible pattern to each night’s movements and culminated one memorable night in broken glass and a bloodied hand. Apparently sleepwalking tends to happen during the stage before you hit Rapid Eye Movement sleep – the phase in which you dream – but during this period my somnambulation seemed very much to stem from the dreams themselves, as though I were performing them. I had been trapped, my voice echoing unheard in a locked warehouse building without any evident means of escape. On previous nights I had woken up to find myself banging at my door shouting for help, to which my neighbours had come running night after night until the shouting became so commonplace that they took to phoning as a means of wakening me from the episode. On the evening in question though, I had found windows in the high warehouse walls, and using my desk to reach them, smashed through one of the panes in an attempt to open the window from the outside. I only came to when I switched on the light drowsily and noticed blood on the light-switch; by this time, the cold of the night air had reached me and I sat for a while, unable to move or think. In the coming days, as I told this dream, I quickly came to speak of the event as a metaphor for work stress, for a feeling of daily claustrophobia in an institution in which I did not feel adequate or capable, and I tried to take steps to change the parts of my daytime life that I had seen so violently reflected in my nighttime one. I meditated. I tried, before sleep, to breathe. Mid-essay, I would talk myself down from the moments in which I had become so anxious that my writing became incomprehensible. I was offered Valium by my doctor and refused it. I refused, too, the offer of a night at a sleep centre: if I couldn’t sleep normally in my own bed, I didn’t see how a night of observation in a strange facility would be of any use. These repeated, decipherable visions ended for a while. In the company of others, I spoke about the experience with a certain degree of knowing levity, permitting myself a nod and a wink to the waking troubles that lay behind it. ‘An extraordinary example of the unconscious intervening, isn’t it? And it all makes sense, and I’m in the process of trying to fix it.’ Cause, effect, cure.
I was it was there was dark and behind it I can see, there, the whitenesses of the walls again, I think, but I. Switch on like a screen with white behind it it’s like static being stirred sort of white and black but it’s. But it’s. Buzzing. But it’s moving now the dark is moving up there where there’s mainly white it’s out there. There’s a mouth out there and it’s static in it in the wall and the eyes are in the wall too. Make it black again just black please – because there’s a mouth and eyes in the wall and the creases round the mouth are flaking like plaster of the wall in the wall it’s moving and the dust in the air from its plaster moving. It’s smiling with its mouth open out. It has hands coming open out filled. Dust. Filled. Wings in the air its hands are coming dust like wings and open out pouring. It’s laughing and things coming out of its hands and mouth open are winged and red. Like the black and white swarming in the stirring static air. It’s trying. No my mouth and eyes are open and plaster no red winged in my mouth they’re red wings and spots of ladybirds. Trying. Into my face. Trying. Pouring. Ladybirds into my face. Please. Please make it stop please make it stop it’s smiling please make it stop
Now, though, the things that appear before my eyes have become varied, erratic, bizarre. The sheer frequency of these nocturnal events – they have become so regular now that I have started to regard them as a kind of habit – are troubling because what they might signify isn’t clear. They have become increasingly difficult to read. These dreams don’t recur as the warehouse dream did, there are no patterns to follow and I can no longer trace the affective goings on of my waking mind in the visions and wanderings of my sleeping one. In fact, the things that appear before my eyes in the night have been the material things already existing around me: my hallucinations have sprung, looming and palpable, from the solidity of my surroundings as I see them through sleep’s transformative gauze. I’m driven to bouts of shaking, muttering and wailing by dormant encounters with objects, with furnishings, with the architecture of my own home: the rooms in which I spend my waking hours seem, at night, to disturb me beyond belief and saturate my slumber with uncanny shapes. In those first stages of drifting-off, something engages me in a sort of free-association in reverse: I am presented with a monstrous figure which, in my confused and sleeping state, I must try to rationalize back into its original, concrete form.
As well as these movements I often reach what might commonly be called a dream, and these are vivid, linear stories that I can scan, interpret. On recently dreaming that I was about to perform onstage having just discovered a section of script that the rest of the company had failed to tell me about, I awoke to the conclusion that my worries about a lack of background material for the chapter I’m currently writing had grown more acute. In fact, I had begun reading the dream during the dream itself, as I remember complaining to the other performers that the whole scenario was ‘like something out of a ridiculous dream’. This heightened desire to read my dreams makes me wonder whether my somnambulations represent my mind’s way of keeping things interesting, of forcing me to admit that some things are unreadable. More often than not, before I can begin to delve knowingly into the machinery of my own psyche, I am drawn, kicking, screaming, convulsing back to the doors and carpets and sheets and clothing. The material that forces me into some of my worst confrontations with what I suppose is a fluctuating and restive part of myself.
Round my feet. There’s something round my feet. Hot, too hot and feet. I can feel toes suffocating I can feel it it’s too dark there and hot. I can see it it’s dark and hot and suffocating my toes. I can see it now though it’s too dark to tell. There’s a door but I’m not sure of it, a door for my feet. I can sure of it. I can. I can there’s something there there’s something
Shapes on the floor, I can feel them stretching out there in the dark down there. I can feel them soft, suffocating on the floor. No there. Not there. Oh shh. Oh shh it’ll hear you. There’s something there, it’s present and I’m sure I’m very very sure I have to sit up and see it but oh shh but it’ll hear you oh shh
Curved and black, it’s breathing down there. It’s breathing but I can’t go there or it’ll take my toes. It’ll definitely take my toes.
“What is it? What’s the matter?”
“There’s something down there on the floor. I think…”
“There’s nothing down there, go to sleep.”
“I can see it on the floor, I think it’s a wolf. I can see its fur.”
“There is no wolf. How could there be?”
“Somebody probably brought it in with them.”
“There is no wolf. Go to sleep.”
“But it’s there. I can’t get up because it’s there.”
“There is no wolf. Go to sleep.”
“I’ll show you.”
Switch light switch switch where’s the
“Look. No. What? Oh god, I’m sorry. It’s a jumper and some trousers. It’s sort of curled up there, I think, like fur on the floor. It was just like fur, and the shape of it. I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright. Go back to sleep.”
I don’t have any first-hand experience of myself in this state, really. When I say ‘first-hand’ I mean waking. I am always partially awake, I suppose, because I can remember seeing the room, and seeing the things I interact with in the room, when the episode has ended. But more often than not the reasons for my hysteria are wiped from my memory, leaving me foolish and bewildered on the floor, clueless in the morning save for the bruise on my arm, the door flung wide. I do, though, have a long-suffering companion in these moments of terror, a witness who gently reminds me of my walkings and shoutings when the morning comes. Considering that he bears the unasked-for responsibility of preventing me from harming myself or him, of bringing me back to the world in my bleakest moments, he is exceptionally patient. And he’s good at making light of something which might otherwise start to trouble me in my waking hours: he does a great impression. He provides a record of my sleeping self; he is the comforting relief when consciousness returns. He tells me that I look very much awake throughout my somnambulant proceedings. He tells me that I often mistake him for the strangers who invade my dormant mind. He tells me that I begin to thrash and murmur just before I begin to scream. And he hasn’t quite got the hang, yet, of knowing when and how to rouse me from these episodes of hysterical screaming.
“You’re having a nightmare, calm down, stop screaming. It’s me, it’s just me.”
It’s my arms and legs it’s hand round my arms and legs there’s a shape of a man out there and he’s got my arms and legs and I can’t. I can’t. I can’t get free there out there a machine with blades on a. Get off. Get off of me. Let me go. I have to get away otherwise he’ll tie me to something. He’ll tie me to something and the blades. It’s the blades this is why it’s blades on my stomach hands feet blades there will be blades get away from me fight. Come on fight. You have to fight or he won’t stop until you’re tied and then the blades will start. Blind I can’t where I can’t see his face it’s dark out there and down there where he’s tying me the blades won’t stop for me no one can see everything’s blind out there. You have to fight don’t let it happen
Brightest light. Window. Blinds. Door. Door frame. White plaster of the walls. Him.
“You were having a nightmare, you were screaming. It’s alright now. It’s ok. You’re ok. Come here. You’re ok.”
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s alright. You’re shaking, come here. It’s ok. I’m sorry I scared you. I didn’t know what to do, you were thrashing about.”
“No, oh no – your lip, it’s bleeding. Oh my god, oh my god. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s ok, I’m ok. Are you ok? You sounded so scared, you were properly screaming. I didn’t know what to do.”
There have been pigeons nesting on an imagined duvet near my pillow. There have been weeds growing through the ceiling. An octopus wound its tentacles around my ankles, and big bugs started living in the mattress springs. This menagerie of animals has been so varied and strange that I can’t decide what I’m so deeply worried about. Perhaps these creatures are representative of some over-active part of myself that seems to be thriving. Perhaps they exist to remind me that there are aspects of myself that I can’t read or understand with any clarity: illiteracy is sometimes inevitable. But still the visions come, and I’m powerless to subdue them. I feel an urge to read, but need to allow the illegible. I’m tired of peering into the dark, of seeing blanknesses. So tired.