Sweet Dreams (Nov/Dec 2001)

Friday, 01 April 2011 17:45

OpenMind - Journal of the mental health association MIND

Nov/Dec 2001


Dorothy Rowe

On September 4 television news pictures of the Ardoyne in Northern Ireland showed terrified young girls being ushered by their parents along a path lined by troops in riot gear, behind whom were men and women screaming abuse and threats and throwing bottles and planks embedded with nails at the soldiers, the children and their parents. I wondered how long it would take for memories of this to cease to inhabit the dreams and nightmares of these girls.

Memories of events which aroused intense fear can last a very long time. In Australia when I was eight years old nothing stood between us and the advancing Japanese army. When I went to the beach I stepped over the only defence my home had - a single strand of barbed wire. At the cinema I saw newsreels of Japanese planes dropping bombs and strafing refugees.

I was in my thirties before my 'the Japs are coming' nightmares ceased to trouble me, but another nightmare garnered in my early twenties competed with them and finally took their place. This was a dream where the class I was teaching went out of my control.

The terms of the scholarship which took me to university condemned me to teach in a school where the adolescent girls had no interest in learning and where the headmistress demanded absolute silence from the pupils in the classrooms and corridors, and woe betide the teacher who did not enforce this silence. I struggled hopelessly to impose this ridiculous discipline. When I was offered the chance to become an educational psychologist with special responsibility for emotionally disturbed children I took it with alacrity. One mentally distressed child is easier to handle than 36 normal teenagers.

The nightmare of my class going out of control gradually faded as had the invasion dream because I was creating a new and satisfactory life. However, there was, and still is, one dream which has troubled my sleep for as far back as I can remember. In it I need to go to the toilet, but I cannot find a lavatory with a secure door. Each one I find has no door, and strangers come in and out, refusing to leave when I demand they do. I always wake up suddenly feeling more anxious than the dream itself warrants.

The actual places in my dreams are bizarre and impossible to describe in accurate detail, so I have never found Freudian or Jungian dream analysis relevant to my experience, but I know that we can learn something from our dreams. They do not foretell the future, but they can show the significance of the past and present.

My dream of my search for privacy comes from my early childhood. My parents saw it as imperative that the bowels should be emptied every day. My father had special food rituals while my mother resorted daily to Epsom salts and, if they were not effective, to a fearsome enema contraption. The only aspect of my health that concerned them was my digestive system. They stuffed food into me at one end and took a keen interest in what came out the other end. I found this to be a terrifying intrusion into not just my privacy but into my sense of being a person.

A threat to our sense of being a person is the greatest threat we can know. It is worse than the threat of death because with death we can imagine some important part of ourselves - our soul, our children, our work - continuing on, but if we are annihilated as a person it will be as though we have never existed. We shall vanish just as a rain drop vanishes into the ocean. We are threatened with annihilation as a person whenever other people treat us not as a person but as an object on which they can impose their own ideas.

Dreams about annihilation are more likely to recur than dreams about other fears. At worst the Japanese army could have killed me and the riotous schoolgirls could have lost me my job, but when the conditions of my life changed markedly such dreams faded. However, I am, like all of us, often faced with the threat of the annihilation, so when I am anxious about something in the present this old dream can recur.

However, at least now I know where it came from and what it means, and that it is only a dream. I hope those young girls in the Ardoyne come to know this too.