Dreams and cages

Kate Whittal

I used to be more interested in dreaming.

When I was about six, I dreamed I was in Charn, the land that the witches come from in Narnia. I wandered the streets of a ruined city, red cobblestones under a heavy grey sky like I had always imagined. Then I realised I was asleep.

To wake, I trialled-and-errored a series of strategies. What worked was closing my eyes, walking three steps forward, and then making an enormous effort to open my eyes again. Suddenly I was back in my bed. A moment later my toys started talking to me. I closed my eyes, repeated the same steps: the next time I came to, I knew I was really there.  

I have dreamt these kinds of dreams from time to time ever since. Various pseuds, wannabes, and message-board obsessives call this, with some reverence, lucid dreaming. They talk about “tests” that the lucid dreamer – blessed with the kind of mental vitality usually only bestowed on destined children or prophetesses – can perform to determine whether they are, indeed, dreaming. Clever-sounding things like trying to count your fingers, or watching to see whether a wheel ever stops spinning.

But I have never really had this difficulty. Because dreams are empty; you might see almost as clearly as when see with your eyes, you may hear certain things, feel bodily sensations like terror and arousal, but you do not feel the air vibrate or the wind swish past your skin. You are flat; you exist in nothingness.  

Around my sixteenth birthday, I started feeling flat. De-motivated. I had had a very unhappy childhood for various reasons but this feeling was new. Following the flatness came bouts of a hollow, aching emptiness, a slow implosion inside of my chest. It is the worst feeling I had ever felt; a hungry kind of hopelessness that consumed my faith in myself and in the world around me. I believed the kind of melodramatic things which should only make sense in a dream; that the kindest thing I could do for my family would be to kill myself. By the time my seventeenth birthday rolled around I had tried.

And with that began, among other things, my familiarity with a rambling Gothic mental hospital (unexpectedly clichéd) and with one psychiatrist inside it: bald, slender, and reassuringly camp.  He would ask how my mood was. I would reply that I didn’t feel any different. He would look disappointed, and at three month intervals, increase my medication. After a year I had reached the maximum possible dosage. Then I started to make lukewarm comments about maybe feeling better, because I had run out of things to say.

I can pin-point three effects that the medication had on me. Firstly, when I forgot the medication (two white pills every morning, a bitter trail down my throat when I didn’t swallow them quickly enough) I would experience what felt like the beginnings of a bad cold.

Secondly, I was sleepy. Nearly all the time. At university, I could drag myself out of bed at one, be overcome by waves of tiredness at three, and then fall asleep until dinner at seven. Stay up until 2 or 3 or 5am, then repeat. And during all this time spent asleep, I dreamt. I would dream in my lectures and in libraries and in coffee shops. I would dream while awake, climb into my head and end up somewhere else.

The medication altered my dreams, made them more intense. The frequency of my dreams, and my control over them, increased. Sometimes I could access clear, uncomplicated delight. Explore whatever bizarre world of which I was now God, thrill at my power to build or destroy or fly. I would desperately try to store the memory of it all so I could relive it when I woke. There is something horrifying about dwelling on memories of dreams, especially while dreaming; like eating yourself.

The medication worsened my nightmares too.  Dreams where bad things would be re-enacted in peculiar and nonsensical ways. I would come to in my darkened bedroom and feel like I was about to vomit out my heart. But inside the dream, if I realized I was dreaming, I would laugh and laugh and laugh. Toss men ragdoll-like across my dream-scape, like some kind of psychedelic Bond villain high on vindictive pleasure and prozac. 

During this period, home was in a beautiful city. Medieval passageways hazy with golden light, wildflowers scattered across urban meadows, cavernous libraries stacked with the apotheosises of a hundred thousand dead scholars. I had goals that required me to plan and work and act. But I would wake up, open my eyes, look at my bookcase and my window and the renaissance spires just visible beyond it and be aware only of an unending iteration of object with no meaning and no value. Thing after thing. A dream.

Sometimes I would get out of bed. Sometimes not. And all my ambitions remained in my dreams with me; phantoms and half-formed fantasies, washing across the insides of my eyelids.

Dreaming is easy. I had to fight harder if I wanted to really live. I am not sure when I realised this but it has been two years since I started to tell the psychiatrist that I was feeling better with, if not more honesty, then with considerably more enthusiasm than before.

I stopped taking the medication. I graduated and moved continents. I pursued what I wanted with blood-minded intensity. I took stupid risks. Last summer was hot and harsh and friendless. I saw thingsand experienced things which I discovered did not hurt me in the way that others would have been hurt. I was frightened, I nearly failed so many times, and to my surprise, in the end I actually got what I wanted.  

Yesterday evening we were talking about dreams and a friend remarked that he barely remembered his dreams. I felt slightly smug. (Can’t remember his own dreams?). Then I realized that I barely remember my own now. Maybe I just don’t dream so much these days.   

The truth is that I don’t want to dream anymore. Now I want to live. Sometimes I want to live so hard it makes my legs shake. It is like a layer of cellophane has been stripped from my body and the air sings across my skin. Like the sum of my experiences has threaded steel through my bone marrow.

The truth is that I have never been happier.

Several times a week, I walk through the city for hours at night. I have so much energy to expend, and I enjoy the feeling of blisters forming on my feet. It reminds me that pain has made me stronger. I am both resilient and fragile: I am present in this space.

While walking, from time to time I will look upwards, at the buildings and glimpses of mountain and sea beyond them and to the infinite dark sky enveloping it all. And my heart pounds and my breath quickens and it feels like every nerve in my body sparks with energy, fizzes with a tart shocking joy; so I laugh as I exhale. It is nothing like dreaming. It is understanding that the world inside my head will never be commensurate with the enormity, the horror and the wonder of this universe I am alive in.

Some think of dreams as freedom, but they can be cages too; they were part of the prison that I built for myself. Now that I am free, my dreams are mostly gone. I do not miss them.

Kate works in the humanitarian sector. She enjoys interesting people, dry humour, and hash hot chocolate.

Mademoiselle Chocolat painted the faces. They are scary but she is not and you can see more of her work here and here