When I was in second grade I saw “Frankenstein” with Boris Karloff on TV. I had nightmares about it for weeks – fitting, since Mary Shelley had modeled the monster after one she’d seen in her own nightmare. (She’d spent the evening exchanging ghost stories with her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron.) After calling for my mother, I’d ask her to apply a cold washcloth to my eyelids. Why I seized on that remedy I’ll never know, but it probably had something to do with my belief that if I “woke up” my eyes, they’d stop seeing the scary images playing out in my brain.
Eventually I grew tired of battling monsters and began focusing on more realistic concerns. With my mother pregnant with my sister, I began having nightmares of being abandoned. It was usually the same dream. My mother, who drove a white Ford Fairlane in real life, was being whisked away in a black limousine. Though I ran after her as fast as I could, I was never able to catch up and invariably I was left alone, in the middle of nowhere, on a damp rainy night. After such a dream, even the cold washcloth didn’t work. I was terrified.
I rarely have nightmares now – they’re far more common in childhood – but when I do it’s a variation on the same themes. There’s often a monster in the guise of a human, who is threatening me in some way, or else someone close to me is dying – i.e., abandoning me.
I still wake up with a sense of panic, yet I wouldn’t change these nightmares even if I could. (I’d feel differently if I had P.T.S.D.) Once my heart stops pounding and I get my bearings, I experience a surge of blissful relief. For now I don’t have to slay monsters. For now I don’t have to deal with death. Maybe that’s the purpose of nightmares. They jolt us into gratitude.