Last night I had a very vivid dream about my Mother.
This isn’t unusual. Since her death in December of 2019, she is often in my dreams. But I never get to interact with her. She’s always a background character for whatever else is happening in my zoned-out wild imagination during sleep. But last night she spoke to me, I heard her very clear voice, and I woke up with tears on my pillow.
A dream, per the The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, is a succession of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations that usually occur involuntarily in the mind during certain stages of sleep. Dreams have been a topic of study and interest since ancient times, with some believing they reveal our innermost thoughts and desires, while others believe there is religious or spiritual meaning behind them.
While there are many theories, no study has been able to prove exactly why we dream, which happens during the deepest sleep pattern called REM. During REM, our bodies are still but our brains go into hyperdrive, with activity nearly matching our waking hours. Our eyes remain closed but they move rapidly behind our lids, which gives this part of our sleep cycle the name REM, or Rapid Eye Movement.
There are plenty of studies which show how dangerous a lack of sleep can be to humans, but there is also evidence that a lack of dreaming can have a negative impact on our lives. Data from a study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences in 2017 indicates our physical and mental health are affected when dreams are interrupted and we don’t get REM sleep. When we don’t dream we may be at higher risk for obesity, memory loss, and inflammation throughout our bodies, which can lead to autoimmune troubles.
Our modern lifestyle contributes to this growing issue of less dreaming… overreliance on sleep meds, substance abuse, behavioral and lifestyle factors, even technology right before bed can suppress REM sleep.
I’ve experienced chronic insomnia for most of my life, and have tried all manner of getting better sleep, from therapy to medication and everything in between. Living in Asia is more tolerable in some ways because I don’t drive here. I’m not putting anyone at risk by getting behind the wheel while drowsy and sleep deprived… which is a factor in around 20% of automobile crash fatalities each year in the United States. Instead of stressing about getting sleep, which then creates anxiety which prevents me from sleeping, I just get up and do something else, dealing with being sleepy the next day — without the risk of getting behind the wheel and operating heavy machinery.
When I lived in Shanghai, a study was released which showed taking a nightly anticholinergic medication (such as the antihistamine Benadryl), was linked to developing dementia later in life. In the study, 3,500 men and women over the age of 65 had all the medicines they were taking tracked for ten years. They found that 800 of the participants developed dementia. And interestingly, the people who had taken long term anticholinergic meds were more likely to be in the group which later developed dementia. Those who had taken it for three years were at a 54% higher risk than those who had taken it for three months or less.
This shocked and saddened me, because I’d been taking Benadryl for years as a gentle way to try and increase my drowsiness at night in the hopes of falling asleep, and as a way to cut down on some of the most severe allergy symptoms I developed living in Shanghai. I was using it to cheat my way into sleep without having to use something stronger. After that study came out, I worked with my doctor to find something else to help with the allergies and struggled relentlessly with my sleep.
During my worst bouts of insomnia (three days/nights with no sleep), I’d been prescribed a medication called zolpidem (brand name Ambien, or Stillnox outside America) which has some extreme side effects. Users have been known to drive, sometimes wrecking their cars, cook and eat substantial amounts of food, even make phone calls or write emails while under the influence, and sleepwalk throughout their homes and cities, only to wake later with no memory of what they’d been doing.
For me taking Ambien was like a light switch: I would be awake, fall quite suddenly asleep, and then as if no time at all had passed, I would be awake again. No dreams, no… anything. Just a blink and 6-7 missing hours, a break from being awake. It’s a last resort to use to stop a long period of being awake, never a first line of defense, and one that I’ve had to resist regularly relying on.
Sleep aids with a sedating effect, including Benadryl, may actually restrict our ability to get REM sleep, and that means less, or no, dreaming. Since dreaming is a way we process and consolidate our memories, perhaps it makes sense that there may be a risk of dementia when we suppress that REM sleep for years at a time.
I love to dream. I love lucid dreaming, when I realize I’m asleep and can have a little control over what happens in a dream. I love it when I don’t have to wake up with an alarm and I can go from dreaming to slowly waking up, remaining awhile in bed with my eyes closed to replay a dream so I can remember it later. I have a vivid dream life, some of which makes it into my stories. I often think about my writing before drifting off, in the hopes that something good might come to me while my body is at rest and my mind is in overdrive. I hate the way I feel the day after taking something to help me sleep. It’s not ideal, even if it is occasionally necessary.
In my dream last night I was at the last home my parents lived in while in California. My Mother’s nephews were at the house, not the grown men with families of their own as they are now, but as the teenage older cousins who used to pick on and tease younger me, the only girl in the family. They’d spent the day being particularly cruel and I was at the point of tears when I wandered through the house in search of my Mom. I found her in bed, reading a paperback book… the place you could often find her if you’d looked everywhere else with no luck.
I walked in, she sat up, saw me on the verge of tears, and patted the bed next to her, inviting me to come lay down and tell her all about it. Which I did. Only I wasn’t a little kid any more, I was the me of today, the grown up woman, telling my Mama about my grown up problems. Every now and then she’d interject with, “Heather, that’s terrible,” or, “What are you going to do about it?” As the dream bed became less solid, replaced by my actual bed as I began to wake up, I started to cry. It was just so real. I’d felt so tangibly surrounded by her very special love for me.
Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.
When the post showed up again in my Timehop app last week, I reposted it to my Instagram stories. While the original post got little traction, the repost had my Instagram DM notifications stacking up. This is me, said one person. Another said, I wish someone would listen to me. A few said they’d forwarded it on to their partners and spouses and a parent, and one said they used the quote in class which started a conversation that continued into the lunch break. There were dozens (plural!) of messages about that post. You could say the idea of having someone really listen, really resonated!
The world is so noisy lately. We’re all so busy, even while there might be very little for us to actually do. The amount of information competing for our senses has never been higher. Social anxiety is on the rise and I don’t know about you, but in the rare recent moments when I see someone face to face, I’ve spent more time cringing over what I’ve awkwardly just said than paying attention to what the person says back to me.
I’m not surprised my subconscious mind conjured up some quality one-on-one time with the greatest listener I’ve ever known.
I’m always looking for ways I can better show my love for the people I care about. I often think I need to do more, to make love a more active thing where I cook up a meal or buy a gift or write a letter, to cheer loudly above the rest of the crowd, or show up with flowers and chocolate. Yet it seems like right now what many of us long for is not something we can buy or create.
Maybe love in this season of busy noise at the tail end of 2021 is having someone take the time to really hear what we have to say. To hear the things we carry close to our hearts. Those fears and worries and dreams which keep us up at night.
To do that, to really hear the ones we love, we will need to master the art of not doing anything at all. To put our phones and books and pandemic coping distractions away. To ignore the roar of this very loud world. To simply sit still, be present, and listen.
I’m ready to learn. Are you?
Thanks for the dream chat, Mama. I heard you loud and clear.