For years I had a recurring dream. From the start it was always vivid, with stark imagery and an almost visceral sense of my participation in the trajectory of events it contained, but it only became lucid through repetition. By that I mean that it took several years, and perhaps twenty versions of the same dream, before I began to experience a sense of conscious involvement, and latterly even the possibility of influencing the content of the dream.
The structure of the dream was very simple. It had two constant facets, but many variations. I was always crossing a river, and it was always night. But perhaps I should say there was a third constant, because I never got across. Or even a fourth, because the dream invariably ended as I was about to enter the water. At this point I often woke up.
When this happened there was usually a hypnopompic residue, most typically a lingering sense of terror or dread, and beyond that the taint of failure. The failure also seemed to have two components. It consisted of my perceived inability to overcome a specific fear (as a child, water darkened by a night sky seemed ominous and threatening to me), and the inability to contrive a practical solution, to muster whatever agency would allow me to complete the crossing. These elements of my reaction to the dream only became evident with time.
I did not want to be involved in this dream again and again, and began to search within myself for ways to resolve it. I tried using self-guided visualisation to imagine methods of crossing the water: I would grow wings and fly, I would pilot a magic boat, and so on. But nothing I could imagine seemed able to change the course of the dream. I even, in reality, swam across the Thames at Kew Bridge at full tide. But this appeared to have no effect either.
The only change I could notice was that, sometime thereafter, I started to become more self-aware as the narrative of the dream progressed. I became not quite participant and onlooker, but something more like a unified combination, so that I could take part in the events of the dream as they unfolded with a certain amount of detachment.
After this, lucidity within the dream slowly grew into a process in which I was able to connect separate dreams. The first aspect of this was the recognition of the theme and pattern of the dream while it was happening. I would know it had happened before, then begin to anticipate the denouement, although not what form it would take. A point came when I realised, within the dream, that whatever event led me towards the water, I would not enter it. This, I suppose, could be considered some sort of resolution in itself. Nevertheless, the dream continued, by now an integral part of my life.
Then one morning I woke after experiencing a prolonged and vivid dream which left me with a noticeably pleasant aftermath. As I began to remember the sequence of imagery, I suddenly realised that that it had involved crossing a river at night time. But rather than that being the central theme, the crossing had seemed almost incidental, and entirely benign. After, and perhaps because of that, the original dream, with its template and variations, just went away.
I could speculate that there had been some incremental process of resolution, that simply being in some way conscious within the dream, and becoming familiar with its characteristics, had reduced and then eventually eliminated the terror it once held. I could also speculate that whatever transition, or internal or external challenge, the dream represented had somehow been overcome, although I have never been able to link this hypothesis to a specific event or psychological impasse.
Much later, just once, the dream came back. Another river, less threatening, and presumably another challenge, less severe. The structure was similar, but the atmosphere much diluted – the ‘story’ of the dream incidental and therefore the act of crossing surmountable.
Because this dream had seemed so significant, and played out over such a long period of time, I would have expected to have a clearer sense of its effect on my life. But I can’t make that claim. Reflecting now, the only possible consequence I can think of is that increasingly, as it receded into the past, I became more confident that I would complete whatever I set out to do. Perhaps I’d learned to trust that the bridge would hold out, the boat not let in water. If this is the result, I’m truly grateful. But who knows?
Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in a variety of journals in Britain, Ireland, America and Australia. Contact Mike at www.polyscribe.co.uk
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