Ever since I was little, I’ve always had really bizarre dreams. Growing up in a rural farm community, I vividly remember having frequent dreams of running down the gravel road away from home in hopes to explore the world beyond, only to arrive back at the farm from the other end. In some ways, living in the same place most of my life almost made it difficult to imagine what life must be like outside of my old community — kind of like how hobbits could not imagine life beyond the Shire in The Lord of the Rings. It was only in my years after high school that these dreams began to subside as I experienced life out in the world as an adult, though they tend to come back once in a while.
There was a stretch of time in my childhood when I used to visualize random objects coming alive to chase after me. Some nights I used to dream about doing chores on the farm and some of the trucks, tractors and equipment would start by themselves and try to run me over. There were even some nights when I would have nightmares about going to church, where statues and monuments would glare at me creepily — similar to the weeping angels from Doctor Who. I knew most of these were directly influenced by some of the shows I used to watch on television, like the Ghostbusters and Beetlejuice cartoons I used to watch on Saturday mornings.
The nightmares about church were especially aggravated not long after I had a conversion experience when I was 17. One of my former Evangelical friends had given me a series of comic-style Bible tracts intended to frighten me into abandoning my Catholic faith. The tracts themselves seemed convincing at first, with all their historical and biblical references, but they are what I would describe as ‘fundamentalist porn.’ To the experienced and educated mind, they’re laughably refutable. But to the young, hormonal, impressionable teenage brain, they can be absolutely terrifying. After reading them for the first time, I couldn’t sleep for three nights and suffered recurring nightmares about church for years afterwards.
Past trauma or stress also seems to have a major influence on dreams. Some nights, I would relive car accidents or past experiences with being bullied in school. It’s one thing for me to say that I’ve forgiven those who have caused me pain in the past, but reliving those confrontations with these people in my mind seems to make it all the more difficult to free myself from the torment of these memories. Whether it’s in person, in a dream or stumbling across an old photograph, even a mere glimpse of their faces seems to rile up feelings of insecurity, fear, distress, or even resentfulness.
Even work can be stressful enough that it causes you to imagine the worst situations possible. Going through the daily motions of trying to meet deadlines at work can sometimes follow you home like a cloud over your head and make it hard to leave work at work. If you’re of the people-pleasing type, the thought of not meeting your employer’s expectations can seem like one of the worst feelings in the world. Nothing exasperates weekday-morning stress like waking up shortly after having a nightmare about your job.
There were even occasions in my dreams when deceased relatives and friends would make appearances. Sometimes we would strike into deep conversation, reminisce about old times and talk about how much we miss each other. Other times they were just there being present. Even though they are physically gone from this world, the closest thing I can get to seeing their faces, hearing their voices, or feeling the warmth of their familiar presence is by experiencing it in my mind. These are the kinds of dreams that amplify my sadness and longing to see them again, and what makes me continually think about the life hereafter.
Though ever since my firstborn son was born, my nightmares had become gradually more intense. Usually they were the kinds of dreams that would amplify my fears, like my kids falling down the stairs or injuring themselves by other horrible means. But it was probably within the first month after my second son was born I had the most vividly frightening dream I ever had in my life…
I was at my workplace, doing my usual routine, but then I realized the room was full of people. Not only my coworkers, but every person who has ever been a part of my life – friends, family and acquaintances. It’s strange to think they could all fit in one small space, but in the moment of the dream it made sense. Suddenly, one of the guys who used to bully and torment me in school showed up and tried to pick a fight with me in front of everyone. My automatic reaction was to fight back, and I would yell obscenities and try to drive him away. After wrestling with him a few times, he glared at me and his eyes began to burn up into a deep red. The surrounding walls collapsed into a vortex of debris and black smog. I stood in the eye of the storm and all the people who were dear to me began to wail and scream as they were tossed around like ragdolls in the whirlwind all around me. I would continue to try and drive him away, but he would not leave. He glared back at me with those burning eyes as though he growled,
“You will never escape me! You will let me harm you! You, your family and your friends will never be safe from me!”
I woke up from this nightmare with my heart racing. My wife was sound asleep beside me and our newborn was cooing softly while sleeping in his bassinette. I immediately got up and rushed to my oldest son’s bedroom door, but I stopped outside of it after realizing it was only a dream. In the midst of my family sleeping peacefully, I was so disturbed by this terrifying vision that I found myself trying to muffle my weeping so as not to wake them.
My recurring nightmares do not usually affect me during the day. But after that one, I found myself dwelling over it. I started thinking about my kids and how I will not always be there to protect them. I also started to question whether or not I truly forgave the ones who had made my life miserable in my youth, or whether I truly accepted Jesus into my heart from the beginning. The Sunday following the nightmare I talked to the pastor at the church we were attending at the time. He actually seemed quite concerned when I told him about my recurring nightmares, especially this last one. I told him it was probably a stupid thing to worry about, but he responded,
“I’m not a psychologist by any means. But given your history of being bullied and picked on, I think these recurring dreams you’re having could possibly be the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I think these awful memories affect you more deeply than you realize! And as much as you can forgive the people who have hurt you, it could still very well haunt you for the rest of your life. This last dream of yours did not seem to come from God, and yet He is allowing it to enter your mind. I don’t know how much help I am for you, but I would highly recommend you to find a therapist – even one who is a Christian might be beneficial!”
I’m usually too stubborn to even go to the doctor when I should. But if these memories and dreams affect my mental health and the way I live, then it would be within my best interest to find a way to treat it before things become worse. For me, praying regularly seems to aid in keeping these nightmares at bay, but there are a couple of Bible verses that have resonated with me in dealing with nightmares:
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding”
– Proverbs 3:5 NIV
“Empty and false are the hopes of the senseless, and dreams give wings to fools. Like one grasping at shadows or chasing the wind, so anyone who believes in dreams. What is seen in dreams is a reflection, the likeness of a face looking at itself. How can the unclean produce what is clean? How can the false produce what is true? Divination, omens, and dreams are unreal; what you already expect, the mind fantasizes. Unless they are specially sent by the Most High, do not fix your heart on them. For dreams have led many astray, and those who put their hope in them have perished.”
– Sirach 34:1-7 NAB
Sometimes I’ve had experiences in real life that have felt like déjà vu, knowing that I’ve dreamed about similar occurrences. I am not a prophet, and I don’t claim that any of my thoughts foresee any upcoming events, but this makes me think about certain passages in the Bible in which God talks to people through their dreams. Joseph was especially no stranger to that. Not only did God tell him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife (Matthew 1:19-21), he also was told to flee from Israel in the wake of King Herod’s execution of all firstborns (Matthew 2:12-14). Joseph must have had some strong intuition to follow those visions. If I was in his shoes, I probably would have been a lot more skeptical and less willing to heed them.
My late father-in-law used to have frequent visions and dreams as well. In fact, he became a Christian through a vision he had while enduring a low point in his younger years. The way he once described it to me was while in the state of a suicidal depression he saw a hand reaching out to him from above as though it were offering to help pull him out of a deep, dark pit. It was after experiencing that vision that his life began to transform and led him to eventually give his life to Christ.
Dreams always seem to be kind of messed up. They always seem real in the moment, but then you question how outrageous they are when you’re awake. But as ridiculous as they may seem, there’s something profoundly spiritual in how dreams can affect us, even to the point of making us want to change the course of our lives. They seem to magnify our darkest depths of what makes us truly human, and a deep longing to fill a void within us with something bigger than ourselves.