Anxiety dreams for the 21st century

Sunday, May 8th, 2016

I am prone to anxiety, and I am prone to anxiety dreams.

My childhood anxiety dreams were cataclysmic, usually involving tornadoes or tidal waves. The tornado dreams were the most distressing, and the most frequent. I’d know the tornadoes were coming, but I couldn’t do anything about it. I’d see them on the horizon, but I couldn’t get away. Funnel clouds would be twisting down from the clouds all around me, and I’d know it was all over for me. I always woke up right before the tornado hit, at the moment of peak anxiety—until one night, when I was much older, and I had the tornado dream again, only this time I managed to take shelter in a cellar, and the tornado passed over and destroyed the house but left me unscathed. The tornado dreams pretty much stopped after that. Make of that what you will.

I still sometimes have school-based anxiety dreams, like everyone else, I presume. I don’t usually have the dream where I haven’t studied for a test, but the one where I realize I’ve forgotten to write a paper or go to a class for a whole semester and now I’m not going to graduate, or, more often, the one where I can’t remember my locker combination, can’t find my locker, can’t find my classroom, can’t even find the school, and I’m running around in a panic, lost and alone.

The “lost and alone” theme runs through my most typical anxiety dreams these days, which are transportation-based (and I’ve written about them before): I can’t find the tram, I’m going to miss the train, I can’t read the route map, I’m standing alone at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere and I have no idea if a bus will ever come to get me. Even just writing that sentence makes my stomach knot. There’s a certain real-world basis to this fear, I suppose. I travel a lot, I struggle to keep my bearings when I’m moving around, and I often find myself exploring unfamiliar cities on my own. Even with Google Maps, I can easily get turned around and confused. To wit:

Open Google Maps, find destination, plot route, leave hotel, confidently march ten blocks in the wrong direction.

— Jessica (@Wordridden) August 26, 2013

Though I’ve never actually gotten irrevocably lost or confused anywhere I’ve been, and I’ve never actually had major problems with public transportation, the fear lingers, both in my dreams and in my waking life—the fear of being abandoned, unable to decipher the workings of the world, unable to communicate, lost in limbo forever.

And in recent years, a new but related form of anxiety dream has begun to plague me: the phone-based dream (and by phone, I mean mobile phone). Here’s the scenario: I desperately need to contact someone (usually Jeremy), and I just…can’t. I keep mashing the wrong buttons on the phone, opening the wrong apps, I keep trying to dial the number but I always dial the wrong number, I keep trying to text but my fingers hit the wrong keys and I can only write gibberish. Or I can’t work out what’s on the screen at all—the words and letters are garbled, nothing makes sense, time is ticking away, and the more frantic I become, the more impossible it gets to use the phone.

I would be hard-pressed to think of a more 21st-century anxiety dream. I wonder if people used to have telegraph-based dreams? I suspect they did.


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