The Paxil thing, cont’d

August 5th, 2010

So as I mentioned a while back, I went on Paxil about six months ago as part of the whole mind-body thing. Clearly, my gut was not going to calm down until my brain told it to, no matter how much yogurt and bananas I ate. (Yes, after about a month of no substantive posting, I figured I’d jump right into the deep end. Come on, you’re with me, right?)

Going on the Paxil coincided with cutting way back on drinking, and the two together did a real number on my dreams. Drinking alcohol before bed — even a seemingly modest glass or two of wine, if it’s a regular habit — can suppress dream sleep, which means that when you quit, you may get a bounceback effect. Add to that the fact that SSRIs intensify dreams, and things got quite exciting for a while.

After graduate school, I worked for a while with Alan Hobson on the psychology of dreams. As I’ve written about before, one of Alan’s ideas is that we solve problems in our dreams much as we do in real life, we simply don’t question the bizarre. Alan also believed that Freud and psychoanalysis had led people to focus too much on the symbolism of dreams. When you stop trying to figure that out, and instead focus on the story and the emotions, what the dream “means” will usually become quite clear.

The power of a dream lies in its story, and in how that story affects you. The set and props are just whatever your unconscious mind could most quickly grab: images from the day’s business; random memories that floated up in response to this color or that smell; faces or places you watched on television before bed. This is why there’s no point to “dream dictionaries” that purport to tell you what the various symbols in your dreams mean. Dream symbols are at once universal (ever go through a computer training with co-workers, and discover afterward that many of you dreamed of the program you were learning that night?) and idiosyncratic (a cigar may be merely a cigar to Sigmund, but it might symbolize the Cuban embargo to Rosalita, or her father’s cancer to Dora, or even a penis to James).

Anyway, about a month or so after I’d been on the medication, I had a dream that nicely illustrated both the principles above and the effect that Paxil had had on on my problem-solving style.

I’d been over to a friend’s house that night to catch up on some Tivo’ed episodes of “Big Love.” (It’s a fun show to watch in batches — when you watch several episodes back-to-back, you realize that every time someone smiles, something horrible happens within 10 seconds.) Unsurprisingly, that night, I had the classic Actor’s Nightmare: I’d been cast as Bill Henrickson’s fourth wife, but no one had bothered to give me a script.

Was I anxious or worried? Oh, heck no. I have a fair amount I’d like to say to those characters, so until the directors put a script in my hand, I was going to say what I thought. (I recall telling first wife Barb, “Listen to how Bill yells orders at you! My boss doesn’t talk to me that way, and he’s my boss! A person’s spouse certainly shouldn’t bark at them like that.”) And if the director or other actors didn’t like what I had to say, well, give me the script, already, and I’ll stop improvising and say what you want.

Have you ever had a dream that used to make you anxious, but doesn’t anymore? Or a kind of dream you stopped having once certain problems in your waking life got resolved? Or a dream that makes more sense to you now that I’ve talked about the “story, not symbolism” principle?


8 Responses to “The Paxil thing, cont’d”

  1. bluemoose on August 5, 2010 9:02 am

    I have had recurring places in my dreams, rather than recurring dreams, since I was 9 or 10 — right after a big, somewhat traumatic, move across the country. I’ve often wondered if the places disappear whenever I don’t need them anymore. The city I have right now is large, sprawling, confusing, and has an underground section and a large university campus. I am always lost, running late, or waiting when I dream of it, and I am pretty sure I dream of it only when I am frustrated by the fact that, even as an adult, I do not control my life and all its circumstances, just my place within it.

  2. EA Week on August 5, 2010 10:25 am

    For the past nearly 20 years, I’ve been commuting into Boston via nearly every mode of public transit except harbor boat. My constant recurring nightmare is missing my train. I think it mainly reflects a general anxiety about missing deadlines.

    Twenty years since I’ve taken my last for-credit course, I still have nightmares about walking into a class and realizing there’s an exam I’m completely not prepared for. Lately that dream has morphed into me taking classes at the college where I currently work and not having enough time to get the work done. Those usually hit me at times when my boss is piling yet more work on my desk–no surprises there.

    Dreams about family usually feature my larger-than-life sister in a prominent role. It’s not unusual for her to be the only one (besides me) in the dream who is actually talking–everyone else is sitting there, completely mute, not saying or doing anything.

    When I dream about my late father, he’s always going to a party, dressed in a tux, laughing, and having a good time. I don’t know if that’s just how I remember him best, or if it reflects whatever afterlife he’s currently residing in. If there’s a celestial party out there somewhere, count on him to find it. ; )

  3. Amy R. on August 5, 2010 1:45 pm

    Oooh, the Actor’s Nightmare. I haven’t had one in a while, but all through high school and college and even after, I’d have two recurring nightmares:
    1. I was required to participate in a restaging of a production I had recently been in, with no rehearsal time and thus I couldn’t remember all my lines. (Though interestingly, I could remember some.)
    2. I was cast in a play and never given in a rehearsal schedule and somehow only got looped it right before opening night.

    Lately, I’ve been having dreams that are not recurring — as far as I can remember — in my dream, I insist that I’ve had this dream before.

  4. Molly on August 6, 2010 12:38 pm

    1) What bluemoose said about recurring places. I haven’t correlated the places with what’s going on in my reality, but it does sometimes seem like I’m leading a parallel dream life…there’s internal consistency there, has been for many years, but I don’t remember much of it when I wake up.

    Not all my dreams take place there, of course, but enough do.

    2) What EA Week said about school dreams. I still occasionally find myself realizing I haven’t gone to a class all year and it’s time for the final. It’s almost always a math class.

    3) AND what Amy said about dreams within dreams, if I read that right. Dreaming in layers can be SO disorienting.

    And as for myself, I used to have fairly regular dreams that I was sick or hurt or in trouble, and nobody would help me. Through the combination of certain people stepping up when I needed them and my own work on trust, those have gone away…I still occasionally dream I need help, but people help me.

    Once I dreamed I was drowning, and someone I didn’t know well in reality pulled me out of the water…some months later, we knew each other better, and she helped me out of a potentially ugly situation. Not that I think that was a prophetic dream, more that I accurately assessed her character before I needed that side of her. If that makes any sense.

  5. Molly on August 6, 2010 12:38 pm

    P.S. The worm dream still doesn’t make sense. But I no longer need it to, so it’s all good.

  6. veronica on August 6, 2010 4:58 pm

    I know I need a vacation when I start dreaming about work….not necessarily about the people at work. But that everything is set at work.

  7. allstonian on August 7, 2010 8:20 am

    I’ve had work-anxiety dreams similar to the Actor’s Nightmare. When I was waitressing I had a dream about working in a big restaurant and not being able to figure out which was my section, and when I worked in a copy shop, I dreamed we had nothing but 3-hole paper and the customers wouldn’t take their copies on that (and then I finally found a case of plain paper, only to start breaking open the reams and discover that all of the paper was already printed on both sides!)

    Weirdly, I’ve never had the dream about having to take the final exam in a course I didn’t actually take, I think because through some truly stupid behavior at university *I lived that nightmare.* Yes, I was taking a history course and got bored, stopped attending classes, and managed to miss the deadline to drop the course, and so there I was at exam time taking the final for a course I hadn’t been to since about the third week of the semester. Why I didn’t just skip the final as well I’ll never know, but there you go.

    In my late 20s I had a series of oddly empowering dreams in which I safely handled poisonous snakes. I kind of miss those.

  8. Colleen on August 23, 2010 12:48 pm

    So I know I’m late to the freaky dream party, but when I was in school—particularly high school, when I was perpetually and severely underslept—I had this dream about once a week. In real life, my alarm would go off, and I’d hit the snooze button without really waking up. Then, in the 9 minutes before the alarm went off again, I’d have an extraordinarily vivid dream that I got up, showered, got dressed, packed a lunch, drove to school, slipped into first period as the last warning bell rang, and went about my day. I’d usually get through 4th period (right before lunch) before the alarm went off again. My dream-brain never tried to convince me it was a passing bell or anything; I always knew it was the alarm. Then I’d bolt awake, extremely disoriented.

    I think that one’s pretty clearly not symbolic. My subconscious was running through what I needed to be doing now that my alarm had gone off, it’s just that my conscious brain wasn’t awake to keep up with it. I haven’t had the dream in a few years, which I attribute to more sleep and a less rigidly structured day.

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