Amanda Frazier Timpson
A Dream Within A Dream
The inherent risk in tackling this topic is that you think I’m crazy, but I hope you think I’m brave. Anything less than bravery could not have brought me here, and I’m here for all of you who haven’t yet made it to this point.
I’ll be the first to admit it, my brain chemistry has always been a bit touchy. I’m definitely prone to depression, but the past year has been one of the most emotionally challenging of my life, and I had to endure it during a global pandemic fraught with social unrest and what can most kindly be described as political insanity.
How have I coped, you ask? To be honest, I haven’t. Here’s what I did instead:
A few months ago, in a handful of words from a fleeting conversation with a friend, I spied a dim flicker of something I’ve desperately longed for and clung to it for dear life!
I embedded that fledgling scrap of an ideal deep into my sad brain and began nurturing it like my next breath depended on it. I invested in it. I lovingly tended to it, sometimes to the exclusion of everything outside myself. I luxuriated there in a way that is the exclusive privilege of the chronically lonely, the childless and the unneeded.
Crafting this inner world became a sort of passion project. It was never completely out of my thoughts, even when reality intruded and demanded my attention. Before I knew it, I was feeding it hours of my day. If the real world called me away, getting back there gave me something to look forward to. If this beautiful dream was robbing me, then I was a willing victim.
Even when I knew the walls of my bubble were growing thin, I continued crafting characters that would play well together, and scenarios I felt I’d missed out on. It was like reading a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book cover to cover and tweaking all the possibilities to work out in my favor.
It was soothing, until it wasn’t. Last week, reality suddenly punched me in the gut. Real Me came across some irrefutable truth that stuck a pin in my beloved bubble. The best description I can give you of that feeling is something like the emotional equivalent of waking up from a drug-induced coma in the burn unit and feeling all the pain at once.
I can’t lie to you, Friends. For a moment I thought I might die, not because I’m suicidal, but because I couldn’t reconcile that a human being could feel this way and survive. But like all of you, I’ve already overcome things I thought would do me in.
Day dreams allow us to escape, to try out new ideas, to plan and strategize, all in the relative safety and privacy of our own minds. That is practically a superpower! There’s nothing wrong with mentally retreating when you can’t take anymore. Sometimes it’s the healthiest option there is. The trick is to learn. We’re all going to suffer, and if you’re not sucking every bit of wisdom from that pain, you’re suffering in vain.
It clarifies your values
Like nighttime dreams, it’s smart to at least start viewing the content of your fantasies through a lens of symbolism. It's imperative to realize that the cast of characters your brain comes up with may be more about what those people symbolize to you than who they actually appear to be (assuming they are actual people you know).
For example, someone you have a strong platonic friendship with in the real world suddenly shows up as a love interest in your day dreams. Is it more likely that you spontaneously sprouted a crush on that friend, or that they make you feel safe and seen?
Pay attention to how interacting with the setting and the people there make you feel. Do you feel peaceful, productive? Is a particular accomplishment the central theme? Is your faith or spirituality front and center? Are you surrounded by your family? Are you doing meaningful, fulfilling work? Those are your true core values, and they are lacking in your real life. Otherwise you’d be living there instead of in your head. You can’t be happy and complete without them.
Everyone responds the way you wish they would
Don't forget, it's your brain so you're the one calling the shots. The conversations that play out in your head are 100% about you (and maybe another 10% about the speaker). If you listen closely, you'll probably hear them saying things you long to hear in real life. Use this information to guide you to the relationships that need work.
If the mental retreat you conjure is limited by nothing but your wildest imagination, and it still contains people that overlap with your real life, those folks are important to you! What do you need from them? What is it that you’re not giving them? Fix that.
You take stock of your mental and emotional clutter
Not only are all your deepest needs and values displayed, any toxicity is made glaring by its absence. Uncomfortable relationships fall away. Your soul-choking job doesn’t exist. Dream You doesn’t have Real You’s bad habits. She doesn’t hang onto hard feelings. She doesn’t self sabotage with her thoughts or actions. There’s nothing in her world that doesn’t serve her well.
Mental dissociation is a natural, protective instinct we've all employed at some point. I must admit, Friends, some might say the degree to which I engaged it was obtrusive and unhealthy, and I suppose they could be right.
Medication and talk therapy have consistently played significant roles in my self care. Please don’t hesitate to seek professional support if you need to. We all need to now and then.
There's no clearer reflection of the truest version of you than what your own mind will show you if you let it, and that is definitely for the greater good. Remember that you could have created any kind of happy place imaginable, and that is what your brain settled on. Don’t overlook what it’s telling you. Incorporate those lessons into your real life, and you won’t need to escape. You can start living.
* A version of this piece was published on The We Spot on February 7, 2021