When we get sick, what happens to our dreams? Like most questions about dreams, there is no simple answer. Sometimes, illness or medication disrupts sleep patterns and makes dreams more fragmentary and difficult to remember. Sometimes (especially with fever), it’s just the opposite: dreams become abundant and detailed, almost hallucinatory in their vividness. Often, dreams during an illness give information about the condition of the body, and may support healing processes. All of this varies from individual to individual, and from illness to illness.
As I write this, I’m feeling pretty crummy. I’ve got a typical mid-winter virus: my nose is stuffed, my lungs feel heavy, my whole body aches. I’m weak and shaky, and I keep spacing out—just staring at the computer screen in long, empty fugues, forgetting what I’m supposed to be doing. Oh yes. Here I am. These were my dreams last night:
Trouble With Fire: I’m staying in a remote cabin with a friend, and I keep thinking we should build a fire in the woodstove. It’s getting cold, but I’m moving very slowly and sleepily, and my friend’s eating breakfast, and neither of us manage to get the fire going. My friend has a standing lamp, but instead of bulbs it has lit candle stubs, burning low. I’m impatient with my friend, telling her we need to blow the candles out before we leave, because it would be dangerous to leave them burning like this. The flames are apparently caused by some kind of short circuit. Turning off the lamp or blowing out the candles doesn’t work—they keep burning. We’re wasting fuel, and it’s not safe, and doesn’t give enough light or warmth…
The Broken Bridge: I’m supposed to be getting ready to go to the airport and go home, but just keep lying down, with no motivation to move. I’m in an empty, high-ceilinged, blue room, like a movie theater without seats, lying on a small raised platform. Where the screen would be, there’s a beautiful, detailed blue mural on the wall, several stories tall—a scene like a Chinese painting. There’s a village in a narrow river valley between steep, craggy mountains. A bridge—maybe a railroad bridge—runs between the peaks above the village, but it is broken right down the middle. Both the bridge itself and the trestles that support it are broken, so that there’s a wide gap between the two halves. It looks like it’s been this way for a long time.
If someone had told me these dreams, even without any context at all, I might have guessed that some of the images could refer to physical illness. Fire can often have something to do with the body’s vital energies, and anything broken or damaged can potentially refer to a physical condition. Such images have a lot of other meanings and implications as well, of course. But, the fact that the dream-self (the “I” character in the dream) is consistently lethargic also points in the direction of physical illness. So, if someone brought me this dream, I’d probably ask about the dreamer’s general health.
In the case of last night’s dreams, I know for a fact that the dreamer was not in the peak of health. I went to sleep exhausted, aware that I was “coming down with something.” My sleep was deep and the dreams were rich, though I woke up feeling hazy, having difficulty separating dreaming from waking reality. I stayed in bed for a while, letting myself drift in this effortless blue world—re-imagining the scene of the village in the misty valley. The broken bridge didn’t bother me. It was just interesting. I could see every splintered strut in the scaffolding. No train was going to get across that bridge. What does it all mean? No matter.
According to Jeremy Taylor, dreams never come just to tell us what we already know (“Dream Work Tool Kit,” #4), and we tend to be blind to some key aspects of our own dreams. So, when I “interpret” my dreams, I recognize that I’m barely scratching the surface. I ask others for their insights into my dreams, and I also trust the dreams to be doing their own work regardless of whether I “understand” them or not. However, I do enjoy breaking the ice a bit, by playing with my personal associations to particular images, and noticing what seems immediately obvious to me about a dream’s meanings.
In “Trouble with Fire,” my immediate sense is that I’m having trouble generating any real energy or heat (the unlit woodstove), and that energy is being wasted in potentially harmful ways (the candle flames caused by a “short circuit”). I also notice that I’m dealing with these problems only indirectly—by trying to get “my friend” to act rather than taking action “myself.” Of course, both the dream-self and the “friend” are aspects of the dreamer (me)—but I’m identifying with a passive self and blaming another part of myself for the problem, a part over which I don’t seem to have much control.
I hope that the “trouble” reflected in this dream is only a temporary condition—being ill and lacking energy—since the dream itself suggests I’m only staying in this cabin briefly (we’ll be leaving soon), so it’s not too serious if we don’t warm the cabin with a fire before we go (though it may be more worrisome if I can’t get the lamp-flames to go out).
The second dream is a bit stranger, and could suggest something more long-term and potentially problematic. The scene in the mural is perceived as if in the misty blue distance, or as if in a movie. The dream-self is again passive (and again, this may be because the dreamer is physically ill), but in this case the passivity is not something she resists, but something that renders her more able to simply observe and receive the vision before her: the village in the river valley, and the broken bridge between the mountains.
If the bridge is for trains, it might represent access to communication with the outside world—and evidently such communication has been severely impaired or even entirely cut off. So, when I think of this image as referring to the long-term, personal situation of the dreamer, I am certainly concerned. However, the feelings associated with the dream were peaceful, and in fact there was no sense that the damage to the bridge was a problem. The scene itself was quite lovely—like a “valley that time forgot” or “Shangri La”—and perhaps part of its beauty was in its isolation.
From the perspective of my present illness, I find the image of the lost valley with the broken bridge to be a relief—a quiet place, apart from the outside world, which I can contemplate while I recover my strength and restore myself. Notice that, in the dream, I don’t actually live in that valley, I’m just looking at it. And perhaps, in the first dream, the “trouble with fire” would be resolved if I simply didn’t leave the cabin right away, but hung around long enough to give me time to negotiate with my uncooperative friend, get the woodstove going, and shut off those wasteful short circuited energies.
There are certainly other ways to look at these dreams—and if I were to go further I’d be sure to consider possibilities that reflect environmental concerns and a broader world-view. But, for today, my own dreamwork conveniently gives me permission to do just what I feel like doing while I’m sick: shut off the computer for now, and take a good, restorative rest.
Of course, I’m not an objective judge of my own dreams! Maybe they’re telling me something essential that I’m missing completely. What do you think?