My cat, Toby, has some bad nightmares. Because he’s deaf, he sleeps very deeply and can’t monitor his environment while sleeping like other cats do. This means that when he’s in a dream, he’s utterly immersed in that dream, and when he wakes up, he’s usually a bit disoriented. Normally, he compensates by sleeping in places where he feels especially secure, and by knowing his environment (he’s an indoor cat, and it’s a tiny house) in every detail, so when he wakes he can immediately remind himself where he is. However, when he has an intense nightmare, it takes him so far from his familiar world that his own home seems alien and dangerous as he wakes up.
Of course, I don’t know exactly what he’s experiencing, but it’s not difficult to guess when he has had a nightmare. He wakes suddenly, sometimes with a yelp, on total alert with ears pricked and eyes wild. He looks around frantically, then scrambles for an exit or a hiding place. It’s most heartbreaking when he doesn’t recognize me and is terrified of me for a moment, then comes creeping to me on his belly as I crouch down to reassure him. He huddles against me, trembling so hard that his head bobs, frightened of everything that usually comforts him.
Eventually, he remembers where he is, who he is, and what’s going on. My stroking soothes him. But it takes awhile. Usually, what he needs most is his adopted mother—our older cat, Annie. As soon as he makes a sound of distress, she comes running. She examines him all over with concern, gives me a dirty look (“What did you do to my kitten?”), and briskly washes his face until he calms down. Then we’re all back to normal. (He becomes his usual confident self—and pesters Annie until she squawks with indignation.)
Toby’s nightmares—and shaky transitions—don’t seem to do him any harm. He absorbs their impact in his own way, reorients himself, and gets on with his life. Perhaps, the experience even energizes him, making his quiet, limited, indoor world more exciting by letting him see it in a new way.
When I have a nightmare myself, it’s not quite so difficult to get my bearings as it is for Toby, but it’s still pretty disorienting. By definition, a nightmare shakes things up. The nightmare situation is so compelling and intense that it stimulates a fight or flight response, causing me to jolt awake, on full alert. And it’s not easy to find familiar points of reference, and convince myself to power down my defenses. Continue reading