A teen recalls how her dreams and nightmares have changed over the years
“Did you have nightmares growing up?” the lady asks, pulling out a notepad from her large wooden desk.
I open my mouth to speak, but then pause to think about it. Growing up I remember having nightmares regularly. Looking back now, they don’t seem that scary. But when I was five and six years old, they felt like the end of the world; I would cry after each and every one. Tears would run down my red cheeks and I would gasp for air in between sobs. I would sit up in my small twin bed and cry until I heard my dad’s footsteps coming down the hall. He would come, sit on my bed and comfort me, holding me tight in his arms. And he would then tell me a magical make-believe story to forget about the dream.
I specifically remember one recurring dream—at the time, it was the scariest.
My dad and I were walking through the mall on a particularly crowded day, slipping past people and trying to avoid congested areas. The loud chatter of people talking and laughing, combined with the sounds and smells of food being cooked at the foodcourt, overwhelmed me even while dreaming. People strolled past us casually, while others walked by in a hurry. Neon red and blue lights from the “OPEN” signs at every store window passed by in a blur as my dad and I passed by.
The pink floppy sandals on my small feet didn’t help me when my short stubby legs tried to keep up with my dad’s long strides. In the dream, I grabbed on to his pinky finger and wrapped my chubby fingers around it, holding on tightly. Suddenly something caught my eye—a gigantic teddy bear in a store window— and, of course, my little five year old self couldn’t resist.
“Daddy,” I said as loud as my squeaky voice would allow. “I’m going to go look over there.”
Then I slowly let go of my father’s hand and wandered over to the store. I put my chubby hands on the store window and smiled at the teddy bear. It was so big and fluffy. I really wanted it, so I turned back around to go ask my dad.
But when I turned around I didn’t see him. His curly brown hair and brown jacket were nowhere to be seen. I looked left and right, but he wasn’t there. I walked back to where I last was and pushed through the crowd.
“Daddy?” I said, fear creeping into my voice.
“Daddy, where are you?” I finally shrieked with the most power that my feeble voice could muster.
I couldn’t see him. I suddenly longed for his warm hand in mine and I didn’t know what to do.
I was lost in a sea of people, and that’s when the tears would come. I sat on the sticky floor of the mall and wailed, yelling out for my Dad whenever I could. Hot tears rolled down my cheeks as my eyes scanned the crowd for his brown jacket.
That’s always where the dream ended. It ended with tears. And when I woke up, I would immediately start crying. But Dad would always be right there, to wipe my tears away and soothe my mind with a make-believe story.
“I’ll repeat it again,” says the lady now staring at me, her notepad still blank. “I asked if you had nightmares as a child?”
“Not really,” I say lying through my teeth.
“Most children usually start having nightmares between three to six years old,” she tells me. “The nightmares usually start to decrease in frequency after age ten. But for some, nightmares can continue into their teens or even adulthood. It’s also more common for teenage girls to have more nightmares than teenage boys.”
I nod my head, thinking about the nightmare I had last night.
In my dream, my friend and I were supposed to attend an important college admission meeting. But I was exhausted, so I decided to take a quick nap beforehand, setting an alarm to ensure I wouldn’t miss the meeting. But my alarm never rang. So I slept through the meeting. When I woke up and checked the time, I panicked. I couldn’t have missed it. I quickly texted my friend but he said his car had broken down halfway, thus he didn’t make it either. We both exchanged frustrated texts and finally we decided to lighten the mood and go kayaking at the local lake. We decided that nothing else could possibly go wrong. So I picked him up and we both rambled on about our problems and how unlucky we were.
We finally arrived at the lake and we rented a kayak. We both put on our bright orange life jackets and paddled out. Maybe this would be the good part of this very bad day.
“Let’s go swimming,” my friend said while he unclipped his life vest.
“I don’t want to get wet,” I replied.
“Come on,” he whined. “It’ll be fun.”
“No, you go ahead. I’ll watch,” I added.
He threw me his paddle and hopped out of his kayak and straight into the water. He splashed me and threatened to tip my kayak over. We both laughed and for a second I forgot all about the meeting.
My friend began to swim towards the middle of the lake — venturing into deeper and darker water — while I watched from my kayak. Suddenly the wind started blowing harder and the trees swayed in the wind. My kayak started rocking side to side with the small waves that were being created in the water.
“Oh crap. I’ve got a cramp,” my friend yelled back at me, yet he still smiled to not worry me.
But my eyes shot up anyway, watching as he clutched his side while attempting to keep his head above the rough waves. He tried to tread the water but I could see him spitting out lake water that had gotten in his mouth. I started kayaking to him as fast as I could but the water was choppy and thus my attempts were futile. My friend began to desperately flail his arms and begged for help. He was pushed under the waves a couple times. But he never failed to resurface, gasping for air. I paddled harder and harder, until my lungs begged for air, but even then I refused to stop.
“I’m coming,” I yelled. “Hold on.”
My stomach felt like it was full of knots. I tried to reach him as fast as I could but when I was almost there, his head slipped underwater. I got close and I was finally there but he didn’t resurface. I stuck my paddle in the water and frantically hoped he would grab onto it but after I waited two minutes for his head to pop back up again, he was gone. And that’s where my dream ended.
I can still see his jet black hair going underwater one final time. But I don’t cry out loud anymore. Instead tears silently stream down my cheeks and I curl up into a ball and pull my knees close. I know I won’t be able to go back to bed tonight and that dream won’t be the last time I see it. My dad doesn’t come and comfort me anymore. But it’s probably better. Because no make believe story would work this time.
“Are you okay? You went quiet,” says the therapist.
“Yeah,” I say, putting on my best fake smile. “Just remembering a sweet dream.”