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A series of life-saving nightmares from 1985 by Marc Ian Barasch

Fifteen years ago, I was abducted--there is no other word for it--into the realm of the Dream. It occurred without precedent or preamble: one day I was going about my business, with its usual mix of high goals and low concerns; the next, I was cast away in a far country from which I've never quite returned.

Before I knew that there are dreams and there are dreams, I treated them as most people do: as nocturnal reshufflings of the mental deck; as fantasy and wish fulfillment; as psychic leftovers, those emotional coffee grounds and crumpled-up impulses toward sex and violence the mind ditches nightly down some inner Disposall.

But suddenly my dreams, usually hazy and easily dismissed, acquired a jolting, Technicolor realism. They gleamed with mysteries both opaque and insistent, their meaning tantalizingly beyond my grasp. "Weird dream!" my girlfriend remarked one morning as I washed up, shipwrecked, on wakeful shores, another traveler's tale on my lips. "No," I'd murmured, struggling to describe it. "A vision." I would awaken, stunned, from visits to places of near-hallucinatory intensity, where the sky was translucent sapphire, the grass dew-dipped emerald, and discarnate voices tore the air like thunderclaps. The dream characters I encountered were so vivid and alive, the landscapes so cinematic, that my waking world seemed paltry and limited by comparison.

The dreams were mostly ominous. In one, a maniac heralded as the "Greatest Mass Murderer in the History of Mankind" had "escaped from a cell" and was chasing me with an ax to decapitate me. In another, Death peered through my basement window, his gaunt face glowing like phosphorous beneath his hood, coolly casing the joint. Necks were a puzzling leitmotiv: six long needles were stuck in my "neck-brain" by a circle of primitive tribesmen; a "World War II bullet" was lodged in my neck, and a kindly Chinese surgeon removed it; or I was crawling through a tunnel full of crumbling bones in a Mayan "necropolis" ("neck-cropolis?" I had asked myself, mindful of dreams' incorrigible punning, but could make no further sense of it).

I would go to my job as a magazine editor still enveloped in their aura, soldiering through the day, as if all-night creep shows at the inner drive-in were the norm. But after one terrifying dream-torturers had hung an iron pot filled with red-hot coals beneath my chin, and I woke up screaming, the odor of searing flesh in my nostrils--I couldn't ignore them any longer. I was sure that something inside me had gone drastically wrong. Each successive dream had spelled it out more explicitly until, although the word was never uttered, it glared down at me from a neon marquee: cancer.

I made an appointment to see a doctor and blurted out my fears in a rush, embarrassed the only symptoms I could offer were a fistful of nightmares. Skeptical, he pressed and prodded my neck, informing me he felt nothing out of the ordinary. He suggested, not unsympathetically, that I was suffering from job-related stress. It was true enough: after a frenetic year spent revamping a homespun new-age journal into a slick national monthly, my work life remained a treadmill, its dial stuck permanently at a dead run. Before I left the doctor, I awkwardly asked if there were a bodily organ that might fit my dream's peculiar image of a "neck-brain." "Maybe the thyroid gland," he offered dubiously. But the blood test he ordered showed my hormone levels were perfectly normal.

The nightmares continued, flooding in as if a hellish levee had burst. I badgered the doctor for a more complete workup. This time, palpating my neck, he detected a hard lump beneath his fingers--a thyroid nodule. Tests were ordered. I dutifully swallowed a few pellets containing tiny amounts of radioactive iodine--the thyroid sucks up iodine like a sponge, which, I was told, would "light up" the normal cells in contrast to any abnormal ones. The absorption pattern on the diagnostic film showed a dark suspicious mass that the doctor assured me was almost certainly benign. But some weeks later, I felt a grim twinge of vindication when a needle biopsy confirmed what my dreams had hinted--it was a cancerous malignancy.

I took a sabbatical from my job. My days filled with a procession of friends, relatives, colleagues, and medical experts, each bearing conflicting advice, all urging me to brush my dreams aside. I could scarcely blame them. But I felt doubly a pariah, self-exiled from the inner world by my own incomprehension, regarded querulously by those around me for putting too much stock in it. I drove people to distraction trying to explain how these dreams were different--deeper, wider, higher, more real--but they seemed not to know what I was talking about. The doctors came to regard me with condescension and barely concealed irritation. My friends thought I was going a little crazy. The metaphysical world was breaking over the real one like a tsunami, inundating it with a significance I could not fathom.

One evening before falling asleep, I scribbled, in some desperation, a formal request in the dream notebook I'd started to keep: "What is the direction of a cure? That night, I had a startling vision:

under the ground a white, snakelike worm is turning in upon itself in a perfect spiral. When its head reaches the center, blinding rays of light shoot out, and a voice solemnly intones: "You have been living on the outer shell of your being---The Way Out Is the Way In!"
The image was as repulsive as a moldering grave ("The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out" goes the childhood singsong). I would come to understand only much later that this was a picture of the spiraling inner journey, of the archetypal descent that leads to wholeness.

But at the time, if I sought anything from my dreams, it was specifics: I wanted oncological status reports, with symbols as clear as the meteorological symbols on a TV weather map. Instead, here were these mysterious hieroglyphs. It added insult to injury. The medical quest--finding the most accurate diagnosis, the best doctor, the ultimate cure--was tough enough. Now, just as I needed to stay outwardly focused, my dreams became a centripetal force, pulling me deeper within. In the weeks and months that followed, the confiict became ever more maddening. In the end, I chose surgery, as much, I'm convinced, to still my dreams as to save my life.

The rigors of the thyroid operation (an excision my dreams had prefigured as a guillotining, a ritual sacrifice) were more traumatic than I had anticipated. My cure left me wounded in body and spirit. I was unable and finally unwilling to step back on the merry-go-round of ambition. My pursuit of the brass ring had led me to the proverbial edge of the abyss. Driven by a journalist's curiosity and a need to feel less alone, I spent a decade interviewing hundreds of patients and doctors, plunging into the literatures of medicine and mythology, seeking new compass points for the healing process, and for my own soul.

I eventually published two books on the mind-body connection and found myself in a career as a quasi-medical expert. But even after years of conscientious probing, I was haunted by a mystery. What had been the source of the torrent of images that had threatened to submerge me even as I struggled for my life?

I had always been, in an unreflective way, a Freudian when it came to dream analysis. Dreams were elaborate concealments of the sex-and-power-hungry id: rip away the mask, and there, invariably, would be the glowering features of our instinctual being. A dream, whether horripilating, ecstatic, or just plain baffling, had predictable mechanisms, a symbolism amenable to categorical analysis. Yet my dreams had made me feel utterly out of my depth. They had almost mystically anticipated events. (Had it been pure coincidence I'd dreamed that a Chinese surgeon took a "bullet" from my neck, and months later, a real Chinese surgeon--a Dr. Wang, the country's premier thyroid specialist and the spitting image of my dream doctor--had operated to remove my tumor?) They had galvanized me to act, almost against my will. How could dreams, evanescent wisps of the night, gather the force of a Kansas tornado barreling toward Oz? What kind of dreams were these?


I once appeared on a television show whose producer decided to dramatize the dreams that had led to my diagnosis of cancer. He tracked down my doctor, who told of his skepticism when, ten years before, I had appeared in his office, affrighted with nightmares. "He didn't look sick," Dr. Jekowski told the camera. "He had no physical symptoms. I didn't see any point looking for a needle in a haystack because of a few bad dreams." The doctor confessed his lingering bafflement: "How could someone know about a small, localized tumor that was not secreting any substances that would make him feel different?"

What had made me feel different, and what had kept me returning to his office until the tumor was finally diagnosed, was the unprecedented clarity and emotional pitch of my dreams.

They had so ratcheted up my feelings of terror and despair that I was forced to respond, for I had never felt anything of such intensity in waking life.

The TV show also included a segment in which a medical sleep specialist was interviewed about his technique for "curing" nightmares. "First we change the original dream," the therapist explained, "and then we rehearse a new one." One of his patients recalled a long-tormenting, repetitive dream: "I'm in a log cabin on a cot with a blanket over me, and something comes under the covers. It's coming up to kill me. I start screaming and yelling and kicking and hitting, and then I wake up." The doctor urged his patient to "rescript" the dream's ending to a "more positive and comfortable version." She obligingly imagines the "thing under the blanket" as "just my dog Missy, coming up to cuddle with me." The patient said this image made her feel "warm, so when I get scared in a dream it's okay, because I saw it was only my dog, and I love my dog." Added her doctor, with a note of satisfaction, "She'll repeat this whenever she has a disturbing dream." Concluded the sonorous narrator, "If we have the courage to face up to our nightmares, we can control and eliminate them."

Who would begrudge this tormented woman a peaceful night's sleep? But I felt like shouting at the screen: What really was under those covers? It could have been a long-covered-up anxiety; an urgent warning; a lover or a personal demon. We will never know--now it is a dog.

Had I followed this sanitized "control and elimination" strategy to deal with my own disturbing images, I might not be alive today.

--Marc Ian Barasch


Marc's story is important because it's one of the clearest cases on record--but not, as his book copiously proves, the only one. His book Healing Dreams describes dozens of dreamers led out of deadly situations--not all of them simply medical. Highly recommended!

Equally important, he skewers the "Power of Positive Thinking" method of ignoring dreams. I agree with him that this technique isn't just fatuous, but dangerous--encouraging the dreamer to censor even urgent warnings. Don't like your dream? Just turn it all cuddly! Ooh, problem solved! This thinking kills.

This account is from the introduction to Healing Dreams (pp 1-4); the follow-up a decade later is on p.61-62.

For examples of Marc's dreams in the intervening years, as they led him to a multileveled view of dreaming, see Starfish and Two Guitars.

--Chris Wayan

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