Dreaming Drunk and Waking Sober

By Kerry Neville 11/16/17

In dreamtime, I feel a clawing, desperate regret and know Fact #1 with surety: no redemption from my self-inflicted ruination, hence unutterably and unconsolably lost. Fact #2 logically follows: I must now kill myself.

A woman sleeping
I’m getting better at understanding why my brain lights emergency flares. Photo by Vladislav Muslakov on Unsplash

Once or twice a year, when I’ve been coasting along sobriety’s calm seas, lounging on my skiff’s bow, woozy from my sunny life, with Captain Happenstance at the tiller, I get tossed overboard by a drunk dream. I flail and choke and sputter and come up heart-thumping, stomach-churning breathless. That is: sea sick from the nightmare.

These drunk dreams repeat in narrative content: I am offered a drink and with adamant justification of my fineness, then momentary hesitation over my maybe-not-fineness, I chug the wine or beer or scotch and am immediately and unequivocally not-fine. In dreamtime, I feel a clawing, desperate regret and know Fact #1 with surety: no redemption from my self-inflicted ruination, hence unutterably and unconsolably lost. Fact #2 logically follows: I must now kill myself.

Hubris. Think Icarus, Phaethon, Salmoneus, Niobe, Cassiopeia, Tereus, Oedipus, Achilles, and Arachne. Ahh, Arachne so damned dangerously overconfident in her weaving powers, boasts that she is Weaver Supreme, and will best Athena, goddess of wisdom and protection. Perfect for my purposes here, Arachne weaves a cloth that derides the gods and goddesses as fall-down, shit-faced drunks. Athena’s response? Supreme Goddess take down: she shreds Arachne’s cloth, and, Arachne, filled with guilt and shame, hangs herself. Athena then transforms Arachne into a spider—hair, ears, and nose fall off and arms and legs shrink, until she is only an enormous thread-spinning belly. Or only an enormous shame-churning belly.

This past Halloween, I had such a nightmare. These nightmares (and my occasional holy wowzah sex dreams) are the only ones I remember in my waking life so I pay attention because my brain, a vigilante, is sending an acute, visceral message: No sloppy seconds sobriety. Similarly, the ancient Greeks believed that Morpheus, a god, sent direct missives to humans in dreams. I do not need to be convinced of this, whether my dream concerns (sober!) Colin Farrell whose brogue turns me into a happy puddle, or a bottle of rich pinot noir which turns me into a vomit puddle.

Scientists have a name for these nightmares that churn up past behaviors, flooding our sleeping selves with guilt’s flotsam and jetsam: DAMT. (Close to Dammit! Right?!) Dreams of Absent-Minded Transgression--long-term memory reality checks. In our waking life, the prefrontal cortex, the center of logic and planning, integrates input and directs us into making purposeful choices that consider past and possible future outcomes, as well as the rewards and dangers associated with these choices. In general, alcohol suppresses activity in the prefrontal cortex, and in people with alcoholism, the prefrontal cortex is pickled and laid to waste. Similarly, during REM sleep, activity in the prefrontal cortex significantly decreases, so we don’t get to interfere with the choices or logic of our dreams. Hence, we have sex with strangers or strange familiars and we drink and we drink and we drink.

I’m getting better, though, at understanding why my brain lights emergency flares.

Halloween Nightmare.

The Scene: a party under an enormous tent, twinkly lights, and a crowd of strangers, all close and loose and easy-talking because they are double-fisting red Solo cups of keg beer, my college standby (those fast, bland, never-ending refills).

The Trigger (known now from rigorous study): I am alone and don’t know anyone and am not even sure how I stumbled into the party, but the quickest way into their lovely lovely belonging to each other is to slug beer which will also allow me to stumble out of the party with someone who wants me to belong to him for the night and maybe forever.

The Transgression: “It’s just one.” In previous incarnations of this dream, I finish my cup or bottle in one long, dissociative swallow and then crumple to the ground. Such facile decimation. But this Halloween nightmare? Par for the course, I hesitate, consider the drink, consider that maybe one would be okay after all these years. Then consider I will likely die. Not necessarily that night. But eventually because in real life, I never could stop at just one. Panic, dread palpable. I run from the party.

Post-Mortem Dream Dissection: I’ve been divorced for three years, though alone in myself longer than that, and dating land has been treacherous for a sober, mid-life woman. Most men want to meet for drinks in bars then have fast sex, or claim they’re “fine” with my not-drinking and so acquiesce to coffee and then ghost me, or even profess not to be “big drinkers,” but then down a pitcher of beer over enchiladas. In my tired frustration, I’ve been thinking how much easier it would be to meet a guy over a glass of wine, to let that sparkly magic smooth the initial give and take of strangers taking stock of each other, to have a wider field of possibility. More simply? To be less lonely with myself out in the world.

But sparkly magic will quickly become poison (not would: I know the sequence of events by now, no supposition here), and I’ll have vomited in his toilet and peed his bed and who is he, anyway? and then I will have to cut my arms or swallow a bottle of pills in shame and know the only way out of my shame is to drink more, forget more, or, Arachne-like, kill myself.

Halloween Dream. Yes, dream, not nightmare. I am reminded of Yeats’ words: “In dreams begins responsibilities.” I am responsible to see my dreams through: whether those of my sleeping life (we spend six years of our lives in REM dreams) or of my waking life. When I was a bottom-of-the-well drunk, sobriety was less possible dream than real mirage, and while I am not insulated by my almost seven years of dreamed-for sobriety, its attendant, persistent drunk dreams check my hubris, more often than I like and less often than I need.

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Kerry Neville was raised on Long Island, New York and now lives in Georgia where she teaches at Georgia College and State University. She is the author of two collections of short fiction, Remember to Forget Me and Necessary Lies, which received the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize in Fiction and was named a ForeWord Magazine Short Story Book of the Year. Her work has appeared in various journals, including The Gettysburg ReviewEpoch, and TriQuarterly, and online in publications such as The Washington PostThe Huffington Post, and The Fix. Follow Kerry on Twitter and LinkedIn.