We were gathered together at my daughter’s home on a Saturday evening. It was just my two girls, two grandsons, my only granddaughter, and I deciding to play a board game. One of the boys brought out a box labeled Your Worst Nightmare. He said that he thinks that I once bought it for him. I don’t remember doing that, but it sounds like something that would appeal to me. Anyway, the premise of the game was to rank four things in order of how scary they are from greatest to least, then try to guess how someone else’s list might look. It was fun and created lots of laughs but I did a terrible job of determining what other people’s fears were. Nonetheless the little entertainment got me to thinking of what is most frightening to me and why is it so.
I suppose that the most terrifying nightmare I have ever had or thought about having revolves around the idea that I am driving across a high bridge over a deep river and somehow end up careening from the structure into the darkness of the water with only seconds to free myself from the constraints of my seatbelt, find a way to open a window, and then somehow swim to safety. In those dreams I never get past the fight to get out of the car but then I never actually drown either. I don’t know how long the dream actually lasts but I wake up shaken and exhausted whenever it occurs which luckily is infrequently.
Supposedly such a nighttime vision indicates feelings of loss of control. In my own car I suspect that they stem from my father’s death inside a car that plunged into a ditch. He died immediately upon impact so there was never a question of escape for him, but I suppose that I still have a strong desire to be able to change the course of events that lead to his death. Getting out of my own car and swimming to safety is a metaphor for being able to somehow prevent him from taking the fateful drive that ended with his heart stopping and mine breaking.
Our fears are sometimes irrational, but more often than not they are somehow related to traumas we have actually experienced. I fear being caught in a burning building because I witnessed a man being carried lifeless from his home after it caught fire. Later one of my cousins died in his bed when he fell asleep smoking. It would not be irrational for me to sense the need to be careful and to have a plan in the event of a fiery outbreak. Thus I always rehearse an escape route just to be safe wherever I go.
I can’t explain why I fear snakes as much as I do. I have had no negative experiences with them other than one occasion when I disobeyed my grandmother and came upon a frightful sight of snakes infesting a lake. They did not hurt me, but their image makes my heart race whenever I see a snake, no matter how harmless it may actually be. Perhaps it is just a primal thing or maybe a feeling of guilt for having ignored my grandmother’s instructions.
Likewise all of the dentists that I have visited have been painless save for the cost of their procedures and yet the mere thought of going to an appointment makes my heart beat faster and a feeling of dread spreads through my entire being. Maybe it was a scene from the movie Marathon Man with Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier that planted a seed of terror in my mind or perhaps I just find the tools of the dental trade to be similar to Medieval instruments of torture. Indeed dentists are some of the nicest people that I know who bend over backwards to keep me free from pain. I really don’t know why they scare me so.
Our fears are personal and not always easily understood which is why we all did so poorly in the game that asked us to determine how well we knew the fears of others. Nonetheless it was quite enlightening to learn about what actually terrifies another person. Everything from being dumped by a friend or lover to working in a cubical can make someone break into a cold sweat, while walking through a graveyard at midnight might be little more than a fun adventure.
We humans are undoubtedly complex and what we don’t like can be as individual as what pleases us. I have a niece who would be totally comfortable having nonpoisonous snakes roaming around her house. My husband thinks that visits to the dentist are a piece of cake. My brother ran into burning structures for a living. On the other hand those same individuals might dread speaking in front of an audience which I actually enjoy. Our nightmares are often simply reflections of traumatic events or feelings from our lives. In my own case loss of control is what drives my greatest fears and no doubt my need to be in charge of my own fate has its foundations in the one moment over which I had no power, the death of my father.
Few of us actually sit around morosely worrying over things that go bump in the night but our dreams are windows into the sub conscious part of ourselves that lie in wait to frighten us while we sleep. It’s all a quite normal process but actually admitting to things that seem irrational is a difficult thing to do. Playing a game with people that we trust helps us bring our worries to the surface and sometimes even helps us to laugh when we feel as though we are about to cry. A bit of honesty in the name of fun can be a therapeutic way of understanding ourselves and the people that we love. It also reminds us that each of us is very human.