I can’t stop dreaming about my past – and what would have happened, had I made different choices

In one dream, I’m back in New York, in March, as I was when Covid began to spread – but instead of returning home, I refuse to leave. Somehow my act of refusal changes everything.

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When I was finally left alone, I dreamt all night of people silently coming and going through my new apartment: sitting at the edge of my bed, hovering in the corner, settling into the armchair to watch me sleep. Throughout lockdown, when I was back in my family home with all its oppressive familiarity, I had fantasised about the moment in which I would lock the door behind me in a clean, featureless place of my own and be unobserved. After three months, it had come, but my mind wasn’t ready to allow me my solitude yet.

Strange or unusually vivid dreams were reported en masse, anecdotally, when lockdown first began. Many people, who in ordinary circumstances rarely recall their dreams at all, started to do so in great detail, prompted, probably, by a combination of stress, emotional upheaval and a dramatic change in the way we experienced the passing of time. I noticed in April that my more abstract and fun dreams – those that have nothing obviously to do with my waking life and instead appear as a sort of absurd feature film – disappeared.

I’ve been dreaming instead of alternate timelines, of choices I made being revised and leading to bold new lives. In one dream, I’m back in New York, in March, as I was when the virus began to spread – but instead of returning home, I refuse to leave. Somehow, because here in my mind I am the centre of the world, my act of refusal changes everything. Like practitioners of sympathetic magic, believers in superstition, and children, in dreams I perceive my actions to affect the universe, rather than the universe affecting me. And so in New York, in this dream, my insistence on staying put halts the catastrophe. The virus never accelerates, because I behaved as though it would not.

I dream, too, of real events, reliving things that took place many years ago. Sometimes I see these events as they happened in reality, but more often my dream takes to them correctively, rewriting. The events become softer, easier to cope with than reality. My mind appears to be attempting some grand act of consolation.

A few weeks ago, I dreamt for the first time in years of a man I was once involved with. He remains unique among my relationships as my only unrequited love. There have been plenty of upsets and agonies, but with the rest there was at least some parity of feeling between both parties. This man was the only person I’ve ever loved to whom I meant, ultimately, not very much. It was a fact made more unbearable by the magnitude of my own feelings, which seemed to far exceed any I’d had before. (Or were the feelings goaded into their dramatic final form by his ambivalence? This was the obvious answer, I knew that, and yet they seemed to me to exist totally independently of context, as undeniable and inevitable as weather.)

When he left me he was cruel, and I hated him for it. But my pain and frustration made me irrational and relentless, so now I can’t even reflect on the situation with the comforting luxury of a wronged victim. He was mean, sure, and careless – but I was crazy. Thinking about him even briefly fills me with not only sorrow, but shame and guilt and a sharp desire to make impossible amends.

In the dream, we are still angry but decide to talk about it all. His hair is longer and darker than it was when I knew him. He is soft and reflective as he never was in life. All of our defences have disappeared. Our long-treasured litanies of each other’s offences have been forgotten or destroyed. We are ready to start again and speak as new people. Despite this forgetting, we have kept a precious knowledge of all the reasons we came together in the first place all those years ago, hidden below the surface of our skin. Finally we touch and – as he never did in life unless drunk or half asleep – he says that he loves me. The words flood my body and mind with the most tremendous sense of relief. All of the wrongs of the intervening years have been erased. The words are so powerful I can almost taste them, cool and potent and delicious, a strong drink.

When I awake, the knowledge that it didn’t happen settles over me. Years ago I had this dream all the time, and would wake up in tears at the loss, but now it feels different. I used to have a yardstick by which I would measure my feelings, which was to force myself to honestly answer, “If he called you tomorrow and said he’d changed his mind, would you take him back? No matter how humiliating that would be?” A few years ago the answer stopped being yes. It took a long, long time relative to how brief our involvement was, but I got there in the end. The answer is no, and has been for some time.

The reconciliation isn’t real, will never be real, and now I don’t even wish for it to be real. In waking life I don’t want him any more, even if the love never seems to really vanish. But what astounds and delights me is that the dream creates an emotion that is nothing but real. The emotion lasts far beyond waking and forgetting the details of the dream. The particulars and sights and smells dissolve, but the feeling remains and can be conjured at will. I can feel it right now. Even when my dreams frighten or upset me, I still appreciate them for this emotional effect: the self-perpetuating nature of it, the way it seems to confirm that the whole of life and the world exists inside each person.

Freud said, “In the unconscious nothing can be brought to an end, nothing is past or forgotten.” I’ll never again know that particular love – and sometimes I doubt I’ll ever love anyone with the same ferocity as that, being as I now am incapable of forgetting and neglecting myself so totally. Yet in the dream I can feel it once more, and on it goes, without my permission or intent, without end. 

Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, criticism and fiction born in Ireland and based in London. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 24 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special

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