Creepy / Staff Picks

On Nightmares, Visions, and Deliverance

Image: Naïma Underwood

Image: Naïma Underwood

I had a deliverance performed on me once, complete with holy water, rosaries, lists of saints’ names, and tears (mine).

Or maybe that’s not where I should start.

For 26 years of my life I had nonstop nightmares.  I couldn’t tell you about a single dream I had up to the age of 26 that wasn’t horrific in some way. The closest I could come was a dream I’d had in high school wherein I’d eaten a chocolate bar. However, in that dream I was also trapped in a grocery store with no windows or doors where the walls were slowly, slowly, closing in on me and I was about to be crushed to death in the cereal aisle. But any time someone asked me about a good dream I’d had, my response would be that once I had a dream that I ate a chocolate bar.

My nightmares were full of corpses and monsters and the creeping horror that I and everyone around me were being herded into a space we could not escape from where we would all be killed and either no one else noticed, or I was one of maybe a handful of people who saw it. I would watch those people be picked off one by one, waiting for it to be my turn. Sometimes I died horribly in my dreams. Sometimes I woke up mere moments before death.

In middle school I had two friends with whom I spent homeroom period talking about dreams. Theirs were stories and adventures. I started to just make dreams up.

I’ve been told my poetry is morbid, that I use gruesome, even shocking images – that my poetry is like a French horror film. The first time I was told that, I didn’t believe it. My poetry was normal, halfway to dull, I thought. After a second, third, and fourth person brought it up, I began to look at the cannibalism, evisceration, animal sacrifice in my work and realize how it had all been normalized for me. This was a comfortable space, this space of the grotesque. I lived half in a reality where I might smash my face on a concrete step at any moment, where I would be driving uncontrollably through a forest and couldn’t stop hitting every creature in my path.

I don’t regret or mind that aesthetic in my work. I honestly really do like that my poetry goes into a space that often makes people uncomfortable, makes them sort of shudder. I like that, while it takes an awful lot to shock me, I’m not callous. When I write graphically about a woman killing a cat, it is with sympathy for both cat and woman. I wear bright colors. I look more hippie than goth.

There is something appealing – cathartic – about confronting the darkest parts of myself through poetry.  Perhaps part of my willingness to go there is because I know what those parts are – I spent 26 years staring them in their red eyes and slavering mouths each night when I slept. There’s no investigation to find them.

I tried to run from my dreams for years by not sleeping. In high school I would stay awake until 3am, terrified to fall asleep. It caused me serious health problems that felt preferable to a night of all the terror. When at 21 I had my son, his tiny body in the bed next to me somehow made it all more bearable. I don’t know why. Maybe I felt like I needed to be brave for him.

Two years ago, I did a vision quest. I know how new-agey that sounds. I do. I spent the whole summer preparing for it – making prayer ties, cutting caffeine from my diet, writing letters to the Lakota road woman who was to guide me through the quest, deciding what vision I was going to cry for. The quest was 48 hours alone in the forest without food or water and without speaking with a sweat lodge before and after. It was a blistering hot week in August – 97 degrees – and I was exposed to the sun.

I was not nearly as afraid as I had thought I would be, even after the sun went down. When I fell asleep that night, dehydrated and light-headed, first I had a dream about a shambling hoard of zombies that pursued me through a town that could have been anywhere in the rust belt. I woke up, listened to the sounds of the forest for a few hours in total darkness wishing it would rain, and then fell back to sleep. And when I did, I had the first dream of my life that wasn’t a nightmare.

I won’t go into the details of the dream. It was a very graphic sex dream, but one without a moment of creepiness or awkwardness or anything but the visceral pleasure of the dream. I awoke, shocked that my mind had gone into that space for the first time in 26 years.

But the opening to this essay, the hook, was the deliverance.

To explain how I got to a point where a friend of mine was attempting to perform a Catholic deliverance on me would take probably 5 essays. The short version is thus: He was a psychologist and did work for the church. I’d told him of the dreams, which slowly returned after my vision quest. He’d encouraged me to try holy water, prayer – things I was desperate enough to make a go at in spite of being nowhere near Catholic. I’d wiggled so far down the rabbit hole of it all, that when, after telling him about a particularly unsettling nightmare and he suggested a deliverance prayer, a voice in my head said “well what the hell could it hurt?”

So there I was, sitting with my eyes shut tightly, list of saints’ names read off, holy water on my neck. As I tried to picture myself somewhere safe (ironically under an apple tree) I recall having a moment where I thought that maybe somehow in spite of a complete lack of belief on my part, this could work. That maybe I’d be done with it once and for all. And then I cried.

There’s nothing else to report on the event itself. No demon made itself known. No shimmering vision of Mary stepped into my view. The rosary didn’t blacken to charcoal when it touched me. But after that, the dreams tapered off. I don’t think Jesus came down and took them from me. I don’t think that litany of saints are holding back monsters that would otherwise claw at my brain until I gave in. I think I believed for a moment that I could exist without those nightmares and so I do. There’d not been a moment of hope in my life that perhaps I could be freed from my nightly horror film, and when I had that moment, something shifted.

I still have horrifying nightmares sometimes, and my poetry is still riddled with lost limbs and liquid shadows. But I have good ones, too. Now, I have dreams about sitting together on a porch after a storm with the man I love. We’re naked and we’re holding each other and there’s a tornado retreating into the distance. I know it might come back around to me, but if it does, I also know I won’t be afraid.


One thought on “On Nightmares, Visions, and Deliverance

  1. Pingback: August Haunts | Cemetery Trash

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