themighty logo

When Depression Turns Sleep Into a Dangerous Neighborhood


“They should give you a day off work after a bad dream,” I say, knowing it will make my colleagues laugh. “Seriously, I need a week to recover after some of the stuff I have to deal with when I’m asleep.”

I know they think I’m just fooling around. That I’m doing one of my usual routines about the hardships of full-time employment and of being a slave to the capitalist nightmare of the 9 to 5 life, and so on and so forth.

But what they don’t know is that I’m really being deadly serious. That beneath my sarcasm is a genuine call for someone to take a look inside my head, to lift up the rock and to peek at the insects milling about in the mud that is my inner self.

It’s a hard fact of having clinical depression that so much of what is happening beneath the surface goes unseen by others. That it is only in glib remarks like the one I made to my co-workers that the pain I harbor can find its way out. That I could actually do with a day off to take care of myself. And on days like today, when my emotions are raw and my head is swimming with ugliness, what I really could do with, more than anything else, is some sleep.

Ever since I was very young I have been plagued with bad dreams. And I have an uncanny ability to recall them. Even now, just turned 30, I can clearly visualize a dream I had of my school being taken over by giant wasps when I was 9 years old. If my brain were a computer hard drive, then I don’t even want to think about how much storage space is taken up just by the dreams I’ve had. I have woken up screaming more times than I can count. On the morning that my longest relationship came to an end, I can remember been woken up by my partner because I had been crying out in my sleep. And I can still remember the dark figure I had been dreaming of, stalking towards me with sinister intent, as she held me. Was that ghostly figure meant to represent our incoming breakup? Did I know on some level things were about to end, that they had not been right for months? And why did my brain feel the need to torment me with this, when so much heartbreak was already on its way?

In one of his last recorded interviews before he took his own life, Chester Bennington of Linkin Park said “this place right here,” pointing to his temple, “that is a bad neighborhood. I should not be in there alone.” The interviewer just laughed, calling him crazy. But we know now that there was genuine pain behind those words. If the inside of our heads can become a bad place to be, then over the years my sleeping mind has become a literal underworld like the one Chester spoke of. Because, while my dreams are often bewildering in their vividness and their complexity, I have always found myself in the same neighborhood. And when my depression is at its worst, I can find myself there on a nightly basis.

I am in my hometown. More specifically, I am underneath my hometown. I am alone in what seems to be a dark tunnel or a passage. The walls are lined with shiny white tiles. The paint on the ceiling is cracked and peeling. The floor is littered with debris and rubbish. In the corners where the walls meet the ground, a nebulous collection of grime and filth fill in the cracks. The only light is a dull orange glow, coming from flickering lightbulbs held in circular plastic lamps. The passage goes on ahead of me, before curving around a sharp corner. I don’t want to know what is behind it, but I can’t stop myself from walking towards it. My footsteps echo and reverberate as I walk into the darkness. I can see closed doors on either side of me, the hinges covered in rust and decay. I can hear things from behind the doors. I can even peek through the cracks and see what lies behind them.

And I know this place. I have come here so many times in my sleep, but also in my waking life. This is the subway that used to run underneath a big roundabout I used to walk through when I was a child. I remember it used to smell of urine, and that the walls were always damp, and my mother told me not to touch them as we walked through it. I remember being scared of it, and not wanting to walk through it. I remember thinking there would be bad people waiting for us around every corner. I remember looking at the rusty metal grilles and the decaying ceiling and the mould-stained walls and the grime and the filth on the floor and feeling strongly that I did not like that place.

In my dreams, this subway has become a reoccurring locale that I am forever returning to. Sometimes I am being chased by a crowd of armed thugs, intent on making me their prey. Sometimes I will open the closed doors and find the things I do not want to remember. Scenes of childhood traumas being played out before me like theatrical recreations in the rooms that lay beyond. And then sometimes my mind will get more creative, show me strange images of Tim Burton-style figures sitting around a television, playing the perfect family. Or I will turn a corner and find a squid-like monstrosity waiting to devour me.

This subway has been an ever present feature of my worst dreams. It has become a reverse world in which my worst memories are relived, time and time again. A canvas that my depression uses to paint upon. I fall asleep, exhausted and worn down, only to find myself walking down those tiled stairs into the darkness once again, unable to escape the horrors that lie below.

In 1995, David Bowie sang that “there is no hell like an old hell.” I can think of no better metaphor for depression than the image of a filthy subway filled with rubbish. That underneath the perfectly maintained streets and buildings of the town above, lies a labyrinthine network of rust-covered, grime-coated tunnels that pedestrians would prefer to avoid. That beneath the surface is another world of darkness and decay. Sometimes I want to applaud my subconscious on the symbolism. But really I just want this to all go away. To never have to walk through those dirty passages again.

In 2013, I got my wish when the local council demolished the roundabout and completely filled in the subway with concrete, building a new road on top of where it had been. In the physical world, the subway no longer exists. I thought this would bring an end to it, but still I found myself in the depths of the subway’s bowels night after night after night. I became afraid to sleep, knowing what awaited me.

My therapist tried to support me, suggesting I try to visualize cleaning out the subway in my mind and turning it into my own space. So I would arm myself with lavender pillow spray and rain sound videos on YouTube, and I would squeeze a plush toy as I fell asleep imaging the subway being renovated into a hipster art gallery or a Berlin nightclub. And sometimes it would work. The subway would be opened up, allowing sunlight in. Or I would take one look at the staircase and choose not to descend into the darkness, instead walking in the opposite direction. And on one particular night, where I did find myself lost in the depths of the subway, I was being haunted by monstrous apparitions before suddenly I was rescued by none other than the Avengers — Captain America himself escorted me out of the darkness while Iron Man and the others fought off the hordes. Cap, you have my sincere thanks for that.

Earlier this year, I contacted the local council and decided to tell them about my experience with the subway and I found myself making a Freedom of Information request — it’s amazing what having a mental illness can make you do — about what remains of the subway now, if anything. I wanted closure. I wanted someone official to tell me that it’s been gone since 2013. I wanted my subconscious to hear it. I didn’t expect a response. And then someone got back to me and told me they wanted to put my mind at rest and that they could confirm that the subway was indeed destroyed. Not only that, but that the ramps where the stairs had once led down into its depths had now been filled in with soil and were home to a row of newly-planted trees. I cried when I read that, because I now knew that the dark place that haunted me had given birth to new life in the form of those trees. And I smiled defiantly in the knowledge that those dark tunnels were truly gone once and for all. Subway 0, Elliott 1.

I turned 30 this year. The distance between my traumatic, abusive childhood seems larger than before. Depression has become something I manage, rather than something I suffer from. I went home recently and took a loved one to the crossing where the subway used to be. I stood in the centre of the road, spread out my arms and gave the ground beneath me two defiant middle fingers. Cars slowed down as they drove past, people stared, but I didn’t care. It felt like a victory to be standing on top of what had been such a source of terror for so many years. When I was done, I went to where the trees now stood. I felt like they were my friends, that they greeted me as I approached them. I rested a hand on one, and whispered “thank you” under my breath. And then I turned my back on that place and walked away.

No one has the exact same experience of depression. It’s a personal hell, an old hell. It’s a bad neighborhood we should never be left alone in. It’s a dark, dingy subway full of horrors that we need rescuing from. Sometimes our only option is to rescue ourselves.

If you are in the depths of dark place right now, I want you to know that there is still a world above you. That there is sunlight, and that trees can grow from an old hell. And that sometimes you can stand at the top of a flight of stairs leading into the darkness and you can choose not to go down them.

Sometimes I rest my head on my pillow at night, and I feel that old fear resurface. I worry that I will be in the darkness of that place again. That those doors will open and I will be forced to witness the things I would rather forget. That I will be lost in the maze that lies beneath the surface. In those moments, I remember the trees growing out of the place where darkness once was.

And I remind myself that, just like those trees, I will always find my way out of the darkness.

Getty image via francescoch