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If You Had These Trauma Dreams About a Parent, You’re Not Alone

I have started this article so many times I’ve lost count. My heart was guiding me to write it because I know I’m not alone, but there was also a part of me that was worried about what others might think. You see, I have this recurring dream that is so disturbing that every time I have it I wake up in a panic, frozen, so terrified I literally can’t even get out of bed to go to the bathroom. The dream leaves me exhausted, disgusted and filled with shame every time. While details vary to some extent each time I have this dream, the basic premise is that I’m having sexual relationships with my mother. I always feel somehow trapped in the dream, like I can’t escape the situation and I always have this physical sensation of wanting to unzip my skin and crawl out of it.

Like most of us, I often Google things that happen to me, searching for any articles, forums or chat groups that might give me some enlightenment as to why I’m experiencing something and some acknowledgment that I’m not the only one who has ever had something like this occur. Unfortunately, when I searched for this specific dream, the search results didn’t yield a whole lot of comfort. There was a smattering of articles about sex with the opposite sex parent, (typically with your father), a lot of Freudian psychobabble and a healthy amount of pop psychology about dream interpretations in general. It made me feel alone and completely “crazy.”

While I am a survivor of sexual abuse, my perpetrator was not my mother. My mother was covertly incestuous and emotionally abusive, but she never touched me in a sexual way, so I couldn’t comprehend why my subconscious would violate me with such a horrendous dream. What could possibly have sparked it? Why was it happening so frequently? If I told anyone, even my therapist, would they think I’m gross? I was haunted by it and felt trapped by my terror at being judged by anyone who I shared it with. So I just kept it to myself, convinced that I am seriously mentally ill and most certainly perverted. 

It took three years of working with my eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapist, and a particularly violent version of the dream where I woke myself up screaming, to finally be willing to talk about it. I was trembling with fear and felt sick to my stomach, but I finally told her about it. I remember hiding behind my hoodie, afraid that if I looked her in the eyes, I’d die of shame. She’d see how repulsive I truly am and she wouldn’t want to work with me anymore. 

To my shock, the exact opposite thing happened. She asked me, in a soft voice, to look at her, which took every ounce of courage I could muster, and when I did I mumbled “Do you think I’m gross?” She immediately said “Not at all. I think you are brave. This dream has nothing to do with actually wanting to have sex with your mother, and even if you did, we’d work through that. This has more to do with how inappropriate she was with you as a child and it’s your brain’s way of trying to process it all. There’s nothing wrong with you.”

A banner promoting The Mighty's new No Shame group on The Mighty mobile app. The banner reads, Struggling with self-judgment? The No Shame group is a safe space to talk about the things that tend to make us feel bad about ourselves and how to overcome those challenges. Click to join.

The sense of relief I felt at finally disclosing this secret was immense. What was even more of a relief was the way in which she validated that there’s nothing wrong with me and that, in fact, it’s not uncommon for people to have dreams like this when they have experienced childhood trauma involving their parents. The fact that there is so little information out there on it is more indicative of the stigma associated with talking about sex in general, trauma in particular, and child abuse specifically. 

In subsequent sessions with both my therapists, we worked through the underlying feelings that were driving my subconscious to repeat this dream. There was a sense that I didn’t get the physical nurturing I needed from my mother, particularly at a young age when I most needed it. My mother was extremely touchy-feely, but on her terms, when she wanted it. She’d do things like draw crosses on my forehead as though she was somehow blessing me (which creeped me out), hug me so tightly that I couldn’t breathe, and we slept in the same bed until I was 16 years old and begged her to let me sleep in my own room. The boundaries between who I was and who she was were so blurred it felt like I was being erased as an individual.

Once we teased this ambiguity out, it became clear how much I crave healthy physical intimacy that is mutually desired and consensual. It opened my eyes to how inappropriate she really had been and I no longer held onto the shame I felt every time I had the dream. 

While I still have the dream on occasion, it no longer terrifies me. I no longer feel like I’m losing my mind or that I’m somehow disgusting. I simply recognize that my subconscious is doing what it’s designed to do: process my trauma and help me make peace with my past. It’s really remarkable if you think about it. Our minds are tremendously clever in how they are designed to help us survive and heal.

For anyone who has ever had a dream similar to this, please know that you are not alone and that there’s nothing wrong with you. It is my sincere hope that by sharing my story I can help you feel less shame. If I had found even one article about this subject when I first searched, it might not have taken me so long to seek support around it. I want to normalize talking about this subject because there’s so much growth that can be done once we realize it’s safe to share with someone.

Getty Images photo via globalmoments