"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
January 2, 2015
Sleep and Dreams
by Sarah Hancock

When I first began psychiatric medication, it threw my brain for a loop. My manic mind slowed to the pace of a snail — hibernating. Since I was used to doing multiple projects at once, taking at least 17-21 college credits at a time, and participating in at least three or four extracurricular activities on a regular basis, my brain’s new speed (or lack thereof) was frustrating and alarming.

In addition to struggling to process information like simple instructions on a microwave dinner, it was like things happening around me were fuzzed. Nothing felt clear; nothing felt real. Nothing that is, until I fell asleep.

Asleep, my dreams played out crystal clear, in high-def and 4-D. Colors brighter. Sounds and music played on surround-sound Bose-like stereo system. I worked. I danced. I sweat. I laughed. I cried. I felt human in my dreams — which was more than I could say for my subdued daily existence.

After my initial diagnosis, I awoke from dreams, unable to distinguish between what was real and what had been a dream. In fact, sometimes in the dreams, after an event, I would return to my dream home (not to be confused with my ideal home) and retire to my dream bed, only to wake in my heavily medicated reality. Talk about confusing.

For example, dreaming meant going on a date with an old boyfriend, eating a gourmet salad with pomegranate vinaigrette dressing, brie cheese and candied pecans, while laughing about something that (really had) happened in high school. Then I’d wait with school-girl anticipation for the kiss on the cheek.

After the dreamy dinner, I’d “go home” and fall asleep on my bed, only to wake up (for real) all giggly and fogged to a mom re-convincing my clouded mind for the next six hours that the high school sweetheart was long gone.

The vibrant dreams only mocked my dull, impaired life. In dreams, I thought clearly, completed complicated tasks, went to college classes, studied for tests, took vacations and lived a “normal” life. Awake, I sat stuck with my hibernating slug of a brain, wading through a world so fuzzy and slow it was surreal.

Is it any question why sleep felt like a welcome relief for my frustrated, consistently panicked mind? So, I slept. I slept a lot. I did so partly because of my medically-induced drowsiness, and partly because it was more interesting and liberating than dragging and forcing my way through a life that made little coherent sense. Dreaming was positively sensational, unless it was a nightmare.

Nightmares are a regular occurrence for most people using psychiatric medications. Who knows why? I’m not familiar with any research pertaining to the matter. But I have a sneaking suspicion that it has everything to do with the vivid nature of dreams when real life is a drowsy haze. When I first began my psychotropic meds, I had major difficulty shaking myself from my dreamy reality.

Gratefully I haven’t had difficulties with nightmares for quite some time. Consequently I forgot just what a welcome relief it was. But recently, a powerful sleep experience jarred me. I awoke coughing, gagging, and crying after watching a wild fire engulf my childhood home, taking my father with it. It was so lifelike that I called my father, who reassured me that he would never try to defend his home on the roof with a garden hose. His calm voice reassured me that he was alive.

Some people say they wake up on the wrong side of the bed. As a person on psychotropic meds with vivid dreams, I can only compare it to holding a loved one in my arms as they die and then awaking traumatized with the warmth and smell of their body still lingering in the air. Trying to shake off traumatic experiences can take more than a few hours.

To cure bad dreams, my mom once told me that all I had to do was to tell myself to wake up or change the channel. I can honestly say that each time I’ve tried, someone comes to me in my dream and “proves” to me why it isn’t a dream using vivid sensory input. Whatever I’d dreamed was usually more graphic than life itself.

Evidently curing bad dreams is still something I struggle with. I suppose we all do, to some extent. I learned a good lesson on ridding nightmares from a little boy who offered a closing prayer at church. Pleading with Heavenly Father that none of us would have bad dreams, he confidently finished his prayer and smiled. I wanted to just go up and give him a huge hug and kiss.

I guess the only reason why I share this is because I’ve lived in a variety of situations over the past 16 years. Sometimes people get exasperated with my waking state, commanding me to get over it. Telling me it was all a dream — because it was. However, being impatient with me as I came to my senses, never helped.

So, if you’re a loved one of someone who lives with a mental illness and struggles with nightmares, take this little piece of advice: the best thing you can do for them is to offer to just hold them, apologize for their horrific experience, reassure them that life is moving forward and that it can be great.

May this coming year be your best one yet — without any nightmares!

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About Sarah Hancock

Sarah Price Hancock, a graduate of San Diego State University's rehabilitation counseling Masters of Science program with a certificate psychiatric rehabilitation.

Having embarked on her own journey with a mental health diagnosis, she is passionate about psychiatric recovery. She enjoys working as a lector for universities, training upcoming mental health professionals. Sarah also enjoys sharing insights with peers working to strengthen their "recovery toolbox." With proper support, Sarah knows psychiatric recovery isn’t just possible — it’s probable.

Born and raised in San Diego, California, Sarah served a Spanish-speaking and ASL mission for the LDS Church in the Texas Dallas Mission. She was graduated from Ricks College and BYU. Sarah currently resides in San Diego and inherited four amazing children when she married the man of her dreams in 2011. She loves writing, public speaking, ceramics, jewelry-making and kite-flying — not necessarily in that order.

NAMI San Diego's Fall Keynote Address: Living in Recovery with Schizoaffective Disorder

Having recently moved into a new ward, she currently serves as a visiting teacher.

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