Recurring nightmare from childhood / Help? :(


New member
Hey, first of all I know this is quite long, and I’m going to be bringing up some triggering topics and ones that I feel unfortunately are misunderstood but heavily capitalized on in media and popular discourse—trauma, memory, early childhood abuse, etc.

This is actually an incredibly important question for me and I’m curious more about the phenomenology of mind and memory than any handbook dream interpretation—so be ready for that.

This has been an important question for me my entire life, and I would take this to a professional immediately if the social support structures were there for it, but alas… here I am on the internet :/ Womp womp…

The crux:

One of my earliest and most potent memories from childhood is a recurrent nightmare that I always felt had great significance in my life and represented something of a mystery that I needed to solve at some point, yet in the course of my years nothing really came of it until a couple days ago.

The dream is this: I start out in a mine cart, which is on a short section of track kind of like a rollercoaster—a short steep downward dip followed by a break in the track which makes a “jump” over a seemingly bottomless chasm.

I start rolling immediately and always experience fear as I see that I’m about to launch off this break in the track towards the opposing cavern wall, which has a small square opening framed with old wood which looks like it could barely fit my mine cart. I always experience a jolt of doubt and adrenaline and fear as I launched over the chasm but every time I would make it through the opposite opening and land on another track.

With some relief I would start spiraling down the tracks into a dark cavern which was basically just a huge hole in the ground—the walls were smooth, sheer stone (I couldn’t really climb them) and the only light was from the opening high above.

It felt clear that the only direction I was going was down, in other words. So I spiraled down into this cavern, riding in the mine cart for quite a while, as the light above grew further away and felt more and more hopeless to reach.

Finally I would reach the bottom, and the mine cart would dump me out into a mud pit. The mud was deep and heavy and very hard to move in—it felt like it went down forever but I was able to stand and look around with some difficulty.

Then, invariably, a form would rise out of the mud and take the shape of a goopy horrible monster—the “mud monster” as I thought of it.

It would immediately come for me, trying to grab at me with its mouth open, and trying to swallow me into the mud so it seemed. (I never let it—I was forced to fight it off and scramble for my life but I never let it take me down.)

I felt desperate to reach the opening above but it was not only a long and tiring climb back up the tracks, it also seemed impossible to reach the surface with the sheer walls that seemed impossible to climb, and the threat of falling back down to the bottom should I lose my grip…

This dream would never resolve and never varied in form all the times I had it, which must have been well over a dozen… it would just run out or last until I woke up.

So that’s the dream.

I always felt like it had something to tell me, and even when I was young I felt resolved to seek its meaning. I’ve always brought it up in therapy as well, but I didn’t have any conclusive answers or satisfying connections until only about a day ago.

I remembered another instance, which was completely singular but made a deep impression on me—where I was sitting at the dinner table and had the startling memory—and I use that word because it’s exactly the sense I had—that I had almost lost my life the day before.

It was so strange though, because as a child I thought it would be of great importance should I have almost lost my life, but everything seemed normal, and I couldn’t think exactly of what had happened that made me feel that way…

The only thing that came to mind was the image and sensation of my standing over a bottomless chasm with one foot on either ledge, feeling like I was at risk of losing my footing and falling, yet narrowly escaping this.

I resolved to trust my instincts even then and felt that maybe someday I would remember what had happened that made me so certain I’d forgotten something important, but the connection to the chasm in my dream never suggested itself until just the other day as I was pondering it…

Then something strange happened. I’ve always thought I would never be able to remember anything from that young so it would be no use trying, but I suddenly realized how ridiculous this was, because I could remember the act of trying to remember… so I DID have reliable memories from that age.

That rather opened the door, and I just “let” myself remember (through internal free association) what it was that made me feel I’d narrowly escaped with my life that one time at the dinner table… and I was immediately struck with feelings of being graphically smothered by my father.

Saying it feels so incredibly unbearable… Forgive me for excluding details beyond that. But I suddenly felt that I’d stumbled on the meaning of the dream as well as the “screen memory” of standing over a chasm. I think this level of abuse and betrayal would have been so unbearable and so inescapable to my child mind that it represented an existential threat to the degree that I half-remembered it as “something happened where I almost lost my life…” but I simply COULDN’T remember what. Not because I didn’t have the memory, but because the memory was so psychologically traumatic that I would have “ceased to exist” had I been forced to reconcile it with my waking life… thus the recurring dreams.

Now HOLD ON though. Because I know that this seems perhaps dubious in light of such a distant and delayed psychic response. I don’t take for granted that my interpretation and association is reliable despite the fact that it ties absolutely everything together in my mind and in my life… I’m immediately concerned that I may be substituting dream-like images which may conflate being “violated” in other ways by my father (he is certainly a very sick and abusive man either way) with the sensation and feeling of physical violation, and I really want to be careful about what I integrate and interpret as “memory” when I’m dealing with something so potentially traumatic in my personal story.

So this is why I have come to the internet. I’m rather desperate to get some outside perspective from someone who might know more about the cognitive side of dreams and memory. How likely is it that I’m making something up that REPRESENTS, in my mind, what WOULD be the worst/most likely source of trauma at that age? I feel fairly certain about the reality of certain memories but I think we can all get a little vague when it comes to a hard boundary between dreams and imagination… and yet, it fits.

I’m currently reading “Object Relations And Severe Trauma” by Steven Prior, and the symptoms I’ve struggled with all my life (I’m diagnosed AuDHD but identify heavily with both acute (recent) and complex (childhood) PTSD as well) seem to come into focus under this light.

I seem to attract highly pathological people and situations into my life, of a particularly seditious and invasive nature. I am not paranoid and I have to reality test extensively to eliminate other motivations and options before concluding “wow you just wanted to hurt me…” after getting repeatedly re-traumatized at every turn. I consistently have to struggle to address seditious behaviors because others are likely to excuse, ignore or dismiss the damage, and often blame me despite clear evidence to the contrary (I know people need to protect their psyches from the amount of distrust that comes with seeing actual psychopathology at work but DANG YO).

So anyway, I know I’ll never know for certain, and to identity as a CSA survivor sounds like yet another daunting and heartbreaking task to integrate and surrender to along with my already troubled life, but if this is the key I’ve been missing I NEED to address it and grow through it to heal… I just know I do.

So what do people think? What is the phenomenology of recurring dreams, memories, screen memories, etc? Is it likely that I’m conflating IMAGES of abuse with memories here? Or does the presence of specific and automatic sensory impression help strengthen the case for memory? (The images come with visceral smells, sounds, feelings, sensations, as well as specific lighting and setting for instance…)

The last thing I want to do is gaslight myself back into ignorance, and I don’t want to subject myself to self doubt and invalidation after all these years if I’m finally figuring out what’s at the root of all my suffering… But either option feels so terrible it’s hard to not almost want to be wrong…

It fits though. It actually really fits.

So for those of you who know about dreams and cognition, how does this track? Please help… 🥺
As I read your dream, I wondered if you had childhood trauma. You jump a chasm (barely escaping with your life) and are attacked by a monster. This coupled with your realization at the table, seems to indicate that something certainly happened. If I were your therapist, which I am not, I would be curious about your father, his traits, did he drink or use drugs, was he nurturing in other ways and so on. A rounded out picture might help to lead us to what really happened. The pun of, "mine cart," my cart...indicates that something happened/is happening in the dream to the body.