Written by Haley Clemens
Two years ago, I was stuck in the lowest period of my life. It was … really bad. Depression had me drowning on land all day, every single day. I very nearly lost myself somewhere in the deep crush of anxiety and loneliness.
Like any girl with midwestern blood, I buckled down and did what we always do when we midwesterners get “sad”: acknowledge nothing, tell no one, and wait for it to pass.
My tactic was as follows: during the day I existed as a high functioning shell, expertly completing tasks and keeping up with appearances. (Well, as much as you can as an almost friendless first year.) I kept myself constantly busy with art and schoolwork, not leaving a single second to feel anything. Life was like running across an endless expanse of Silly Putty—if I stopped moving for even for a second I would begin to sink. So I just didn’t stop.
This plan worked during the day. I got straight A’s all year for the first time in my life because of all the work I created for myself. Three page papers turned into research essays, research essays turned into dissertations, and art assignments turned into series of gallery-ready works.
The only problem was that at some point I would have to stop running across the putty in order to sleep, and when I did, I sank.
You can’t trick your brain into not acknowledging its own chemical imbalance forever. In my sleep it was like my brain was making up for lost time, forcing me to live through all the horrible shit I ignored during the day in cartoonish extremity. I got no rest from sleeping. Night and day simply became two different kinds of never ending exhausting nightmare.
I began self-medicating with weed. Being really high bought me a few hours of completely dreamless sleep, which was an immense relief. Sometimes the dreams would return in the early hours of the morning and I would need get up to smoke for a second time just to steal a few more hours of peaceful rest.
But then somewhere amidst the nightmares and the medicating, something amazing started to happen. My higher self seemingly put her foot down and gave me the power of the kill switch.
It was like this: exhausted from the day, I’d collapse into bed and fight falling asleep. Inevitably a nightmare would start and my brain would place me in the middle of a horrible scenario. But when it all became too much, I could force myself awake. It was like hitting Command Q on my own shitty brain. Soon I could do it multiple times a night, dipping out of any unsavory situation over and over again until I had exhausted myself to the point of dreamlessness.
After the kill switch came situational control. The threat of quitting my dreams made my brain ease up on what it threw at me, and the nightmares got a little less abusive. One step at a time I began to be able to defend myself better, and I started to be able to remove myself from the nightmare-scapes without having to wake up. Eventually I had complete agency.
I could enter a dream, tell the nights planned programming to fuck off, and just walk away into the ether. Sleep became restful again. I began to look forward to it for the first time in months. Not only could I decide not to be in bad situations, but I also had the ability to create my own pleasant ones. I could build heaven every night.
It took me a while to understand that I was teaching myself to lucid dream every night by practicing conscious decision making during unconsciousness.
I was so proud of what felt like a secret superpower. Out of sheer necessity, I had developed a skill that usually takes hours of intense focus and meditation. It was an incredible gift. The weight of being bad at sleep was so immense, and learning to lucid dream helped lift just a little bit off my shoulders. At very least, I no longer felt completely empty during the day.
Summer came and I left campus for my hometown. I began to piece myself back together, rebuilding Me from the ground up. Every night in dreams I went head to head with my demons, and every night I would choose to win. The nightmares didn’t go away completely for a long while, but when they came I was ready. Lucid dreaming helped me heal.
I am about to enter the summer before my senior year of college with solid friends, with confidence and happiness. I still carry my depression with me, it’s not something that can go away with time. However, I have seen myself succeed in ways I never thought possible when I was running over all that Silly Putty. I can still lucid dream whenever I want, but I no longer have to in order to get a good night’s sleep.
It is true that our struggles we face as young people shape the adults we become, but know that there is a limit to what you should have to deal with alone. That I even reached the point of lucid dreaming is something that should not have happened, and while I’m grateful for the skill, I wish that I had sought help sooner.
It is important that we not take the midwestern approach to our mental health. Let us call depression depression. Let us acknowledge our own pain, and take healthy steps to protect ourselves from getting lost in the crush.
Remember to treat each other kindly, and not to be afraid to reach out to others. You never know when a kind word could save someone’s day, or night, from being total shit.