In Your Dreams

Episode 1: Invasion of the Contagious Kids


By Suzannah Cavanaugh and Shoshannah Buxbaum

LEAH: So, I remember walking downstairs from my old bedroom. It’s really sunny and beautiful out. And then I notice that there are kids playing in our backyard and our swingset. I’m preparing my smoothie and all of a sudden a little girl comes up behind me and she asks me what I’m making and I tell her. An old woman comes in. I think it’s the child’s grandmother. And she says what are you doing inside? That’s when I realize that there’s Covid. That she has to get out. All of the kids just sort of disappear. But the grandmother is still in there. And I’m yelling at her and screaming at her to get and pushing her.  I gotta find my dad. I need his help. And then I look outside on our porch. And he’s sitting there with our dog on his lap, just like smiling, looking at all the people. And I’m just confused about why he’s so happy when this isn’t safe.  

NARRATOR: Welcome sleepies. This is “In Your Dreams.” the podcast where we sort out what our dreams have to say about our waking lives. I’m Suzie Cavanaugh—your dream detective. Here to guide you and drive you on this journey through the astral plane.

This season we’re taking a special look into pandemic dreams. Our goal is to find out how Covid-19 has been affecting our sleep.

So for each episode, we’ll help out a different dreamer. And this week’s is Leah Rubin. She’s 24.   

LEAH: I am queer and I’m Jewish and a big fan of science. So, I study paleontology right now. Looking at shark skin.

NARRATOR: So Leah’s living outside of Boston at her parents’ house. She lost her day job in the shutdown and now she’s applying to grad school. And she’s also been pretty much isolated for the past 6 months or so.

LEAH: Just like a little background about where my family’s at right now. My mom is chronically ill. So, we’ve been under very strict lockdown since early March. And taking, taking, uh, our safety precautions, probably to another level of where they really need to be.

NARRATOR: So you know the people who can never remember their dreams—Leah’s the opposite. Her dreams were these vibrant little adventures that she would write down when she woke up. But since March, there’s been this shift—

The dream will start the same as always—with something that makes her happy.

LEAH: Then all of a sudden in the dream I’ll realize that like, now those things are dangerous. My dreams almost all have to do with someone like intruding in my space. 

NARRATOR: And all that stress is screwing with her sleep. so—caveat—Leah likes to work late because it’s the only time she has the house to herself. But now it’s almost like she’s putting off sleep entirely.

LEAH: So now I go to sleep at like 5 a.m., which is just insane. It’s really hard to fall asleep. Um, but it’s really easy to be awake. 

NARRATOR: And that insomnia is no good. Leah feels stressed when she wakes up and groggy throughout the day and she really wants to know how to get back to enjoying sleep.

LEAH: Why do I keep having these recurring dreams about people coming into my space?

NARRATOR: She wants to know what the dreams say about her—

LEAH: What do those symbols in my dreams mean about me and about the world right now? And yea where do I fit into what’s happening in the world right now? 

NARRATOR: And can she stop them?

LEAH: Is there some way that I can change them so that my dreams stop being sources of anxiety and start becoming places where I can relax and maybe even have fun.

NARRATOR: Ok. To crack this case I think we need some experts. So, a lucid dreamer for sure. I think a dream therapist to look into that anxiety. And I know Leah’s a scientist, and kind of skeptical of new age stuff, but I also know she’s down to try new things. So I think she’d be open to a little energy work, too. But before we scoop up Leah in the dream bus for the journey. I think we need to make a pit stop at Harvard.

Because this dream has pretty prominent pandemic themes, I want to go to talk to Dr. Diierdre Barrett. She just wrote a book on pandemic dreams, which I skimmed. But the takeaway is because this pandemic isn’t one event—like 9/11, for example—but a crisis with so many stressors, people’s dreams are a little less one-note. There’s a bunch of different dreams that folks are having depending on what’s weighing on them personally. 

BARRETT: The secondary effects like the lockdown, and schools being closed and financial repercussions have been a big chunk of people’s dreams. And then the people who were sheltering with family and roommates tended to have dreams that dramatized crowding or lack of privacy.

NARRATOR: And because those stressors aren’t necessarily visual, metaphors have been a big thing. Like, Barrett has analyzed tons of bug dreams. And Bug = Covid-19.

BARRETT Thinking about what metaphor it takes for you can tell you something about what it’s scary of and what else in your past it’s resonating with. Because often the things we’re most afraid of, like, in some way push buttons from past childhood fears.

NARRATOR: And Barrett has some bonus advice for us too–if you’re having those scary dreams, and you want to stop, you’ve really got to focus on what you want to dream instead. 

BARRETT Don’t think of a white bear. It’ll make a white bear pop into your mind. So you don’t want to fall asleep going, I hope I don’t have anxiety dreams again, I hope I don’t have anxiety dreams.

NARRATOR: So, for anyone who’s tried, designing your dreams like that is not easy. Which is why we’re taking Leah to visit Robert Waggoner. He is a lucid dream expert—he was lucid dreaming before it was scientifically proven. And—lucid dreaming meaning while he was asleep he would realize he was in a dream and then he would change that dream. So like… try to fly. It’s also super useful. People use lucid dreaming to cope with PTSD, and to stop recurring nightmares. Which is what Robert’s gonna do for Leah—help her work through her dream while she’s awake. 

WAGGONER: So now, what I want you to do is//  Using your imagination, rewrite or rescript the dream. Create a new and more positive ending for the dream.

LEAH: So I look outside, and I see all the kids. but they’re wearing masks. So it’s safe. They’re still able to have fun. I don’t lock the door. I don’t have to. I don’t have to worry about them. 

WAGGONER: How does that make you feel?

LEAH: Relieved. Really relieved.

WAGGONER: So tell me more about the feeling of relief. What do you feel relieved of?

LEAH: Pressure. The weight of other people’s lives.

WAGGONER: Is that a heavy weight?

LEAH: Oh, yeah.

WAGGONER: Can you see yourself letting that go?

LEAH: Yeah.

NARRATOR: So Waggoner says this doesn’t take too much practice. You can kind of just do it. I think we should give Leah a week, though, and check back in with her.  And we’re treating this like a cooking show where you already baked the casserole and bada bing, it is on the counter, so just imagine that—time warp, fast forward and we are at that outcome. 

SUZIE: How did the lucid dreaming attempt to go last night?

LEAH: Nada.

NARRATOR: So that’s totally fine. I think practice is key. And I also wonder if it might be helpful to learn more about what the real life meaning is for the thing that’s bothering Leah in the dream. Like maybe that could help her change it? So I’m going to hook Leah up with Dr. Rubin Naiman next. He’s a dream therapist. He’s banked like 30 years studying dreams as a proxy for mental health. So, we’re headed to Arizona for a little therapy sess between him and Leah. 

NAIMAN: So Leah, why don’t we start by you just giving me some background on yourself. 

LEAH: I’ve had anxiety since I was a kid, and I’ve been on medication pretty regularly since I was in second grade actually. 

When I was in high school, I started taking a medication called citalopram. And my dreams got really vivid after that. 10:14 // They were always really goofy and like fun and funny.

NARRATOR: But also as we know already, they’re not goofy dreams anymore. They’re invader dreams and a lot of the time the invaders are children.

LEAH: And I’m remembering that when I wake up from these dreams I oftentimes like I’m having a hard time catching my breath

NAIMAN: If you just let the anxiety be don’t fight it, don’t try to understand it. Just kind of let it wash over you. Where does that take you?

LEAH: I mean in my head I just think like this is gonna go on for a long time.

NAIMAN: That’s your head, now tell me where it takes you in your heart?

LEAH: Oh, umm, huh. 

NAIMAN What the feelings are.

LEAH: Just like sad and impatient. 

NAIMAN: Yea, so there’s a sadness. 

LEAH: Yea, definitely. 

NAIMAIN: You know, what you’re describing in this dreaming example, and I’m assuming others, it’s about betrayal.

The pandemic is unprecedented and it’s as if the whole human race has been betrayed.

LEAH: But, I don’t consciously think of my anxiety as a betrayal. Like, especially during the pandemic, I almost am like, Wow, thank goodness for my anxiety. Like it’s really keeping me a lot safer than most of my friends in their 20s who are like going out and going to parties and going to restaurants.

NAIMAN: It’s as if you’re not trusting yourself.

LEAH: I don’t know. Yea, I mean, I think of it as like a part of me. It’s just a part of who I am.

NAIMAN: So, there’s an interesting relationship between the potential of children and their contagion in your life today and how your relationship, your perspective of the child inside of you might be contagious.

LEAH: Hmm.

NAIMAN: With anxiety.

LEAH: The girl in my dream, like she was very precocious and like, kind of sarcastic and like funny and. That’s definitely how I see myself as a kid. And I like love thinking of myself like that. That’s totally where I get—

NAIMAN: —Yeah, but you’re also anxious. The image of a little girl with anxiety is a heartbreak. Something made you anxious, kids aren’t born anxious.

LEAH: When my mom got sick, she got sick when I was in middle school, and like that’s about this time that I like, started going to therapy really regularly.

NAIMAIN: What are you feeling as we talk about this right now?

LEAH: A little combative. I feel like I don’t, I don’t know. I don’t see my anxiety as like a fault. I don’t like to think of I don’t like— I don’t know, I don’t want to be pitied. Like, I feel like it’s okay. 

NARRATOR: That was a lot. Maybe we can do what MY therapist says and just let all of that sit with us for a moment.

SUZIE: Tell me your—How’d that go for you?

LEAH: Like, it is absolutely a pressure and a weight on a kid to have to like be scared that your mom’s gonna die, like, that sucks. But for me, it doesn’t help me to think of it as a tragedy. I think because I can’t change it. 

NARRATOR: I feel like we’re making progress, but we’re not there yet. There’s definitely something to that little girl, but it’s clear that Dr. Naiman’s take didn’t quite click. And same with the anxiety. Like, it’s a part of Leah’s dream problems, but it’s also clear to me that her relationship with it is complex—she’s not looking to solve it.  

I’m hoping Ariele Max can give us some clues. Ariele is a reiki practitioner, but she’s adapted her practice to help with dream analysis. Essentially she asks her clients to go into this mindful state and then she meets them there. And together they poke around at their dream symbols, while she helps resolve any energy blockages.

If you’re feeling skeptical right now, totally understand.  Why don’t we all take a minute to take a few deep breaths to get on board? Breath in *breaths* and out *breaths out*

ARIELE: Let’s exhale all of the air out the mouth, make an ocean sound.  I’m going to call in your guides, benevolent messengers, ancestors spirits and ask for protection. I’m going to invite them into this space. You’re going to be the one to go in and literally ask the people in the dreams, who they are. And in this case, the children, I would ask who they are what they want. 

I want you to switch your focus from counting to imagining yourself floating right about the ground. We’re in a beautiful forest, you’re right above the grass, you can smell it. It just rained.

NARRATION: So, while they’re doing their energy work, why don’t we take a moment for a little mindfulness. Clear your mind, And focus on your breath. You can count them if you like. And If your thoughts wanders, no worries, just bring them back to the breath.

ARIELE: Hello.

LEAH: Hi. 

ARIELE: Welcome back.

LEAH: Thanks.

ARIELE: Well that was trippy

LEAH: Yeah, I started crying!

ARIELE: Ohhh nooo! Yes, okay. 

LEAH: The first thing that I did was I talked to the little girl in my dream and she said that she was me. And that this was like gonna pass.

ARIELE: Oh, wow.

LEAH: Yeah. Oh, my god. I’m gonna cry.

ARIELE: It’s ok, yes, that happens, yes, cry please. 

LEAH: And just that she was proud of me.

ARIELE: Mmm. Oh my gosh.

LEAH: Yeah. It was really, felt really good,

NARRATION: I feel wiped. But it’s in a good way, like after you got a massage or, like, played, in the snow all day. We got a lot of tools and a lot of info.  And I think our best bet is to give Leah some space to process and maybe practice… And we’ll check back in with her in like a couple days or so… 

NARRATION: Alright! So, It’s a week since Leah’s last session with Arielle, and I think she’s got some dream changes to report. 

LEAH: So preface with, I usually don’t love mindfulness exercises. I have, like, super ADD. I’m definitely not someone who’s super into woo woo, like I don’t feel like I necessarily met her in a spiritual world. 

But I do think it was really helpful that she said like I define those symbols for myself. Because at the end of the day, like me being awake, and being able to, like process through those things is really helpful for me to give them less like, weight over and pressure over me during the day.

LEAH: Ever since I talked to Arielle, I’ve been doing like those breathing exercises at night when I remember and just like sitting with myself. 

NARRATION: So,I think the question we’re all waiting to hear the answer to is: Has Leah been able to change her dreams?

LEAH: So, the day after I spoke with Arielle, I had a dream where I thought I was lucid dreaming. And I’m not really sure that I was. But in the dream, I was running away from someone I went to high school with, with a bunch of kids. I was like, coming up or like around a corner. And I saw him and I was like, Oh, no, like, this is gonna go bad. And I was like, Oh, it doesn’t have to go bad. In the dream, I was like, nope, this is a dream. Like, you’re definitely not going to kill us. We’re gonna like, hug, hug it out. 

SUZIE: Did you hug—

LEAH: —And we hugged it out?

SUZIE: You did? You hugged? Oh, that’s so cool 

LEAH: Yeah we hugged! Laughs It was weird. 

SUZIE Laughs.

LEAH: I guess I just don’t know if it was lucid dreaming. It sounds like it was now that I’m like saying it out loud.

SUZIE: What do you think it says, like about what we’re going through right now, that other people are having these same sorts of dreams that you’re having?

LEAH: I think there’s like a really obvious analysis of that, which is that we’re all really scared of getting COVID and dying. But that we’re also really scared of each other in this moment, of other people. That link that like you could kill or be killed by another, like your connection to another person is really heavy.

SUZIE: How does it feel to you knowing that there’s these shared  dreams that reflect that?

LEAH: I don’t know, I guess my first response is that I just feel sorry for everybody. I mean, this sucks. This sucks so bad. I try and keep thinking like, this is gonna be so interesting to look back on in, you know, 10 years, give me a decade, and I’ll be like, wow, we did that.

SUZIE: I know, I keep thinking that too. I keep thinking like, wow we’re living through— I keep thinking about what I’ll tell my grandchildren. But I don’t know if that makes it easier going through it.

LEAH: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think it does. I mean, for me, like thinking about the fact that we will have distance from this, at some point, is really a relief for me.

NARRATION: I think, for all of us, remembering that this moment, much like a bad dream, is really only temporary, can be a surprisingly great source of relief.

And—in helping out Leah, we’ve actually gathered some solid tips for dealing with the hard parts of life right now—whether you’re sleeping or awake.

Lucid dreaming is great for rewriting your nightmares and pretty great for taking some agency over your anxieties. Chatting up your dream characters is basically just a way to get in touch with your own emotions. And meditation is trying out a new routine, which is a key to staying steady in these very shaky times.

Alright sleepies. That does it for me. I’m Suzie Cavanaugh and This is in your dreams. 

Nighty night.

Production and sound design by Shoshannah Buxbaum. Our editor is Kalli Anderson. Music by, I Think I Can Help You, E’s Jammy Jams, Patches, The Tides, The Tower of Light, Emmitt Fenn and The Whole Other.