Damini Gaur, 32, reached her hometown Jaipur from Delhi just before the three-week lockdown was put in place. On the second day of the lockdown, she was on a TV news watching spree. Later that night, she found it difficult to sleep by her usual bedtime around midnight. She tried reading, writing something, watching a movie and finally dozed off at 2:30 am.
She woke up an hour later, soaked in sweat from a nightmare. “The streets were all grey. There was smoke and fumes everywhere. It looked like a scene from a science fiction movie,” recalls Gaur. “Everyone I knew was dead, except my mother. I was running through the streets. Other people were running too.” Sleep—dull, heavy and exhausting—came only in the morning. Her sleep cycle has been disturbed ever since. Nightmares have sunk their teeth in others’ nights too. For Saloni Dhawan, 24, a designer based in Bangalore, a recurring theme is getting a phone call informing her that one of her family members in Delhi has tested positive. She would wake up anxious and guilty—for not being with her family. She flew back home on March 10 and the nightmares stopped.
Shifa Haq, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist who teaches at Ambedkar University, Delhi, suggests that these dreams point towards a psychological flashpoint in the dreamer or the collective, each trying to articulate a sense of danger, uncontainable primitive anxiety or painful loss—primed by COVID-19.
Sample this dream Kundan KD, a 36-year old translator, had: he is coming out of a hospital and a blind old lady puts her hand on his shoulders. It suddenly occurs to him that the lady could be infected with coronavirus and he pulls away. “I know that she is blind, but I am unsure. I go back and look at her again and again to find out if she is actually blind.” Haq finds this sequence particularly interesting—there’s both a sense of danger and a willingness to escape from it, she reckons. Haq adds that dreams help us understand that there is a lot to be digested by our psyche, and that perhaps we are beginning to cope. “To the extent we are able to dream, make our anxieties thinkable, imaginable, we are committing to staying open and alive to powerful feelings. In these times, staying with feelings is akin to storing food to survive.”