• I was grieving over my loss of connection. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
I kept having two kinds of nightmares - one of my present and the other of my past.
By
Katrina Trinh

30 Sep 2021 - 10:59 AM  UPDATED 30 Sep 2021 - 10:59 AM

When Sydney went into lockdown in July, I started having distraught nightmares. An unceasing shelter-at-home order, work pressures and moving into a new home in a foreign suburb that made it to the list of the NSW LGAs of concern, these big life changes were perfect triggers.

I would wake up in hot and cold sweats in the middle of the night, heart palpitating. It felt unsettling at best and life-threatening at worst. It had been well-over the one year anniversary of the beginning of Sydney’s first lockdown in 2020 yet my body forced me to confront all my fears and grief as it plunged me into a time warp of uncertainty and confusion.

I kept having two kinds of nightmares - one of my present and the other of my past. In the latter, I would be dragged in a dark hole while I struggled to get a grip on disorientating grounds and black air. Besieged by hungry ghosts and intruders, my flesh would touch against the dark while the razor-sharp edges of their bodies - fingers, mouths, teeth and breaths - pierced through the pitch-black night, leaving me in short breaths with swollen lungs and brittle bones with severe inflammation. Limbs heavy and stiff, only memories of being hunted like a weak prey would be left behind while the static intensified and they would approach closer to success in their carefully-thought orchestrated execution. Details of real-life events, like being home alone as a child while my parents were busy working away would then become the focus and make a peculiar yet idiosyncratic debut into the ghastly narrative. Tense as I spoke, my tone strained as I yelled for my parents in my dream-state. Nowhere to be found, I would scream manically.

Details of real-life events like being home alone as a child while my parents were busy working away would then become the focus and make a peculiar yet idiosyncratic debut into the ghastly narrative

A teenager in these nightmares, the wash of different emotions, feelings and sensations passed by and the only emotional vocabulary I used to articulate these experiences of sadness and ache was the Vietnamese word buồn.

The second kind of nightmare I had was about going to Cabramatta, where I frequently visited growing up. In these dreams, I would walk through the aisles of Tong Li supermarket or John St and absorb the fragrances of fresh herbs, bubble milk tea or Pandan waffles. Suddenly, people would come into close contact with me and I come to realise I made a grave mistake: I’ve ventured out beyond five kilometres and I could potentially be surrounded by infected people. The pin drops and panic sinks in.

My nightmares provoked intense levels of pain and distress and landed me in a process of grief once I awoke. Isolation just isolates grief and magnifies the monstrosity of it all. 

It’s grief over my pre-pandemic life. On one end, I was grieving for the lives lost to Covid-19 and for those whose lives flipped upside down due to financial volatility and job losses. On the other hand, I was grieving over my loss of connection. I grieved over the lost visits to go back home in South-West, lost chances to see familiar faces and typical weekend shopping at Cabramatta which was certainly not within my five-kilometre bubble since I was no longer a local.

They say dreams are just jumbled versions of information and that your brain is trying to process it all and figure out what it can remember. Many of my Chinese and Vietnamese relatives and friends would tell me that dreams foretold something about the future and had superstitions attached to it. But I knew this wasn’t the case.

I felt both too much and nothing, lonely yet avoidant, exhausted and high strung and torn apart by the crushing waves of fear, pain, longing and despair all at the same time. The nightmares took up a lot of space in my mind and were reigned by my imagination. Who knew grief could travel through the portals of my dreams and seep into my daily battle of emotions?

I grieved over the lost visits to go back home in South-West, lost chances to see familiar faces and typical weekend shopping at Cabramatta

When fatigue left me stuck between four concrete walls and hunched into habitual sorrow, I had no choice but to grieve. It was like wading through a muddy river trying to find clear waters.

Was buồn the right word for this all?

The potency of my nightmares helped me understand more about the weight of grief and the damages that come from insurmountable denial. Grief hides in inchoate forms in one’s deep subconscious and reveals itself from the subliminal terrains of my mind and body at no given timeline

I had never been good at recognising and dealing with grief at the time of my losses but it had a strange way of knocking on my door, entering into my little bubble and preoccupying me with a loss of confidence in my own ability to cope. It has brought to surface that my previous reactions to loss are completely different to the way I am coping during this time of the pandemic.            

I know my harrowing feelings, mirrored from my nightmares, lies in a crowd of common lockdown feelings - collective grief, invisible fear, bitter outrage and desire for change. At the core of all this are moments of hope. I used to shelter myself in my hyper-independence during difficult times but I have come to realise how healing it can be when I share my feelings.

Grief is not something to get past or overcome, it is something that can only be made sense of once we lean into it and embrace it like the way we do with joy, excitement, anger, or exasperation. I found the more granular I was with recognising the turbulence of grief, the more I made sense in my inner life. By identifying and labelling distinctive feelings with synonymous words, it added subtle contours to my emotional landscape.

Today, I learnt that grief in Vietnamese is nỗi đau buồn. I sit alone in my quiet apartment, reading aloud Google Translate’s prompt, Bây giờ khi em đau buồn, tôi nhận ra rằng điều đó là tự nhiên và bình thường and I pinch myself. Briefly, I can hear and feel the triumph, tenderness and light within the same text.

If this story raises issues for you contact Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636

This story has been published in partnership with The Writing Zone, a mentoring program for young writers from Western Sydney, hosted by Western Sydney University’s Writing & Society Research Centre.

 

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