For millions of people around the world dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, sleep brings no relief.
The horrors of COVID-19, and the surreal and frightening ways it has upended daily life, are infecting dreams and exposing feelings of fear, loss, isolation and grief that transcend culture, language and national boundaries.
Everyone from a college teacher in Pakistan to a mall cashier in Canada to an Episcopal priest in Florida is confronting the same daytime demon. Each is waking up in a sweat in the dead of night.
Experts say humanity has rarely experienced “collective dreaming” on such a broad scale in recorded history — and certainly never while also being able to share those nightmares in real time.
“It’s that alarming feeling of when you wake up and think, ‘Thank heavens I woke up,’" said Holly Smith, an elementary school librarian in Detroit. “Once it hits your dreams, you think, ‘Great, now I can’t even escape there.'”
The psychological toll is staggering, particularly for health care workers whose dreams show similarities to those of combat veterans and 9/11 responders, said Deirdre Barrett, a Harvard University professor who is surveying COVID dreamers worldwide. She has collected 6,000 dream samples from about 2,400 people.
So many people are sharing accounts of dreams online that there’s a Twitter account dedicated to gathering them in a virtual library under the handle “I Dream of COVID.”
“As far as I know, no one has dream samples from the flu pandemic of 1918 — and that would probably be the most comparable thing,” said Barrett, who has studied the dreams of 9/11 survivors and British prisoners of war in World War II. “Now we just all have our smartphones by our bed, so you can just reach over and speak it or type it down. Recording our dreams has never been easier.”
The dreams are also exposing what is bothering us the most about the pandemic. The themes seem universal.
Dreams of a safe place suddenly overtaken by the virus speak to contagion's terrifying invisibility, says Cathy Caruth, a professor at Cornell University who has studied trauma for 30 years. Pandemic dreams, she says, are reminiscent of the experience of Hiroshima survivors, who worried about invisible radiation exposure, and also of some nightmares described by Vietnam veterans.
“They seem to be in part about things that are hard to grasp, what it means that anybody can be a threat and you can be a threat to everybody,” Caruth said.
Episcopal priest Mary Alice Mathison dreamed 500 people showed up for a funeral in her church and wouldn't go home. Other dreams underscore that no one knows how the pandemic will end. In those, the dreamer wakes with a start before learning how it turned out.
Ashley Trevino is still trying to process one terrifying dream. The 24-year-old barista is out of work due to the pandemic and was spooked when officials announced the first COVID-19 death in her central Texas county.
A few days later, she dreamed she and her girlfriend were in line to enter a dark, metal warehouse where they'd be injected with the new coronavirus by government workers wearing Hazmat suits. Fluorescent lights in the parking lot cast an eerie glow as she watched her partner get the shot and gasp for breath. Then she got the shot, too.
“I watched her kind of collapse against the wall and while I was trying to fight the effects of it and not pass out myself, I was like ... ‘Is she dead now?’"
Trevino woke up whimpering. She immediately felt an impulse to share her nightmare with someone — anyone — and tweeted it to the world from her bed.
In Pakistan's Punjab province, a college literature teacher described dreaming she was one of only 100 people left on the planet who didn't have COVID-19. The infected population had gained political control and was chasing the uninfected “so the world would become the same for everyone,” said Roha Rafiq, 28.
Rafiq is terrified for her elderly father, who insists on going to prayers every day despite a cough and a stay-at-home order. “I think,” she said in a Twitter direct message, “this anxiety has given me this dream.”
According to Barrett, many people dream they are sick with COVID-19 or of being overcome by what seem to be stand-ins for the virus: swarms of bugs, slithering worms, witches, grasshoppers with fangs. Others dream of being in crowded public places without a mask or proper social distancing.
Still others dream of losing control. In one such dream, the dreamer was held down by infected people who coughed on her. In another, the dreamer came across bands of people shooting at random strangers.
Most are lower-level anxiety dreams, not trauma-induced nightmares. But that changes dramatically for frontline health workers, Barrett says.
“The health care providers are the ones who look like a trauma population. They are having flat-out nightmares that reenact the things they're experiencing and … they all have the theme that ‘I am responsible for saving this person’s life and I’m not succeeding and this person is about to die,'" she said.
“And when they dream about their child or parent getting it, for the care providers there’s always the next step in the dream where they realize ... ‘I gave it to them.’”
Even the simple, unadorned dreams — far from the drama of the ICU — seem poignant right now. Some people dream of getting a hug, attending a party, getting a haircut, going to the library.
Lauren Nickols, 30, an avid reader, stocked up on library books before Ohio’s stay-at-home order. Now her supply is running low. She recently dreamed her dresser was piled with books. She found the dream reassuring, but a reminder of the mundane things that have been lost.
“I guess it’s a bit of a sense of shared community, but it’s also really sad that we’re all missing things. It really shows you all the things you do without realizing it," she says. "And now that you can’t, it’s a shock to the system.”
Follow Gillian Flaccus on Twitter at http://twitter.com/gflaccus