Anxiety dreams are wacky things. I'm sure the symbolism in many of them is pretty obvious; for instance, while I've never had the (apparently common) dream that my teeth are falling out, I have had a few dreams in which my mouth continually gets clogged with something like chewing gum, and no matter how many times I dig into the corners of my mouth with my fingers and scrape out as much goo as I can, it regenerates immediately, making it impossible for me to talk.
I also have recurring dreams that I am in a hotel or a university building, which is usually a high-rise of some kind, and I cannot find my room/wherever I'm supposed to be. The elevator won't go to the proper floor; or it won't go to that side of the building, and when I try to cross the building I can't get there from here; I can't find my room number (or I just don't know it); or I get to the room and the key I have doesn't work. Often there are staircases involved that simply stop midair, a bit like an Escher drawing come to life, or I'm supposed to jump from the top of one staircase to another, or the staircase somehow turns upside down. (A variation on this, I suppose, are the dreams where I'm trying to catch a flight - invariably overseas - and I can't find the terminal, let alone the gate. For some reason, these dreams often involve me getting lost in a shopping mall attached to the airport.)
But what I find especially interesting are what I'll call performance-anxiety dreams and what they suggest about how I see myself. I don't remember ever having these dreams until I started my Ph.D. program, but at that point I started having the "never went to class" dreams. You're all familiar with these, I bet: I dream that it's the last week in the semester, and I realize that I signed up for a class that I never once attended. (Maybe I never had these dreams until grad school because that was when I first encountered the phenomenon of the student who registers but never shows up for class but doesn't drop? In real life, I always wondered how that could possibly happen, but my subconscious clearly thinks I would do this.)
The class is generally a math class (I haven't taken math since high school), but sometimes a language class, and in one memorable dream, it was some kind of highly quantitative economics. But the point is that's it's a subject in which cumulative knowledge is important. As much as I insist that doing history properly is HARD, I'll admit that you can kind of dip in and out of a history course. If you miss the two weeks when we covered the Wars of Religion, you can still show up for the section on the Enlightenment, and although you'll certainly miss stuff - nuances and deeper meanings and causes/influences - you'll pretty much be able at least to understand what's going on without making up the material. But if you miss the first two weeks of calculus, or German, you're not going to be able to walk into class and know what they're talking about without making up that material first.
So the point is that in these dreams, if I haven't been to class, I don't have a prayer of understanding the material. And yet, the anxiety is not even, "How can I pass this class?" - it's "How can I get an A in this class?" (My subconscious, it's egotistical.) (Although the last few times I've had this dream my subconscious has become more realistic, and the stress is over whether I can withdraw without penalty. Good subconscious!)
Anyway. The amusing thing was that these dreams continued for a few years after finishing my Ph.D. But they eventually changed to dreams about classes that I myself was teaching. So, for instance, in the dream I'd be at home, unshowered, in my PJs, and I would look at the clock and realize that the class of the semester started 20 minutes ago. Or I'd be in class, trying to teach, and the students would ignore everything I said, and although I'd talk louder and louder, they'd just talk right over me. (Once, I dreamed about teaching in a steep auditorium-like classroom - a real classroom at my school - and that there were two sports broadcasters in the top right corner doing a running commentary on my teaching. It turned out that morning I had slept through my radio alarm going off and was hearing the voices of the morning DJs.) I decided these dreams meant I finally thought of myself as a prof, and no longer a student.
As you can imagine, once I started law school, I stopped having the prof dreams. Instead, I started having dreams about classes I was taking again (still usually math/language classes, though I think once the class was federal income tax, shudder).
Now, however, I'm neither a prof nor a student; I'm not in the classroom at all. (Thank God.)
And now? Now I dream that I have to get on stage to perform, and I don't even know what play/musical it is, let alone know my part. Sometimes I have a copy of the music/libretto, and I'm going to have to try to sight read for the first time in our first performance.
I find it completely amusing that this is what I've reverted to. I performed in choirs and musicals (though not usually straight drama) all through middle school, high school, and college (and then again for a little bit in the mid-2000s). Somehow, through all my different professional permutations, that sense of myself as a performer seems to have endured, even though I haven't been on stage in years. And when my subconscious needs a way to express anxiety over being unprepared (an imposter?), that's where it goes.
I suspect at some point the dreams will shift to me having to show up in the courtroom and argue something withough having any idea what I'm going to say. They haven't yet, probably because I don't have any idea what it feels like to represent someone in court. But when they do, I will at least feel comforted that my subconscious finally sees me as a lawyer.
(The one venue that never appears in these dreams is sports, because I've almost never done them. Do any of you ever get sports-performance-anxiety dreams? Or is the stage a common metaphor for everyone, regardless of whether you've ever performed on stage?)