“Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” – C.G. Jung
In my 38 years of life, I’ve had one recurring nightmare. The circumstantial details vary slightly, but there’s always a singular theme: I’m in my childhood home. There is a life-threatening emergency inside the house. I need to get out immediately. But, no matter what I do, I cannot exit. My feet are stuck to the floor like glue, each step a Herculean task. Time moves in reverse. I pack my belongings, but my possessions dematerialize from my bag. I move forward physically, but my body moves backward. I do the same thing over and over (and over) again, accomplishing nothing. I walk downstairs, but I find myself still upstairs. I open a window to jump, and the house ascends 50 stories into the sky. I unbolt a door to run, but there’s a brick wall instead of the hallway.
It’s the emergency – the reason I absolutely “must get out right now” — that differs amongst dreams: a blazing fire, a ticking time bomb, a band of thieves, a ghostly haunting, a murderous intruder, a kidnapper, a tornado, an infestation, a chemical weapon, an alien cyborg, or some surrealist directive only Dalí himself would understand (i.e. if you don’t leave the house in 60 seconds, the structure will transform into a zucchini).
In all these subconscious reveries, I’ve never successfully gotten out of the house. Just as “Dream Alison” is about to die, “Real Alison” hastily awakens, and I find myself alone in bed, my heart racing, immobile from sheer terror, and thoroughly disoriented – Where am I? Where is the threat? And do I need to flee?
The true meaning of this dream is open to interpretation. I’ve read a handful of books and websites on dream analysis over the years, attempting to dissect its psychological origin. But whether we draw from Jungian or Freudian camps, the one connective message is: “house = self” (although I’m sure Freud would have something more specific to say about the zucchini…). So, if the house represents a person’s entire psyche, what exactly does this dream say about me?
Ever the fan of a Gothic narrative and a mentally unhinged author, I’ve revisited Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher immeasurable times. It’s a disturbing tale … even more disturbing to relate to it… the symbolic structure of a house as character, a self-haunted palace, a hypersensitive protagonist terrified of his own unidentified illness. We greet the story along with the narrator, viewing an almost imperceptible crack in the house’s façade. As we rapidly descend with Roderick Usher into madness, the physical house splits into two. It collapses into the earth as Roderick collapses into his grave. And we escape, alongside the narrator, thankfully free from sharing Roderick’s tragic doom. When I think of all his inner crises, personal demons, and identity struggles, I have often contemplated — how different am I from Sir Usher? What is this metaphorical terror I personally carry? And how can I awaken before I suffer my own Fall of the House of Alison?
I’ve occupied so many dwelling spaces in the last two decades that the USPS has abandoned my Mail Forward requests (curiously, the West Elm catalog consistently finds me…). I celebrated 27 birthdays in my Pelham Manor childhood domicile. But, I’ve also hung my proverbial hat in two different dorms (and six separate rooms) at the University of Notre Dame; shared a quaint flat in London’s Bayswater district; split astronomical rent with friends in a NYC Midtown East high-rise; signed and renewed my own lease 7 times in two different units of a Hell’s Kitchen crib; broke a lease in a disastrous downtown luxury tower; kicked off my shoes in a Dobbs Ferry condo; and cooked many a Paleo meal in a New Rochelle apartment. As an EMF Refugee, I was granted shelter in my friend’s 1-bedroom Westchester pad; and offered temporary haven in a neighboring suburban abode.
And yet, with all these shifting postal codes, I have always felt an unnerving disconnect between the physical structure of any “house” and the spiritual center of my “home.” With front door Welcome mats constantly mocking my entrance, I’ve found myself uncomfortably self-conscious and ill-at-ease in my space – any space — be it house or apartment; shared or solitary. How can a person not feel at home in her own home? Returning to dream analysis, I presume this signifies that I have never been “at home” within myself. But is it really that simple?
The first time I left my fountainhead, I ventured off to college in northern Indiana. Trapped amid cornfields and cows, tests and tailgaters, there I was – a stranger in a strange land – this upper Midwest Catholic conservative preppy snow-belt so starkly different from my suburban New York indy alternative upbringing. Blond-haired, blue-eyed Nordic types with their “hard-A” accent on my name enveloped those hallowed collegiate halls – a dramatic contrast to my dark-haired, brown-eyed, Mediterranean-dominant public high school. I felt displaced. Foreign. Anxious. During my four years under the Golden Dome, I could never relax, even in the confines of my own dorm room. There was a nagging sense that I was simultaneously there, but also not there; that I was present, but also absent.
The journey back to New York for mid-semester breaks was an arduous epic of Ulysses proportions. I’d drag my weighty duffle bag 30 minutes cross campus in sub-zero temperatures. Then I’d hop a 2.5 hour crowded bus from South Bend to O’Hare airport, where I’d invariably wind up stranded for 8-24 hours due to hazardous lake-effect snow conditions (aka, a mean-ass blizzard). This being the late-90’s, I would camp out at my gate, wearing my Seattle grunge best, my Alanis Morissette-styled hair tied up in knots, my battery-powered CD-walkman playing my soundtrack, with a bottle of Coke and M&M’s for dinner. For at least one of those hours, I’d drown out the airport with “The Greatest Hits of Simon & Garfunkel” — and when the disc spun to the track “Homeward Bound,” I would instantaneously morph into a melancholy teenage girl, sobbing alone on the floor of the United terminal, passersby wondering what could possibly be so wrong, but a rare few ever inquiring. The tone, the lyrics — “But all my words come back to me in shades of mediocrity. Like emptiness in harmony, I need someone to comfort me” – they struck something inside me – a lacking, a void, a need for a home that I didn’t ever feel within myself. I was homesick, even when flying home.
In December 2005, my mom sold our house, my childhood nest, and I moved into Manhattan with friends. I was devastated and unsettled. Born and raised there, it was where I made Care Bears come to life. It was where I exchanged letters with Santa and the Tooth Fairy. It was where I learned to sight-read Chopin on a harmonious grand piano. It was where I baked sugary sweet Magnolia cupcakes during snowstorms. It was where my mother hosted elegant and lively dinner parties. It was where I discussed fine art and literature with my brilliantly eccentric neighbor. It was where my posse of co-ed high school friends gathered, often until 3am, intensely debating important life tenets – such as: which is more iconic, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” or Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
But as much as that house represented comfort, safety, family and friends, it also symbolized trauma, tragedy, and pain. It was where my father died of a sudden heart attack one early morning while my mom drove me to middle school. It was where I spent the next 7 years studying furiously to suppress that moment with academic prowess and perfection. It was where the phone rang an unfathomable 16 times to tell me of a string of untimely deaths, all before I graduated high school. It was where I developed a Pavlovian response to the sound of a phone ringing, certain those bells meant someone else had left me. It was where I dressed head-to-toe in black, and baked brownies from a Betty Crocker box, to go sit vigil with my friends. It was where my grandmother rested all day in the basement, coughing, coughing, coughing, playing Nintendo casino games to pass her last few months. She got so mad at me when I threw her cigarettes down the toilet. I got so mad at myself when I slammed the door to mute her coughing. It was where I first got sick, sitting at my computer, college diploma on the wall, typing “neurological paresthesia” into AOL search…panicked, on the marble floor of my upstairs bathroom at 2am, my mother at her wit’s end, “Alison go back to bed, you’ll go to the doctor again tomorrow.”
In short, that house was where I simultaneously felt intense love and morbid fear. No wonder my “dream self” cannot unearth an escape route from this fractured psychological maze of invading terrors. I’ve been locked inside my own contradictory internal wars – my identity linked to a paradox of comfort and sorrow; abundance and loss; and I’ve been waging an enervating battle within this dichotomy, without any clear direction out.
An introspective gentleman I recently met profoundly noted that in order to heal holistically, I need to fully grieve my past hurts, otherwise I will continue to meet them repetitively in life. Wiser words have never been spoken, and this from an intuitive man who had met me only once. For after decades of therapy, meditation, and healing modalities, I have nonetheless encountered increasingly intricate patterns to my pain. So, how do you really make peace with your troubled past? How do you heal authentically and completely? In essence, how do you break free of your own recurring nightmare?
I relinquished those questions to the powers above, and was led to an answer in a most unusual form. I’ve been wandering in exodus as an EMF Refugee for the last 13 months, without a home or room of my own. Giving up any concept of permanent address and ownership, I’ve relied on the grace of God, the powers of the universe, and the kindness of others to offer me a sanctuary from this digital storm. Having moved through 4 separate crash pads in a mere 12 months, I was about to take residence in a car, for having nowhere else safe to go. And then by divine intervention, the house that wholeheartedly opened its doors to me as shelter, the house from where I am writing this now, just happens to be my childhood residence. There is no possible earthly power that could have led me back here. There is a higher force at work, a fated reason that such energy returned me to my house of origin.
We’ve all seen the saying “Home is where the Heart is” embroidered on many a throw pillow. What a cozy concept. I’ve spent the better part of my life searching outside myself for this elusive “Heart,” in order to claim this prized “Home.” Would I find it through my family? My best friend? My boyfriend? My university? My business? My city? After all, Carrie Bradshaw and her gal pals taught us fabulous single ladies that we can “I Heart NY” our way to everlasting romance. Problem being, you are not your city, and your city is not you. So when you leave your beloved Manhattan, and you remove the “I” from “NY”… where then is your “Heart?”
What became astonishingly clear to me in the last year – in the depths of both unprecedented illness and extreme dispossession – is that I need to find my own heart, before I can find my home. In Sanskrit the word for the Heart Chakra is “Anahata,” meaning “unhurt, unstuck, or unbeaten.” What this really signifies is that beneath all the pain and suffering, lies love and compassion – a peaceful place where no hurt or pain exists. Located at the center of the chest, and situated at the center of the seven chakras, the heart chakra is where the spiritual and the physical are meant to meet. I never needed a Reiki master to tell me my heart center was blocked. I’ve felt it my entire life: a disconnect between the physical and spiritual – obstructing my healing; a nagging constant dull pain, quite literally in the middle of my chest – with no pathological nor physiological reason behind this sensation; and a fractured sense of self – far too caught up in unresolved grief to ever dare utter the word “love” until most recently.
I’ve been unknowingly leading my life through my head instead of my heart – psychologically repressing childhood traumas, desperately trying to run away from my terrors, only to be met with persistent invasions and barricades at every turn. I’ve been seeking solace in external security blankets that only masked my deteriorating interior walls. I’ve been shutting out haunting memories with a façade of stability, but underneath it all, there’s a heartache that’s never quelled – the pain of absence, the anguish of loss, the trauma of injury. I’ve been so frightfully convinced that my heart was too fragile to beat on its own, that I’ve been looking everywhere and anywhere for a protective armor, but of course I never found one strong enough, as it cannot metaphysically exist. But what I never before realized, and what I now know to be true, is that I could mend my own distorted broken heart with my own loving open heart.
So, back to my nightmare. I think I finally figured out its enigmatic intention. The answer does not lie in evasion. The trick is not to flee from the house. But rather, the secret is to stop running, face all the terrors inside, unmask the grief within, mourn all the loss, and most importantly, forgive all the pain. There is no person, place, nor object holding a needlepoint pillow platitude that can grant such a joyful and peaceful home. The way out is actually inward…to journey inside…to find the heart… and dwell in its center.