The lines between dream and reality are a blur.
June 4, 2011 5:55 PM   Subscribe

I've frequently dream, and sometimes I have trouble telling them apart from reality.

For example, I might have had a dream that a friend broke up with her boyfriend, but I'm afraid that it might not have been a dream. I can't tell. There are many of examples of this. Movies I remember seeing, I can't tell if they're real or dreams I've had. The dreams are always very vivid and realistic. Nothing bizarre or out-of-this-world happens in them, which makes it harder to discern. It's been happening to me for a while now, at least a year.

What's going on here? I'm on an SSRI (Lexapro), and I've been working with my doctor because I've been fairly exhausted for over a year. I'm considering getting checked for B12 and Vit D deficiency, but that's just a matter of making an appointment. Is this something my medicine is causing? Do you have any other input? Thanks!
posted by your mom's a sock puppet to Health & Fitness (29 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I've had a similar thing since I was a child. I'm also on an SSRI, but this was happening to me way before I started, so it doesn't seem to me like the medication is the cause...
posted by queensissy at 6:10 PM on June 4, 2011

I thought this happened to (most) everyone. Descartes mentions it in his Meditations on First Philosophy (the difficulty of telling realistic dreams from waking life as a problem in coming to know true reality), and when my students and I discuss it, most of them agree they've experienced the uncomfortable and disorienting feeling of waking up and not knowing whether they'd just been dreaming or whether X had actually happened.

When I tell someone a story about it, like, "Last night I dreamed I fought with my husband, and when I woke up I couldn't remember if I actually had or not, because the dream was so realistic ..." people have always responded, "Ugh, I HATE that."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:18 PM on June 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's been happening to me all of my life. SSRIs and other medications have no effect (other than sometimes making the dreams even more insanely vivid than they already are). I'll sometimes be lost in mix for a couple of days.

B12 and D: I as diagnosed with major deficiencies in both back in January. I now take weekly B12 injections and supplement 2000IU of D daily. No effect on dreams or the annoying crossover into the waking world.

Sometimes our brains are just extra awesome..and extra awesomely fucked up.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 6:21 PM on June 4, 2011

I experienced these symptoms as a teenager while taking an SSRI and made the mistake of mentioning it to my psychiatrist. I was given a prescription to Topamax, which he described as an "anti-psychotic" but said it was nothing to worry about. Given the choice, I would not use medication again. I still enjoy vivid dreams, but after a year or two I was no longer confused about what happened in a dream versus what was real. During this period I also experienced excessive feelings of deja-vu. It was never a big problem as long as I didn't hesitate to check with people whether something actually happened.
posted by Amaterasu at 6:21 PM on June 4, 2011

This has been happening to me for as long as I can remember. It's always little ordinary things, like whether I remembered to tell [person] about [whatever], or if I picked up something at the shop.

The problem, I think, is that I tend to forget those daily-life dreams, and I also don't remember everything that happens to me with perfect detail - especially when it's relatively unimportant. So a dream will bubble back up, just boring enough to have been reality a week or two ago, and it takes a moment to separate the two.

Then I go see if I actually bought light bulbs or just dreamed I did, and I wish that I could have awesome dreams about spaceships or something else instead.
posted by cmyk at 6:25 PM on June 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I do this too. I have crazy vivid dreams involving scenarios that are totally possible so sometimes I have a "Oh crap, did this happen or did I dream it?" moment. I have my whole life. Don't know if it is related, but I'm also a big sleep walker and sleep talker, also things I have done my whole life. And all of them get way worse/more intense/more troublesome when I am stressed out or over-tired.

Anyway, the vivid dreams (and sleep walking/talking) got even more intense when I started on Paxil last year but leveled off after a month or two. The switch to Welbutrin caused them to get crazy intense again, but have since leveled off to my "usual" level of intensity and frequency.

So maybe it is the meds, but for me it didn't start the crazy dreams but did make it temporarily worse.
posted by gwenlister at 6:27 PM on June 4, 2011

I'm taking an SNRI and Wellbutrin, and have insanely vivid dreams. I also have memories back to them during the day.

I, too, had them before the meds, though. No B12 deficiency, D vitamins a little low, but within the normal range. I'd be super interested to find out what causes such dreams.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 6:29 PM on June 4, 2011

it's the Lexapro. Same thing happened to me. Stopped as soon as it was out of my system. Cool to hear about someone having the same experience.
posted by kristymcj at 6:30 PM on June 4, 2011

I've had many situations where I'll dream about a situation at work that's gone badly, and when I wake up, it takes me awhile to convince myself that it didn't happen, nothing's gone wrong, everything is fine.
posted by Lucinda at 6:31 PM on June 4, 2011

Nth having this experience, but without any meds (though I take a multivitamin daily). I do have some glitches following an auto accident as a child, though.

During periods of sleep deprivation I'll be unsure if I'm actually awake or not— I'd say as long as your situation doesn't reach this level, you'll be OK.
posted by a halcyon day at 6:31 PM on June 4, 2011

I get this.
I've also heard people complaining that SSRI's do this.

There's a normal level of it though, and then a point where things get very disorientating. At a couple of points, I've found myself not only bringing up conversations with people it turned out we'd never had, but I'd be stopping myself in the street in my waking life, trying to establish if I was asleep or not, because things would 'feel' dreamlike.

I think the problem was a combination of vivid dreams, and during points of depression, things not feeling real and/or medication compounding that, so that there was no clear line.

One thing I did, was start consciously ignoring my dreams. Not thinking about them, not trying to remember them, not talking about them with others. I often get really interesting, vivid dreams, and have thought at times that it's probably more interesting for me to go have a nap for 2 hours than watch the average movie. Thing is, when I pay attention to my dreams, I remember them better. So now I do the opposite. At every turn, I try and give my brain the impression that dreams are not interesting, and not something I want/need to remember, and then I get less crossover.

Also, like 'a halcyon day' pointed out, sleep deprivation contributes to the feeling of unreality. I think not having a regular sleep cycle does it too. So get enough sleep, not too much (for me, between 7-9, no more or less), at a regular time.

Getting enough sleep, getting enough physical activity, and getting enough socialisation (my benchmark - interacting with 7 people a day, this can include a smile or a head nod from a stranger on the street), and happy-fun-times all made waking life feel more 'real', dreams less appealing, and lessened the disassociation that was the other side of blurred line for me.

Oh, one more thing! A todo list!
I know that sounds retarded, but if you have the kind of boring, everyday dreams where you are completing activities you know you have to complete in real life, it's usually because your brain is trying to remember all the things you have to do. If you write them out somewhere so you know you won't forget them, your brain can let go of worrying/thinking about them. It really takes a layer of stress off me, which I think really helps with my not getting depressed.

The good news, is that I feel pretty good now, and don't experience the blurred line. :)
posted by Elysum at 6:52 PM on June 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've had this experience with & without various meds. It dramatically reduced when I started taking effective meds for insomnia; I was finally getting enough sleep and sleeping more deeply. I think chronic sleep deprivation made it much harder for me to think clearly at all.
posted by galadriel at 6:56 PM on June 4, 2011

It's great to hear I'm not alone. I was a sleep walker as a child, but as far as I know, I don't do anything like that anymore. I'm pretty sure the dream/reality thing has gotten MUCH worse than it was when I was a kid, especially since I've started the SSRI. I guess it's exacerbated them.

My SSRIs are causing me all kind of other symptoms since going up to 20mg from 10mg, but that was less than two months ago. I grind and clench my teeth at night and get pretty major jaw aches and headaches from that. I go to sleep at usually around 11pm, and sleep 8 or so hours. Waking up is extremely hard for me, and I've been able to (or at times, needed to) nap, which is something I rarely, if ever, did before. I don't know if the exhaustion is caused by the SSRI.

And further input is great. Looks like I should really talk to my doc about this higher dose. Do you think it'll level off or get a little better?
posted by your mom's a sock puppet at 7:16 PM on June 4, 2011

"Once Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a fluttering butterfly. What fun he had, doing as he pleased! He did not know he was Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and found himself to be Zhou. He did not know whether Zhou had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly had dreamed he was Zhou."

That line is about 2300 years old, so I suspect you're not alone in this.
posted by mhoye at 7:21 PM on June 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

I do it too. Quite frequently fairly recently though it's tapered off. I'll be walking down the street, and I'll reflect on a situation which for a split second I know I've felt actually happened for... I'm not even sure how long... and realize it was just a dream or a series of dreams.

Like I hadn't actually thought about it but looking back my mind suddenly dwells on a thought and then snaps "Duh, you dreamt that."

I think it's fairly common. Not sure if I explained it the best, but I feel like my subconscious just accepts it as a thing that 'happened' until my conscious mind puts any thought into it. So I'm never terribly unsure when I do remember it except for that short period of time.

/not on SSRI's, 27, male, ...creative writer?
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 7:25 PM on June 4, 2011

How long have you been on the Lexapro? I had a very similar reaction with Cymbalta, but it didn't surface until about a month in, after all my initial side effects came and went. I remembered three or four dreams a night, every night, for a few months straight. I recall feeling fatigued after a few weeks of it, and wishing for dreamless sleep. (If switching meds is an option, I recommend Wellbutrin - it's not an SSRI and doesn't have the same side effect profile.)

As for the difficulty telling dreams and reality apart, this afternoon I was changing into a different shirt, and I thought, "hey, I don't have as much trouble getting this shirt over my head as I usually do." Then I realized that's a common dream I have - I try to put a shirt on and get completely stuck in it - but I don't really remember it as a dream since it's not particularly out of the ordinary. Since you don't have those obviously-a-dream markers, it makes sense that they're harder to tell.

I have quite a few memories from my early childhood that could either have been real, a dream, or something I saw on TV. I once told my mom about a dream I remembered from long ago, and she replied "that was an episode of Sesame Street." And she has no idea what I'm talking about when I tell her about the bizarre eclipse that couldn't possibly have happened in real life, but I remember it like it did.

And I admit that sometimes, after I leave the house, I double-check to make sure I'm wearing pants, because I've dreamed about being naked in public so often.

A somewhat off-the-wall idea: see if you can learn lucid dreaming, specifically the reality-testing technique. I had a couple lucid dreams when I was on Cymbalta, one of which I triggered with the light-switch test (the plate came off in my hands, because the walls were made of frosting). If you can ingrain a dream test like this in your mind, it may eventually show up in your dreams.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:37 PM on June 4, 2011

My dreams always have some element of the unreal, so I know I'm dreaming, but I had been under a lot of stress when I started having "ordinary" dreams. For a while I was beginning to wonder if my husband was gaslighting me because he would never remember any of our conversations, or insist that I did not feed the dog when I was sure I had. When I realized I was dreaming these perfectly ordinary things, I started jotting down whatever I could remember as soon as I woke up. It helped to know that I didn't really feed the dog, and I never really told my husband to return those movies.
posted by dogmom at 7:55 PM on June 4, 2011

Definitely the Lexapro. I'm on Effexor and since then have had very literal and vivid dreams, and sometimes lucid dreams. Also sleep paralysis - if that happens to you, try not to panic; it will pass.
posted by IndigoRain at 8:03 PM on June 4, 2011

This happens to me sometimes now, but it happened with alarming frequency at a certain point in college. I believe that the stress, sleep-deprivation, and exhaustion I had was the reason, and I bet the exhaustion you've got is a contributing factor. Any way you can do some kind of stress-relieving activity before bed? Meditation or something along those lines? Might help.
posted by studioaudience at 8:09 PM on June 4, 2011

If the exhaustion predates the Lexapro and you're technically getting enough sleep each night, check into getting a sleep study done. Good luck.

(And hmm, most of the people I've heard say "Oh yes, I hate when [I confuse a dream with reality]!" mean "...for an instant or so!")
posted by wintersweet at 9:09 PM on June 4, 2011

It's very likely a cause of the medication. I had very vivid and disturbing dreams the whole time I was on Lexapro, and they stopped once I stopped taking it. And it looks like you're not the only one who's suffered from muddled recall with Lexapro.
posted by lilac girl at 10:10 PM on June 4, 2011

I'm not on medication, but pinning down exactly when I went to sleep and when I woke up seems to help with this. Especially with those naps that just kinda happen, my memory of the last thing I did before falling asleep is usually wrong. When I wake up I do a quick memory check of what the last thing I remember doing was, and then check it against reality if at all possible. Often it turns out that I actually read more than I remember, or watched a little more TV than I remember, and a lot of the time my most vivid dreams can be traced right back to what I was reading or watching, once I remember that I read/watched it.
posted by anaelith at 1:00 AM on June 5, 2011

When I fall asleep while reading, I continue reading in my dreams. Entire chapters. Trying to find my place the next day is tricky...

I've also dreamed conversations that never took place. Sometimes it's a relief, but more often it's a pain. It can be the opposite of dreaming about, say, having to take an exam while naked. Realization (which can be days/weeks/months later as an added fun bonus) goes from "oh shit, I guess I didn't really tell him about x, y and z" to "oh shit, I need to tell him about x, y and z".
posted by likeso at 1:59 AM on June 5, 2011

Hit post too soon. Meant to add: I'm not on medication; this can be a feature, not a bug. But if this is a recent development and you'd like it to stop, talk to your pdoc about decreasing the dose.
posted by likeso at 2:11 AM on June 5, 2011

I dreamt I paid a bill once, and the dream was so utterly mundane in its details that I was convinced that it was real until two weeks later when they came asking for the money.

I wasn't on any medication and this actually happens fairly regularly to me.
posted by knapah at 4:34 AM on June 5, 2011

I used to have this (also on an SSRI) but it happens less often now. What I found helps is to write down my dreams straight away after I've woken up. THat way I have a record which says 'this was a dream' and I'm less likely to get confused.
posted by Laura_J at 6:28 AM on June 5, 2011

I had a friend in elementary school who said she couldn't distinguish between dreams and reality. She started down her dreams; she said that helped a lot.
posted by aniola at 11:57 AM on June 5, 2011

I have a lot of mundane "processing ordinary events" dreams that occasionally cause me some confusion during my work day (did I send that email/finish that task or dream it?)

I'm not on SSRIs, and this has happened to me as long as I can remember. I am also prone to an array of common sleep disorders, though.
posted by desuetude at 4:34 PM on June 5, 2011

Nthing that it happens to me too. Has my whole life regardless of whether I'm on medication or not. One of the reasons I take Ambien is to forget my dreams because they are so confusing and upsetting that they not only disturb my sleep but sometimes make me feel like shit for days afterward.
posted by Jacqueline at 4:48 PM on June 5, 2011

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