Robert Johnson, 58, of Great Falls sometimes dreams he is walking at night near a cornfield at Antietam National Park, the site of the bloody 1862 battle. Johnson is a Civil War buff, and as a hobby he likes to read about the events that took place there.
Suddenly, in his dream, he hears a clicking sound, the cornstalks rustle, and a pair of fierce and glowing yellow eyes appear amid the gloom. A ghostly 500-pound Bengal tiger leaps from the darkness. With one powerful swat of an enormous paw, the animal knocks him to the ground. In a moment of terror, Johnson knows he is going to be devoured. Then he wakes up, his heart pounding and adrenaline coursing through his veins.
"That dream is scary," Johnson said recently. "A full-grown tiger can hit you so fast, knock your feet out from under you and eat you."
A hungry tiger might haunt anyone's sleep, but for Johnson, it's also a sign that his work life is spilling over into his sleep. As director of the Leesburg Animal Park, Johnson oversees the care of dozens of wild animals, including a Bengal tiger cub he is raising for the Natural Bridge Zoo. Many nights, Johnson takes the small but fast-growing animal home with him, playing with it in the evening and enclosing it in the family kitchen at night while he sleeps upstairs. He recently noticed that the baby tiger is becoming fiercer, and he's become a little more uncomfortable when he sees it playing with the family dog, a border collie.
Johnson's dream is particularly dramatic, but dreams have always been that kind of crazy melange of reality and fantasy, vivid and sometimes frightening images interspersed with mundane detail. Everyone dreams, although not all of us remember our nocturnal adventures. But, according to sleep-disturbance experts, more people today, like Johnson, are reporting that their work lives are seeping into their sleeping hours as well.
Rosalind D. Cartwright, chairman of the psychology department at Rush University in Chicago and an expert on the sleeping mind, has studied dreams for the past three decades and has witnessed a steady increase in work-related themes. For one thing, more women now dream about work than they did in the past, because they are "now as invested in their work identity as men," she said, while in the past, women were more likely to dream of other aspects of their lives and interpersonal relations.
In addition, she said, both sexes report deeper anxieties about job stability, difficult co-workers and their economic security in their dreams at night than they did when she began studying dreams in the 1970s. Their work-related dreams are darker than they once were, she said.
One typical dream today, according to Cartwright: The worker enters a restaurant and sits down at a table. He notices a group of co-workers sitting at a nearby booth. In decades past, the dreaming worker might have viewed the scene benignly, she said, but now workers tend to interpret the information negatively, she said.
"They'll say, 'They're talking about me, I'm going to get fired,' " Cartwright said. "That sort of dream is more common than it used to be."
It may be that workers who have reason to feel anxious about their jobs dream about their work more often than people who have little stress at work, said Mark W. Mahowald, a professor of neurology at the University of Minnesota Medical School and director of a sleep-disorder center there.
"If a person is having a lot of stress at work, they are more likely to dream about it," Mahowald said. "Fear emotions are replayed more often in our dreams" than other kinds of emotions, he said.
But whether the dreams are pleasant or unpleasant, work is a common sleep topic simply because people dream about what they do, said David N. Neubauer, a psychiatrist and sleep-medicine specialist at Johns Hopkins Medical Center.
"The content of dreams tends to be familiar topics, involving activities that we have recently been involved in," Neubauer said. "It makes sense that since we all spend a lot of time at work that our dreams would deal with it."
The five most common dreams, according to anthropologist Stephen Juan, are falling, being chased or attacked, trying but failing to perform a simple task, doing routine chores, and dealing with interpersonal relationships. Katherine Lowry, 20, for example, combines several of these themes in her dreams.
Lowry, a communications student at George Mason University, works helping customers decorate bisqueware at a Paint Your Own Pottery shop in downtown Fairfax City. Although her work may appear to an outsider to be relatively low-stress, she said she dreams about it "all the time," mainly in repetitive dreams that find her stocking and restocking the shelves, over and over again, she said.
Sometimes, the dreams turn nightmarish, she said, when she imagines herself dropping an object she is carrying to the kiln to be fired. "All this stuff is real fragile," Lowry said, with a worried tone. "You don't want to break a piece a person worked on for three hours."
Employees aren't the only ones given to work dreams. Business owners also play out their stresses while they sleep.
Electrical contractor Mike Pellegrino, 40, of Vienna worries frequently during the day about whether he'll have enough workers available to complete work on projects he has undertaken. Sometimes at night he begins thrashing in his sleep, ordering his girlfriend to climb up on the roof and check the wiring.
"I think of it all the time when I'm sleeping," Pellegrino said.
Fortunately, his girlfriend, Paulette Duval, 45, is understanding about his nocturnal commands. She had frequent work-related dreams when she was a bartender, a job she quit four years ago. "I couldn't get everybody's food to them" was her bad dream. "I was always running around."
Owning his own message-delivery business, Deluxe Delivery Systems, gives Ted Williams, 33, of the District, plenty to worry about while he is sleeping. He has a big payroll to meet because he employs 31 messengers who need to be paid whether the clients have paid their bills or not. In his dream, it's payday, and he is coming up short on cash.
"You know it's a little short, and you are saying to yourself, 'Who can cut me a check?,' " he said. He said it happens the most when he's "been thinking about it all day."
Many people dream they are trying, and failing, sometimes with dire results, to accomplish a task that usually comes easily. Hairstylist Millie Guffian, 45, of Centreville, who works at the Shapes Salon in Fairfax Station, dreams she is processing a client's hair, applying the chemicals for a permanent. Then, for some obscure reason, she rushes out to do an errand -- and finds herself blocked from returning because of traffic or other obstacles. She spends the rest of the dream fretting over her failure to return and desperately trying to find her way back.
In one version of the dream, she returns to find the woman's hair falling out in clumps.
"It's not a pleasant thing," she said. "I wake up so relieved, saying, 'Thank God it was only a dream.' "
The non-preparedness dream is a classic, of course, said Mahowald, the neurologist.
"You can't find your car keys to make it to a job interview or you show up in a class and discover there's an exam you hadn't prepared for," he said.
Dentist John Reitz, 49, of Reading, Pa., for example, dreams he enters a medical office that is similar to his, but different, while a patient watches, impatiently.
"I'm trying to get something, but the equipment is missing and the patient is waiting," Reitz said.
Jennifer Wolfersberger, 24, of Herndon, an administrative assistant in the District, dreams she forgot to enter crucial sales data into the company computer database, which means the sales won't get booked and the firm's finances could be hurt.
"It happens when I'm really stressed out," she said.
It's also common for people to relive traumatic events from the past in their dreams. Bail bondswoman Paula A. Foster once posted a $75,000 bond for an Arlington man accused of forging checks. He slipped town instead of showing up for trial and couldn't be found. Foster and her partner had to pay the county the full amount. After that, she said, a certain dream began coming back again and again.
"Every single person I'd gotten out of jail wouldn't show up for court," she said, grimacing at the memory.
Stuart Harper, 26, is the general manager and part owner of Attack Exterminating Co., which specializes in insect and rodent control. A few years ago, he was called out to a site behind a Takoma Park store where refuse had been dumped. County health officials had intervened to prevent a safety hazard. Harper took the job because it paid well and gave him a chance to make potentially useful contacts with officials who he hoped might refer other business to him, he recalled.
He began to regret the decision as soon as he smelled the stench in the enclosed, walled-off alley behind the building.
"I was in a room in an alley filled with rats," he recalled. ". . . It was pitch black. I could feel the rats brushing against my feet. There were so many rats, I felt like I was standing in a stream." Harper completed the work, but the experience has stayed with him ever since, and he regularly relives it at night in his dreams.
"It was such an assault on my senses," he said.
The Bad Ones Stay With You
Dream experts say that while people have good dreams and bad dreams, one unfortunate aspect of the experience is that we more often remember bad dreams, because we wake up when we have them. People are also more apt to remember dreams if they are awakened by an outside noise, like the alarm clock going off or the telephone ringing.
Dream experts are divided over whether the nocturnal musings of the sleeping brain have meaning.
Craig H. Kinsley, an associate professor of neuroscience and chairman of the psychology department at the University of Richmond, is firmly of the opinion that dreams are "merely random neuron firings." In response to a question about the meaning of dreams, Kinsley wrote that they are "bursts of neural activity stimulated by corollary connections arising from short-term memories being shuffled to long-term storage via hippocampal activation during rapid eye movement, so-called REM, sleep."
He added: "The brain, which is nothing if not a superb organizer, takes these random collections of activity and, like a card shark, shuffles them into some pattern that makes the most sense."
Cartwright at Rush University, on the other hand, believes that dreams are valuable "emotional regulators" that help people cope with things that trouble them. "Whatever you're angry about, upset about, is the topic that gets attended to during sleep," she said.
Some lucky people have useful dreams. They find ways to channel their energy and dream up solutions to daytime work problems in the safety of their own beds.
Silvio Otero, an accountant in his thirties who works at the World Bank in the District, said he tries to keep pen and paper on the nightstand while he sleeps so he can jot down ideas that emerge from his slumber.
"I immediately sit up and write it down," he said.
Therapist and executive coach Barbara B. Reinhold, director of career and executive development at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., urges her clients to use their dreams to improve their work. She said playwrights, for example, can learn the right ending to the play they are writing, painters can see a painting in their mind before they ever put brush to canvas, and novelists can discover the right title for a book they have been writing.
"Whenever your defenses are down, your subconscious can deliver messages that you can harvest," Reinhold said.
One client, for example, a woman teacher in her thirties, was engaged in a fierce power struggle with the authoritarian older man who was principal of the school.
One night the woman dreamed that she had entered the principal's office and had found her father sitting in his chair instead, Reinhold recalled. The two women realized the teacher was reliving tensions from her childhood. Reinhold advised her to take advantage of what she had learned from dealing with her father, an arrogant but insecure man who needed his ego stroked generously and regularly.
"I said, 'Wake up! Here's how to fix it!,' " Reinhold said. "We saw that if she agreed with him in public, she could get more autonomy in private, which is what she wanted."
Then there is the loveliest treat: victory dreams. Tracey Abman, 45, an organizer with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, has spent the past nine years trying to unionize mental-health workers in Illinois. She and her colleagues have organized about 5,000 workers in the past few years, but about 15,000 workers remain unorganized. It's been a tough challenge, she said.
But one night, after she helped gain a $1-an-hour raise for the workers she represents, Abman, a vivid dreamer, had one of her best dreams ever.
"I dreamt we organized all the child-care workers in Illinois and got them health insurance and pension benefits," she said with a laugh. "I woke up tired but really happy. I was really excited and inspired. It all seemed so possible."