Living the Wrong Dream: On Brain Injury, Thought and Dreaming
One of the most surprising things about my head injury was that as tired as I felt, I rarely slept. In fact, I often lay for hours on end in excruciating pain, awake though exhausted. Being unable to sleep was nearly maddening, but what I recall most vividly was how my mind never shut off. Sometimes, the only way I knew that I was still alive was by the thinking that was non-stop in my brain. Even when I could not so much as move my hand, my brain was firing, less in the very beginning, but often times early on, seeming to be as active as it had been before being injured. Not as happy or as focused, of course, but still active, in motion.
Experiencing the physical pain of my skull trying to fuse, my meninges trying to repair itself, the tissues and cells of my neck and spinal column fighting to regenerate–open up–unswell, my nose a constant mass of smashed to pieces, all so overwhelmingly painful that I used to try to do everything I could not to experience any or the whole of it–not to pay attention to these areas or my condition–even though the pain was so intense, so chronically grabbing me, pulling me often times into a raw panic…rushing the best I could without falling to the window for air, the bathtub for hydrotherapy…and then back to my bed, a womb or coffin of sorts, clinging to the mattress where unexpected muscle atrophy would follow, along with the fibromyalgia it caused, things I’d never experienced before…not to mention the emotional changes and the trauma, the post traumatic stress that arrived to plague me further. No exercise, and a body growing increasingly weak, rigid. Once this all ended years down the road, I wondered if this hadn’t been the true root of my subsequent fatigue: so many years of fighting the beast that was post-concussive syndrome, of my brain fighting to right itself and my body.
To get through those long days and nights, I would lie in bed otherwise helpless, often limp, sometimes restless, and I would try to follow my thoughts. I entertained myself, if you can call it entertaining, by paying attention to what my brain was doing, what my mind was thinking. I marveled at the fact that my brain still seemed to be working, in its way, anyway. I didn’t know if I was going to live or die, but it felt like dying while I was not opposed to living. A notable but sort of checked out, indifferent state. My life became an observation.
No matter how weak or how ill I felt, ideas never stopped arriving, rolling and tumbling through my swollen, bleeding, traumatized brain. This continual thinking rather amazed me–like a lifelong battery that never lost its charge even though the radio case was broken. Yet, at the same time the act of thinking seemed unsurprising. After all, this was how I knew myself. I had had such an active mind that without it I really would not recognize anything in me. I wouldn’t have had anything to connect to, since I could scarcely see my face and rarely bothered to look in a mirror, if ever (it took me seven months to see that my teeth had been cracked and chipped).
Creative thinking was possibly the only way I knew that I was still me. Lying in bed like a carcass, because my brain was somehow familiar, somehow kept thinking, at least I felt connected to myself. Off work, I thought often about my children, about my parents, my husband, my dog who was always by my side and who I let up on the bed whenever my husband was at work. All the past was on hold, as was the present and the future. There was no time really, only love…love, confusion, and fear.
While I had seizures, the thinking subsided, seemingly stopped. Those were scary times, but frequent and surreal. Eventually, the seizures stopped, nearly as unnoticed as they had arrived. I would proclaim to my husband, “HEY, I didn’t have any seizures today! Did you notice that? Did you see that? WOW, no tremors! WOW, no spasms! WOW, I’m not staring into space!” Seizures always frightened me, but my husband took them in stride. We rarely discussed them, just waited for them to pass.
Sleep during my head injury was rare and tortured, and it seemed that dreams had all but stopped. I missed dreaming nearly as much as I missed sleeping. I remember several years into my recovery (perhaps four) shrieking, “I had a dream! I had a dream,” feeling like I was just given water after a long dehydration. Then the doctor put me on some kind of medicine; I was never good about taking any of my prescriptions–couldn’t remember to take them, couldn’t generate the effort to swallow them or to get myself water, and I just plain didn’t like putting chemicals into my body, a little afraid to actually. One you have been so hurt physically, you want to avoid all possibility of any further damage. It’s ironic, I know, since the medicine is meant to help. Still, one medication (was it Lyrica for the fibromyalgia? Was it Ambien to help me sleep?) made me dream vividly. It was a kind of heaven–not because the dreams were necessarily idyllic, not because I could articulate them (I generally couldn’t), but just because the act of dreaming had returned when so much else had been stripped away from me.
I have always been interested in dreams. So much so that I once took a graduate course in the study of dreams. After a semester of study and reading about five or six books on the subject, I concluded that the most plausible dream theories examine how dreams make us feel. In other words, it isn’t so important what dream symbols stand for as it is to consider what we experience during the dream, what we feel in terms of emotion–the dream being expressly connected to the dreamer. The theory being that emotions that we suppress during daytime experiences emerge in dreams so that our psyches can work out what we tend to withhold. Because we don’t want to or can’t act barbarian in daily life (with pressures to behave in dignified and controlled ways at the office, to be pleasant in the classroom, civilized on the city bus, polite at the stop sign), during the dream we experience all more vividly. The theory is that during the dream we are free to be more authentic both in our emotions and even in our responses, because there are no real consequences, beyond those filtered through the dream.
As I was studying dreams, I experienced lucid dreaming, which I do not recall experiencing much at all since my head injury. I was able to predict remote occurrences and events while first dreaming them, and did so with chilling accuracy. I had a few recurring dreams primarily of places, whereas now I don’t recall any…though I do sometimes dream about people from the past more recognizably than places of the past. One thing since my head injury that I have experienced in dreaming that I do not especially recall happening before the incident is that I dream about the deceased. Maybe that has something to do with losing a mother or someone I cherish, but since the blow to the head, I have had some expressly fulfilling dreams where I notably get back what I have lost (more specifically, whom I have lost). Of course, this is also very telling in the emotion and symbolism department, particularly to one who has recovered from a threatening condition. It’s also interesting to note that the dreams I have had of deceased family members have been dreams that are memorable and ultimately joyful. I think that says a lot about the brain’s impulses–to capture and to apprehend…as well as to live a life of joy, even as we realize our mortality.
This is Day 26 in the 31 Day Writing Challenge, 31 Days of Breaking Free from Fatigue
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