In July 2021, I have a dream. I’m eight months into a relapse and it’s not going the way I wanted it to. I went back out because I wanted to feel part of, but the weed is making me feel depressed and disconnected, and I’m having trouble controlling the booze. I’d had close to five years of sobriety before, enough time to know that life for me is better without drugs and alcohol. I’m starting to miss how good it used to feel. I’m starting to want to go back. There’s one place I absolutely do not want to go, though, and that’s back to Alcoholics Anonymous. I may be flailing emotionally, but I’m not out of control. Things really aren’t that bad.
In the dream, I’m at a conference at a Marriott-like hotel. Somehow I know it has the impersonal feeling of a budget corporate hotel convention center, though I haven’t seen inside. I’m walking around the grounds, which instead of pools and golf courses feature an open air market. Most of the tables are lined with cheap convention schwag. Keychains, water bottles, and pens emblazoned with names and catchphrases that are simultaneously impossibly catchy and so interchangeable it is impossible to tell what services the vendor provides. McCaffey. McKesson. Blue Peak. Blue Wolf. Pinnacle. Navigant. Solutions for You. Outwit Complexity. Intelligence that Works. Knowledge, Experience, Trust.
I don’t want to be here. I’m under the impression that I’m here to enroll in a master’s program but that can’t be because I already have a master’s degree. Dream-me has a master’s, I mean. In waking life, I have an advanced degree, but it’s a JD not a master’s. I realize the distinction doesn’t matter in the dream or the real world.
In the dream, things are glitching. Something isn’t right. There’s a serious disconnect. I’m supposed to be working toward my second degree but I really don’t want to do that because I already did that. I took the classes. I passed the exams. I earned the grades. My career is underway. Just look around! I’m here at the conference! There are so many sessions to attend! So many vinyl stickers to scoop up and slip into nylon bags! Going back to school feels like it will be a tremendous waste of time.
Though, come to think of it, I don’t really want to attend the conference either. The sessions are starting, but they feel extraneous. I’m looking for an AA meeting. I know there’s one happening around here somewhere. They have them at conferences, you know. Just look for Friends of Bill on the agenda. I make my way to a stall set up at the end of the sidewalk. The vendors are hawking t-shirts. It looks like a merch table at a concert, or like a Hot Topic. The meeting is starting but they are making me buy a shirt first. Weird, but fine, whatever. Someone puts an Alice Cooper t-shirt in my hands. I know it doesn’t really matter, I just need to get a shirt and get through the door, but I’m irritated. This isn’t the shirt I want at all. Alice Cooper doesn’t reflect my personality or musical taste. I’m not going to put this on. I start digging through fabric piled up on the table and then flipping through hangers until I find one that says Sex Pistols. This. This is the shirt I’m going to go with. Now I’m ready to go to the meeting, finally. I wake up before I make it through the door.
I wake up with one thought on my mind, and immediately check my phone to see if I’m right. Alice Cooper has been sober for over three decades. Sid Vicious famously overdosed on heroin and died.
If you’ve been reading here for awhile, you know about my daughter’s nightmares (all about dead animals, recurring since March), but you don’t know about mine. I’ve been a terrible sleeper since childhood, when I started hearing footie pajamas with nobody inside them shuffling around in the basement at night and facing my own recurring dreams about oversized disembodied faces looming out of the walls and hands scuttling across the floor. In high school, the demons crawled under and over and through my bedroom door and started visiting. There was the sensed presence, the shadowy figure that stood at my bedroom door or sometimes the foot of my bed or sometimes right next to my bed, staring down at me. There was the girl with all the hair from The Ring lying in my sister’s bed. There was the sinewy humanoid crouched on my chest pressing down so I couldn’t breathe. There were the actual demons getting up in my face, breathing, leering, readying themselves to steal my soul. The creatures visited at all hours of the night whenever I was in the liminal state halfway between wake and sleep and when they came I couldn’t move or scream, though I tried to. Sometimes I hallucinated myself flipping and spinning bodily getting all tangled up in the blankets in my bed of an accord another than my own, like the little girl from The Excorcist, but I was mostly immobile save for my fingers twitching on top of the sheet. Sometimes I imagined that I was groaning loudly enough to stir my sister or summon my parents but in reality I was silent save for heavy breathing that didn’t disturb anyone but me. These nightmares, night terrors, whatever they were, scared the living shit out of me, but I never breathed a word of them to anyone. I guess the nightly battle for my soul seemed like something I should keep private? I couldn’t fathom what help anybody could give me. I already knew how to banish the demons. I never remembered the trick until the terror just about overtook me, but eventually a bit of religious folklore I’d picked up being raised in the church would come to me and I’d start praying the demons away like my life depended on it, casting them out in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. It always worked. Not right away,but eventually.
Ironically, the incubus crawled in and landed on top of me around the same time Incubus was dominating the radio airwaves with Make Yourself, without me having any idea it had a name, a history, or scientific explanation, and the waking nightmares, night terrors, whatever they were stayed with me for years, even after I got on the internet and figured out that what I was experiencing was sleep paralysis, a phenomenon that is well-documented, well-understood, and common. Well, how about that. I wasn’t uniquely haunted. I hadn’t broken my brain with teenage substance abuse.
I mostly sorted my sleep problems out when I learned about sleep hygiene from a therapist some five years ago. When I collapsed on her couch I was a hot, tangled mess of anxiety and depression and compulsion and fear, and the only homework she gave me out of that first session was to fix my sleep, which made me figure it was pretty important, so I did. I’m still a light sleeper and vivid dreamer but the nightmares are mostly gone and I haven’t had a bout of sleep paralysis in years.
Until this week. You know that was coming, right? You know this pandemic is clawing back all our hard-won mental health victories. You know the novel coronavirus isn’t the only part of this pandemic that’s deadly.
This past weekend was great, really great, it felt almost like a regular summer weekend. We went mini-golfing on Saturday morning and it felt safe enough being outdoors, with timed entries, masks on until we got on the course, one group to a hole. Afterward, we drove out to Dairy Queen for Blizzards to celebrate our seven-year-old’s hole-in-one, a pandemic miracle for a kid who swings her club like a granny with a bowling ball, and that felt safe enough, too with the restaurant rejiggered for people to order and pickup at the side doors with masks on and six feet of distance between customers in line. We are our ice cream in the car. Saturday evening we hosted an old friend driving through Chicago on our porch and stayed up late into to night chatting a little about the last decade and a lot about the last six months. Sunday morning, I had promised my daughter a beach day, and I worked hard to make it a responsible outing, waking up stupid early and throwing breakfast in a ziploc baggie for the car so that we could be at the beach by 7:30 and out in under two hours. We kept our masks on until we found a good spot for our towels far away from the other early risers and I was vigilant about maintaining a buffer between us and everyone on the sand, in the water, all the time. Sunday afternoon I saw that our town’s summer art fair was still on for that weekend–another pandemic miracle–so I signed up for a late afternoon entry and spent a glorious masked hour talking to artisans and looking at art (including dropping serious money here and picking up a print from here). Sunday night we grilled. The rain was coming down hard so we ate inside just our family but first we dropped a plate of food off at the neighbors’ since they’ve been sharing all manner of cheesy, chivey breads and braised pork with us since May. God, it was such a good weekend. Before bed, my husband and I sat on the couch drinking tea and half-watching our current go-to series for comfort TV and one of us mentioned how much this winter is going to suck when we are all stuck inside the house again and our favorite festivities are cancelled and my seasonal affective disorder kicks into high gear.
Drifting off to sleep on Sunday night should have been easy, I was so worn out. Instead my brain lit up with rapid-fire images of death and fear, scenes from every horror movie I’ve ever seen and every violent news article I’ve ever read plus some grisly originals courtesy of my own overactive imagination. Lots of Pennywise, lots of children suffering, spliced with shots of evil men and psychologically tattered mother figures. I’ve learned a lot about how to get along with my mind in the last half decade so I practiced not resisting the thoughts but letting them float in and out like clouds against a blue sky. I reassured the scared child inside me that it’s okay to be scared, and perfectly understandable, because we live in scary times. The pictures peeled away and I fell asleep.
I woke up screaming silently at 2 am. The dream had been disturbing. I was trying to make tea in the kitchen but kept fumbling, dropped the bag, spilling the water, knocking over the mug. Every time I righted the mug and looked away it was upside down again when I looked back. I turned to call out to my husband in the next room to laugh with me and reassure me that I was clumsy not crazy, but he was staring in horror at something off to the side behind a wall I could not see. I knew without knowing that it was an intruder, that someone had let himself into our house and come up stairs without either of us hearing, and I knew from the way my husband wasn’t saying anything that we were in trouble. When I joined him in the living room I saw that I was right. The creature was huge, hulking, a man without a face, just stubble sprouting out of the vast pink expanse on the front of his head. He turned his mass toward me and, unable to cope with the menace, my brain startled awake. Unfortunately, my body didn’t, and I found myself pinned to the bed with the old hallucinations, clawing the sheets with stiff fingers and moaning my husband’s name through closed lips. After a miserable eternity he came to and pulled my physical form to safety.
The dream logic is obvious. The faceless intruder is COVID, impersonal, invasive, impervious to locked doors. The return of the sleep paralysis is my powerlessness in the face of the pandemic. The reel of death as I drifted off to sleep is because the tradeoff for a fun summer weekend is a whole lot of risk. Nightmares are the new hangovers, inflicting maximum shame and regret for too much fun the day before. Even if we were careful, even if each activity felt safe, even if we followed all the protocols, we did too much. Last year, cramming too much into a weekend meant we’d end up exhausted and grumpy. Now, someone might die.
I don’t know how to strike the right balance between preserving my own mental health and somebody else’s physical safety. I don’t know if it’s unforgivably selfish to even consider the former in the same breath as the latter. What’s the line between catastrophizing and respecting the severity of the global health crisis? What’s the line between anxiety-induced hypervigilance and obsessive over-responsibility and being a good citizen? How do I responsibly care for myself and my family and you? If mental health starts with a good night’s sleep, what do we do when the nightmare of daily living infiltrates our dreams?
Earlier this year, I had a dream that my wedding band partially fused into my finger. When I looked down, I could see half the band glinting silver and the other half embedded under the skin. My engagement ring is unconventionally flashy, a large emerald solitaire, but the wedding ring is simple, just a thin platinum loop. In the dream, I fingered the silver ring with my other hand, twisting it round on round, watching with fascination and fear as it slid into and out of my body.
When I told my husband about the dream the next morning, I tried to spin it as a compliment instead of a horror show. “It means that our marriage is so fundamentally important and unshakable that it’s part of me.” He looked skeptical. “It sounds more like you feel trapped.”
We’re coming up on seven weeks of sheltering in place together with our school-aged daughter in a modestly-sized townhouse. I feel trapped at home, because I am a person who likes to be out, but I don’t feel trapped with him. Honestly, I don’t know what I’d do without him. He’s homeschooling our daughter. He buys all of our food and essential supplies. He found toilet paper when there was none to be found and sanitizing wipes. He had reusable masks delivered before the Evanston’s face covering order went into effect. He makes lunch and dinner five nights per week. He wakes up and makes breakfast early on Sunday mornings so I can attend virtual church. He bakes sourdough. He washes the dishes cleans the bathrooms. He planned our daughter’s birthday top to bottom. He remembers to make things fun, with board games and video games and snacks and toys. He packs our go bags. He listens to play-by-play reports of my weekly therapy sessions, which has to be deeply boring, and he listen when I recount my dreams, which is even worse. He tells jokes, some bad and some good. He always has music playing. He is always a solid partner, but in a crisis he’s the best.
About a week into quarantine I woke up in the middle of the night, rubbing the fourth finger on my left hand. My wedding band felt itchy and tight. This happens with most jewelry I wear–I’m allergic to heavy metals and have sensitive skin–but rarely with my wedding band, which never leaves my hand. It was uncomfortable enough that I worked the tiny ring off over my knuckle. I slipped it into a jewelry box and went back to sleep.
When I woke up, I forgot all about it. In fact, I forgot about it for weeks, only noticing the other day that my finger was still bare. “Huh, that’s weird.” I’m still not wearing the ring. When I’m not seeing anybody but my family, there just doesn’t seem to be much point. Will wedding rings, I wonder, go the way of makeup and bras and pants and shoes in this new world where we know no one but the ones who already know everything about us?
Last night I had the most fraught dream about mother-daughter relationships. My 6yo daughter was buckling herself into the booster seat in the back of a car. My grandma bent over to help her (not a thing I imagine my 86yo grandma could actually do, physically) and I guess my kid was giving lip because my grandma told my kid to shut up (also not a thing she would do, probably). It was not terribly cruel, just casually unkind. I was standing with my mom outside the car and we exchanged looks, like, did that just happen? My mom leaned in the car and told my kid not to worry, that grandma was going to be put in a time out for talking like that. I barged in to correct the record and explained that we had no authority put grandma in a time out, that she could use whatever words she wanted. She’d earned the right, in my mind. My mom got pissed at me for undermining her in front of D, I got pissed at my mom for being overstepping her bounds, and we all stormed off leaving D in the car and grandma I don’t where. Then I woke up.