There were two constants in my life. Vivid dreams and migraines. When I think back to my earliest memories, these two experiences dance about foggy scenes of playgrounds and bright toys and fights with my sister.
Vivid dreams. Vivid is not accurate. It’s lacking in a dimension, as all words do when needed to express something beyond words. Vivid is not enough for the experience of drifting into universes where lifetimes pass within forty winks. Colors brighter, emotions sharper, sounds more complex, and truth so clear that the heart breaks when the eyes open to the mundane world.
You have dreams like these, too. You wake up exhausted from them. Your mood is darkened by them. Your reality is questioned by them. It was so real. And you were there…and you were there…
I used to dream I could fly. Then for weeks I felt like I really could if only I could remember how.
When I was in my early twenties, I had a dream that I was on a plane with my younger brother. And then it crashed. I watched the ocean pour in through the cockpit and whip my brother away from me and up into the darkening waters above us. We were drowning, dying, helpless. But that isn’t how I wanted it to go. I was not going to let my brother die like that. This was ridiculous. So I stopped the plane’s descent into the abyss, reversed time as one can only do in dreams. This time, when the plane started going down, the pilots remained calm and we landed on the water, safe and sound. We all disembarked and were floating in the water when a yellow dock appeared so everyone could be rescued. Still, I wouldn’t leave the water because I knew there was a baby somewhere and I had to make sure he was safe. When I found him, and everyone was out of the water, which was also imperative to me for no reason, then the dream changed. I went from the controlled landscape of lucid dreaming to something more relaxed.
The next day I saw on the news that a plane had been forced to make an ocean landing. Fortunately, there was a yacht nearby to take in the passengers. A two-year-old boy miraculously survived the ordeal.
It was also about that time that I was diagnosed with chronic migraines. They’d come once a week, sometimes once a month. Felt like someone pressing a white-hot poker to my brain. No, that’s not right. I don’t know what a white-hot poker feels like. It’s a cold, metallic pain. Like if I wrapped my brain in tin foil coated in peppermint oil. It would tighten around my skull until all I could do was lie in the dark and wait for it to pass, popping pain pills as frequently as I dared.
My condition is not unusual. Most of you have ventured into other people’s lives and just never knew it. That’s what my dreams were. The weird ones, anyway. The one’s I couldn’t relate to the waking world. There are obvious influences. I saw this on TV and that I read in an article and that bit was a meme on the internet. The weird ones were different. Are different. I’d walk in the minds of people. Sometimes, I could help, like the plane crash. I don’t know how to fly planes, but I was a calmness when it was needed. In most cases, that’s all I could do.
There were times when I could be a stronger presence, be almost entirely in control. When that boy was being beaten by his father, he gave up. I felt him leave to where ever he lives when Father raises his fists. I also felt how strong he was from working his fields and raising his cattle and walking to the market every day to sell his products. Father paused to catch his breath, his belly bulbous over his expertly mended pants, I stood the boy up and punched him, a straight jab with his open palm right into his nose, just like I had learned in my on-campus self-defense classes. Father’s face was painted scarlet, his eyes vacant as he drifted leaf-like to the mud floor. I could hear the boy screaming as I was pulled back to my own mind, my own dreams.
In my own dreams, I am weak. I throw punches that bounce off. I run but gain no ground. I am helpless and afraid and so very frail.
I got married. This changed things, in more than the usual ways. It was the first time since childhood that I had shared such a close space with someone. He did not take my dreams seriously. The plane was the only documented incident I could point to for veracity, yet it was easily shrugged off as coincidence. All the others, well, everyone has weird dreams sometimes. It didn’t mean I was traipsing about in other people’s lives.
The migraines got worse. Instead of ruining one day, the pain would gather and sit in my brain for up to three. I might get a day of respite before the next bout, or I could go another month. My husband took me to the doctor when I couldn’t get out of bed for two days, taking me in to the bright daylight swathed in blankets as though the light would catch my skin aflame. The doctor suggested I keep a diary to track my food, water, and exercise so that she might determine a trigger to avoid. She also gave me a prescription for stronger migraine meds.
The diary was no help as no pattern developed. And the meds took my dreams. After a week of no migraines and no dreams, my husband couldn’t wake me up. He shook me and yelled and splashed water on me. Halfway to the hospital, I took a deep breath and threw up all over the EMTs. I decided to live with the migraines.
That night, after I was released from the hospital with instructions to contact my doctor for a meds adjustment, was the first time I entered my husband’s dream. His nightmare, I should say. He was lost in a maze. There were creatures in there with him. They looked like dream monsters, all talons and pinchers and needle-sharp teeth, but only frightening to the dreamer. They spoke to him with the voices of his father and mother, his brothers, old friends, old girl friends. There was a grotesque spider creature the size of a bulldog that had stolen my voice to taunt him. He was so little, maybe five or six, running and crying. Around every turn was a beast that beckoned him to safety only to devour a piece of his little body. Fingers, toes, stomach, eyes, until he was crawling and the ground was burying what was left of him.
I had to watch as it happened over and over again. Thousands of times. Millions of times. Time doesn’t work in dreams. Our minds only remember a fraction of what we see in the dreaming. Unless it isn’t your dreaming. My body shuddered next to his, trying to wake up yet trapped, suffocating in his terror.
I realized then that I was asleep in a nightmare that I hadn’t made. Awareness was all I needed to gain control. I went ahead of him in the maze. I had a blowtorch. The creatures squealed, the maze burned. When I woke up, I could still smell the smoke.
My husband didn’t say anything the next morning over breakfast. I hadn’t been able to get back to sleep, but he had slept peacefully the rest of the night. He ate his oatmeal in silence, checking the stats on his fantasy football league. When he left for work, he forgo our normal routine peck on the cheek for a more substantial embrace.
The twin’s dreams were more troublesome. Mostly they were too insubstantial for me to understand. Swirling colors and shapes, vague feelings of fear or anxiety. I could only be a safe presence. When they got older, I lost their dreams. It was only when my daughter mentioned her own headaches that it occurred to me that maybe they weren’t having their own dreams anymore.
Years later, when the doctor found the tumor, my husband asked me to stop. By this point, we had not been talking about my dreams for fifteen years. We had also not talked about how his recurring nightmares had stopped the night I burned down the maze. We did not talk about the seemingly random news articles I saved in a special file on my computer which I labelled with dates from my therapy-ordered dream journal. We argued about the week-long stints in bed, wrapped in darkness and throbbing agony. Our therapist believed I had a highly active imagination. He said that I suffered from depression and anxiety and that if I only stayed on my medication I might get better. I did not take my medication. I tried. But it made the dreaming worse.
I would be stuck in that groggy almost-awake state, dreaming while awake. Walking in others while clawing desperately to stay in myself. The mental vertigo was frightening. Driving the twins to school through the tortured terrain of some child’s nightmare. My son had to take over because the road became a trail of bloody body parts and the poisonous scales of a laughing snake. The therapist said it was only a hallucination brought on by stress and not the fault of his drugs. I told him truthfully that I had vomited for an entire day and that falling asleep that night had felt like I was falling into death, a sudden drop from awake to sleep. I stopped seeing him. But I continued my journal.
I laughed at the image of my brain. It was very colorful, except for a large, dark shape perched happily on what the doctor called my amygdala.
But my husband asked me to stop when we were alone in my hospital suite, shared with three other women. They were all hidden behind privacy curtains, silent in their white tombs. I knew they couldn’t dream anymore. He asked me to stop. He said it was hurting me and that I had to stop for me and for the twins. He said it quietly, his voice gentle so as not to upset me. That was his “dealing with me” tone. When I attacked the boy who got away with beating up my ten-year-old son, that tone reminded me that I was the grown-up and that violence begets violence and that allowing the cops to put me in their shiny car was a sound way to avoid a lawsuit. When I woke up screaming because I dreamed my mother’s suicide, that tone broke through the hysteria so when the hospice nurse called after they found her, I could deal with it rather than completely detach from reality. That tone convinced me to eat when the migraine told me food was a lump of sawdust in my throat and a writhing pile of snakes in my stomach.
It was a good sign that he was using that tone. It meant that he cared, that he wasn’t patronizing me, and that he really and truly believed me, perhaps had always believed me. So I didn’t laugh in his face. There were deep lines etched in his face, worry lines and laugh lines. The stubble on his dark cheeks was white, like powdered sugar on a brownie. He was rounder than when we met, but it was the weight of age settled on a once wiry athlete. I took his hand and stared at it, stroking his skin and then flipping it to look at the contrastingly pale palm.
I told his palm that I had never chosen to walk the dreams. When I slept, I was taken away. There was no choice, no decision to travel. The sea of consciousness pulled me, the riptide taking me anywhere it chose. If I went to his dreams, or the twin’s dreams, it was not because I wanted to but because he needed me.
But I burned down the maze. I did that when he couldn’t. If I could do that, I could do anything.
I closed my eyes and felt something wet drop onto the back of my hand, resting in his palm. I opened my eyes and saw that it was blood. Another nosebleed, the symptom that had scared us badly enough to bring me to the hospital for an MRI and a CAT-scan.
I’m going to die soon. It isn’t fair.
I have died thousands of times. Car crashes, murders, suicides, old age, even plague. I’d close my eyes and open them in someone else awake on the other side of the world. I walk with them and eat with them. I sit in their minds like a spider in a house plant. Sometimes, they’d die. Sometimes I’d make their deaths better. Sometimes I could only watch because I was only dreaming, as they say.
I have killed people in my dreams. Strangers to me, but real people. I found their faces and gave them names. They didn’t always deserve it.
I have murdered nightmares. I have watched guiltily the erotic dreams of people around to me. I have frolicked in silly fantasies. I have stumbled drunkenly through drug-induced hallucinations. I have walked through the broken glass of broken minds. I take their scars with me.
There isn’t a book about this. No instructions or schools or magical mentors to teach me. I do not decide when to be lucid and when to just be. I do not know how it works or why I am taken to one mind over another. I do not choose to go or stay.
The nurses rush in when I start convulsing, alarms shrieking. They break my hand to free my husband from a grip far stronger than I should have. My bones are brittle and sound just like celery when they snap.
The coma has been nice. Yes, having a bag attached to me filled with my waste is a bit humiliating, but I am enjoying resting, truly resting for the first time in years. It is a bit lonely in here, but the dreams are all mine. Most of them are simply my mind making up stories to whatever it hears from the television.
My sister sits with me a lot. She reads or knits. Her children don’t come with her because they don’t like the smell.
The twins bring me flowers every week. My son brought his boyfriend to meet me yesterday. I dreamed about their happy future. He doesn’t get the headaches. My daughter is studying dreams. She wants to be a doctor, I think. Or maybe she wants them to stop.
I want to tell her how. How to control them. How to be the master of her universe. How to finally stop them. I figured it out, now, too late. The waking world only a distant thing that disturbs the reality of the dreaming. It wasn’t the dreaming that killed me. This was where I was meant to be. Death is only real to the waking. In the dreaming, we can never die. We can only wake up.