Tuesday, August 7, 2012

When Dreams and Life Collide

You know that feeling you get when you wake up from a dream in which you've suffered some terrible physical disfigurement--lost an arm, a chunk of your face, whatever--and you go about your day as usual, scarcely remembering the dream, but then you happen to look into a mirror or something and you are just stunned by the appearance of your normal, healthy face... and it all comes rushing back that it was just a dream, and there's this brief moment where the line between reality and dream gets all blurry as two incongruent life-pictures crash against one another, and then suddenly it's over and you're back to normal like it never happened? There ought to be a word for that moment. It's like déjà vu, but not quite; it doesn't feel like a memory of the present, but like you've just experienced a different timeline colliding with your own and then merging into one reality that you experience. 

I have no idea if this is a thing that other people do, or if it's just me being mildly deranged, so let me try to describe what I'm talking about in more concrete terms.

A couple of months ago, I dreamt that my right arm had been cut off. I was there when it happened. I felt my arm being tied up and held by somebody else, I watched the serrated knife begin to saw at my arm, I saw the glistening red muscle split neatly in two, and I saw the arm, holding on with just a little bit of meat remaining, straight out from the shoulder like a block of wood. It was just above the elbow.

It was one of the most realistic dreams I have ever had, and that’s probably why it stuck with me. It was vivid. I remember there was some reason why the arm had to be amputated, something valid that I agreed with—it had been smashed in a press, or was diseased, or something. But all the same I struggled as the knife went saw, saw, saw back and forth. I saw it from inside my body and from at a distance, a few feet away like a hovering magpie, watching the knife slice away.

Part of it, the greater part, was the details--it felt so accurate, so real! I remember walking around after the crude surgery—there was no blood fountaining out—and being aware of my balance changing because my left side was now heavier than my right. I remember the need to learn to write left-handed. I even recall touches on the face, where my Penfield neural map rearranged itself, corresponding to changes in my phantom arm. It was so viscerally compelling that when I woke up, I was genuinely surprised and disturbed to see my arm still usable and attached to my body. That's what made me think of it like two realities or timelines colliding. There was this moment of dissonance that we don't have a word for, that feeling of two fundamentally opposite realities--I have an arm, I don't have an arm--smashing together and being forced to reconcile themselves.

This dream I'm speaking of was a couple of months ago. I never got around to posting this, although I wrote it down right afterwards, and probably wouldn't have except that a similar thing happened last night. Somehow, in that dream, a chunk of my nose had been ripped or torn off (no pain or blood). When I padded to the bathroom in the morning and saw myself in the mirror over the sink, for a few seconds I couldn't figure out what was wrong with me. I looked completely normal--unshaven, mussed hair, rings under the eyes and all--but in that picture of normality there was something profoundly wrong. It wasn't that I had been injured, but that I possessed the dream-memory of the injury but no corresponding physical damage. Those two realities were pushing against one another, fighting until the conflict resolved itself.

Has anybody else had this experience? Do you know the feeling I'm trying to describe here? It's not limited to matters of the body, at least not for me; I've had this feeling in conversations, when I reference something that I did with a friend before realizing that it never happened. I've had it walking through my house, where I see that an object has moved or hasn't moved from where I think it was, and it takes awhile before I recognize that one of my memories of that object was actually a dream in disguise. Have you ever realized that something you thought was a memory, something you may not have even consciously classified as a memory, but that just unconsciously entered your picture of the world around you, actually originated in a dream and had no basis in this world? This is a serious question. If it's just me, I'd like to know it.

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