Monday, December 8, 2014

Tales from a Broken Brain

I had a nightmare last night for the first time in many years. I woke up just as I was ready to scream. I could feel it caught in my throat.

In my dream-family, I have a much younger brother (probably only four or five), a somewhat younger sister, a Jackie-O-esque mother, and a sturdy father. We live in a pale brown-gray brick house surrounded by forest. It is late fall, so all the leaves dead and scattered on the ground. The dream opens like a movie--I am observing only, not yet part of the action. My little brother is playing in the leaves on a neighbor's property and discovers buried bones. The neighbors find him--a slightly older couple, a gray-haired woman and a man with the only real-world-recognizable face in the dream, that of the actor who plays Lord Grantham on Downton Abbey. (I just finished the most recent season the other day.) They put my brother in their car, along with the skeleton, and bring him back to our home. They let him out, and they re-bury the skeleton near our porch. Presumably they don't believe any trouble will come to them, since my brother is too young to understand.

Later, when I have joined the plot, things are going wrong in the house. The walls begin to warp and shift, the views outside the windows change. It starts to affect my mother and sister. They become increasingly distracted until they cease to speak entirely. Slowly their eyes become darker, black bleeding out over the irises and into the whites. One day my father notices something in the leaves by the porch. I help him dig. We discover the skeleton, and my father leaves to get help. When I come inside, I notice my mother and sister staring at me with their nothing-eyes. I know that I need to leave. I run out onto the porch, only to see the neighbor couple slamming shut the doors of their car. They see me. I am trapped.

That's when I woke up. Weirdly, I have no idea what happened to the little brother.


I am sitting in my bed, writing this, and my left arm hurts. It hurts especially in the shoulder, a deep ache all around my rotator cuff, but also up into my neck and down into the fatty part above the elbow. I am afraid I'm going to die.

I'm not totally convinced of my doom. There is a solid part of my brain that is telling me over and over again that nothing is wrong. It keeps telling me the real reason why my arm hurts. I went climbing with Austin on Saturday, and I climbed several difficult routes in a row. My arms felt like jell-o by the end. I must have strained something.

Besides, my left arm has hurt to some extent almost constantly since about 2008. I believe there are many reasons for this, the first and most obvious being that it's simply the weaker of the two. The physical therapist I once saw for this pain informed me that I have hyper-mobile joints, like gymnasts--but unlike gymnasts, I don't have the muscle strength to hold those joints in place, so it's easy for me to injure myself. (Once I also saw a rheumatologist for this pain, and she told me that sometimes you just have to "reset" the muscles. With little warning, she jabbed a syringe full of some mild anesthetic into my shoulder.) I suspect my many anxieties (as previously discussed in this post) have a great deal to do with the pain; I carry loads of tension in my shoulders and back. I also often wonder if my anxieties leads me to feel psychosomatic pain in my shoulder--my brain might be telling me there's pain when there isn't.

Despite the efforts of the rational portion of my brain, the anxiety-ridden portion will not be quiet. This lunatic part of my brain informs me that I must have a blood clot, that a heart attack must be on the horizon.

The really crazy part is that I popped into the doctor's office last week for an unrelated issue, and they took my blood pressure, gave me a quick check-up. If there were a problem, surely it would have come up. But apparently medical expertise is not good enough for anxiety brain.


These are some other nightmares I've had:

When I was very small, I was scared of The Addams Family. Now I think it's hilarious, but as a child I failed to see the humor. I once had a dream that I was inside their dark, decrepit mansion. I was sitting on Morticia's lap, and she was brushing my hair. But her comb was made of sharp spikes, and my head was bleeding, dark red dripping down blonde locks.

In another dream, I was in the center of a large, old-fashioned gymnasium. My mother and sister sat on a set of metal bleachers directly ahead of me. At either side of the gymnasium was a set of tall double-doors, presumably heavy. Suddenly, both doors opened at once, and two gigantic monsters moved into the room. I can't remember exactly what they looked like. I do remember that they got closer, and closer, and I couldn't move, and right before they closed in on me entirely, I saw my mother and my sister, laughing.


This is going to seem like a non-sequitur, but stay with me: when I was little, my mother would almost never let us eat fried chicken. It was a rare treat, for birthdays or special occasions only. As a child I was upset by this, but now I can hardly ever bring myself to eat fried chicken. I feel horribly guilty when I do, and it makes me feel sick. Don't you hate it when the stuff your parents did actually worked?

Anyway, today was our last Dungeons & Dragons session for the semester, so we played for a whopping seven hours straight. J.D. brought fried chicken to share, and I had two pieces, two tiny legs. I also had some potato chips, and some beer, though not nearly as much beer as everyone else. Not an ideal diet, obviously, but also not my everyday diet, and one that's relatively common for a celebration.

When I got home, I told myself I was going to catch up on work, but instead I fell into bed and read articles on the internet that made me angry--about the recent rape-apology episode of The Newsroom, about Rolling Stone's serious mishandling of the UVA rape story, which will probably set rape-survivor-advocacy back years, not to mention journalism exposing rape on college campuses. Then, shortly after midnight, I got up and gogo danced five songs.

Why did I gogo dance five songs, you ask? Well, because I didn't work out today, and my arm hurts, and the only way to stay healthy and not have heart attacks is to eat well and exercise, and I didn't exercise today, and I didn't eat well, and my arm hurts, so if I exercise now maybe the universe will forgive me and let me go on.

Isn't that absurd?

I'm not naive enough to think that's how the human body works, but I often find myself bargaining with the universe for my life that way. In fact, my anxiety is a large motivation for my working out at all. I don't particularly enjoy exercising; I only like gogo dancing because it makes me feel sexy, and I only like rock climbing because it gives me some puzzles to solve. But I don't like exercising for exercising's sake. If I could stay healthy by sitting around and reading all day and eating whatever I wanted, I most certainly would. I am concerned, though, that my anxiety regarding cardiovascular disorders is becoming too much of a factor in the decisions I make regarding a healthy lifestyle. Yeah, pizza isn't good for you, but I shouldn't freak out when I have a slice or two. If I miss a day of working out, I shouldn't become convinced that I have a blood clot. Not that this happens every time, but it happens a lot, and I know it isn't right. There's a difference between wanting to be healthy and being scared of dying, and I think my mental scales have tipped too much towards the latter.


The other day I received a personal phone call from the aforementioned asshole-misogynist crime procedural creator, who, despite being an asshole-misogynist, is kind to take the time out of his busy schedule to read our work. The story I submitted to him was about anxiety--a fictionalized version of something that really happened to me back in Chicago. We also had to submit a one-page bio to shed some light on our stories, and in mine I mentioned that I had trichotillomania.

He didn't like my story. He loved that I have trichotillomania.

He told me to write a different story, one that he proceeded to narrate in its entirety to me over the phone, somehow without grasping the concept that it's his story, since he narrated it, and that what he wants me to write is his story. His story about a 20-something female graduate student in Las Vegas, who has trichotillomania, and who is constantly dating without success because she can never truly open up to these men because she fears they will reject her once they know about her horrible, ugly, freakish condition.

It was a shocking reminder that mental health issues are so frequently misunderstood, and that some people have so little sympathy for those who suffer with them. Honestly, I haven't considered trichotillomania a detriment to my social life in years. In my experience, most people don't notice (I'm well-practiced in the arts of eyebrow pencil and eyeliner), or if they do, they say nothing. On the rare occasion someone does say something, I explain why, and then that person likes me anyway and life goes on as normal. I suppose it helps that I tend to make friends who also have anxiety/depression problems. It's not that we seek each other out; I think we're just naturally drawn together. Similar temperaments, all that. I'm glad it happens that way. I have no interest in hanging out with the obtuse, asshole-misogynist crime procedural creators of the world.

I have been bad about pulling lately, though, so I've been wearing gloves to bed again.


That's all I can write for now. That's all I should write for now. Sleep beckons, even with an aching shoulder and all the silly terror that goes along with it.

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