Sleep to dream to walk

I’m hiking on a narrow path, slowly ascending and winding as I feel the crunch of the hard yet forgiving dirt beneath my feet with each step that I take. It’s late afternoon and the sun slips in and out of the looming clouds as it starts to set, its rays lingering on the tops of the lush jungle surrounding me. It’s hot and humid and I can feel the sweat collecting on my brow as I push forward and continue to wind up the trail, each step bringing me closer to the summit with an expansive view of the valley below. I’m chatting with friends and enjoying this serene moment when something hits me: I am walking! This isn’t so hard! I look down at my legs to confirm what I’m experiencing and, surely enough, they’re working just fine, striding along and without any difficulty. “Wow, this is so much easier than I expected,” I think to myself as I remember that in most of my everyday exercises, standing and taking a step on the parallel bars takes a lot more effort than this. The lucidity of the moment hits me but the experience continues as we progress up the trail. Finally, we reach the top and I stand confidently as I slowly take in the contrasts of the red dirt under my feet, the deep green of the trees below, the golden rays of the warming sun and the fading but persistent blue of the sky…

Moments later, I’m lying in bed, feeling the heavy weight of my legs as I struggle to lift, bend and move them and change positions. Immediately, I remember where I just was and realize that it all seemed so easy, that I didn’t have to pick up my legs with my arms or feel the constant discomfort of my dangling feet and ankles awkwardly twisted underneath the blankets. I remember the calmness of knowing that standing and walking are as simple as they always were and don’t require the hours of effort that I put into them everyday.

Going back to my childhood, I’ve always had a close relationship with my dreams, wanting to understand the meaning behind each person and each experience in my dreams. In fact, for the last several years, I remember my dreams everyday without fail, both good and bad, which is why I could wake up from a long and seemingly restful night of sleep and feel irritated and tired because of a specific dream I had. My favorite dreams, much like waking life, were the ones in which I was physically active, moving quickly, running, playing soccer, or discovering beautiful sights. The bottom line: my dreams and unconscious brain activity have a profound effect on my conscious emotions.

Now here’s where I think it gets interesting. Since my accident, the content of my dreams really hasn’t changed. Even though I spend the entirety of my day frustrated and struggling with the challenges of being unable to move most of my lower body, in my dreams it’s a different story. Consistently, I have dreams like the one I described and almost every time, I have an “aha” moment where I realize the magnitude of my ability to walk or stand or run or play. Sometimes that moment is even more comprehensive and I think, “wait a second, wasn’t I in a wheelchair? Isn’t it ‘normal’ for me to be rolling around in a stupid chair and if that’s the case, why is it so easy for me to kick this soccer ball or run down that path?” I wish I could say that every night I have these incredible, enlightening dreams where I’m doing all of those things I’ve always loved but even in the more benign, strange, or lackluster dreams, I’m still walking or standing or running.

My explanation is simple: So much of my conscious emotional state is focused (or should I say obsessed) on wanting to recover and get back on my feet that deep down, at an unconscious level, my brain is reminding my body of what it feels like to use my lower body as it was. Or, put another way, my waking life is spent dealing with the difficulty to engage my legs so when I go to sleep, all of that pent up desire is channeled into my dreams and I’m back in my old body, able to walk and stand. One last observation I’ll share is that from much of what I’ve read about dreams and through my studies in psychology, it is said that lucid dreaming (that moment in which you realize you’re in a dream) is often when you wake up. For some reason, it’s unusual and challenging to know that you’re dreaming and stay in that dream. Which makes it all the more perplexing to me that I’m consistently having these lucid moments, realizing halfway through my dream that I’m walking and that this moment is different from “reality”, but that my dream continues and I don’t wake up right away.

I realize I’m indulging quite a bit into the fuzzy world of psychoanalysis and I hope I didn’t lose too many of you to this point, but if you’re still reading, and you have any thoughts or ideas you’d like to share, I’d be happy to read them. We’ll see what tonight’s dreams have in store…

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38 thoughts on “Sleep to dream to walk

  1. Arash –

    I COMPLETELY understand what you are describing. I dream a lot. Every night. And I remember them. Some are abstract and surreal, others are very detailed and even boring…like doing laundry. But I’ve developed two techniques: I can wake up from a dream…go back to sleep and pick up where I left off…(sometimes that’s wonderful, other times it’s a nightmare) and, like you described, often I’m aware that I am dreaming when I am dreaming. Sometimes I continue with the dream storyline, other times I literally force myself to wake up saying, “It’s a dream kiddo, wake up and get out of this.” and I do!

    Also, since the onset of my vestibular disease which as you know has robbed my body and brain of any sense of balance or knowing where I am in space, one of the most difficult things for me to do in life is…to walk. Walk without falling over or feeling like each step I take I’m bouncing on a pogo stick. BUT IN MY DREAMS, FOR THE PAST 7 YEARS I HAVE NEVER, EVER DREAMED THAT I HAVE VESTIBULAR DISEASE. I can run and jump and dance and climb and tumble and swim and drive a car and turn and look up at something while walking in my dreams and never fall over…I never feel the unbalance…I never lose my vision because my eyes, my camera is shaking so much.

    I honestly believe that deep down in our subconsciousness: in our brains, our hearts, our souls, the challenges we are dealing with are not a “part of us” and therefore one day, there will be a complete healing.

    Hope I didn’t ramble. 😉

    1. Not a ramble at all Arthur and I’m happy you share some of the same experiences. I’m impressed that you’ve developed the ability to jump back into the dream even after waking up. I would love to be able to do that, especially with some of these more interesting and fun dreams I have. It’s great that you have never dreamt of your disease. I rarely dream that I’m in my wheelchair and I’m grateful for that.
      I like your perspective that these challenges can be separate from our everyday struggles, but I wonder if these challenges are indeed a part of us and having dreams like you and I have, allow us to cope with these challenges better and free our conscious lives a bit from the stress we encounter. Just an idea 🙂

      1. And it’s a very valid idea. As the day goes on, my symptoms become more and more extreme – due to light stimuli, sounds, cross-patterning of images, stress, anxiety…possibly…to keep one from exploding and breaking down, the brain is kind…and lets one rest in a state where the challenges don’t exist, so we can tackle it again, tomorrow.

      2. Very true Arthur. That gives me a better sense of what you go through and how it shapes your approach. I hope we both continue to have relief from our everyday struggles through our dreams. -AB

  2. In the struggle of everyday, frustration can cloud the healing process. In dreams, we have the opportunity to process and examine how we really feel about things – in that way of knowing in your own heart what your dream is about – and also to experience joy without being interrupted.

  3. I have these dreams. I have the space in them where I know I am dreaming but like a wonderful film, like the idea of flying, or the feeling of something so intimate that cannot be ignored I go back into these dreams. Often they shift, but I can with some success re-enter after waking. I stay in the place and I imagine you do much the same because of an innate curiosity. What a powerful feeling to be made manifest to one’s imaginings. What an even greater feeling when it becomes palpable shareable reality. Keep this dream going Arash. My guess is that those who walk again never cease this dreaming.
    Beautiful post….

    1. Great to hear that you have those experiences with your dreams Michael. I actually have a hard time re-entering dreams like that but I still try and still lay around and linger in order to try to explore and process the dream a bit more. I do sincerely believe that these dreams will ultimately help me walk and recover and that my unconscious is reminding me of the joys of being healthy again, I only hope to continue having these dreams in the future. -AB

  4. I can also stay in a lucid dream for a very long time to the point where I know I am dreaming and can decide what I want to do next. I think that it is your positive state of mind that is allowing these dreams to continue. It is your inner minds way of keeping you pushing forward to your recovery. You know that you are strong enough to do it.

    1. Very encouraging way to think about it Jo, thanks for sharing. I agree that it is indeed my inner mind pushing me forward to recovery and I hope I can maintain the strength to do it. -AB

  5. It’s encouraging to hear you still have those adventurous, potently physical dreams. They’re a good reminder of your goals and focus in your new life.

    Many people in your situation would probably dream of drowning or being ‘chained’ down (in their dreams), reflecting their sorrow and despair and feelings of helplessness being wheelchair bound.

    Not sure of your upper body or arm strength for reading books, but if you can hold a fairly thick paper back, you might find some inspiration in Norman Doidge’s book The Brain that Changes Itself (if you haven’t already read it in your pre-accident life).

    I found it fascinating.

    1. I like the way you think! Yes I would hope that my positive approach is hopefully contributing to the good dreams that I have. My upper body and arms are stronger than ever, my hands are still weak but I can totally read a book. Thanks for the suggestion, I will definitely check that one out. -AB

  6. Hi Arash, I first wanted to say thank you for sharing your inspirational journey with us, I look forward to your posts, your honesty and openness is refreshing. I feel really guilty for this, but for the last year or so I have had severe depression. The reason why I mention this is because I have dreams, strong powerful dreams where I am back to normal. I think you are right that it is the body or the mind hanging tightly on to those things for us. A bit like a training ground. I also think we need it for the respite from the situation you are in. I feel I am in danger of sounding hippy trippy now, so I’ll stop. I just wanted to say keep having those dreams, maybe they are training for reality! X

    1. I’m honored and happy you decided to connect with me Vicky. The training ground idea is fantastic and a great way to describe what I am experiencing. I hope that my mind is training my body in these dreams, so that when it’s time for real life activity, that muscle memory is still there and will come back as fast as possible. Hope you keep reading and thanks for sharing. -AB

  7. I think that it is fantastic that you walk and do things in your dreams. It is a subconscious that has not given up! It is the sign of someone who is going to do everything to succeed! Too many people give up on life for far less reason than you have and they dwell in self pity and their dreams keep them there. Your dreams will be an inspiration for you, what more could a person ask for?!

    1. Thanks for the support. Yes I’m not one for self-pity at all. I want to sometimes get so pissed off and shout from the rooftops and tell everyone how bad I have it, but I just tell myself to suck it up and deal with it. That being angry and jaded will do nothing to help my situation and that only I can help myself. And then I feel better…most of the time. 😉 -AB

  8. Arash ~ this is soooo interesting. Also very encouraging on many levels. First — the fact that you are dreaming this way means you are in REM one of 2 deepest stages of sleep. To me that is excellent news just in terms of your health and recovery. Good sleep is key in repair and healing. Next, the incredible level of joy and activity you are experiencing in your dreams makes my heart happy. It means you truly have made up your mind about this recovery of yours – and even in your unconscious state — you are not going to see it any other way!! What could be better visualization practice than vivid dreaming as you described. This post really made me smile —

    BTW, I am interested in psychology too — my Masters Work was in this field (Counseling Psychology).. Carl Jung and Jungian psychoanalytic theory has sooo much to say about dreams… have always been fascinated. Sending you lots of love from my “home away from home” … have been working hard at trying to unravel my dysfunctions — neuromuscualr reprogramming with a biomechanics specialist…. no easy answers – but like you, keeping lots of hope alive.
    Much Love and Light dear friend,
    ~ Robyn

    1. Robyn so nice to hear from you! I was thinking about you and wondering how your recent treatment is going. I’d love to hear more about it if you’d like to share more privately. Not sure you have my email but I’m including below. So yes I totally agree that dreams are the best possible visualization practices I could ask for. And yes I’ve heard that good sleep is essential and I’ve been better about resting my body since before my accident I was one to push myself to the boundary and barely give myself minimal sleep (4-5 hours a night). So great to hear of your interest in psychology. I did my undergrad studies in psych but beyond that, I’ve always been fascinated by it and obsessed with what people are thinking, why did someone do that or say that, etc. I love Jung but I admit it’s been a while since I’ve indulged in that reading. You’re giving me a great reminder to get back into it and read up on this matter.

      I really hope you’re doing well and that the “unraveling” is going smoothly. Much love -AB

      1. Hi Arash ~ thank you so much. Doing pretty well – will be here 2 weeks Monday which I can’t believe. The program is very much based in neuromuscular control and reprogramming. So it’s not a rehab program to build strong muscles (which many direct me towards) but instead to use the brain to turn off muscles that are over-firing and causing my joint to dislocate – and turn on muscles that have become inhibited due to all the injuries and surgery in my history. Sort of like trying to reprogram a computer gone viral. This is the biggest deal and then also for me teaching me movement patterns that keep me out of trouble.

        ~ I have thought of you because soooo much is about visualization. I have seen evidence that, just like you proved with your “pinky toe” project, the power of imagery and focussed attention can make things happen. I have only just begun seeing some convincing/promising examples of this (today was my best day so far) … and we still don’t know how much I will gain – but I think having these tools is really important for me. It’s a lot of work (must be super focussed which is tough with the pain)… Also for you… sooo much is about respiration — do you use breath when you do visualization type work? Is your respiration normal at this point?

        Yes – the Carl Jung/psych work was super interesing… he totally rebelled against Freud (who was a mentor)… LOL ~ I also like that he was a little into the magic and the mystical.. we need that in our lives.

        Feel free to email me any time. I got started here – so just kept rambling (sorry)…. you should have my email where you would go to edit the comment. Don’t hesitate.
        Sending warmest wishes and healing thoughts to you always ~Robyn

      2. Happy to hear that it’s going well for you Robyn. I was hoping your recent endeavor was positive and it sounds like you’re learning a lot, although I’m sorry to hear so much of it is with pain. I totally respect the power of respiration and breathing and use it all the time. I learned a long time ago of the importance of breathing with exercise and how much it can help. My respiration is close to normal although I don’t have the same lung capacity. For example, if I need to clear my throat or do a simple cough it’s tough for me and takes me a few tries. But it beats the respiration treatment I used to go with a tube blowing cold air into my lungs. Yikes…

        Keep up with your efforts and with the visualization. I know it can help a ton and hope that you’ll reap many benefits from it. I love Jung too, but I think I gotta reread his work and remember it better. Best to you -AB

    2. I spent a summer as an intern in a neurochemistry lab. We studied Arctic Ground Squirrels and hibernation. Given my own personal health struggles, it was extremely fascinating to me. And an affirmation: there is so much we do not understand about the functionality and potentials of the brain/mind.

      Have you read Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl? I’m a bit familiar with Carl Jung, but I love Frankl’s perspectives and approach to therapy. Especially because he himself spent time in Auschwitz . . . so when he says that a person can find meaning and take something positive from ANY experience in life, it’s a very compelling statement.

      Best, Sig

      1. I haven’t read that book, but remember hearing about Frankl. I’ll definitely have to check him out. I agree with his statement and am constantly trying my best to find the positive in this enormous challenge I face. It’s days that I don’t do that as well that are the most difficult… -AB

  9. You are an amazing writer Arash!!
    I think our dreams are our unconscious mind. Some neuroscientists believe that indeed the unconscious mind is much more powerful than the conscious mind, and it is the unconscious mind, which shapes who we are and how we live our life. Keep dreaming. . . your dreams will rebuild the reality.

    1. I like looking at it that way Khaleh jaan. I agree with you and I hope that in this case, the unconscious mind is quite strong and will help to fuel my recovery. Much love to you -AB

  10. Your dreams also remind me of Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest Act 3, Scene 2:

    Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
    Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
    Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
    Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
    That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
    Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
    The clouds methought would open, and show riches
    Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
    I cried to dream again.

  11. This is an interesting concept. I have asked just one other clients how she sees herself in dreams, and she has a similar experience as you: up and walking and standing. I actually find that you both have a relentless drive to walk again… I think you are on the right track. Your brain does not want you to forget what it is like to walk and run, because then you might loose sight of your goal. I think it would be helpful to reflect on some of these more vivid dreams and use them as visualization tools when gait training, riding the spin bike and using the walker. Keep working hard, you’re doing great! (Great blog, by the way! I love hearing this other perspective, and whatever else is going on besides sore muscles 🙂

    1. Stephanie, I love the idea of using those dreams to visualize activities that I do with you guys. Just like we did the other day and I was imagining running through golden gate park again! I will definitely do that more and try to enhance that mind-body connection. I look forward to more torture as I signed up for another hour (like I told you I would) on Saturdays so here’s your chance to give me more sore muscles. Ha! 😉 -AB

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