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…