Dreams come in sparks. Ignition. Recoil. Wake. Someone dies, always, in dreams. He gives me his phone number and we talk. What we talk about are his dreams. Not dreams as in heartfelt fantasy, but his shut eyed coma-state.
He’s on. “On” like a television is on. A radio. Human broadcast. “There is no future when you sleep,” he tells me. “You only see what has happened in the past, but you see it over and over,” he says. “Mine is getting caught in the fifth grade by Jeanine Wilburt on the trail before school. I was walking by and had to go number two so I dropped my pants and leaned against a tree, you know, like I’m sitting on a bar stool, and went.”
We call this propulsive shame memory. An event on repeat deep in the recesses of your heart. The mind has one free second so there they are again, Jeanine’s eyes. She sees you again. There’s no clenching or cutting off now so the shit falls down the bark of an oak tree. Scramble, cry, and burn up from the inside. He needs the world to leave him alone, but it won’t. The constant flow of embarrassing memories can leave your stomach a mess, knotted and pricked.
“I drink myself to sleep. Ambien helps. Nothing finds you then. Nothing, man.”
He tells me that sleep is darkness and mimicked death. Dreams come and true life rings in as anxious nightmares. My friend struggles to sleep and when sleep does come it’s an all night terror. This is what we talk about. Our common ailment. There is a beginning to sleep. A change in your internal weather as you prepare to stop the work of day living. You change clothes and lay on your back in the black and wait for your thoughts to disappear. This is where the troubles lay, in mid-float.
Heartbeat. Anxious breath. Muscles tighten. Sleep won’t come because I’m afraid my insides will erupt, not as a heart attack, but in absolute body explosion. I can feel it coming. My father had a stroke a few years ago and now it is my turn and every night I can feel it coming. Creeping inside, slowing me down. Numb. I play a game. I imagine a closed theater curtain with a name scrawled across it, spotlit. It reads, “vehicle” and I change the curtain like slides in a presentation – car, train, bike, plane, shoes…
The brain focuses on these words and I forget about my potential death. The curtain changes and I lose track so now I’m in junior high trying to flirt with a girl that, I know now, never liked me. I stutter and ramble, reach for her hand. I don’t remember why. The embarrassment and shame hit like they’d never left. My chest stiffens and I can’t move my left shoulder.
I bring back the curtain but this time it’s all soft and forgiving numbers – five, fifteen, twenty, twenty five, thirty…the numbers sputter across like an old blank and white film. A man rides a bike. A horse trots. Twenty four frames per second slowed down to a sleep inducing hymn.
I get a call the next day. We talk about our lack of sleep and the anxiety, but not the cause. There is no talk of where it comes from. It’s hard enough reliving shame, regret, disappointment, and embarrassment in a night-filled empty room, but these things do not need to see the light of day.
“Hey, man. Remember in Fight Club when that dude says getting punched makes you feel alive? I just fell off my bike and had the best night’s sleep ever.”
Something is going to get us, each one, and it will most likely start at the heart. It is an engine and a muscle – it pumps because it remembers to, but it remembers other things as well. It can recall every second of its life, and with little prompting can take you back to places you never want to see again. Joy is an immediate recall. We take photographs of the things we love, the moments we anticipate not wanting to forget. But what do you do with the memories you’d rather not have?
The heart, it will never let the painful memories go. They are yours. There is no beating them out or tying them down. Every failure, embarrassment, and shame are alive as monsters in the arteries. God bless a peaceful night’s sleep.