When I encounter one in fiction, I know that the author is going to try to “reveal” something about a character without doing any of the heavy lifting that real plotting and character development and dialogue require. The more “structured” the dream is, the worse it is.
Dreams are, by definition, exposition. They’re telling, not showing. At the very least, they’re a narrative crutch for writers who can’t see their way forward in the plot. When a writer clears the stage of real incident and relationship and cause-and-effect, and starts editorializing about a character’s inner life by using brain-chemical shadow play, I’ll start skipping ahead. Tell me what’s really happening, I’ll say, not some free-associational aside functioning as a story-telling convenience.
I bring this up because I’ve been having some absurdly realistic and involved dreams lately. Structured dreams, if you will. Last night, I dreamed about a young North Korean woman escaping her homeland. She crept out, under cover of darkness, onto a desolate beach and inflated three or four sturdy-looking rubber balls or floats. She put these balls into a net, fashioning a kind of crude craft, and then waded out into the surf with it. And she was at sea for a long time. When she was rescued by a Russian fishing boat, she was covered with sores.
Where was I, during all this? Hold on, I’m getting to that.
My father adopted this North Korean woman; she was a student of some sort and she came to our house to live. My childhood home, that is, of thirty-some years ago. It turned out that the Korean woman was a genius at agriculture. She had devised a series of revolutionary farming methods that greatly increased crop-yield. Within a few days of moving in with us, she installed a lot of irrigation widgets and mirrors and beehives and such in our backyard. Right, mirrors. Anyway, she became very famous. At the end of the dream, a limousine arrived at our house, sent by one of the morning TV news shows–the Today show, maybe–and took the woman away.
I’ve been having dreams like this all week, highly structured dreams complete with everything but title credits and paid-for consumer product placements. What does this particular dream say about me? I’m not sure, because I was hardly in the damned thing. But I know what to blame it on: my decision to stop taking Xanax for a while.
I had a friend years ago, back in the mid ’90s, who I talked to about things. Things that were bothering me or even personal things. Confide might be too strong a word for it, but we talked about things. And around this time, I was having some cataclysmic mental events. Moods that would descend on me and pretty much incapacitate me for hours on end. Many hours. It would be difficult to think clearly or even move about. Feelings of hopelessness and paranoia and being trapped. Devastating episodes. This didn’t happen often. Maybe three or four times in the course of a year. Enough to be noticeable.
I don’t remember what made me bring it up, but when I mentioned this state of affairs in passing to my friend, she didn’t hesitate a moment with her reply. “You have bipolar disorder,” she said. “Pretty severe bipolar disorder.”
I probably rolled my eyes and smirked at this, dismissing it outright, which only caused her to stop in her tracks on the sidewalk. We were on the street in Manhattan, somewhere in midtown.
“You know that, right?” she said. “You have bipolar disorder. I’ve known you for years, and you’re a textbook case. What you’re describing is a panic attack. You should see a doctor. There’s medication you can take that would help you.”
She said all this in a matter-of-fact tone, the way you would say, It sure is great weather we’re having. She was a lot smarter than I was. She knew a lot more about the world than I did. We were both in advertising then, but she’s a lawyer now.
Anyway, I completely ignored her advice. There was no way I had bipolar disorder. There was no way I was suffering from panic attacks. These were things that people in Woody Allen movies suffered from. They were afflictions for people who could afford luxury afflictions. People who could worry about ephemeral things of no consequence to people with real problems.
People who came from where I came from had bad moods. We had weak moments that came as a direct result of not sucking it up and toughing it out. If we felt suddenly bereft and terrified, we probably had it coming and would be well served by manning up for a change.
It would be years before I would mention any of this to a doctor. In the ’90s, I didn’t even have a regular doctor. After I got married, I went to my wife’s doctor. I was one of the very few male patients at a doctor’s office that was called, no lie, Women Helping Women. I’ve been taking Xanax on and off for years now.
I might start in with the Xanax again, I don’t know. Some of these dreams, it’s half a day’s work just sleeping through them.
Related: Reflections In Compressed Time
Related: Sleeping With The Angels
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