Exam Anxiety

Right after waking up I realized with a start that I have a crucial exam today. Even worse, I’ve been procrastinating studying for the test, and not even going to the classes, besides. Now, Exam Day has arrived, I am totally unprepared, and I am well and truly screwed. How could I be so stupid and reckless?

The next thing I know, I’m rushing through the empty, echoing halls of the building, looking for the room where I’m supposed to take the exam. Everybody else must be in the classroom already! Unfortunately, in my rush to get here I obviously forgot to write down the room number where the exam was being given, and now I’m frantically racing through the empty hallways, trying to find the right room before the test starts. My anxiety level shoots through the roof, and I think: I am a colossal idiot to have foolishly gotten myself into this horrible predicament.

At about this point the conscious brain takes over and realizes that I’m a 60-year-old lawyer who doesn’t take classes or critical exams any more, and I wake up with a start and a racing heartbeat.

Why do I still have exam anxiety nightmares, even though I haven’t had to endure a crucial exam for more than 30 years?  It’s apparently a very common dream, and no doubt it’s because those long ago days of actual winner-take-all exams with real-world consequences engraved permanent, scarring concerns deep into the dark, twisted world of my id, where they are ready to spring forth with only the flimsiest excuse. Expose me to any unusual stressor, and that night I’ll probably be kicking myself once more because I’ve blown off the class and Exam Day is here. Yesterday I took some on-line training modules that ended with short quizzes that you needed to complete to show you’ve paid attention. I got passing scores, and I could have taken the quizzes over even if I didn’t get a passing score the first time around, but perhaps even that limited, low-pressure exposure to simple testing is enough to trigger the bad dreams.

It’s sad to think that I’ll probably continue to be haunted by the specter of long-ago exams for the rest of my life, but at least when I wake up I have the pleasure of knowing that the days of all-or-nothing testing are behind me — except in my dreams.

Falling Nightmares

Normally I don’t remember my dreams. Since I’ve started using crutches, however, I’ve started to have vivid nightmares about falling.

If you accept the standard explanation of dreams — that they are a kind of post-day brain dump, when the conscious brain is out of it and the subconscious brain riffles through the images of the day just ended — my falling dreams shouldn’t come as a surprise. I know that I can’t put weight on my left foot, because it would painfully bend the steel pins in my toes and make them harder to extract. So, even something routine, like a short trip to the bathroom, becomes a cause for careful attention and concern about a slip and fall.

But there’s more to it. I scrabble up the stairs on hands and knees, dragging the crutches up the stairs with me, then use a chair at the top of the stairs to rise, balance, and get the crutches under my arms so I can move along. The transfer from chair to crutches is inherently unsteady, and I’m doing it balanced on one foot at the top of the stairs, wondering if a loss of balance will send me tumbling down the steps. The same process occurs when I go down the stairs, of course. And then there’s the silly worry about somehow falling out of bed and landing on my bad foot. I’ve never had that happen before, but now the possibility nags at me.

I don’t ever remember having falling dreams before, but they aren’t very pleasant. They’re not limited to the bed or stair scenarios; just about any falling context will do. I awaken with a lurch, arms flailing and grasping for a hold, heart pounding, hoping that the startling experience doesn’t itself cause me to tumble to the floor.

I hate these dreams. For years after I finished any form of schooling, I still had the occasional “failure to study for an exam that’s happening today” dream, and they never failed to get my pulse pounding. Now I wonder: long after these pins are removed and I’m walking normally again, will I continue to have these scary falling nightmares?

The Raccoon Beneath The Grate

A raccoon, and perhaps a family of raccoons, appears to live in the storm sewers in our neighborhood.

Once, on a morning walk, I saw a hunched shape scrabbling across the street and toward the sewer grate in the pre-dawn darkness.  The raccoon plunged into the sewer.  When we passed by a few moments later, it was there, wearing its mask, perched just beneath the grate, its beady black eyes glittering with the reflected light from a nearby street lamp.  The dogs lunged toward it, and it vanished.

The encounter gave me the creeps.  I have no interest in dealing with potentially rabid creatures, and I don’t like the idea of raccoons using the storm sewer as a kind of vagabond superhighway underneath our neighborhood.  Now, whenever I pass the sewer, I can’t help but look to see whether those black eyes are there, staring back.  Usually they aren’t, and I start to think that perhaps the raccoon is gone.  But every once in a while the eyes are there again, following our movements as we quicken the pace to get past the grate, and I shudder anew.

I don’t remember my dreams when I awaken, but I’d be willing to bet that those beady black eyes through the sewer grate have appeared in a nightmare or two.

 

Please Don’t Record My Dreams

The BBC reports that scientists now believe they can develop a system to record people’s dreams.  Their plan is to electronically visualize brain activity and identify dream themes by mapping activity in individual brain neurons that purportedly are associated with particular individuals, objects, or concepts.  The idea seems far-fetched, and the scientists concede they are a long away from actually being able to capture dreams.  I really wish they wouldn’t try.  We’re all better off, I think, if our dreams splinter into hazy fragments and vanish from our consciousness the moment we awake.

I almost never remember my dreams; I only recall those that are so deeply disturbing that they startle me into wakefulness and survive the forgetting process that accompanies the first instant of awareness.  And when you remember your “bad dreams,” you realize that it is not only the topics of the dreams that are troubling, such as being chased by a menacing dark figure or realizing that you are late for a final exam in a class that you have blown off since the semester began months ago.  Usually the physical context is equally unsettling, like suddenly finding yourself buck naked and running down a street in some creepy part of town or sitting with a long-dead relative in a cold, dark house where the walls ooze blood and there is a screaming face visible through every dusty window.  If every dream is so weird, wouldn’t remembering them all just be psychologically traumatic?  And, in a perverse way, wouldn’t it be an embarrassing let down if the vast majority of your dreams instead turned out to be boring downloads of what you did during the day?  Who would want to relive a humdrum workday?  Maybe we instantly forget our dreams because they are so dull.

I don’t know whether dreams are attempts to communicate with us from the Great Beyond, or extrasensory perceptions of future events, or just the products of random electrical discharges in an exhausted brain that needs to wind down after a tough day — and I don’t need to know.  Just let me get some shut-eye, and leave my dream life alone.