A Nightmare is Still a Dream

“You’re a literature guy,” they always say to me. “What book should I read?”

“I’m the world’s worst literature major,” I always reply. “I just read the same Joan Didion essays over and over.” Then I either recommend one of my two favorite collections of her essays, or perhaps some Fitzgerald or Steinbeck if I can tell they wouldn’t stand for a collection of nonfiction essays from a different era.

Both because these are the best writers in relatively recent times, and because I haven’t read all that many others.

Especially since I got hit by a car and lost my ability to finish a book.

And because I’ve made just enough money writing about big companies’ product offerings for agencies that made more money off each contract I executed than I made in an entire year.

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* * *

I have feebly asked my truly smart and truly well-read friends for book recommendations many times over the last few years. I immediately stop by a local bookstore, swearing that I’ll be better this time, and I gladly drop sixty dollars to support an industry that doesn’t really support me. Then I go home and open a book, read a few pages and enthusiastically underline a few lines. A headache gets the better of me. Instagram beckons. I need to go for a bike ride. It’s interesting, but it’s not very page-turning. Excuses swirl, and mostly I feel like a post-concussion shell of a human being.

God is more of an idea than something I can feel, books are more of a dizzying collection of letters than my lifeblood, money is something that people make when they know they can wake up and not feel like their brains are failing them before their thirtieth birthday. Even since the accident, I’ve sworn that writing a book was my mission, but I rarely act like it. I found a new type of comfort, and I let myself get swept up in it—a riptide of stylish furniture and nice smiles and peaceful fishing holes. I have hundreds of dollars of unread books on the shelf.

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* * *

I have gifted half-read books to people many times this year. I know they will see right through my glowing review once they reach the point where the underlining abruptly stops, and perhaps they will even find a bookmark still noting the place where the steam ran out.

They will read the whole thing and enjoy it, perhaps give it to someone else in that vaguely romantic way that everyone who shares a book with someone else does. We are always transferring the sum of our romantic energy from one focal point to the next.

* * *

I recently finally read an article that people recommended to me no fewer than twenty times since its publication earlier this month. A few times it was mentioned to me, I nodded and mumbled and all-but-said that I’d already read it. There was a certain shame inside of me for being unable to sit down and read a likely five-minute article that was deeply relevant to me. The article, Allison Tetrick Did Not Sign Up for This, chronicles a professional cyclist’s arduous and ongoing road to recovery after two violent crashes and concussions in a few years’ time. The timeline and aftercare and side effects mirror my own to an uncanny degree. I will now forever use this article as a way to concisely and impersonally explain my reality to people who inquire after it. In the way we always use good works of art to explain things about ourselves that we never quite had the words for.

There are two paragraphs from her story which really stuck with me:

Sometimes I’d feel a little drunk when I hadn’t had a drink. I started getting so tired—not physically, but emotionally. I would get flooded. I’d get in a fight with somebody, and it felt like a water faucet was turned on in my head: It’s almost to my ears; it just covered my ears. Then I’d be staring at this person who was very upset. I knew I should cry: Insert tears here, Alison. Insert remorse, insert sympathy, insert regret. But I couldn’t feel anything.

And:

 I was trying to rewire my brain, with help from professionals, but also my mom. She helped me learn how to read longer things again. We used the Bible, because I already knew it so well. I also went back to school and got an M.S. in clinical psychology. I was teaching my brain to learn again.

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* * *

For the first time, someone put words to the maniacal repetition and inability to read that has plagued my last few years. I have always loved Joan Didion more than anything, but now her familiar five-page essays are all that I can stomach.

A few days after reading Tetrick’s words, I let my guard down and let myself feel  ummeled and exhausted. I gave words to my constant headache and brain fog once again and admitted once more the way my nature and my ‘nurture’ had conspired to make me need quiet and solitude more than anything.

What that meant, aside from the fact that I love people dearly but often grow fully overwhelmed being around them, was that it was time to read.

* * *

I returned home and walked to my bookshelf, which I only recently assembled and populated, finally freeing my books from a year and a half of imprisonment in tattered cardboard boxes. I marveled at the words resting upon my trendy leaning shelf. I looked at books I’d been given, books that changed me, books I’d never read. A physical manifestation of different times and different places.

And, above all, a tangible collection of what I want to achieve. I do not need distractions or white picket fences. I need to write. I need to push myself to the limits so I have something to say. And I need to read what others have said, so that I may remember the vague, gnawing feelings I have all day have names. Even though these days I have a lot more mid-century modern living room accessories than I do recent photos or stories of the types of experiences which make for a rich life or a half-decent book.

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So, this week, I took Tetrick’s advice and started with something familiar. But I am not a categorically good person, nor even a good approximation of one, so I did not reach for the Bible. I found The Great Gatsby and plowed through Fitzgerald’s singsong prose and timeless truth about the difference between love and marriage, money and success. I read a chapter a day until one day I didn’t, and I wavered and nearly lost all momentum. My headaches got worse, almost certainly from reading and being stressed that I can barely read. The next morning, I sat on the front porch and left my phone somewhere in the house, and Hank laid with me and I read until it was over. If I can sit on a bike for seven hours to prove nothing to nobody, then I can read for three. Even if it feels dizzy and unfocused. Even if social media is more psychologically engineered to hold my attention and copywriting is (marginally) more profitable.

 

These days, the creaks and groans of an aging body and an aimless soul are often louder than the outside noise. The vague but piquant memory of feeling the lights go out and thinking they were permanently out slinks into each morning’s repetitive yogurt and coffee routine, into each afternoon’s bike ride, into every time I turn my head too fast in the coffee shop and my vision becomes blurry and I contemplate how much of our reality is dependent on stable senses. On being there. It’s harder every day to get lost in anything at all. Notifications appear. Curiosity creeps. Google Maps is a swipe away.

Last night, I climbed into bed and realized that I didn’t want it to be just like every other night: Scrolling ‘til I throw my phone across the room. Petting Hank and flipping through a depressing news periodical until my eyelids grow heavy enough. Sleeping dutifully and waking exhausted, but insistent on ‘seizing the day.’

So I climbed out of bed and walked into my office, fully naked. I turned on the light and laughed at the fishbowl I was standing in, blinds up, facing the street, looking for a book in the nude. No Country for Old Men. I knew I loved this book, though memories of the first time I read it become more crackled and inaccurate every day. I took it down and knew it was a horrible idea to read about bloody executions in rending detail while lying in bed, already past my bedtime.

Then I read ninety-four pages and stubbornly marked the page, only stopping because some internal clock knew it was likely well past one in the morning. Even the worst novel-induced nightmare is still a dream. And it’s been a long time since I felt close to my dream of writing a book, or to any dream for that matter. It is far easier to get comfortable with what is close and call it “a dream come true” than it is to pursue a dream to fruition. Our cellphones will beam entertainment directly into our eyeballs, no effort required. Nearby people will check enough boxes and so we will shrug and go with them, content to have dinner paid for and a warm body to lie next to, together and yet utterly unknown. The books will remain on the shelf, wisdom from a different time, clothed in jackets from an era when we had someone to discuss them with.

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6 Comments

  1. Dear John-
    Even on your worst day you are still more intelligent and articulate than 99% of your peers. I’m proud of you for persevering through this long trial. You are going to get there again, I’m positive of that.

    Laura

  2. Your thoughts, prose, and photos are first rate. Love getting the (infrequent) updates. Easily my favorite read of the day when it comes thru.

    My wife survived brain surgery 3 years ago and is still fighting mental fatigue. She’s fully recovered her motor and sensory skills, but the brain fog sets in around 9pm. She continues to make slow and steady progress, and reading your poignant work helped me walk a mile in her shoes. Thank you for that. Can’t tell you how much I enjoy your perspective.

    I’m off this weekend to camp with my son. We’ll be taking my old Landcruiser and my all-time favorite dog (a miniature Australian Shepherd). I’m sure you can relate to appeal of the old truck / old dog weekend.

    1. Thank you, Brad! I cannot imagine what she dealt with and continues to feel. Brains are so fickle and weird, and we can be fully ambulatory and functional without ever feeling as “alive” as we’d like to.

      Thankfully, small moments of shared understanding + camping with family, old trucks, and good dogs pretty much always help at least a little bit. I hope y’all thoroughly enjoyed your weekend out and have a great week ahead. Cheers!

  3. John,
    I find your writing incredibly insightful. Yes, you are intelligent beyond your years and can make words flow beautifully together on a page, but many writers can do this. I believe what makes you a gifted writer is your vulnerability. Through your writing and choice of words you so eloquently express your struggles, fears, hurts and weaknesses in a way that others can profoundly relate to. You bring to light what many keep hidden inside. Keep writing because I believe this is what will ultimately heal you!! My favorite quote from your post is, “it is far easier to get comfortable with what is close and call it a dream come true, than it is to pursue a dream to fruition.” This is so true!

    Lisa

  4. Thank you for sharing with all of us your story of recovery. I know I don’t understand at all what you’ve been through so I can’t imagine what it’s like having to relearn things you were already familiar with. I know I’d never judge someone for that and that you should choose to spend your time however you want anyway.

  5. John,
    I did not mean for my previous comment signed by Lisa to to be anonymous. I just wanted to encourage you to keep writing. Google opposite action therapy/ DBT skills.
    It is a practice I learned in the DBT class I have been taking.
    Hang in there!
    Lisa Burton

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