Toad in the Hole

August 21, 2005

That Recurring Nightmare

I've been rassling with some paid work lately, so I haven't been blogging much.

Last evening, I saw something in one of Pharyngula's comments that answered a question I'd had in the back of my head for decades, about a possible reason for a bunch of anencephaly and meningocele admissions we'd had in the NICU I worked in 20 - 25 years ago. (To condense: Anencephaly, especially, correlates with high fever at a certain stage of pregnency, so, say, a flu epidemic could lead to a rash of cases.)

Last night I woke from a familiar nightmare I hadn't had in a long time. It's effectively the nightmare many of us have about school: last day of the semester, there's a vital class you haven't gone to or known about all semester, and there's an exam foir it now, and you can't find the room and/or you've forgotten the name and of course you don't know any of the material. Modify ad lib, but it seems to be a common dream.

After I started my brief (just under a decade) nursing career that dream switched for me. I'm at work in a hospital, and it's the end of the shift, and I realize I've forgotten to even check on one patient, or I had one patient I somehow didn't know about. Ungh. I call it the same dream because it feels the same.

Last night's dream involved not just one but several patients; I was assigned a few on one floor and a few on another, in a weirdly chaotic situation. I didn't know any of the nurses around me (which was the case most of the time when I worked out of the registry the first year after school; a nursing registry is a temp pool for nurses and allies) or much about the layout of the place (ditto) and this one was set in a series of open-air mezzanines, which was actually pleasant. It also had lots of new tech stuff that I wasn't familiar with, which would actually be the case if I were to go back now.

As I hastened to leave so I could get to my car in a big parking garage on the other side of some bigger, airy, glassy civic space, an opera house or something like, I was angry, fearful, of course guilty. I was telling myself I didn't belong in this job, I wasn't suited for this kind of work -- along with the big Oh Shit! and Now What? and Is Patient OK? and a very primitive Am I Caught?/How Do I Cope? that all occur simultaneously in that dream. I think that anger was new.

I wonder about the structure of dreams. Mine are rarely coherent narratives, so I typically have trouble describing them. They're vivid pictures, sometimes tied together, sometimes abruptly and mysteriously switching. Maybe I forget the transitions. Maybe I don't bother with them. Sometimes I suspect that there really isn't any narration to my dreams, that they're a succession of feeling-states that I attach narrative to by way of rationalization and explanation, or as a memory aid.

The image I have of this is of being suspended in water on which floats a swirl of colors, like the setup one makes with water and oil paints in a pan to make marbled paper. When I wake up, I'm being drawn up out of the water and the narrative, the pattern of swirling paint, clings to me in whatever order it happens to occur on the surface. But it's almost incidental to the dreaming state -- except that the light coming through the surface to where I'm dreaming is colored and patterned by the floating paints. Still, the pattern I've been dreaming underneath is only a little like the pattern left on my skin when I've been drawn up through the surface.

Posted at August 21, 2005 05:45 PM


I've had that same anxiety-laden dream. Mine is usually set in college, and I can't find the classroom, or I don't know my schedule, or I never bought the textbooks. It visits me, with some variations, during stressful times. But my dreams are coherent narratives. Something happens and usually involves me moving through the campus or the office building. I hate those dreams.

Posted by: pablo at August 23, 2005 09:14 PM

That's it, that's the dream.

I was in a Usenet conversation a year or two about it -- it's amazing how common it is. When you're in highschool, it's a highschool dream; in college, it's a college dream; I have it on good authority that in or after gradschool, it's a gradschool dream.

I do move through things in my dreams; it's just that it's one scene after another, rather than a chain of cause and effect. If I describe them, I find myself saying, "And then I was in..." a lot.

I wonder if it's a more "intellectual" version of the caught-in public-without-your pants dream.

Posted by: Ron at August 24, 2005 07:29 AM