That one time I lost my mind over a body horror nightmare
In the spirit of Halloween, I’m sharing an essay/story about the scariest thing of all: losing your mind! This piece is unique in that I worked with an artist, my friend Kelley O’Leary, on the imagery. I wrote about Kelley in Part 2 of the The Friendship Series. She’s an interdisciplinary artist exploring the intersection of natural, digital and human systems, themes that are right in line with this strange story. She created some amazing collages using photos Andrew took of me to give life to some of the images in the essay.
No 10 Things this time around. I thought this beast would give you enough to chew on!
Early in the pandemic, it was reported that one of our shared experiences was an influx of vivid dreams. Fantastical and foreboding, our nightly trips were apparently a bridge to the very real anxieties and threats of the material world.
That wasn’t the case for me at first. I was too busy coping – trying to keep up with work from home as my colleagues were picked off one by one in a spree of layoffs. I feared it was only a matter of time before its inevitable terminus reached me, and one day in August of 2020, it did. In the nights that followed, perhaps as my mind loosened its grip on control, I started to dream.
In early fall, following a summer blistering with social unrest, wildfires, and ever-increasing cases, I had a nightmare that was so visceral, it’s making me nauseous to conjure it up a year later.
The disturbing dream snippet went like this: Sitting in the back seat of an old Volkswagen van, I gaze out the window at a majestic tree. Its branches are covered in a pattern of giant… let’s call them seeds. Smooth, black, dime-sized barnacles insert themselves rim-side into the bark’s flesh. Think watermelon seed texture, but rounder and thicker.
The pattern is intricate and beautiful to behold, until it spontaneously propagates itself to my left forearm. The growths pack tightly into the swath of skin – actively constricting, undulating and intersecting across my arm in complex rows. What, in nature, was a gorgeous display of perennial design, transmogrified into corporeal horror.
It was a morning dream. I awoke around 9 a.m. unsettled, but comforted by the knowledge that a nightmare recede from the psyche with each waking minute like the tide. But it didn’t retreat, fade, or dissipate. Instead the waves of the memory eroded my consciousness all day long. At noon, while streaming a virtual yoga class from my living room, it lapped up against my subconscious, insistently, aggressively.
Sprawled across my yoga mat, the image corporealized into a tickle that crawled across the back of my neck. The sensation – peculiar, carbonated, toxic – crept down my stomach and lurched up my throat. The repulsion continued building momentum until the intrusive thoughts succeeded in breaking down a mental door. The one that cordons off the psyche’s dark, spooky corners from its bright, heavily tread hallways.
Lunging off my mat and toward my laptop, I hit “leave meeting” and clung to the table like a victim in a horror movie struggling against some unseen sinister force. To be affected by a nightmare in this way was ridiculous and, annoyingly, unprecedented. Ludicrous or not, I was on the cusp of a panic attack.
I texted my boyfriend to come over. By the time he walked through the door, I was sobbing. “Why won’t it go away,” I wailed, head in hands. Naturally, he was confused. “Why don’t you take a shower,” he offered. “You’ll feel cleaner and that might help.” I rejected the idea, suspecting the mental space created by a shower would only allow the dreamscape to rush back in.
Most panic attacks are somewhat irrational, but succumbing to an abstraction carried over from the dream realm? Nonsensical. Still, my body was convinced it was under attack by the cancerous force. The scene replayed on a loop: round black ovules packing tightly into my skin, growing denser by the moment.
Andrew turned on “Rupaul’s Drag Race” to soothe my nerves. I watched the runway sequence edgily from the couch, but no amount of sickening looks could alleviate the tainted tone of the room. I looked down at the salad he’d brought me. It was topped with black sesame seeds. I turned off the TV and sobbed some more.
“Maybe drawing it would help it go away,” I exclaimed desperately. In an attempt to exorcise the apparition, I traced its sinister seeds on a post-it. “Yeah, good idea, and you could rip it up after,” Andrew added. Through this action, I saw myself from the outside, suddenly aware of just how unhinged I must’ve looked. My grandmother struggled with schizophrenia part of her adult life, and meeting the same genealogical fate used to be my secret fear. Were these “visions” veering toward psychosis, or just a temporary blip?
Just in case, I tracked down a phone number for mental health services in my network. The operator scheduled me an intake appointment for the following week, but mostly I just babbled on about the dream. She gave me a helpline number to talk to someone, a licensed someone.
I didn’t call. Instead I distracted myself with a walk and a podcast, and set up a call with my long-distance best friend Jill for that evening. Reception was bad, but I pieced together some much-needed encouragement.
It was normal, Jill said, to have an abnormal reaction to a world that’s become unrecognizable. Our stress is manifesting in strange new ways, and its effects can take hold when we’re not paying attention. Jill was a conduit for her therapist’s wisdom, and a sage in her own right from years of wrestling with OCD and generalized anxiety. Sharing the evolution of our mental health journeys had always been the bedrock of our friendship.
It doesn’t take research to know that holding our friends hostage to our boring dreams helps us process them. (“It was your house except, like, different…?”) But in a 2020 Vice article, professor of psychology Mark Blagrove described exactly why it’s so bonding. “By sharing your dreams with someone, you may ignite a sense of connection that we're all craving right now….Because when divulging a dream, you inadvertently share something very deep and personal, even if you don’t realize it before uttering it out loud.” I was grateful to be able to connect with Jill through my bizarro issue.
Later that week, I felt connected to someone else, a writer I didn’t know personally, LaTonya Yvette. In her newsletter she recounted a nightmare she’d had, also involving a tree, though it hadn’t laid claim to her body. The dream materialized during the day for her too, seizing her consciousness as she completed daily tasks. I felt buoyed by the parallel, but over the next few days my gut still sank when the memory bobbed to the surface.
After researching pandemic dreams, the implications became more clear. Some scientists consider dreams something of a neurobiological fireworks show – random brain activations that fire off with real-life images we’ve taken in throughout the day. This, I think, is totally plausible. My subconscious could’ve cast the barnacles covering my left arm from my strange, real-life habit of pulling out little arm hairs loosely rooted in the follicles. (The roulette of finding which ones are loose is part of the “fun?” This is not helping my case that I’m not losing it...) I occasionally perform this nervous habit to my left arm, since I’m right-handed. Checks out. The neurotransmitter explanation feels unimaginative, though, like writing it off as simply a consequence of biology.
Similar to the way I prefer fiction over nonfiction, I gravitate toward symbolic schools of thought over practical. A New York Times article published last year included research by Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, and her position on dreams as a metaphoric engine. “Dangers and threats that are difficult to visualize — such as abstract fears, or real invisible hazards like a poison gas attack — often cause similar metaphors to appear across the sleeps of concerned dreamers.” As far as dream symbolism went, the parasitic pattern seemed like an obvious representation of virus anxiety. Or job insecurity or relationship stress. Darker still, it might be a symbol of guilt, nebulous sins for which my subconscious was dragging me.
In literature, dreams often signal a sense of foreboding or even a premonition, as with each of the Bronte sisters’ macabre novels, “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre.” Fictional characters in general are often plagued by dreams that remind them of a past they might long for, or inversely, serve as a premonition of some future occurrence. It made sense that being stuck in an uncertain present would cause the mechanism for exploring the planes of past and future to go into overdrive.
Thinking of the dream in this way, as a bad omen, gave it power. The idea became further rooted as I read Alice Robb’s 2017 book, “Why We Dream.” She writes, “Dreams have often been valued as a window into the future… ‘Beginnings of diseases and other distempers which are about to visit the body,’ Aristotle wrote in the fourth century BC, ‘must be more evident in the sleeping than in the waking state.’” Did my sleeping state suggest an impending illness that was about to visit the body? Or mind?
Two months later, a post in my Instagram feed caught me by surprise. A style blogger posted a close-up cluster of pomegranate seeds as part of her farmers market haul. “Sorry if this triggers your trypophobia,” her caption read. I couldn’t google the term fast enough. Sure enough, trypophobia was a well known phenomenon among internet culture.
Discovering it for the first time made me feel normal in its abnormality: “An aversion to the sight of irregular patterns or clusters of small holes or bumps.” A 2020 academic study described trypophobia as “a modern emotion that can induce strong feelings of disgust.” Conversation around the phobia surged throughout the 2010s, mostly in urban areas. What’s more, it was predicted by Personal Distress “(i.e., the empathic trait of self-oriented emotional distress).”
Interpreting the fear through this lens, like reading the bumps like brail, I could see that the fear might be rooted in empathy toward others who’d contracted covid. Sweet of me, no? Though psychoanalyst Carl Jung warns we should be wary of interpreting dreams in a purely self congratulatory way, contracting the viral seeds as an empathic show of solidarity made sense in a weird way. What was the antidote to fear but connection?
Regardless, the realization that there was a full-on category for my little episode, an actual phobia named after it, was overwhelming. One nightmare, I thought, and I’d picked up a new phobia I’d never heard of? Maybe it was a new footnote in my neurobiological makeup, the way my mom still can’t eat red meat after being repulsed by it during pregnancy. Resigning myself to the mystery of time, I closed all the scary tabs on my laptop.
A few weeks later, I opened an email from my favorite literary magazine, The Believer, promoting their latest comic-drawing workshop. “Draw Your Fears,” it said. The Zoom class would be an exercise in exteriorizing fears via illustration. Here was an opportunity to intellectualize the thing, dominate it with self-aware artsiness. To illuminate my mind’s scary new cave with the warm sunshine of community would be to eviscerate the haunting thoughts.
The “letting go of the past” chapter of “The Body Keeps the Score” posits that very thing, that “seeing novel connections” and flexing the creative muscle of dream interpretation is “essential to healing.” Maybe my instincts – drawing the fear, seeking kinship – weren’t far off.
The instructor first polled the class: What were we afraid of? Some answers were topical and political (Trump), others straightforward and relatable (cockroaches). The example that stood out to me the most was offered up top by the instructor herself: “clusters.” Shudder. Weeks before, I may have wondered if it was a typo. Now, I was juiced up on validation.
The directive was simple: 1) draw yourself 2) sketch the shape of the fear in its exact bodily location 3) adjacent to the self-portrait, personify the fear (fangs, angry eyebrows) 4) contain the fear by outlining it with a border (or even prison bars if you really wanted to show it who’s boss) and 5) draw a dialogue bubble and say something to the fear.
We were invited to share our drawings with the virtual class. Many participants were gentle with their fears. Their cartoon avatars spoke soothingly to their blobby ids, treating them like misunderstood creatures in need of a hug. I couldn’t imagine embracing the malignant growths angling for control over my body.
So I sketched in a thought bubble: “You can’t have my body. I vanquish you!” It was satisfying to expose the fear, but the proclamation felt somewhat hollow. Compared to some of the others’ inviting dialogue, my approach felt clunky and devoid of softness. Why was it so hard to hold space for my fear?
It’s hard to have tenderness for an illegible, amorphous threat, oozing from the dank cavities of the subconscious. Though felt in my bones, it was completely absent from the waking world, rendering it elusive. But since then, over the last clusterfuck of a year, I’ve found I can yield to the mystery and trauma the cluster likely represents, to create space for the not-yet-knowing-the-impact of it all. If only because there is no alternative.
And maybe after all the obsessing, what I needed most from the dream was not a firm grip on its significance, but the knowledge that I had the strength to draw it out and shine a light on it.