Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Deep in a dream

I have been in doubt whether to share this experience. It is far too personal. But there are people out there who will have been through something similar, and you, my dear reader, can experience it one day, or your loved one. This is a kind of thing that we know happens but “it cannot happen to me”.

Let me tell you: it can.

Since I am alive to tell the story it obviously had a positive outcome, but most of it is my reconstruction based on what I have been told. What I remember is bizarre, as dreams are, and unless I had evidence of a plastic hospital ID-band (and, presumably, a record sent to my doctor), I might believe that I have dreamed it all.

What I know for sure is that last Sunday I went out for dinner with a colleague visiting Cambridge. The day before, we worked on our joint paper. Staffan drove me to the restaurant, picking up G from her place on the way. I remember ordering, and I remember the canapés and the amuse-bouche. I remember we talked about taking a cooking course in Italy. I eventually remembered, on prompt, that we discussed G's son's scholarly plans. The next couple of hours is a second-hand narrative. Apparently, we had a lovely meal, except that one course contained peanuts, which I had firmly told the waiter I didn't want because I had eaten this course previously, and although I am not allergic to peanuts the taste was too strong for the delicacy of the rest. There were two desserts, and apparently I liked one of them better than the other. G paid the bill, as agreed, the restaurant called us a taxi, we chatted and made plans for meeting on Tuesday afternoon to work further on our paper. G got off at her place, and I continued.

There is no clear evidence of the following, but I got home, supposedly paid the taxi and opened the door with my key.

Staffan's evidence is that I was cheerful, telling him about the meal, including sending the peanut dish back to the kitchen. According to him, I changed into sleeping gear, presumably brushed my teeth, took my pills and went to bed.

Next, some hours later, he heard me calling from the bathroom. He says I was lying on the floor, with my legs in the bathroom and the rest of me in the corridor. I could not get up, but, he says, told him quite soberly to call an ambulance. When we arrived at the hospital, I was asked lots of questions to which I, Staffan says, replied coherently and accurately, in the right language. Among other things, they asked me when the Second World War started. They took blood tests, blood pressure, ran me through brain scan, did all kinds of tests. Everything was fine. Only I don't remember anything of this.

As I said, dreams are bizarre, and I dreamed I was in an ambulance, but I had been inside an ambulance, although not as patient, so I wasn't at all perplexed. The ambulance was going back and forth between home and hospital, and I thought it was fortunate that we live so close to the hospital. (We don't. We live on the opposite side of town from the hospital. My work is close to the hospital). I dreamed that I was lying on the floor in a hallway of an unfamiliar apartment, and again, I wasn't surprised because that's the kind of things you dream. It wasn't in any way an unpleasant dream so I wasn't eager to wake up. I dreamed somebody asked me to look up and down and left and right, and this is exactly what my optician had done last Saturday so it was quite logical to dream it, although in the dream it wasn't my optician but some weird figure from a horror movie. I dreamed I was telling people around me that I was in withdrawal because, close after kidney stones, medical withdrawal is the worst experience I have ever had in my life, and I was very anxious that they gave me my pill. I also dreamed that I was in a euthanasia clinic in Holland, as described in Ian McEwan's novel Amsterdam, and that people around me were just hallucinations caused by lethal drugs. I wasn't particularly upset about it because in the dream it was all properly pre-arranged. I dreamed they pushed me into a tunnel for brain scan, but in the dream I knew it had happened many years ago in Stockholm, so I wasn't worried. There was something else I was worried about in connection with the brain scan, possibly that I would get lost in the corridors – just as you do in dreams. I was worried that they would forget to bring me out of that tunnel. I dreamed I was wearing my blue fluffy slippers and wondered why. I dreamed I was dizzy and thirsty and had to use the bathroom. I frequently dream that I have to use the bathroom and cannot find it, or the toilet disappears just as I am about to sit down. Therefore I wasn't at all surprised when they moved me from the bed I was lying on to a chair with a hole. It's just the kind of thing you dream. (I checked with Staffan later – it happened). I was anxious that I had to attend a symposium (which had been last Friday). I often dream that I am at a conference and don't know what I am supposed to speak about. I was also anxious to know why G was in Cambridge because it didn't make sense, but then of course it was just a dream. I was still begging for my pill, but they told me I should take it in the evening, as usual. I said it was evening and I had to take my pill. I continued insisting that I was in withdrawal and therefore dizzy. Someone without a face told me I was getting anti-dizziness injections which I found pleasurable. I was not at all surprised that I was in hospital, but I was surprised that I was wearing my bathrobe and fluffy slippers. Yet this is exactly what happens in dreams: you dream you are in front of students in a lecture hall wearing a bathrobe and slippers. I was embarrassed because my nightgown sleeves were frayed. Also, the world was blurry (Staffan had not brought my glasses). They told me I could go home soon, and I thought it was fortunate that we lived so close to the hospital. There was no sudden awakening and realisation that I had been dreaming; everything was clear and logical. I asked Staffan what day and time it was. I got scared. I wasn't sure what had happened and what had been a dream. I kept asking the same questions over and over again until he told me, mildly, to shut up.

I read some work on memory studies for my recent research project, and what I know is that every time we retrieve a stored memory it gets arbitrarily connected to something else, real or fictional, and stored again in a distorted form. It is therefore pointless to try to remember. What I may now think I remember can just as well be a false memory prompted by something I have been told. Let's face it: I have a total memory gap of fifteen hours during which people around me perceived me as rational and coherent.

They think I fell and hurt my head. It's a theory as good as any other. Why did I fall in the first place? They think I had an ear infection. But all tests were normal.

“Humans are suddenly mortal” (Bulgakov). Yet another reminder of your own mortality is never pleasant, but it is also a reminder of utter vulnerability. I didn't do anything wrong to cause my fall. I cannot prevent it happening again.

This very moment I should have been on a plane to Bergen, Norway, going to a conference that I had been very much looking forward to. It is not the first time I have to cancel conference participation at short notice. I never learn. But it is the first time I have experienced amnesia. I don't like it.

Conclusion: once again, appreciate the time you have, because you don't know when it may run out. Value people around you who spend the night in hospital beside you in an uncomfortable chair. Reconsider your priorities. And make sure your nightgown is not frayed.

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