Every now and then, I move through a day with what I’d call a dream hangover. I wake from a dream whose meandering turns and visual details completely elude me, but a strong feeling or aura persists. A vague but lasting mood, after some kind of loss or growing-pain, some encounter, not necessarily traumatic, yet a compelling mystery once I step out of bed.
Other dreams that retain some clarity – images, scenes, people, familiar or not – I can metabolize. They usually evaporate by the time I’ve made coffee, with a ‘hunh’ and a shrug. But when all that persists from a dream is this vague aura, it won’t step out of my waking hours.
When I was very small and this happened, I didn’t want to talk much that day. My people – whom I loved and depended upon – somehow annoyed me to no end. I would hope our backyard swing-set was empty. Then I could just pump my legs out and up and curl them back, make my own hangover pendulum under whatever kind of sky. Maybe I’d skid my sneakers to a halt, then flop onto the seat on my belly and push off, to watch the worn dirt and pebbles rise and fall, rise and fall, beneath my face.
Even as a little kid I would wonder who? As if a soul were trying to communicate with me, inside these dreams. As much as anything, it felt like a message in a language I didn’t understand. Now, decades later, it still feels much like that. And I still don’t understand! No symbols remain to turn over associatively. I still don’t want to talk much, still want to focus on dirt or sky, if I can. The woods are there for me, and irregular phases of lap-swimming. Like swinging, contemplation without direction. My mood doesn’t necessarily dissipate, but I can absorb it, make another layer of the mystery of myself, of being human at all, in a living body.
Acting works something like this for me, after taking on another persona. Especially the specific kind of acting, in “End-of-Life” and “Pediatric Bereavement” workshops, through which I’ve lost countless babies, 10-year-olds and sisters to infection or brain-death. There’s no separation from an audience, with a stage or set of microphones or movie-screen. The audience is right up-close, maybe touching your knees, a hand on your shoulder, box of tissues offered, tears in the eyes of the audience of care-providers, as well as your own eyes. Maybe another ‘family member’ is leaning in, or turning away from you on the same couch. The grief and pain reach across a very small space, so there’s no ‘cheating’ like you can do on-stage with certain techniques. You have to feel it – to pull up from your own losses and pain, or dig a quick well into the most unimaginable pain and grief, moment by moment and from inches away.
If you’re familiar with dramatic techniques, I would guess this particular work most closely requires Method Acting, Strasberg’s extension of Stanislavski. Think Brando, DeNiro, Day-Lewis – inhabiting a character’s affective and sensory memories, animal work. But even they couldn’t touch or smell their audience.
Our care-teams (earning CME credits or being paid) weren’t so much an audience as part of the same ‘company’ living through our series of scenes (patient meetings). They lived it every day; they knew exactly how all that felt. Our goal was to provide them a realistic experience in a safe place, then offer patient/family perspective and feedback at the end of the day. To reinforce supportive and helpful behaviors, and suggest alternatives to less-than-supportive ones. If they could better support actual families, could the consent rate for organ donation improve?
I learned about this realm of work from my cousins’ Aunt Barb in Annapolis, just before she moved to Denver. They held a picnic in the late ‘90s, and Aunt Barb and I got to talking. She said, “I hear you joined the Screen Actors Guild. Have you done any ‘medical acting’?”
I shook my head, wasn’t even sure what that meant. (I had been a marketing manager while in grad-school for my MFA in writing, and had only recently pursued working on film and TV sets in DC/Baltimore, after many years away from performing.)
“I did a lot of it at ___, for their med-school.” She described working on students’ learning and testing events as a ‘trained patient,’ inhabiting a specific and repeatable patient case. Sounded so intriguing. (I had worked in hospital-education and done medical research, years earlier.) Only a week or two later, a posting on an actors' hotline caught my eye. “___ is seeking individuals to portray family members in end-of-life scenarios. Please send your headshot and resume to …”
Within a month or two I was getting my TB test read (a hiring requirement) and a “limited time” employee badge. Before we hit (and survived) “Y2K” I was learning about brain-death, organ donation and consent rates in the U.S. to prepare as a ‘standardized sister’ for interdisciplinary team workshops. During training, Dr. Mike, the principal investigator, asked if we’d had any experience with hearing this kind of news.
I described how, in high-school, my boyfriend and I drove up to a party to find a crowd standing around someone in the street. “That’s my brother,” my boyfriend said. Kelly had been crossing the street when a drunk driver hit him. At the nearest hospital in Bethesda, we waited with a core of friends in the lobby, and were told, “if he survives, he’ll be a vegetable.” They used that word. Some vague time later, Mr. H. burst out of the family meeting room and fled through the front doors to the parking lot. Someone came out and told us Kelly had died from his brain-injury.
(I’m realizing that night, and the many days afterward, felt like one of my dream hangovers.)
Dr. Mike assured us that the term “vegetable” was no longer considered acceptable. Tom, my ‘brother-in-law’ for all these workshops, said, ‘I’ll put that in my pocket’ to use, if it felt right.
Tom also became my husband for an annual Pediatric Fellows workshop on bereavement. We would lose our 18-month-old four times (‘back to one’) during one long morning. Then the brain-death investigators added a 10-year-old version to the organ-donation workshop.
We were busy. Hundreds of our closest family members died, over and over. With our counterparts and back-ups, Neva and David, Tom and I became unusual grief-companions, maybe in the way you hear about the bond between war-buddies.
Every Monday and Wednesday, Neva or I lost our only sister and Tom or Dave lost their wife. We worked for weeks, months, then years, sporadically. We “took the show on the road” to other hospitals and other settings, like a Med-Student Association seminar. Each time feeling-and-conjuring, in real-time, our grief for the death of our sister or wife. The grant revealed an increase in the hospital’s consent rate (for actual organ donations) of something like 60%. The Pediatric Fellows workshop (each couple losing our child 4 times, with different pediatrician teams, over one morning) continues to this day.
The medical director offered us psychiatric counseling if we wanted it, as post-traumatic support. I still appreciate his understanding, even now. At times, we coped by way of gallows humor, creating musicals when we were the back-up pair, observing remotely on monitors. (Think “The Wizard of Oz” and alternate lyrics to the Munchkins ‘she’s really most sincerely dead.’) The four of us have gotten together over the years, and we still talk about one of the neurologists, who, unbelievably, wore a dangling silver earring of a human skull swinging back and forth, while she told us of our beloved’s brain death.
That kind of acting, a chronic-inhabiting-of-most-intimate-and-powerful-emotion? For me, yes, like my dream hangovers. After we’d finish each iteration of loss, I didn’t want to talk to anyone for hours, maybe not until the next day. I wanted to swim laps, or go to the woods. David once described how difficult it was to explain to his companion, “how long it stays with you.” Yes. This was not like other stage or film work, with costumes or wigs to transition out of backstage, the visual details that one could metabolize and release before stepping outside, in one's own clothes and natural face.
Yet, we were trained to provide constructive feedback based on specific behaviors -- actions, words, not vague mysteries. “When you described the process of removing her organs while drawing your thumb down your own chest, we felt traumatized – like seeing her get cut open. Perhaps if you simply described that in words, without the gesture …”
But while the details could evaporate, often by the time I headed home, I was left only with the mood, the aura of the day.
Much of what persisted depended on how the team/audience had cared for us that day (even though my sister or child had died for the nth time).
Had we been supported? Did the team offer empathy, some silence, or were they bombarding us with physiological neurology in medical jargon? Did the team seem to get along, the doctor, nurses, chaplain, social worker, transplant coordinator, or was there some underlying but perceivable friction or disunity, which then impacted our little family (more than they might guess)?
When I have one of those occasional dream hangovers now, I wonder: Is the nebulous ‘communication’ I've long sensed a question of my relationship to others, both living and long-gone, with a certain harmony or discord, even with souls I don’t remember knowing – long before me? Is that even possible? Messages without alphabet or phonemes, still impactful, even sensory? Could they be messages from me to myself, even as a young child? How would that work?
Your guess is as good as mine. I am none the wiser about anything, including these dreams and their lingering affective shrouds.
And although I’ve experienced this as long as I can remember anything, I have to thank this past year for bringing into high relief the weave of dying throughout life. Not just conceptually or epidemiologically – or intimately enacted! -- but even closer to home and heart, for so many of us.
Coincidentally, by sheer inertial virtue of my staying on the employment rolls of the institution that Aunt Barb pointed me toward before we left the 20th century … I got my second dose of the Moderna vaccine today. All I needed was the online identity and my ancient ID badge from the late '90s around my neck. (Sometimes I save the right things.)
And I got that second dose at the very same hospital where Kelly died from traumatic brain-injury, after being hit by a drunk driver at age 15. Now and then, my acting husband Tom would stalk out of the room at the news of our child’s death, knowing that’s what some fathers need to do. Without realizing consciously, I must have remembered both Kelly’s father and Tom inhabiting that feeling, that physiological impulse to flee the worst news imaginable, as I walked from the lobby to the vax room.
I must have woken up when the greeting nurse said, “Got your CDC card from the first one?”
Tom walked in today for his own second shot as I waited through my 15-minute 'recovery' in a comfy chair. The nurse asked him about his Broadway-themed mask when he sat down, and we three talked about shows we had seen and wished we had seen before the pandemic, restaurants that had closed and managed to survive, her niece that loves the theater.
Okay. Not such a mystery, maybe, why I’ve been thinking about these lifelong clouds of emotion without words. Every year a good year, for dream hangovers that don’t dissipate, for drawing up from our wells of dreams and memories – however we need them or don’t understand how they might hold value. This past year, for the nth time, was no exception. We can absorb all its vague yet affective auras, and make another layer of the mystery of ourselves, of just being, inside bodies. Miraculous, that alone! While still here, and sometimes, awake.