5 - In Dreams“Last night somebody broke into my apartment and replaced everything with exact duplicates... When I pointed it out to my roommate, he said, "Do I know you?” -- Steven Wright
While that has always been one of my favourite jokes by Steven Wright, my all-time favourite stand-up comedian, it rings a bit too true to me now. Coming up on six months since the stroke, this entry will focus on one of the more "difficult to explain" experiences I've faced: Altered perception of reality.
I once listed the phases of my first few months post-stroke as follows:
- Thinking everything is just wonderful. (Euphoria)
- Thinking there is something horribly wrong with everyone and everything around me.
- Realizing that the "something wrong" was me.
- Realizing that the "something wrong with me" was my brain.
- Shock and confusion.
- Discovering slowly through time and many Google searches what exactly was wrong with my brain.
- Learning what could and could not be done to fix it.
- Learning to adapt with what I can not fix.
- Everything since then...
Okay, so maybe I've included a few more phases now at the end, but I've come farther since then. Regardless, that is essentially the path I have been on since mid-October. If you include back through mid-September (what I call "negative time"), it would include a few phases involving a lot of paranoia and delusional states... but I'll write about that in another post.
The joke at the start of this entry relates very directly to the second phase in my list. For about a month or so, I felt that absolutely everyone and everything around me had somehow turned "different." Like I had been plopped down into an alternate dimension where everything and everyone was exactly the same, except ever-so-slightly different in a way that was practically undetectable. I could feel it, but I just couldn't figure out what it was. There was just something... off. Everything had been replaced by duplicates... Exact duplicates. This was my toothbrush, but it wasn't my toothbrush.
This sent me into a constant state where I was silently examining absolutely everything and everyone for any differences. The subtle details. The little things that, upon discovering them, might provide some relief to this feeling of everything being "wrong." I had friends that definitely treated me differently, as if they were replaced by evil doppelgangers. People close to me seemed angry with me quite often... which in hindsight was likely just my inability to read facial expressions, body language, and vocal cues.
I recall one night sitting on the sofa watching TV, and I glanced at the clock, realized how late it was getting, and thought to myself "I should be getting home soon." The problem with this was simple: I was in my apartment. My pillow didn't feel like my pillow. (I have since bought a new pillow.) My clothing didn't feel like my clothing. (I have since purchased new clothes.) My kitchen didn't feel like my kitchen. (I have since rearranged nearly everything in the kitchen, and even as recently as yesterday continue to do so.)
Some days, sitting at lunch listening to my friends talk (This was before I was able to really join into conversation again, so I sat listening a lot.), I would observe how much like themselves they still were, even though I felt they weren't my versions of those people. It reminded me a lot of the "Redverse" and "Blueverse" versions of characters from Fringe. Different versions of the same people are still the same people, right?
Once I made it through the next few phases and all of the inexplicable shock that followed, I came to understand that it was not the things and people around me that had changed... It was how I perceived everything. I was no longer understanding reality in the way I used to. Visually, it was all pretty much the same, but the feeling of everything was different.
To help people understand in a way I think most have experienced, I liken it to those dreams that are not good dreams by any means, but are not necessarily nightmares either. Those dreams that just feel dark and unsettling, and for some reason stick with you for days after you awaken. The problem I face is that I am awake for all of it, and the closest I get to "waking up" are the occasional days when I feel just a little closer to reality than I do most often.
A recent documentary called "My Beautiful Broken Brain" described it as "living inside a David Lynch movie." Those of you familiar with the extended works of David Lynch understand exactly what I mean. That scene in the diner from "Mulholland Drive" is a prime example. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yusKlHgtvIE) I live that each and every day. Sometimes it's a little more like "INLAND EMPIRE" which is a film I won't even bother trying to explain. You kind of just have to "experience" it... but I also wouldn't recommend that.
It's not so much that I experience a "different reality" so much as I experience the same reality in a different way than I used to. The world around me feels more ominous and foreboding than it did before. Things feel darker and the air feels thicker... As if every bit of joy and hope has been sucked from existence, and I'm pushing my way through a post-apocalyptic wasteland that only I am aware of.
As I become more and more aware of the differences in my perception and reception of reality from how things "really are," I have to adapt. I can now better interact with the world around me, because I know what "my" reality correlates to in "yours."
I explained it to a friend the other day in terms of seeing color differently. (An analogy, as I don't think I see color any differently, but who knows? Maybe I do, and I just don't realize it yet.) If I began to see "blue" as something more "dark pea green," I would, for a while, think things are dark pea green... Once I become aware that what I see as dark pea green is actually what other see (and I used to see) as blue, I can begin to interact with those things as if I see them as blue. I wouldn't, but I could "act" as if I did. I could say things like "That blue car over there..." knowing that others see blue even though I would be seeing dark pea green.
I'm getting used to my new reality. I have to. Until my perception returns back to "normal" (which it might never do), I don't feel I have much choice but to adapt. Sometimes I might seem perfectly fine to others, and for the most part, I kind of am... It's not entirely bad understanding the world around me in a vastly different way than I did before. Knowing that the world is still the same as I left it, it's easier to embrace that I simply receive it differently.
It's a whole new world to explore, and it's all mine.