💭 • on the value of dreams & chronic pain
Recently, I caught myself running from something. Not from something that I could see myself, but from something that I could see that everyone around me was running from. And so I ran with them. Everyone around me must’ve been really convincing, because I was really running. As I was running I thought about my situation. First, I thought about what I was running from.
What if it’s actually not that dangerous? Was it worth it for me to keep running? Could I safely get away with just walking away from it instead of sprinting? While I thought those thoughts, I also thought to myself “hey this feels pretty good, I should do this more often.” I felt the burn in my legs, my lungs opening up, the wind in my hair.
I ran over the Brooklyn bridge; a version of it with no roads, only iron beams from which people lept to and fro. A version of it that exists in an apocalyptic New York City, at least one slightly more apocalyptic than New York City is now. A version of the universe where I didn’t do irreversible damage to my knees two years ago, where running still feels good.
I have a lot of dreams like that, that start as innocent absurdities. The world is ending. I’m replacing fuel in the space shuttle with a far more dangerous variety, and terrified of the consequences. I’m backpacking with my friends somewhere I’ve never been before but can still give a name to. Then they all start moving in a similar direction. I’m doing tricks on a mountain bike or running around somewhere. It’s usually running. I’m often trying to get away from something or I just realized that it’s a dream and that I can run, and that it feels good.
life with knees
Before I hurt my knees, most of my life revolved around the pleasure that I got from endurance sports. A younger me hated exercise until that younger me got so insecure about his weight and appearance that he started doing the unthinkable: going outside to run. My relationship with exercise thereafter changed into an all-consuming obsession, manifesting itself as a passion for running and biking in stupid spandex outfits. Life was a confusing thing then, (it still is), and I could rely on exercise to make sense of it.
When I rode my bike out into the countryside for hours at a time, I didn’t think about my problems. My brain was busy pumping blood through my heart, moving my legs the right way, expanding and compressing my lungs, and filling me up with dopamine to make me feel good. The bliss that I got from it was mindless. In retrospect, I used exercise more as a distraction from reality than a way of making sense of it, much the same way someone might binge video games or Netflix. That didn’t change the fact that I loved it.
life without knees
Life is different now. To exercise mindlessly would mean to suffer great pain, although moderate exercise is still allowable. However, things like running, hard biking, and 14 mile days while backpacking, are out of the question.
At first, this loss was insufferable. The first year after the accident was one of the most difficult of my life so far, a result of losing a huge part of my identity and being unable to interact with many of my friends as I did before (you can read all about this here). Time did a good job fixing that though, and now I like life again. Some things are still missing, though. Some things that I’ve just accepted that I won’t get to have again. Things like the feeling of:
- my heart racing at 200 BPM, pushing blood, adrenaline, and road gunk through my veins as I pedal hard to the finish so that the rider behind me doesn’t take my place.
- running to music that I love, sliding through crowds and feeling light as a feather as I sprint through my school campus on a busy day.
- being deliriously hungry after a day of riding, unable to stop laughing at the idea of delivery cinnamon sticks in butter all the while stuffing them into my mouth like a fish gasping for air.
- watching the sunset over rural Wisconsin fields at the end of a 112-mile day on my bike tour around Lake Michigan.
All of this, under the influence of pure dopamine bliss; exercise-induced pure mindlessness and euphoria.
Now I always look up how far something is to walk to on Google Maps before I head out. I laboriously research short backpacking routes. I ride an e-bike to keep it light on my knees. I wouldn’t even think of running from something, unless of course, as I mentioned before, everyone else was running too.
My injuries don’t depress me, but it’s obvious that they have a lot of influence on how I live my life. Life without these limitations feels long forgotten, except in dreams.
don’t forget the feeling
They started coming slowly, then in bursts. The dreams I described earlier, places in which I get to live without these limitations, where I often even forget that I have those limitations to begin with. They are worlds where I am free and healthy, free to remember how good it feels just to be alive, and how good it feels to feel that way. This isn’t to say that I don’t feel that same degree of happiness now, but rather to recognize that there are different types of happiness.
The happiness that I experience in these dreams is the same happiness that I once got from physical freedom and mobility. That’s why I love these types of dreams.
I once told this to a friend and they reacted with empathy and an apology. Understandable, because pain is a difficult topic for many and empathy is often wanted by those that experience it. I interpreted their reaction as them seeing my love of these dreams as being a type of sad ideation; a longing for something that I can no longer have. I thought for a while that they might be right. That the joy that I get from these dreams is undeserved, a relic of the past, and should be put away. But now I think that that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Reality and dreams are often indistinguishable. Dreams often require active effort for many people to lift the veil and realize that they’re dreaming. Why should the pleasure that I get from dreaming of a good jog be worth any less than the pleasure that someone gets from going on an “actual” jog? Is my elation from summiting a mountain in a surreal landscape of ice and floating rock any different from the elation of someone who’s just made it to the summit of a “real” hike?
That joy is the product of no sad ideation, but the joy of recognizing the pleasure that our bodies can bring to us. That joy is my brain dropping in to remind me that to be alive is to feel good; to make sure that I don’t forget the feeling.