Blahs and Bad Dreams in the Pandemic's Fourth Year


For as long as my mushy cerebral cortex has had folds, I've been blessed (or cursed) with vivid dreams. In them, my subconscious tends to take on actions I avoid in real life. For instance, I am a pretty low-conflict person. I don't enjoy fighting, and I can't remember the last time I yelled at another human. I am more likely to bottle feelings, go to bed and chew through my mouthguard during somnolent screaming matches, Academy Award-winning, guttural performances. I wake up ready to be even-keeled and likable again.

I often remember these dreams. I've read about why this happens for some people and not others, and the reasons are vast and varied. Most researchers agree, though, that we remember dreams that are so intense they shoot us awake from the depths of REM slumber. We remember the ones that really rock us.

To wit, my dream last week:

I hosted a get-together to test out my fledgling manicure and pedicure skills on close friends, skills I do not have in real life. But in this dream, I wanted to learn something new and take a low-pressure step toward becoming a nail superstar. My brain had assembled an all-star cast from the spectrum of my life: friends from middle school, high school and beyond, plus a wildly strange collection of co-workers. My co-workers are reading this wondering if I did their pedicure in a dream, but I might take that information to my grave.

Quickly, the group ballooned to 20 angry, impatient people. I realized doing manicures and pedicures on everyone would be a 24-hour affair and I was just one person. Everyone wanted something specific, complaining about the temperature of the water, demanding nail art for which I was not qualified! After finishing nails on two so-called friends and accepting that it was impossible to please everyone, I woke up from the depths of REM with a dream I have chewed on ever since.

I'm extra reflective this time of year. Early March has been riddled with outsized anxiety since 2020. Each time a social media memory pops in from moments before the pandemic's true scope emerged, it feels like a ghost of a past life floating over the bed. I recognize that person going to a party and running a 5K, but I can never fully be her again.

She isn't traumatized in the classical sense, because others endured far more loss and pain, but she has hairline fractures. She doesn't look the same, dress the same, feel the same zest about making plans. She is older and more tired, which was going to happen no matter what. But she wonders if another version of her would have popped out more spry, less tentative, with better-fitting pants.

Is this new person stuck, succumbed to the comfortable habits of home? Can she try anything new and stick with it? Can she locate her former trust in humanity, or did humanity eat it up? She wonders if the people gathered in her house for pedicures truly believe in her or if they are heavy with judgment, whispering about her inertia while staring ahead with their own dead eyes.

I can't articulate the confusing Ides of March better than Jon Mooallem in the latest New York Times magazine. He attempts to make sense of the nuance of a cultural narrative still forming. Read the entire thing, even though he acknowledges you don't want to. That is the point: "As we enter a fourth pandemic year, each of us is consciously or subconsciously working through potentially irreconcilable stories about what we lived through -- or else, strenuously avoiding that dissonance, insisting there's no work to be done."


He asks, what is normal? Perhaps it's an impenetrable concept worth abandoning altogether. "The weirdness we've felt since -- what's still making us wobbly now -- may be the strain of trying, as hard as we can, to crank that busted machinery of normal back on," he writes.

While this one, stupid dream means I am overdue for nail services, I guess it also means whatever I want it to mean. So, I think it means this:


We can't pretend we should be the same as the people in those pre-pandemic photos. We can't pretend to have infinite energy to please everyone we have ever known, pretend we are not cynical, bruised, harder, older, sadder. We can't pretend to be normal because normal is a construct, and constructs are handles we cling to in search of certainty.

The blah. The blah is the work. The blah is the good space, the space where we can reset, find a new goal, energy, faith, the next steps forward in this house of mirrors. Because by pushing every blah feeling down, we leave our subconscious to do the hard work in the middle of the night. It's not fair to ask the brain's default network to locate the exact right shade of blue sparkle polish for a friend who is out there walking through the same hazy, unbelievable dream.


Stephanie Hayes is a columnist at the Tampa Bay Times in Florida. Follow her at @stephhayes on Twitter or @stephrhayes on Instagram.

Copyright 2023 Creators Syndicate Inc.




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