The Academic Terror Dream
I am 61 years old. The last time I took a meaningful test was when I took, and passed, the last 2 (of 5) days of licensing exams to become an architect in 1982, 35 years ago. But 20 years of testing from grammar school through licensing exams infected me with a disease so deep it’s unseen, unfelt and without consequence. Unless I am asleep.
By any objective estimate, I have lived a blessed life. I may have worked hard, but I have been given every advantage by circumstances I did not control, and any talents I might have were simply honed, not created by me.
I have a faithful life partner of 36 years and we love each other. I have 2 diligent, honorable, accomplished and drug-free children – who have survived to adulthood with no diseases or calamities – just as my wife and I did and have.
I am a white male with a semi-graduate degree from a semi-Ivy League school – any problems I might have are poster children for “check your privilege”/First World annoyances in a life of unending mercies and Grace that I did not and do not merit, achieve or earn.
I earned none of this. I have been given everything. I am blessed by God – I know that like I know my bald spot grows with each evidence-producing shower. I am fat, though less so. I deeply enjoy the gourmandy things too much: food, brown alcohol, animal fats. I can be the loud-mouthed, ego-projecting profane guy you just want to shut up. I know all these things.
But there are some things I simply do not understand, and maybe never will. I do have a very specific form of brain damage. I am afflicted, most nights, with “night terrors”. Nightmares are the only dreams I have (or remember). They are universally about my incapacities: a bad thing happens because I screwed up.
But the worst of these afflicts almost everyone I know: The Academic Terror Dream. You pass by a friend, now or 45 years ago and they casually say: “Are you ready for the test?” Or you see a sheet on a bulletin board and it gives the notice of an exam. You have not been to the class in months, or ever. This brain damage clearly happened before the InterNetWebs as my terror never begins with an email or tweet or Facebook post.
I actually knew people who experienced this exact scenario in college. I failed 2 courses while overloading to get out a semester early. These things happened, I witnessed or lived them, no one died, nothing went off the rails into oblivion. I was actually, mostly, a good student, and tested very well, unless asleep – and yet there is no terror greater in my life than these dreams.
In The Academic Terror Dream drama once I am made aware of the impending exam, I specifically eschew studying, I procrastinate, I try to do anything that avoids dealing with this deadline. I have even told myself, in mid-nightmare, that I am dreaming: it does not matter. I prevaricate, I dawdle, I lose control, completely.
I am terrified. I am usually in motion, making my way, clueless to the test. I can be naked. I can be 18. I can be inside, outside, in space – but I am terrified because I am alone, have failed to address something threatening me over a long period of time, failed with no reason or excuse: I failed. I failed. I failed:
But I always wake up before I sit down and fail the test
When these dreams happen, as they did but 1 hour ago, I awake with a soaked pillow and deeply shaken, and I cannot shake the terror. It abides, often for hours.
Why? There is a clue. Have you noticed how much “I” is used in this recap?
When you think you create everything, as my brain did and does with these night terrors, it voids the Grace that blesses me every day. There is no faith in anything if that faith is in our ability to control.
Newsflash: we control nothing. If we could control anything we could control our grief when love dies (emotion or corporially manifest). If we could we would control unreasonable realities like getting cancer or having a child you cannot understand.
We control the tiny things: right now I am doing the 61 year old version of working out to forestall an earlier death. I will go to work today, and 6 or 7 days a week for 10-14 hours for 51 weeks a year as I have for 40 years and push to create things that increase beauty and leverage money to live on. But those vanish when things no one controls control you.
The Academic Terror Dream is completely terrifying because it screams that you are actually out of control, 24/7/365, and that lack of control is The Worst Thing Ever. Until you wake up.
Unlike the graces I have been given, this visitation of the dark side is faithless, it is the distilled embodiment of an essential residue of ego that trusts in what I can do – versus gratitude and belief in the unmerited Grace my life is a testament to.
Unlike the “I get it” I utter when the unreasonably good thing happens, when this dream, inevitably, with no trigger, takes over my brain I am without solice, perspective, or the Grace that passes all understanding.
Because it’s all about me.