Michael Wolf
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A Bad Dream
Last edited - 2023/05/20

In the idle mental moments in which my hands were occupied putting some toast into my mouth this morning I was wondering what I could write a blog post about. It's been a couple months since I wrote about a snow shovel. But there hasn't been much interesting going on around here. Another nature blog post? I feel like I'd be talking about the same things. A cool computer-related write-up? I haven't had the capacity to work on anything technically or even personally interesting in a long time. The projects are piling up and the things I feel qualified to write about is seeming to shrink. However, this evening I was once again struck by the memory of a particular nightmare that has been weighing on me. It's fairly unique in my experience of night terrors-- creeping into my waking hours and tainting what should sincerely be some of the happiest times of my life. I've spent a decent amount of time rolling it over in my head, intent on dissecting the vision and rendering it less potent. Yet it remains. So here I'm laying out a somewhat uniquely raw description and analysis in the hopes that writing it down to be comprehended by another will allow me to step away from it and overcome it.

Right off the bat I'm going to put up a big ol
trigger warning. See that shit? Red font. I never use that. Serious business. Do consider passing on this one, dudes.

Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
- Bene Gesserit "Litany Against Fear", Dune

It's corny as hell to be consulting a novel for genuine psychological guidance, but 1. Dune is incredible 2. it feels relevant. I've got a bad habit of worrying: triple checking everything, mentally planning for outlandish failure scenarios, letting small things bug me until I go and fix them. Honestly those are pretty useful professional exercises for a site reliability engineer, but outside the computer world it generally leads to me panicking others and making rushed decisions in my own inability to process information slowly. So as I dig into this nightmare, I'm reminding myself of the impartial description I need to make. It should have no place in my mind. And I have to hope that dream prescience, like that of Paul Atreides, is indeed fictional.

The Dream

It came on a night where I lay back at home at last from a trip a timezone over. The dreams during that trip had all been relatively vivid (alcohol-induced) though I can't remember any of them and couldn't at the time either. This one was fairly normal though not particularly pleasant. I'm playing an RPG-like video game (curse you, video games) and being swarmed by vaguely defined zombies of some kind. It's not a particularly stressful pursuit dream or anything. I've got a weapon or whatever and sort of just going around the zone doing what RPG video game protagonist do-- killing stuff without really thinking about it. But there's this one little zombie that's pursuing me. It's not too fast, sort of stumbling along and going "ma mamma ma ma" at me. I'm sort of peaved that I can't shake him or take him down. Maybe he's respawning or something, but eventually I'm like okay let me just drop something heavy on it. So I do and it's like a comically heavy object that just crushes the zombie who didn't even see it coming-- just gets pinned down to the ground instantly and dies with a little pop. I feel some other presence with me then an impartial revelation that the zombie was my toddler son. The curtain falls on the dream and I move on through dreamland.

That may have been my last dream before waking, but I don't recall waking up in a cold sweat or anything. I've woken up from nightmares-- falling ones often-- in a much worse state of mind before. Yet, in this case, I just started my routine moments later. Being back from a short vacation I had plenty of things on my mind. I got all the way through breakfast when my son came walking toward me from down the hallway. He's just started walking unsupported this month, with an unsteady toddle, hands raised and always the biggest beaming smile. He comes straight for me with same excited "ma ma mamama ma" in the dream with just so much love in his eyes. I'm instantly back in the dream, paralyzed. I see the weight falling down on his innocent little body that has not even the slightest suspicion of what's coming. And the pop. That fucking pop. It's the sound of his skull busting open and shooting a green/red fluid out of the brain cavity and onto the floor. More than anything else, it's this imaginary sound effect-- something like a bubble popping but with the visceral sensation of a pimple. Then comes the sinking realization of what I've done in this dream. I've killed my son in real life while acting in accordance of this dream. So I'm here in the hallway, holding my son so incredibly tight and he has no idea what's going on. He just wants to go read Green Eggs and Ham or open-and-close cabinets or something.


I've had bad trips before. I've needed to be restrained from jumping off a balcony because I felt I needed to die to ascend. I've needed to restrain others so they wouldn't try to lay down on train tracks because they thought they were already dead. This dream feels so much like a bad trip but I can't shake it. When my mind clears from LSD or salvia (man, fuck salvia), even the worst ego-death dimensions melt away into a hazy memory being replaced mostly with a sense of guilt for losing control my body and saying stupid shit. As an aside, this is not a diss on psychedelics-- they are wonderful and I feel like much of the anxiety that drives bad trips comes from the fact that they are (mostly) illegal. Trip in nature, folks. But to those who haven't experienced a bad trip, I recommend you this comic (original). It's stupid, right? "Ha-ha silica gel won't break you out of the simulation." But dream logic can make total sense. And if dream logic has hold of your physcial body you can fuck up really bad in the reality that you're used to enjoying.

I've had uncomfortable pseudo-flashbacks to acid trips where I see floating patterns with my eyes closed (level 3 closed-eye hallucination), but nothing that's genuinely impaired my sanity. So this dream has shaken me substantially more than any bad trip. I haven't even taken an ego-death-dose of psychedelics in at least 3 years. Yet I still have that sense of doom that I will somehow lose control of my body and decide to kill my son only to regain control (from what?) and reap the rewards. So I'm acting superstitiously and paying extra attention to any sort of falling object. I'm reinforcing the brackets holding our bookcases to the wall. I'm getting an arborist's assessment of large trees that are at risk of falling. I'm trying to only put light items on top shelves. And to be fair, this is a net-positive for the safety of everyone in the home. We had an earthquake a couple weeks back that didn't do much but rattle the doors, yet I happened to be awake worrying about trees that might fall in the next snow storm. So I recite the Litany Against Fear. This dream was the creation of my own fear. If there were ever anything to happen to my son: it was my idea to move to the woods, it was my idea to let him do x, y, z. It's completely useless to assign blame, but I'm sure any parent-- especially a first-time parent-- would understand.

That's perhaps the source of the novelty here. (DINKs avert your gaze/roll your eyes) I love my son more than anything I have ever loved. Sure, I love my partner, but I can see myself being able to maintain the will to live if they were to pass. Maybe that's fucked up? One of the things that had been on my mind around the time of the dream was a thoughtless remark to my friend on vacation. His partner was having to take a long detour home on some windy roads. I, for some reason, blurted out "man, I hope she doesn't die." And it ruined his night. He was lost in thought waiting for the message that she had gotten home. But I think about death all the time; casually, somewhat always in the back of my mind. I'm not sure it does me any good, but there it is. Now, when I have this person that I love so far beyond any relationship I've ever had, and I think about their death-- and beyond that an intentional death at my own hands. Then I am in this mindset.

Finally I guess there's the more abstract interpretations to consider. I was away for a weekend. Was this some sort of expression of that guilt for having left him? Again, it's irrational. I doubt he even noticed I was gone. Then there's the frustrations of raising a toddler. Sometimes I'll get angry or scold him. And for what? For crying when he doesn't yet have the means of communicating what he wants? What does he learn from that? It can't do anything but hurt and confuse him. So maybe that's how this metaphor is applying: my shitty temper landing on this little boy who feels nothing but unbridled love and adoration for me. And I guess this is the part of the blog post where I start tearing up. I'll perservere, my blog-cum-shrink. Here I dig into how my life has changed since becoming a father. Here I express those idle thoughts about whether having a child was the right idea. And here I firmly state that fatherhood has become the foundation of my being. If all other reality fades away, I want to still be there holding my little dude in the nothingness.


Do I ever feel like I could actually hurt my child? Absolutely not, never intentionally. It isn't like there's some kind of persistent voice urging me to violate what I hold sacred. Even if I have intrusive thoughts they are mostly about jumping off high ledges (I have developed acrophobia/agoraphobia). I feel like my son and I have built a strong bond in the short time he's been around. We play and read. We laugh and giggle. We walk all over holy hell. When he started wobbly walking I was so proud. I can visualize it so clearly-- his beaming expression, maybe a hand in the mouth, falling into my arms at the end. And now it's tinged with that dream. I've got hope that when he nails the balance thing, the flashback to the dream will fade. Even now, I can go for periods of time without being able to summon up the emotional impact that comes along with the objective description of the vision. As I write this, I can't even imagine the terrible pop sound. I'm just thinking along the lines of a party popper or fish-emulating lip smacking sound. It's macabre when combined with the imagined scene, but it's not tearing me apart.

I'm glad I decided to finally talk to my partner about this and that they encouraged me to write everything down. There's always the risk that this will make it stick more firmly in my memory but I don't think it can be remembered any more clearly. If you have read through all of this, thank you for taking the time. I hope that you can take the time to go and cherish the ones you love. Death is unavoidable, but you can keep it as a reminder to enjoy what you've got rather than let it be a parasite on your mind.

Oh hey I guess I should update my old dreaming blog post too.