Monday, July 18, 2011


I sometimes wake, middle of the night, in claustrophobic panic. These bouts tend to follow dreams where I am either encased in a cage so tiny I cannot move, or even stretch, or I am imprisoned by paralysis in my own body.

Last night I woke from a dream in which C. was nursing a wound on my back. I was otherwise free, mobile, able to move about.

That was the weird thing. It was a claustrophobic dream that involved none of the usual limits. Yet I woke desperate to free myself.

Over the hour or so it took to return to sleep, I realized that what provoked the panic was my inability to engage my own body freely, that there were parts of it out of reach, out of my control.

My body is my cage. Always.

In the light of day this is a strange fear. For it is a normal condition. Only a contortionist could have free access to his back, and perhaps not even a contortionist. The fear owed something to time: it was the middle of the night, it was dark, my bearings were off.

Have you ever had an itch inside somewhere that cannot be scratched satisfactorily from outside, and scratching inside is, well, impossible? It was a little like that, only larger.

I suppose what I fear is diminishment, the steady loss of my ability to do what I have to do to sustain myself.

These fearful dreams are generated by my growing awareness of mortality. I am as healthy as ever, but I am grown old enough to know that time hence is shorter than time whence. Death will come, and most likely it will come slowly, marked by punctuated disabilities until, much to my horror, my body is the limit of my waking world.

This is normal. Most of us will not avoid that fate.

But I don’t want to live for years, months, or even hours in the panic that I experience after one of these fearsome dreams.

This realization led to another last night: that claustrophobic panic arises from fear of mortality – it must, for what else would arouse such fear? – yet, in its grip, what I want is an end to it, death.

So is it death or suffering I fear? For me, suffering is caused by constraint, limit, lack of control, finitude. And here is where there may be therapeutic hope.

If fear is provoked by limitation, or finitude, and if the fear of the finite is sprung, not by entrapment itself but mortality, and if what I want - might even seek - to end the panic of death's experience is death, then death is both source and solution of my fear.

Perhaps that is less a therapeutic hope than a hideous moraine, the narrowing space between a rock and a hard place. It certainly gave me much to ponder in the night.

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