When I was twelve, I had a fever dream.
I saw a few things that couldn?t be real, and they frightened me.
Some background may be in order. What nobody knew when I first felt ill was that I was suffering from an infection of the meninges, the membranes that wrap around the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis…it?s not necessarily a death sentence, but for a while there it was definitely touch and go.
It happened much like this. I had gone home from school one Thursday afternoon with the worst headache of my life. Going straight to bed seemed like just the ticket. Aspirin proved totally useless, as did hot water bottles. All I could do was lie in bed and moan.
Friday morning, I felt no better. I pled illness to my parents and was allowed to stay home for the day. Unbeknownst to my parents, my mild 99 degree fever would eventually burgeon and grow strong, achieving a respectable 104 plus. Time passed.
Now, when your brain commences toasting itself, many interesting symptoms can manifest. For me, they would eventually include severe disorientation, vivid hallucinations, uncontrollable mood swings (mostly between despair and terror), intermittent memory loss, and of course, unconsciousness.
It was my great good fortune that the infection was bacterial, not viral, and that it was caught in time. After a diagnostic spinal tap, a course of intravenous antibiotics was promptly administered, and it worked beautifully. Within a couple of (for me, quite long) days, I was my old self again. Sort of. The kindly doctors had saved my life.
Naturally, I was weak as a kitten. I missed a couple of weeks of school and then spent most of spring break flat on my back. Much bed rest was prescribed. Normal life resumed when vacation ended, but I went back to school a different boy. My bout with delirium had left quite an impression on me. I thought about it at great length.
One thing about a fever dream is that it?s not like sleeping dreams. In sleeping dreams you often are aware in the back of your mind that you are, in fact, having a dream. Bad, scary things may happen but the logic of dreams is such that you often know there?s no real danger.
But a fever dream can crawl right out of your head and into the real world, where it will sit, bold as brass, looking at you. And you needn?t be asleep to have one.
I?m somewhat embarrassed to admit it, even at this late date, but one of the things I saw was little men. Well, they weren?t exactly men. But they were most certainly little, and they were looking at me. They were sitting on the foot of my hospital bed, looking at me, and they were as real as real can be.
But, I get ahead of myself.
As I recall, my dad was the one who drove me to the hospital. I remember sprawling bonelessly across the back seat of his sedan, barely able to place one coherent thought on top of another. I remember him picking me up and carrying me into the building. It was the first time that he had lifted me off the ground in several years and I still remember the feel of it. I remember being put down on one of those examining room tables, the kind where a roll of crackly white paper extrudes to cover the table’s surface. And then, with the exception of a singular occurrence, which I?ll touch on later, I don?t remember anything at all, for the next thirty odd hours.
When I finally came back to reality, it wasn?t all at once. There were a few stutters in the reboot process, leaving gaps in my memory of a few hours each. My first clear memory was past midnight, early Sunday morning. Or was it late Saturday? I wasn?t tracking too well.
I had no idea where I was or how I had gotten there. I was alone in a hospital room in the middle of the night, having temporarily misplaced the memories of my arrival. I was also tied to the bedstead, with minimal freedom of movement. All I could do was lie there and wonder what was going on.
Though I have no memory of my first day and a half of treatment, I was apparently thrashing about and hollering with a fair degree of vigor. It would seem that I was ?fit to be tied?. So that was exactly what they did. Anyway, I was blacked out for most of that time, so I had no recollection of it at all. How had I arrived in this place? Where were my parents? Where was anybody?
After what seemed an eternity of miserable introspection, I began to notice something peculiar about my room. The ceiling kept expanding downward toward me. This struck me as bizarre and sinister. Ceilings should not thrust bulging paraboloidal extensions toward the occupants of their rooms. It was a bit like watching a gigantic amoeba. I tried reaching up toward it. I was certain I could have touched it if I hadn?t been tied down. It was that close.
Eventually, I noticed that threads of shiny green fiber were floating around in midair. They reminded me of spider silk, or thistledown, drifting here and there in the air currents. These threads slowly and subtly adhered to one another, forming bodies of greater and greater solidity. Eventually I realized that they were fish, silky green fish with ornate diaphanous fins, swimming about in the air above my bed.
Now, this troubled me deeply. The bulging ceiling, on the other hand, had ceased to be a problem. Close inspection had shown that it was a gigantic flexible lattice of construction paper, no doubt assembled as a decorative project by the schoolchildren whose treble voices were wafting into my room through the transom window. A window thoughtlessly left wide open, generating a draft, which in turn caused the lattice to undulate…
Of course, there was no transom. No breeze, either. No children. No bizarre construction paper project draped overhead. It was all just a little story my brain told itself, trying not to be afraid. I actually find that rather touching, today. In the midst of chaos, tumult, and unreason, there?s a little part of our brains that bravely soldiers on, trying its best to make sense of things. The flying fish however, proved an insuperable challenge for it.
Watching the fish, it occurred to me that I was probably hallucinating, which meant that I was probably very sick indeed, perhaps even dying. These thoughts preyed on my mind for quite some time. John M. Ford once observed that there are places where the night goes on forever, and boy was he right.
Eventually the morning did come, and with it, a measure of relief. I felt cooler. My head stopped hurting. Time began to flow normally again. In some mysterious, unfathomable way my parents showed up, not just then but also in retrospect (one of them had been close by me or in an adjacent room the entire time). And of course there were doctors, nurses, orderlies, the entire panoply of hospital humanity.
Explanations were made and I understood them. I had been very sick, out of my head sick, but I was getting better. I would be okay. This gave me a tremendous sense of relief. I would be okay!
However, as if to tweak me for unfounded optimism, my delirium managed to crank out a parting shot, those little not-men I mentioned earlier. They were the final vivid hallucination of my illness, so naturally I remember them best. Thinking that I was on the mend, I found their appearance especially disturbing. They were present in broad daylight, while I was awake.
The first one was an animated tiki carving, perhaps a foot and a half tall. It looked like it was made of palm wood, carved and stained red, with some ivory inlay work. And even though it had no real eyes, only carvings, it looked at me. I could feel that it had a mind, that it knew I was there, and it was perching on the end of my bed, staring at me.
In a way that wasn?t clear to me, this tiki-thing changed into something else. It became a wizened, leathery monkey-demon dressed in a blue-gray leather greatcoat (with ornamental ermine crescents, no less). Though it pretended to look the other way, I could see that it was watching me from the corners of its eyes.
Again, this was very distressing to me, and on more than one level. First, no one likes to be eyeballed by a monkey-demon, even under the best of circumstances. Second, and more importantly, I had thought that I was getting better. If this was true, then why was I still seeing things that couldn?t possibly be there? These creatures may sound utterly ridiculous as I describe them to you, but the sense of immediacy they projected was undeniable at the time. They looked so solid, so real in every detail. They didn?t seem at all dreamlike. They terrified me. So you can imagine with what a sense of relief I observed the monkey-demon transforming into my blue and white diamond-patterned pajama sleeve.
What an idiot I had been. I was staring at my own forearm! I had mistaken my own pajama-sleeved forearm for a Tibetan monkey-demon! And by the way, the creature really did give off a Tibetan vibe. It was unmistakable. Luckily, it wasn?t real. It was just an optical illusion, magnified by my illness. Just a bad dream after all. Here were my good old familiar pajamas, and I could safely go back to sleep, which after some consideration, I proceeded to do. When I awoke again, some hours later, I realized that I wasn?t wearing pajamas and never had been.
It was just that good, brave little brain part, still soldiering on. Well done, thou good and faithful cortex.
So what did I take away from all this, that hadn?t been there before? First and foremost, it made a skeptic of me regarding the validity of religious revelation. Not too surprising, I suppose, as I was already inclined that way. Though I had been brought up as a Christian, and was a devout believer till I was six or so, I had long since lapsed. Dinosaurs killed my faith. Galileo and Giordano Bruno helped them out a little. My hallucinations were the final coffin nail.
I’m not dogmatic about it. Perhaps there really is more to this world than what we perceive. In fact, taking the pedant’s perspective, there most certainly is. But the fact that we can’t see x-rays or infrared isn’t what I’m talking about here. Rather, I’m talking about my distrust of, or disbelief in, what for lack of a better term I’ll call the spirit world. My hallucinations helped make a materialist of me.
Sometimes, when people of faith have tried to explain their lives and choices to me, they have made an argument from personal experience. They’ve said they had a feeling. They sensed a presence. No, they didn?t actually hear the words of thunder or see the angel’s wings unfolding in molten glory, but they had a very strong impression of presence and communication.
They had an impression.
It hardly seems fair, does it? The Israelites got Burning Bushes…Parted Seas…Pillars of Fire. When God spoke, he shouted, and there was no room for misunderstanding. As a child, I longed for that kind of certainty. I wanted my own Pillar of Fire. Not the Salt though. Please, not the Salt.
In place of that simple certainty, we moderns have had to settle for subtle inner voices, and our faith has evolved from received wisdom about “what everybody knows” into a kind of test of character. How well can we hold on to our faith, in the absence of clear and convincing evidence? Faith, we are now told, is belief without evidence.
So we are reduced to grasping after feelings. I’m afraid that’s just not enough for me.
I mean, I saw flying fish, and it wasn?t on the bloody Road to Mandalay, either. Does anyone believe those fish were really there?
I saw little man-things at the foot of my bed, and they looked just as real as my day nurse. Does anyone seriously entertain the notion that those creatures were really there? A week later, I realized I’d seen the tiki thing a year and a half earlier, at Disneyland. I don’t know where the hell the monkey-demon came from.
If a few mites in the meninges can cause such spectacular apparitions, how then can we be be certain of other, equally improbable perceptions? Do our brains always have to run hot before we generate (tactfully, now) dubious inputs? I’ll bet they don’t.
That singular occurrence I mentioned earlier? I dreamt that I was floating in air, looking down at my own body. This was shortly after my dad brought me into the hospital. So, I guess I?ve had an out of body experience. I’m sorry to report that there was no white light, no tunnel, no welcoming presences. Nor did I feel any great sense of comfort or easeful rest. I was just hanging near the ceiling, looking down at myself. Then I lost myself, and the world, for the next day and a half.
Should I trust the evidence of my own senses and believe that my soul temporarily left my body? I think not. When I had recovered a bit in the following days, I recalled that peculiar vision and concluded that it was just a dream, my first major hallucination. A harbinger of the many more to come, most of which, mercifully, I will never recall. Reliable observers have assured me that I was not having a good time. They also inform me that I was intermittently lucid and capable of brief conversations. I don?t remember that at all. But if I accept the disembodied soul hypothesis as real, what then am I to make of the flying fish, the transom, and the little men? Nobody else saw them.
This puts me in a peculiar position. I have actually experienced one of the defining, gold-standard mystical experiences, and I just didn’t believe it. There’s no pleasing some people.
My tentative conclusion, then and now, is that we are our brains. When our brains stop working properly, so do we. Pneumococci invaded my brain-lining and the world went crazy. Reality went away, then came back twisted. In the following years, I’ve seen nothing that changes my mind about that.
We are our brains. Which has led me to certain other conclusions, some of which you know.