Throwing nuts at the cheetah

I had a really troubling dream just before I woke up this morning.

I was walking through the woods with two friends of mine. It was almost like a jungle or rain forest – the air was very humid and the trees were huge and spaced apart, and the forest floor was quite open — not a lot of underbrush, but springy underfoot. We were walking along a wide path that was well-worn, and we were talking about this and that. I believe we were discussing possible dangers from big cats that had been seen in the area.

If I remember correctly, the woods had been cleared of all dangerous wild animals a while back, but some big animals had escaped and had returned to their habitat, so hikers were warned to be very careful and not engage them.

We walked and talked for a while, and I was picking up stones and nuts and old pieces of tropical fruit that had fallen from the trees. I was tossing them around, and my friends were getting irritated with me. They wanted me to stop, but I didn’t feel like talking with them. They were just running at the mouth, and I was getting overwhelmed with all the words.

We were passing by an open clearing that was raised up above the path, when we looked up and saw a cheetah sitting in the sunlight. It was a beautiful animal, so sleek and strong. It also looked very dangerous and wild. My friends said we should walk by it slowly and not bother it. They were both terrified of it.

I was thinking that I knew how to deal with a big cat. I’ve learned (for real, not only in the dream) that with big cats, if you come across them, you have to face them down. Make yourself as big as possible and stare them in the eye. You cannot show any fear, and you cannot turn your back on them, because when they hunt, they go for the back of their prey’s neck. If you do show them fear, or you turn your back to them, they instinctively attack and go for you. This is why joggers and cyclists are often attacked by mountain lions in California — they have their back turned to the animal or their heads are down, exposing the backs of their necks, so the big cats attack.

I wasn’t afraid of the big cat, and I felt like I needed to show it who was boss. I also felt a kind of rush from the imminent danger — Here was a cheetah! A big cat this close! We were in danger for our lives! I felt that familiar rush of adrenaline that sharpens my senses and pumps me up and makes me do things that I would not do under normal circumstances. Something in me surged with daring, and I took a nut I’d been holding and threw it at the cheetah. I felt a thrill of danger course through me, and I cursed myself for having thrown it at the cat. The nut bounced near it, and the animal flinched, and it looked like it was going to back off and leave us alone. My heart was pounding and my mind was calculating what I would do in response to it. I was watching it very, very carefully, to see what it would do, and for a few moments, it looked like the big cat was going to withdraw into the woods and leave us alone.

But then my friends got very frightened that I’d thrown the nut at the cat, and they started to freak out and panic. My one friend started to shake and quiver, and my other friend, who is a bit overweight and doesn’t move very quickly in real life, took off running down the trail. In my dream, I was thinking, “What are you doing?! You’re going to catch its attention! Why are you running from a cheetah? You can’t outrun it! You have to stare it down. You have to stand your ground!

I looked up at the big cat and saw it had suddenly spotted my friend. in an instant, it recovered its composure, sprang into action, and raced after my friend. It looked so beautiful in motion, all its sinews taut, its coat shining in the sunlight that filtered through the canopy above us. But my admiration was short-lived, as it caught up with my friend, grabbed them by the back of the neck, and started to run off with their body dangling from its jaw.

Frozen with horror for a moment, I took off running after the cheetah, yelling at the top of my lungs and willing myself to run faster. I was convinced I could catch it and wrestle my friend from its grip.

The big cat was very fast, though, and it was way ahead of me, with my friend’s body hanging from its jaws. I was horrified and mortified, and my other friend was screaming at me for throwing the nut at the cheetah and making it angry. In my head, I was trying to calculate how far the cheetah could get, carrying my friend’s heavy body, if I could catch up with it because it would be slowed down by the weight, and if I could get to it in time to save my friend. I suspected that my friend had been killed instantly, or that even if I did catch up, the cheetah would be eating them, so there wasn’t much point in my running after them.

Plus, I ran out of steam after a few hundred yards, and I had to stop. I was so upset at what had happened. On the one hand, I was upset with myself for throwing that nut, but I was also upset with my friend for not having better sense, and I was upset with the whole chain of events that was probably killing my friend.

I woke up very disturbed around 5:00, and I haven’t been able to get back to sleep.

I think that this dream has something to say about a lot of aspects of my life, these days. I have a lot of people around me who are very frightened for me, as I talk to them about my TBIs and the issues that go along with them. They’re like the friends in my dream, who just want to walk along quietly along a well-worn path in the woods, chatting about this and that, not really bothered by anything… cognizant that there are things amiss in the world, but not really eager to confront them.

There’s also a part of me that’s like that. I don’t want to be bothered by dangers in the woods. I want to just go along my merry way and not have to expend a lot of energy on things like dealing with large dangers that I come across.

But there’s also a part of me that gets bored with all that safe stuff, and I need to occupy myself. So I do things like picking up rocks and nuts and old pieces of fruit and tossing them around. I get bored pretty quickly, so I start casting about for new things to learn and do.

And sometimes my casting about uncovers big dangers along the way. Like this diagnostic imaging I’m going to have done — an MRI this weekend, and an EEG in another week or so. Who knows what will be uncovered as a result of that? Sometimes I cast about a bit too freely, and I can end up stirring up things that are unexpected and potentially dangerous… but are actually authentic pieces of my human experience.  (The interesting thing is that the cheetah in my dream actually belonged in the woods — it was its home, and it had just returned to its rightful place.)

Sometimes I cast about too carelessly, too — like tossing a nut at the cheetah. Or, I take a calculated risk and push the limits. In my dream, I didn’t just toss the nut at the cheetah for fun — I did it partly to show it that I meant business, and I wasn’t intimidated by it. I also wanted to scare it away. And it almost worked. But my friend with the weak nerves had to take off running — doing exactly the wrong thing, in that situation. They didn’t have the same information as I, apparently, and they let their fear get the best of them. And then all is lost.

This is pretty significant to me, in my real life experiences with others, because as I move forward, I’m going to have to educate the people around me about my condition(s) — TBI, etc. — so that they learn how to respond appropriately to the situation I’m in. I really don’t need them to freak out and get all worked up over things that A) we don’t know for sure, or B) are big and dangerous but are totally manageable with the right information and the right team of caregivers. I don’t need them to lose it and put themselves — or me — in danger. I need them to be cool, be present, be able to help in a substantive and constructive way.

As I go through this next phase of diagnostic testing — maybe it will show something, maybe it won’t — I need to keep my head on. I need to take care of myself and take things slowly, and not only know why I’m doing what I’m doing, but be clear with others why I’m doing it. Everybody needs to be in the loop, and that includes the parts of myself, too, that are prone to freak out and make poor choices out of fear, rather than knowledge and courage.

But at the same time, I also need to be cognizant of my tendency to court danger, as some kind of reflex, some inner/neuropsychological/biochemical need to sharpen and brighten mylife experience… to wake me up and keep me engaged in life. I need to be aware of my tendency to overstep my bounds, when I’m bored or tired or in need of some stimulation. I need to remember that, when it comes to taking on new challenges, I’m not always as smart as I think I am, and I’m not always up to the task of overcoming what I’m presented with. I can’t afford to forget that I rarely know as much as I need to know — either about myself or the situation I’m presented with. In my dream, I couldn’t chase down the cheetah, once it had hold of my friend. And I can’t always overcome my cognitive and behavioral issues as well as I’d like, once they take hold of me and get a ‘running start’ ahead of my logic and innate abilities.

When (not if) I meet a proverbial big cat on the path through my own “woods,” I need everyone with me — the parts inside and the people outside — to remain calm, make informed choices, and keep their heads. I need to focus on the basics — take care of my body and my mind and my spirit, with adequate rest and activities that feed and sustain me and build up my strength (not to mention common sense). And I need to be aware of my limits and not push them carelessly just because I need a thrill. I need to be aware that I do have a tendency (perhaps thanks to my PTSD) to court danger, just to feel awake and alive. And I need to remember that I’m much more use to my friends and family alive and healthy, than injured or dead. No matter how dangerous a situation may seem, the right information and the intention/willingness to intelligently proceed in the proper way can mean the difference between keeping on my path and making progress, and disaster.

Note to self: Get plenty of rest over the coming days and weeks. You’re going to need it, to do a decent job of handling all this.

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