Walking on Sand

A story about truth in dreams

I go on walks when I feel depressed. At the time this happened, I was going on a lot of them.

I was nineteen, feeling like I was belly-flopping my way through life. I was renting a place in Tacoma with my college roommates during what was supposed to be my sophomore year. But because of some (mostly unavoidable, agreed upon) gaps in the appointment cadence with my therapist over the summer, my medical withdrawal from my freshman year had not come to a conclusion that the bureaucrats found acceptable. In late August, they denied my application to come back to school. I had already moved up here.

I was working at this greasy pizza place in the Proctor district. Most of my time there was spent cooking Philly cheesesteaks. There were free dinners in it for me, at least. I brought home pizza from work sometimes and my roommates would thank me. I smoked a lot of weed and I listened to music and wrote a lot of shitty lyrics to pass the time. We jammed in the basement almost daily. There was a lot of music in my life, for which I was grateful, and still am. I was going to therapy. I was surrounded by friends. I was in a good place. So why did I feel like shit?

I'm on a walk one day in a neighborhood adjacent to mine. The neighborhoods here are great for meandering and admiring houses. I turn down a street I've never walked before, idly watching house after house leap between different architectural styles as I let me feet carry me wherever I'm going.

It really doesn't feel like I'm going anywhere and I wonder if I should even try.

I try to push the thought out of my head, which is what these walks are for.

Suddenly I'm somewhere else. I look around, it's nowhere I recognize. The houses have changed. It's not just an unfamiliar street, I'm in a different neighborhood. It dawns on me that I'm in a different city.

I have somehow wandered down to Sacramento, my hometown.

As I let my feet carry me further into this riddle, my brain churns through my recent memories in search of something that could explain how I got here. Amnesia seems most plausible. I have a sense that it's the same day. I was walking in Tacoma, and now later that day, I'm walking in Sac. But how? Why?

I try to think of the minimum amount of time it would have taken me to get here. From the look of the skyline, I'm in West Sacramento. The flight from SeaTac airport is about an hour and a half. Getting through TSA and to my gate, an hour, and that's cutting it close. Forty-five minutes to the airport from Tacoma, at least. Another twenty once I got down here, to get to this neighborhood from the Sacramento airport. Half a day's travel, gone.

Had I packed bags? I hope not because that would mean I'd lost them, since I don't have shit on me now. The most reasonable version is that I bought a plane ticket and flew down here while I was blacked out. The most reasonable. I don't want to think about what that means for my bank account. I can't even afford to think right now about what this means for my mental health.

I start to panic. I'm having trouble breathing normally.

There are train tracks to my left, parallel to my course. I realize I'm walking on sand. It's frustrating, because every push against the earth drains more energy from you than you think it should.

I think I must be dreaming. But I can't be. The sand beneath my feet is too real, too achingly slow to walk on. I'm sure that my brain isn't capable of simulating this sensation so faithfully. Besides, my dreams are typically much weirder. I'd expect to see flying creatures in the air, or the landscape shifting, or non-sequitur colors inhabiting the objects around me.

This dream—if that's what it is—is terrifying in its utter mundaneness.

I'm walking toward the Sacramento river. I can hear voices. A woman's voice, and a girl's. I see trees.

I get to a clearing, and I can see the water, the people in it. It's my mom and my sister. What are they doing here? What the hell am I doing here?

My panic must be visible because my mom runs over, her face full of compassion and concern. And something like calm resolve. I can sense that whatever this is, she knows what to do. Or thinks she does.

I stammer, try to explain that I don't know what's going on, that I got down here and don't remember how. That I must literally be going insane, and how afraid I am of that. But all that comes out is the fear, and none of the words.

She says, "Coby, you have to wake up."

I tell her I don't know how. That I'm not dreaming. You don't understand, Mom, this isn't a dream, this is real, this is my life.

She grabs my head. Her hands are over my ears. Her face is stern. "Wake up."

Finally, I do.

For most of my life since that dream, I've thought of it as coming from a place of pure despair. It encapsulates so much of the dark world I was living in at the time: a feeling of inadequacy at not being in school with my peers, internalized classism for working a greasy service job, the general hole-shaped sensation of depression and the guilt and shame of not being "strong enough" to crawl out of it. It felt only natural to think of this dream as a concentration of all the negative things my subconsious had to say about me at the time—in short: you're hopelessly lost. I wrote it off, for many years, as just another tendril of depression and anxiety trying to "get me" and drag me down.

What I didn't see was all the ways this dream was trying to help me.

It was telling me: it's okay to be lost sometimes.

It was telling me: even when you're totally lost, you can find help. You can lean on people who love and support you.

It was telling me: the things I think define and constrain my reality may not be as real as they seem. I may even be actively constructing them.

This realization in turn has shown me that even the darkest parts of myself have wisdom to offer. It took over a decade to dawn on me, but maybe that was just the time it took for me to learn that lesson. It's okay for some lessons to take your whole life to learn. Those are probably the most important ones, anyway.

Next time you're walking on sand, notice how every step takes extra energy. Going slow over unsteady terrain doesn't mean you're not going anywhere.