Career Journal: Entry #9: Success! I Finally had the Severed Head Dream

Career Journal: Entry #9: Success! I Finally had the Severed Head Dream

I finally had the severed head dream.

See, in the prosection lab, there is this severed head, among other various body parts, and we are currently studying them for our muscles unit in my Anatomy class.

The severed head, stored lying sideways with cheesecloth wrapped around it in a clear plastic bin has kind of been this hang up of mine. I have worked with various limbs, arms, legs, shoulders, genitals, all of which have been skinned, dissected, and detached from the body they originally came from, stored, and then studied by ten bazillion students besides myself.

The severed head, though? No, I haven’t studied that yet. Those facial muscles have been put on the back burner with a legitimate sounding excuse I come up with every class.

But I knew, I just knew if I kept putting it off and being uncomfortable with it, never facing it, I would dream about it. That is how my brain works. Anything I fixate on for just a moment during a day becomes part of my dreams in the night. If I am lucky, it pleasantly incorporates itself into my REM sleep. If I am unlucky, it becomes a nightmare that leaves me waking up, sweating, panicking, and having a frightened, anxious feeling hanging over me for the entire proceeding day.

I told my lab partner, “We need to go over the severed head. If we don’t, I’ll have nightmares.”

She didn’t think I really would.

That night, I went home, popped a 3mg melatonin to go to bed early since I had an appointment super early the next morning I needed to be up and ready for, and I headed to bed.

In my high school physiology class, I remember reading an article that showed a correlation between taking melatonin and some people reporting vivid dreaming.

I have vivid dreaming without taking a melatonin, just to be clear. I have The Notebook or Watership Down equivalent of a dream without the melatonin. But if you put 3mg of melatonin in me before bed on an evening I am supposed to fall asleep three hours before I generally go to bed, sure, I’ll sleep right away…but my brain will have the Iliad or the Odyssey’s equivalent of a dream that night: very vivid, very dramatic, sometimes overwhelmingly pleasant, and sometimes incredibly realistically terrifying.

I had to take a melatonin last week, and I had one of those overwhelmingly pleasant dreams. It seemed so real. It was so entertaining, so enjoyable to experience. And when I woke up, I wanted simply to go back to sleep so I could keep having more of that dream. I figured when I took that melatonin last night, “Hey, I’ll probably have one of those great dreams again!”

Fate was laughing in that moment.

I remember nothing of my dream last night except for one flash of a scene and the feeling that accompanied it:

The feeling was an eerie one. A disconcerting one. It’s the feeling you get when there are fingernails scratching down the length of a chalkboard or the tines of a fork drag across a ceramic dinner plate or the bow of a violin runs across the bridge rather than the strings over the fingerboard. Spine tingling, to say the least.

The only thing I remember is seeing the prosection lab steel counter with its special ventilation slits in the walls above it. On the counter sat one of the gray commercial kitchen trays that they use to bake things on in restaurants which my school buys for us to carry our prosections around on (messed up, and we all know it, but they are actually very practical for carrying around limbs).

On the tray sat my severed head.

I was perfectly alive looking. My skin was made up with all of my makeup like I do every morning. My hair was down and I didn’t have the blue-gray hue that the cadavers have. I had healthy, very much alive skin.

My eyes however were partial open, like I was a photograph of a person who had been caught in the middle of a blink and the gaze was distant, frozen upon some unknown subject, which made my expression appear as though I was seeing something gruesome. My mouth was open, stuck that way, and there was a transverse cut made at my neck. Several major arteries coated in fresh red blood hung from it as two white gloved hands reached into the middle of my dreams field of view, grasped either side of my temples firmly, and proceeded to lift my head from the tray, blood vessels dangling, and carry me to my clear plastic case to be covered with my cheese cloth.

As I was being lifted, the memory of the dream stopped, and I don’t know what happened.

Relief washed over me when I woke up this morning.

“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” I whispered. I had finally had the severed head dream, and I didn’t wake up feeling terrified. “Now that I’ve had it, I don’t have to dread the dream anymore. Now I can move on.”

So, I studied the leg tonight, walking right past the severed head without a second thought.

Besides my severed head dream, Anatomy has been going very well. I have been working endlessly, fighting burnout every week, but I make sure I take afternoon and evening, sometimes so afternoons and evenings one to two times a week where I make sure I do nothing related to Anatomy at all. I hang out with my boyfriend, go on a walk, pretend it is in the middle of summer and I have no classes, and I forget about the class entirely. It’s been the only way I have been able to manage the stress level. The moment worry creeps into my mind during that time, I dive head first into a new fun activity to say to myself, “This is your fun time. You will not think about limbs, tests, severed heads, insertions, origins, actions, nothing. That is your ‘job’ and you left your ‘job’ back at the lab. Here you are at home, and you will do things that people do at home.”

I planted a garden last week after my lab exam. I spent four hours shoveling compost, turning the soil, and planting a variety of bulbs that I can’t wait to see in the upcoming weeks and months to see what sort of design I ended up creating beneath the soil. It is magical to me how I can put a nasty looking brown thing under the soil and this gorgeous beauty emerges months later, something I had absolutely no hand in other than deciding where it would grow, and it looks so bright and beautiful. It is really something cheerful to see on any day.

I got the grade of my lab exam back today. I felt good about it walking out of the test. I had a 99 on my first lab exam. This was my second, and I felt that it was in the 95%-98% range when I left the classroom and went home for the weekend. Today, my instructor called my lab section to the front of the room, and one by one we received our papers. When she handed me mine, she studied my face, and I glanced down at it in my hand and double checked to see that she had delivered it to the right student.

“100%” was written in bright read bold marker across the top.

People spent two years telling me I would be lucky to get a C in her class and B’s on my exams. And I had just gotten a 100%? How?

One of my two lab partners was standing right in front of me. She looked at my face questioningly, wondering what I had gotten, and I turned my paper around for her to see.

She squealed and high-fived me and I sat down while the teacher finished handing out the rest of the exams. At my seat, I looked over my exam to see if my instructor had written any comments. There was nothing. No corrections, critiques, nothing. It really was a 100%.

“She got a perfect score,” I heard one guy whisper behind me.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw another guy pointing and whispering to the guy next to him. “One hundred percent,” was all I heard.

I saw my lab partner who I showed my paper to in the front of the room whispering to my other lab partner and pointing back to me with a grin. They both smiled and waved when they saw me glancing at them talking about my grade.

The girl next to me said, “100%, huh? Good job! Hope mine is okay!”

When she sat down, I saw out of the corner of my eye that her paper said 74.5% and I tucked my paper back into my binder, feeling a little bit bad for the fact that she had seen it just moments before. It was still with the one hundred percent face up so I could stare at it and enjoy it for a moment, but it wasn’t being held up for everybody to see at least.

The professor began speaking.

“I am passing around the sign in roster, so make sure you initial it, or I won’t count you as being present. I am also passing around the grade averages, so take a look when it comes your way.”

It got to me fairly quickly. I found the last four digits of my student ID and with my finger, I traced over the numbers. I had missed four on my first lecture exam and I got a 94 I think (I can’t remember). I missed 1 point on my first lab exam and got a 99. I missed nothing on this last lab exam and got a 100. I had a 98 in the class.

I heard her speaking.

“As a whole, you are all doing fairly well in this class. I have observed, though, that the students in my lab who come to school only two days a week and get slammed with both lecture and lab material do not do as well as the students who come four days a week and get exposure to my lectures today and the other instructor’s lab tomorrow and so forth throughout the week.”

That’s the boat I’m in.

Four days of a classes a week, six days of going to open lab a week in my free evenings and weekends.

“There is, on a class average, a ten point difference in those who attend the four days a week. The brain does much better at remembering material when it is presented in this manner. For those of you who have both my lab and my lecture, you can still do well, but you will just need to make sure you are exposed to the material every day, and in an active manner. Reading is passive. Interact with your fellow students and attend open labs in order to succeed.”

I started to tune her out for a moment until she said, “You all did fairly well on this last lab exam as a whole, and one of you received a 100%.”

Did she just say one of us?

I looked down at my paper. Just one?

It was me?


There must be a mistake. I looked around, and about ten people in the room had all turned to look at me.

The teacher didn’t stop there though.

“And that person is doing exceptionally well,” she added. When she said it, my eyes widened, my heart raced, and all of the faces who had turned to look at me were still facing my direction, and I kept my eyes held steady with hers so as not to see my classmates and get more nervous than I already was. I felt heat rising to my cheeks and I watched as she smiled at me.

She smiled.

This was the teacher of the class who everybody had told me horror stories about. This is the teacher who I have discovered has a reputation trailing her that far exceeds what is reality, because she is simply an intelligent woman with reasonable expectations, maybe even slightly high expectations which shows just how much she believes her students are capable of. If anything, I think that communicates respect, not the stuff of nightmares as I had been told.

“To succeed in my class, you need to be an active learner. The lab is the best place to practice success. I have found that the students who become the best nurses and doctors who leave my class are the ones who were actively involved in the lab learning and teaching, and leading…” her voice faded off.

She had smiled at me, and she had emphasized the word “exceptionally.”

I suddenly became aware again of the grade roster in my hand. I looked down to see if it was true. I had a 98 in the class. One person had a 96. Everybody else was 94 or below ranging from low A’s to F’s. How was it possible?

Even for just this one moment, if I were to screw up every exam for the rest of the semester, how was it possible that for just this moment I really did do as well as I had told myself I could do, even though everybody had been telling me otherwise for so long, making me fear this class and keep putting it off for nearly three years?

I felt my self-confidence rise. Finally. I finally got to have a moment where I could be the person I envisioned myself being, told myself I could be, and even kind of pretended I could be.

I’ve been faking it in the lab, pretending to be a teacher to my friends, pretending to be learning the material like an A student, pretending to be confident during my exams and then suddenly, I found that I wasn’t pretending because I had really done it. I spent all that time pretending and I really did do it. “Fake it ‘till you make it,” held new significance in my mind.

So, I’m proud of myself for my one accomplishment this semester, even if it is the only moment I have this. I am okay with that. I am proud of myself for proving that I can indeed do what I put my mind to. I am really satisfied with myself. I’ll keep going, keep doing what I’ve been doing, keep studying, keep aiming, keep achieving, even if it doesn’t translate to a great letter grade like it has been doing so far, but I am happy about what I have learned about myself and what I am capable of.

Anyway, off to bed. I have lab bright and early tomorrow morning.


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