You know those nights, when you’re sleeping, and it’s totally dark, and absolutely silent, and you don’t dream, and there’s only blackness, and this is the reason, it’s because on those nights you’ve gone away. On those nights, you’re in someone else’s dream, you’re busy in someone else’s dream.
Some things are just pictures, they’re scenes before your eyes.
Don’t look now, I’m right behind you.
~ Laurie Anderson, Someone Else’s Dream, lyrics
The first time it happened was early in my career, too early for me to know or understand the phenomenon well – and certainly too early to trust it.
I was working in milieu therapy, a day treatment unit, where several hundred “severely and persistently” mentally ill adults came each day to receive their medication and case management, group therapy, art therapy and rehabilitation.
I dreamed that I was wearing a police officer’s uniform, and one of my clients was begging me to spank him, while he masturbated.
I was startled by the dream, it felt different in tone and quality from my “usual dreams” whatever that meant.
I explored it in my own therapy extensively – looking at the countertransferential sadistic and aggressive impulses that emerge when working with clients who have difficulty containing their own aggression. I considered the power and class differentials between me and my stigmatized, disempowered clients, and tried to examine my privilege and the authority, authoritarian, and social control functions that I was expected to serve on the treatment unit. I explored my personal, familial and historical associations to the specific client, to police officers, to spanking, and to domination and submission.
I explored my own sexual fantasy life – but, the sexualized aspects of the dream somehow felt off: a dream could have shed light on power/authority issues without sexualizing it.
But, the sexual nature of the dream just didn’t feel like my kind of kink.
The next week, the dreamed of client came in for an awake, daytime session and confessed that he had been embarrassed to tell me that he had been having masturbatory fantasies about me for sometime. He imagined me, dressed up as a police woman spanking him.
I felt enormous relief. The strange bits of the dream weren’t mine. The dream was about my role on the unit, and also about the ways I had been subtly, unconsciously pulled by this specific client to “police” and monitor his compliance and program attendance in ways that were stimulating to him, perhaps over-stimulating to him, and which made perfect sense with the clients history of sexual and physical abuse.
That was when I began to understand, many years, before I began to study Jung, that my own dreams about clients were not merely about my individual psyche.
I told my therapist excitedly about my new realization and he responded:
Be careful of what, I wondered? It seemed to me that I was in greater “danger” or getting pulled more deeply into some destructive authoritarian enactment, scolding or punishing, or chastising a client who could feel too stimulated by it if I hadn’t had the dream.
The dream had clearly protected me, and the client. Surfaced a dynamic, an unconscious currency, an exchange that was already present, but unspoken, unacknowledged.
The dream itself wasn’t the danger.
“If a dream shows me what sort of mistake I am making, it gives me an opportunity to correct my attitude, which is always an advantage”
~ C. G. Jung, Dreams
I left a long message on my therapist’s answering machine after that session, certainly too long, trying to shake off the undermining caution, and the traditional psychoanalytic models of dream theory that we had both been indoctrinated into
The various psychoanalytic branches which grow off of Freud’s ego psychological tree view dreams as subjective and individualized experiences, as a portal to unconscious conflicts which are about the clients personal history – and the conflicts from the past which have been transferred onto the therapist or other loved ones. And an analyst’s dreams could only reveal something about the analyst’s individual, private psyche, and transferences. If an analyst were to dream about a client, it would speak to their countertransference, the aspects of their own historical conflicts, or perhaps a dangerous over-identification, activated and constellated in the treatment.
I don’t know about your dreams. But mine are sort of hackneyed. Same thing, night after night. Just…repetitive. And the color is really bad – And the themes are just – infantile. And you always get what you want – And that’s just not the way life is…
~ Laurie Anderson Talk Normal, lyrics
There was another, more minor dispute about dreams a year or so later. Another one of “those” dreams – this time a strange dream I had about my therapist:
I was in his home, sitting on the treatment couch. His wife, as I imagined her, was nearby. A daughter, a son, and five month old baby boy. I sat and played with the baby boy while others went about their business around me, not interacting with me. The dream itself had little emotion attached to it, I was neither happy, nor distressed, perhaps a little bored, but enjoying the baby enough. Yet, in the dream, and afterward, I wondered why I was there, and worried that I was intruding on the scene.
Again, of course, I explored the dream extensively: as a transferential wish to have siblings, to be a part of his family, to be parented by him. To be trusted and invaluable member of his inner circle. I considered whether or not this tiny baby was an extension of my self, perhaps my inner child, that I wanted to be responsible for, as I was seated, held by the sofa now in the middle of his living room.
Four months later, he informed me that he would be taking a leave for a few weeks. Shorter notice than his usual vacation at an odd time.
“Are you about to have a baby? Is this a parental leave?” I asked.
Yes, he admitted, a boy.
I expressed my happiness and congratulations. But, I had a question:
“Do you remember that dream I had a while back? About you having a new baby boy?”
Yes, he said.
“Was your wife, by any chance, 5 months pregnant at the time?”
“Did you think about that then? Did my dream seem strange or uncanny to you? Because I remember saying that it felt like a weird dream for me to have – and I worked very hard to try to understand how it might have been about me! But, now I see, it was also about you – or about us both!
Yes. He had thought of that.
“Well it would be very helpful to me if the next time that happens that you just let me know so we can sort it out. Maybe in a previous session I was sensing that you were internally preparing for the birth of your son, I’ve known you through other parental leaves, and I – or maybe both of us – felt that I was intruding on that scene. And you sort of left me trying to take responsibility for the whole unconscious scenario by myself.”
Fair enough, he promised.
“Enlightening an interpretation on the subjective level…may be entirely worthless when a vitally important relationship is the content and cause of the conflict. Here the dream content must be related to the real object. ~ C.G. Jung, Dreams
Many many years later, following a weekend which involved a very emotional and excruciatingly painful crisis involving my family of origin, a client of mine reported this excerpted dream (with permission) which she had herself after the previous Thursday session:
“You were motioning me to wait – but this guy started to upset you. I thought you’d tell him to stop going through your papers (they were certificates, I think, of your degrees or licenses or something). Instead, your emotions quickly escalated and you started yelling / pleading with him to stop – and you screamed ‘what are you doing! you’re ruining my life’ He was completely in control of upsetting you.
You sat down across from me, legs curled in and started crying out of control. I couldn’t help but to cry as well – seeing you in so much pain. You were destroyed. I think I tried to hug you but you were a broken, small, mangled version of yourself.
There was a pause in the dream. I’m telling you about the dream that I just had (above)- and how upsetting it was for me because it was so strange but midway through, it’s abundantly clear that you’re not listening. You’re going through your papers.
I stopped talking mid-sentence and waited. You looked up at me and I asked you if you’re listening – if you’re with me. but you weren’t. So I got up to leave, undramatically. but really very upset. And I said “I can’t do this.” you just watched and didn’t stop me. I left without looking back.”
Her “strange” double dream not only anticipated my unexpressed concern with a crisis that was about to erupt, the distress I had been in – it showed me the ways in which I could re-injure the client, abandon her and damage our alliance if I chose to hide behind my professional papers, degrees and certificates.
We began by exploring her associations and history, her relationship with her wounded parent, and her personal subjective assumptions about the dream – I started slowly, as, frankly, I did not want to expose the details of a personal conflict that felt still vulnerable and I did not want to burden the client or require that she take care of a “small broken” version of myself. Neither did I want to abandon her behind a professional stance that exempted me from my responsibility for my own unconscious processes as they influenced the treatment relationship.
As we were about to move on, just as the subject was changing, I summoned my courage:
“So, listen, there may also be another component in the dream. You’ve been going through a very intense time, and I know that you have been really needing me lately, and whenever we feel we need someone, we watch them very closely. I am wondering if this dream may also be about me in someway… After our session on Thursday, I had a family emergency/crisis which flared up, and I think, I did, over the weekend feel quite small and broken and I did cry a great deal like in your dream. I wonder if you were reading the signs in me, maybe in the same way you learned to at home, to anticipate an upcoming crisis. And then, the second part of the dream expresses your fear that I could deny your astute perceptions of me, and just pretend that nothing ever happened. Kids learn to read their parents like the weather, and maybe you were reading me, and feeling my own storm coming on, and then expecting that I would just act like you hadn’t felt anything real about me.”
“Yes”, she said, breathing more deeply.
“I must have felt something coming on. I always had to do that at home, and my family would act like I was crazy.”
More deep, relieving breaths.
“Are you ok?” she asked.
“Yep.” I answered, “I take good care of myself.”
“It must be left to the analyst to decide how far he, himself, is the patient’s real problem” ~C.G. Jung, Dreams
In some therapeutic relationships, dreams become the transitional play-space where the patient and the therapists’ unconscious processes communicate and play with each other, telling us both about the aspects of the therapeutic relationship that we have consciously missed.
I’ve learned to trust my dream life, and my clients dream lives as they sense and sort through the unconscious processes that exist as a dynamic in relationship to others, to the systems we live in, to the culture and communities we embed ourselves in.
“That is to say, I take dreams as diagnostically valuable facts”
~ C.G. Jung, Dreams
I once dreamed about a client who was unable to tolerate weekly therapy and had terminated abruptly:
I walk down the streets of the city through various familiar neighborhoods and the client pops up randomly, here and there, as if they are making brief, cameo appearances -walking on the sidewalk next to me, coming out of a store, standing at the cross walk as I pass – in a movie that is about something else.
I realized upon waking that I needed to let the client come in as needed, pop up, pop-in, and not try to force them to into my story-board of weekly standing appointments.
Certainly there are many dreams that emerge entirely from our personal unconscious, our unprocessed conflicts alone, calling attention to our history of past traumas, losses and misattunements.
But in the past fifteen years of recording my own dreams, my dreams of clients, and my client’s dreams, it has become obvious to me that dreams serve many other functions as well.
Last night I had that dream again. I dreamed I had to take a test In a Dairy Queen on another planet. And then I looked around And there was this woman… She was writing it all down. And she was laughing. She was laughing her head off. And I said: Hey! Give me that pen! ~ Laurie Anderson Talk Normal, lyrics
I’ve come to think of dreaming as a natural, sensory and relational phenomenon, a means of digesting and incorporating our unconscious perceptions: dreams solve problems, anticipate transitions, highlight things we have overlooked, prepare us for dangers, help us communicate to each other, tell us what issues our psyche is working on in the background, reveal what lives and moves out of our awareness, point out imbalances in our relationships and environments, and extrapolate/project future outcomes from the current trends in the patterns we are embedded in personally, relationally, systemically, and globally.
All of nature talks to me. If I could just figure out what it was trying to tell me. Listen!
~ Laurie Anderson, Sharkey`s Day, lyrics
Many clients in the weeks before 9/11 reported dreams of the like that I have not experienced since. I had been enrolled in a Depth Psychology class studying Jung at an institute in the city, and everyone in the class was asked to keep a dream journal for ourselves, and for all our clients’ dreams. The week before the attack on the World Trade Center, we read aloud from our journals: Strangely, there were many dreams within dreams: of kamikaze jets flying down the streets of the city, of giant tornadoes coming “from the east” which destroyed tall buildings killing hundreds of people, dreams of four giant bombs dropped from the sky but the fourth one doesn’t explode. And those were just my clients. Other classmates’ journals contained surprisingly similar themes and images: lost pilots, building explosions and collapses, one classmate’s client dreamed of turning over the Tower card from the tarot deck.
We wondered together what violent shift was present in the environment that could be reflected in the community’s dreams.
Perhaps any random sample of dreams reported at any given time would contain similar imagery.
I don’t deny the statistical realities of probability or chance.
But I haven’t been privy to a similar thematic thread since.
And I would damn sure brace myself if I was.
Some say our empire is passing as all empires do. And others haven’t a clue what time it is or where it goes or even where the clock is.
And oh, the majesty of dreams, an unstoppable train, different colored woodlands. Freedom of speech and sex with strangers
~ Laurie Anderson, Another Day in America, lyrics
I’ve had dreams, for example, where one highly/overly intuitive client critiques my treatment of another client with a highly/overly developed thinking function: the dream itself offering me excellent insight and supervision into both of the clients undeveloped bits and the functions that I am called upon to strengthen in each of them.
Sometimes I share dreams that have been helpful to me in a case with the client.
Sometimes I don’t.
And another interesting “strange dream” phenomena, which I have experienced many times – A client and I dream a similar sounding dream, the day or two before session, from different vantage points: A dream of a terrible storm in a steep valley, me looking from the ridge of the hill, the client looking at the clouds coming over the high tree-line. A dream with the client swimming against the current, tiring in the water looking up at a woman in a small boat, and me, in a small canoe trying to figure out how to pull a drowing client safely on board.
The dual dream content itself is usually fairly obvious, and takes little work to interpret, but the synchronistic phenomena itself has come to represent to me a kind of alchemical consolidation of the therapeutic relationship itself.
Our unconscious lives have found themselves in the same place, in the same time, working on the same problems, from different perspectives.
I don’t claim that this is science.
Nor do I believe it to be magic.
I remain agnostic as to the ultimate causes or explanations for such synchronistic and unconscious experiences.
But, to the degree that the function of dreaming remains mysterious, and unknown, perhaps we can only approach such mysteries with faith.
And to learn how our dream lives, whatever their origin or function, can serve to deepen our connections to each other and the world around us.
There was this man…And there was this road…
And if only I could remember these dreams…
I know they’re trying to tell me…something.
Ooooeee. Strange dreams.
~ Laurie Anderson, Sharkey`s Day, lyrics
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All rights reserved Martha Crawford