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Use Eagles if Necessary, Chapter 13: Dreams

At a social gathering I am introduced to someone. The conversation goes like this:

Mutual Friend: “Helen, I’d like you to meet Jim Joyce.”

Helen: “Hi, Jim, it’s nice to meet you.” (We shake hands).

Me: “Nice to meet you, too, Helen.”

Mutual friend: “Helen is the owner of Gallery One, the furniture boutique on Loomis Boulevard at 79th Street.”

Me: “I’ve been in your place. You have some really nice things.”

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Helen: “Thank you, Jim, and what do you do?”

Me: “I’m a psychoanalyst. I have a private practice not too far from you on Racine Avenue at 78th Street.”

Helen: “A psychoanalyst! Oh my, I’d better watch what I say.” She laughs. “You might be psychoanalyzing me.”

Me: “Don’t worry about that,” I laugh back. “Psychoanalysis is hard work. I only do it when someone’s paying me.”

I, and every shrink I know, have had that conversation more times than we can count. And you know what? I’ve just told Helen a half-truth because we are psychoanalyzing as we stand together chatting. We don’t have any choice. We don’t listen like normal people. Nor do we think like them. We have this gift/curse which cannot be completely turned off. Now you know. If you don’t want a shrink to know anything about you, you’d better walk away. Because as soon as you start talking you will be revealing things you’ve no idea you are revealing.

No, we won’t be able to tell if you murdered someone in the past, or if you just made love in the guest room, or if you are divorced three times or six times, or if your father is on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List. But we can tell rather rapidly your dominant personality type — oral, anal, phallic — your degree of self worth, your intelligence level, your “need to control” barometer, your histrionic level and numerous other generalities about you. If the chat lasts for, say, 20 minutes we’ll probably know how your marriage is doing, if you are a good parent and if you have unresolved issues with your own parents. To learn those things are we reading your mind? No. We’ll know them because you’ll tell us and you’ll have no idea you are doing it.

Some people will take a social meeting with a psychoanalyst one step farther by telling him their dreams.

Henry: “Do you ever try to interpret people’s dreams?”

Me: “Sometimes, but they can be really confusing.” (In reality they are very much a part of psychoanalysis and are the quickest way to learn about the patient’s unconscious.)

Henry: “I had this really interesting dream the other night,” or “I have the same dream over and over. Do you want to hear it?”

Me: (Oh, God, no!) “Sure, as long as you don’t expect me to know what it means.” He didn’t hear my disclaimer; he has already started in, and now you know why shrinks are reclusive. We can’t go anywhere without getting nailed.

Dreams have been called “The Royal Road to the Unconscious” because they cut to the essence of people’s psychic make-up by revealing their fears, guilts, conflicts, confusions, desires, and dreads. They also may reveal repressed artistic talent and spiritual longing. Dreams usually spring from the id or libido, chronicling their constant battle with the superego. They may, though rarely and not with everyone, also come from the ego. (Have I just put you to sleep?) Please, bear with me. To grasp the psychic dynamics of emotional life a conversational awareness of these terms is needed. They are frequently used in literature. Trust me, they’re simple.

Id: The source of psychic (emotional) activity. The id says, “Gimme, gimme, gimme, and get out of my way.” When you think of the id, think of a kid — about 2 years old.

Libido: Sexual drives. Some analysts think it is part of the id. Others say it’s separate. It doesn’t matter.

Superego: Your conscience — what’s right and wrong for you.

Ego: You. The person who has evolved into adulthood. The ego mediates the struggle between your wants (id and libido) and your can’t-haves (the superego). Many of these push/pull interactions take place in the unconscious mind and they are constant.

The relationship among these three entities is also easy to grasp. The id or libido say, “I want!” The superego then says, either “yes” or “no.” If this interaction takes place in the conscious mind no problem. We’ve heard it. If the id or libido say “I want” in the unconscious mind and the answer is “yes,” also no problem. We’re on autopilot. But when the id or libido say “I want” and the superego says “no,” in the unconscious mind we do have a problem. We’ve reached a stalemate and something’s got to give. Enter now the unconscious part of the ego that says, “I have an idea, let’s compromise.” And that compromise becomes a large part of our emotional state as we mediate between our primitive drives, which are sexual and aggressive, and our learned sense of right and wrong. These psychic interplays (there are many of them taking place) of wants, can’t haves and compromises can be upsetting because we are consciously unaware of them. These secret battles are causes of emotional dysfunction. It is no wonder that frustration and anxiety are very much a part of being human. We don’t know what’s happening (what we want) in our unconscious minds and the ego utilizes the emotions of frustration and anxiety as unholy replacements for the forbidden desires. It’s a dirty trick playing out in our minds and we’ve no idea what the hell’s going on.

We analysts listen to our patients talk about their anxieties and frustrations and together we sort them out over time. This, alone, is effective, but another way to get to the core of conflicts, and much faster, is by listening to our patients’ dreams. Thousands of books and articles have been written on the meaning of dreams. Dreams have been an integral part of literature, found in all cultures, going back to the beginning of recorded time. The Bible, for instance, is full of them. Smart as I am, I don’t know all about dreams, anymore than I know all about the human mind, but I do know some things about them. I have been listening to, and analyzing them, for 30 years and I am pretty good at it. Here’s what I have learned.

We dream in symbols, which is the language of the unconscious, and every symbol in a dream is unique to the dreamer. Therefore no one can tell what dreams “mean” without the candid participation of the dreamer. For instance, I had a patient, “Rita,” who grew up on a ranch in Montana. One night she had a dream with a horse in it. Another patient, “Gene,” grew up in the Bronx and he, too, dreamed about a horse. The horse in these two dreams is merely a symbol, and it is fair to assume that a horse will not have the same meaning in the unconscious minds of these two people from such different backgrounds. It is only by asking them what thoughts a horse brings to their conscious minds that its symbolism will show itself.

Rita began talking about horses by telling me how she loved them and spent untold hours riding them on the ranch. But then she remembered a time when a cowboy on the neighboring ranch got kicked in the head by a horse and had never been the same. He had been her boyfriend. “It’s like he became a different person,” she said. “He could go for hours without talking and then go into fits of rage. The horse kicking him in the head made him crazy.”

I asked her if there was any way she could relate this memory to herself and she said, “Yes, I think I’m going crazy! That’s why I’m here,” and she began to sob.

Gene, from the Bronx, told me that when he was growing up he had seen a live horse only one time. His parents were divorced and he lived with his mother. His father had disappeared from his life when he was seven years old. His mother told him his dad was a hopeless alcoholic. Gene said he didn’t remember much about his father, didn’t miss him, and rarely thought of him. The few things he did remember were pleasant — going with him to the combination tavern and pool hall, and playing catch with a baseball on the sidewalk in front of the house.

When I asked him to tell me as much as he could recall about seeing a horse as a kid, he said there were actually six or eight of them. “My mother took me to a parade and there were these huge horses, I know now they were Clydesdales, pulling a wagon. I couldn’t believe how big they were and I got real close to them.”

“What kind of a wagon were they pulling?” I asked.

“It was a Budweiser wagon loaded with cases of beer,” he said.

“What comes to mind about Budweiser?”

“That’s what my dad drank. I used to get him cans from the refrigerator.”

“And you’re sure you don’t miss him?”

“Maybe I do,” he said, eyes now brimming with tears.

Gene and Rita both had dreams with a horse in them but that symbol had different meanings. To Gene it was the painful longing for his dad. To Rita it was her fear of losing her mind. Over the years they must have had many dreams expressing those emotions. Gene admitted he had always missed his dad but would never say so because that would hurt his mother. Rita had felt there was something wrong with her mind from as early as age 12, years before her boyfriend’s tragedy. But neither could recall ever dreaming about a horse. Gene had dreams with other symbols that could take him to the same place, however, billiard balls, baseball gloves, a refrigerator and, once, a friend whose nickname was Bud. All of these symbols were not that far removed from his dad in the mysterious ways of the unconscious.

Most dreams are not as clear and easy to figure out as these two, but there would have been no way for me to analyze them without the patients’ input. Our dreams are our creations and, therefore, are unique to us and all symbols in them have much personal meaning — no matter how insignificant they may appear to be.

Why can’t dreams be straightforward? Why couldn’t Rita have dreamt about her cowboy boyfriend and have him then segue into her? Why couldn’t Gene have dreamt about his dad, as he remembered him, beckoning to him? Why all this symbolic confusion? The theory is that the real meanings of these kinds of dreams are too painful, fearful or guilt-producing for the conscious mind to deal with. So we “repress” them into the unconscious where they lurk in symbolically disguised form. I believe this theory is correct regarding most of our dreams.

The meanings of dream symbols are discovered by conscious “associations” to them. Symbols in our minds hang around together, like those birds of a feather that flock together. If someone dreams about a horse, or a flight of stairs, or flying, or falling, or being chased, or butterflies or any one of a zillion things and wants to know their meaning, he should start talking freely, without conscious editing, about the symbols. He should say, out loud, whatever pops into his mind no matter how silly, embarrassing, or seemingly far afield. This is called “associating” and, with the help of a trained analyst, patterns will begin to emerge. With enough time, candidness, and diligence the dream symbols will reveal their meanings. When they do a person will know, without doubt, when truth has been discovered. It’s an amazing and thrilling — “Wow! That’s it!” — kind of experience very similar to an insight. Seemingly unscientific, to be sure, but the end result is undeniable. The person just learned something major about himself.

When we return to a physical place from our pasts — like a town we’d lived in, a school we’d attended, or to an old neighborhood — upon getting there we will begin to experience memory after memory “associated” with that place. Had we not gone there those memories would not have been recalled or brought into consciousness. This is analogous to dream symbols. Hiding in the dark behind the symbol will be memories and feelings from the past.

Because dreams speak from the unconscious mind it is best not to ignore them. Psychoanalytic thought is: To remember dreams is good; to tell them to someone else is better; to have them analyzed is best.

Why not leave well enough alone and blow off remembering dreams and talking about them? If someone is a happy, upbeat, contented, non-frustrated, “life couldn’t be better” person, I agree, blow them off. He’s got his emotional life knocked. On the other hand even the most wonderful among us could be better. No one is without dark, secretive, painful parts of himself lurking in his mind. No one.

Some people say, “I don’t dream,” or “I don’t remember my dreams,” but unless they’re brain dead they do dream. If a person consciously tells himself to remember his dreams, just before he goes to sleep, he’ll begin to.

In all the years I practiced, only once did I feel it necessary to ask a medical doctor colleague to prescribe an antidepressant, Elavil, for a patient. “Jo Anne” was in her late 20s, attractive, intelligent, college educated and seriously depressed. She was a referral from her OB-GYN whom she’d been seeing in an attempt to get pregnant. She’d been married to “Tom” for five years. The first four years they practiced birth control and now wanted to start a family. There seemed to be no physical impediments to pregnancy. Her depression began shortly after she got off the pill and had become progressively worse. It was now overwhelming her. She couldn’t talk without crying. Her doctor was concerned, and after our first session, so was I. The Elavil did the trick, however and after a week or so it kicked in and she perked up, felt a little better, and our therapy began.

Jo Anne’s history was unimpressive, analytically speaking. She had a younger brother with whom she got along “great.” Her parents were described as “loving” to their children and to each other. She could recall no childhood trauma. Her earliest memories were playing with dolls, with her mom, in her bedroom. Perfect. After four or five sessions I was stymied. We made no progress, we had no revelations. Were it not for the drug I believe Jo Anne would have reverted to her very deep funk. She and I were floundering. Her past and present circumstances gave me no clues as to why she’d become so depressed.

Then we got lucky. Jo Anne came to the next session, sat down and said, “I finally remembered a dream. I haven’t dreamed in years. Do you want to hear it?” (I had asked about her dreams in every previous session.) I practically shouted, “Yes!”

“It is very short. Is that Ok?”

“That’s fine,” I said and wanted to kiss her. At last her unconscious would give us a peek.

“I was on an airplane flying to England. I was supposed to meet the Queen Mother but when I got there she changed her mind and refused to see me. I didn’t care. That’s all I can remember.”

Now we had some symbols. A trip, flying, the vessel airplane, a foreign country, rejection, denial, a queen, and a mother. All we had to do was figure out what they were hiding to find a clue to Jo Anne’s depression.

The complete theory of dreams is somewhat tedious, but a key element is: We dream in “primary process,” meaning each symbol is a condensation of numerous thoughts, feelings, and, perhaps, memories. Primary process is like the 10-month-old child learning to talk. He says “goo-goo.” This means to him: I am hungry and thirsty. Get me juice, macaroni and cheese, applesauce. Put me in my high chair. Give me my spoon. Turn on Sesame Street. Be quick about it.

Or he’ll say “gah-gah.” This means put on my jumpsuit and hat. Put me in the stroller and take me for a walk. Stop at the store for ice cream and at that funny dog’s house who wags his tail. Be quick about it. (Mothers know the difference between goo-goo and gah-gah.)

Jo Anne’s dream led us to the following memory and revelation when I asked her what came to mind about traveling to a foreign country. A year earlier she and three girlfriends had taken a road trip to Canada. None had been out of the United States and thought it would be neat to go across the border. Tom and the other husbands agreed and off the women went.

The interstate highway system would have gotten them to Canada in two days so they decided to take the lesser highways getting a feel for rural America. Each night they stayed in little motels in out-of-the way towns and plotted the next day’s journey north. They’d take five days to go up and two days back. And that’s when Jo Anne remembered.

“I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t paying any attention to the route we were taking. It was just fun being with my friends. ‘Diane’ was driving and she stopped for lunch at a little café in this tiny town in Minnesota. We went inside and sat by the window. I looked across the street and saw the bank building. My heart started pounding and I wanted to scream. It was horrible!” She started to cry.

I was, of course, baffled. When she composed herself I said, “Jo Anne, you’ve lost me. What about the bank building?”

“That’s where it happened!”

“What happened?”

“In that doctor’s office above it. That’s where I had my abortion!”

“Jesus Christ, what abortion?” I unprofessionally blurted.

“When I was 18!” She yelled and the tears became rivers.

And now we knew. (I’ll tell you the rest of the story, but back to the dream symbols for a moment.) The trip is obvious. England is a foreign country closely tied to Canada. The penis airplane made her pregnant, but because she rejected the baby, Queen “Motherhood” rejected her. But she didn’t care, denying her feelings.

Jo Anne had wanted to marry “Eddie,” the boyfriend who got her pregnant. Not only would he not marry her but he dumped her, although he did give her money for, and insisted upon, the abortion. It took us months to work through this horrible time in her life. She was amazed at the depth of her guilt about the abortion, saying that at the time it was simply the thing to do. “Everybody got abortions. What was the big deal? They were legal and everything. I thought nothing of it. I was just crushed by being dumped by my boyfriend.”

The abortion itself had affected her more than she had been willing to admit to herself and our sessions dealt primarily with her guilt. Her ambivalent feelings were also discussed and the numerous ramifications of that decision of so long ago. She now became aware that over the years she’d had fleeting thoughts that were immediately dismissed: How old would the baby be now? Was it a boy or a girl? What would I have named it? Would Eddie love it? Would I still be married to Tom?

Soon Jo Anne was now talking freely without Elavil, her mood much improved. I explained during one session that guilt can adversely affect bodily functions and suggested that maybe that’s why she was not able to conceive. Her jaw dropped. Then she said, “You know what? In the far back of my mind I hear this little voice say, ‘You don’t deserve a baby!’ My God could it be that simple?” In time and with lots and lots of talk, Jo Anne’s depression went away. A year after we terminated she had her baby. Thank you, Elavil. Thank you, dreams. Long live the Queen.

Strangely, abortions are not always guilt producers. Some women, along with their men, can have them and seem to go on with their lives never looking back. This was not the case with Jo Anne. As she relived the experience in therapy she had three distinct memories of her thought processes during that time. 1) “I must abort this child, because Eddie insists. 2) My parents would never understand and they’d be devastated. They would help me raise it, so what I’m doing is wrong. 3) But if I get rid of the baby, Eddie will take me back. Then we’ll get married and have another baby to make up for it.”

This conflict between the id (get rid of the baby) versus the superego (it’s the wrong thing to do), accompanied by rationalization (have another baby later), quickly found its way into Jo Anne’s unconscious mind. At the time she was far more devastated by losing Eddie than by the abortion. He did not take her back, however, and eventually she got over him and continued with her 18-year-old life. But a time bomb was set and began to tick, exploding nine years later in the form of severe depression — an earmark of an ego compromise.

I shared the following case with a colleague. I saw the husband, a wealthy industrialist in his mid-50s. She saw the wife, also in her mid-50s. The husband had recently decided his wife must stop smoking because he had a nightmare that she would soon die from the smoke. He woke up screaming. Her smoking had not bothered him before, but now he was preoccupied by it. They’d been happily married for four years. He loved her and wanted to stay married. Because of his fear she underwent a complete physical examination and was declared exceptionally healthy. But that didn’t allay the husband’s anxiety. His obsession with her smoking was driving him crazy and wrecking the marriage. For her part she loved her husband, but she also loved to smoke and had been doing so for 40 years. She would not, could not, quit.

At first I did not like the man. He was a control freak who apparently always got his way. His wife had insisted on the therapy. He was not a happy participant. “This is a waste of time,” he often said. But by the third session he mellowed toward the process, telling me to ask him anything. “I want to get my money’s worth.” I was now able to maneuver him into his childhood and asked about his earliest memory. His eyes welled up. “The fire,” he said.

“What fire?” I asked. He told me that when he was a little boy his family’s home burned to the ground.

“That’s the first thing I remember. The smoke rising from the rubble of our burned down house.”

“How old were you?” I asked.

“Four,” he said, “Everything was lost.”

Our sessions took a wonderful turn toward positive as he got the connection I pointed out between his wife’s smoking and his smoking first home: also the “four” connection. (The unconscious keeps a calendar of past events.) I could now forgive him his controlling ways. If my house burned down when I was 4 I’d have an inordinate need to control, too. And smoke was extremely frightening to his unconscious mind, which is why he dreamed about it in the form of a nightmare.

Our sessions ended shortly thereafter and the marriage continued happily onward. A specific problem was presented. We got to the core of it and it was resolved. Rarely, however, was it that simple.

Nightmares are usually easier to analyze than regular dreams because the messages they send are closer to the surface. They have burbled up to the almost pre-conscious level and when they break through, the ego doesn’t have time to thoroughly edit (disguise) them with symbols. So they wake us up — in a panic. Often nightmares echo, or mirror, past psychodynamics that are analogous to current ones. In the industrialist’s unconscious mind smoke symbolized a huge loss and he was terrified it would happen again — four years into his new life.

In my experience almost all dreams have to do with the repression of painful or unpalatable material. They vent sexual desires, aggressive impulses, deep hurts from the past and other events too embarrassing or painful for people to discuss, think about or admit to. We give Sigmund Freud, 1856-1939, credit for discovering this.

But there are other dreams that have a totally different “feel” to them. They have a spiritual quality and are free of angst and conflict. They seem futuristic and often prophetic. I refer to these as Jungian dreams, in deference to Carl Jung, who spent much of his career with the spiritual contents of the unconscious mind. These dreams also have repression as their cornerstone, but they are not symbolizing repressed desires to have forbidden sex, or to bash someone’s teeth out, or to cover the pains of the past. Rather, they symbolize repressed artistic talents and needs, inventions, original ideas, spiritual longings, life quests and even songs. Jungian dreams come from our higher nature, which Freud paid little attention to.

I’ve had patients tell me dreams that had beautiful paintings, sculptures, poems, and stories in them. They were frequently in color and had a delightful flavor to them. The wise therapist jumps on these dreams and encourages the patient to take up chisel, brush, or pen. An artistic pursuit is one of the best things people can do for their emotional well being. It is a wonderful thing for patients and therapists to see the immediate improvement when the patients get into their creative sides. Anxiety drops and depression lifts, as paintings come to be or poems emerge. The goal of analysis is to enhance people’s abilities to love, work and create.

But a word of caution. If the analysis only accomplishes the unleashing of repressed creative needs and talents, then the analysis has failed. Being creative is important for emotional health, but there’s much more repressed than creativity. Mostly we repress the id and libido stuff — the nasty, embarrassing stuff — the stuff we all share on the primitive plane. If this isn’t dealt with, and the therapy concentrates only on the spiritual and creative side of the patient, all the analyst has done is bring into being a creative neurotic. This is not a goal of therapy.

I had a dream that I was sure was Jungian in that it seemed to be prophetic, having nothing to do with repressed id and libido material. Barbara’s only sibling, Cheryl, and her husband, Jim, live on their sailboat at Phuket, Thailand. Although I have known them for 27 years they’d never shown up as symbols in my dreams. On the night of Dec. 26, 2004, I dreamed that Jim and Cheryl were lost at sea.

When we turned on the TV in the morning we saw, to our horror, that a gigantic tidal wave, called a “tsunami,” had hit Phuket. Hundreds of people were already reported dead and thousands were missing.

Barbara’s mom was visiting us for the holidays and as the awful day progressed, with reports of death and devastation increasing, they agonized over the possibility, probability, that Jim and Cheryl were dead. I, of course, knew they were. The chances were terribly slim that I would dream about them, after 27 years of not doing so, on the same night a rare tsunami hit their location. There was no doubt in my mind they were lost. What else could they be symbolizing in my unconscious? But I kept my mouth shut — just in case.

For 12 hours we watched in agony as the news got worse and worse. We were well aware that they often anchored their boat just a hundred yards offshore from the beach. From the television coverage we knew they could not possibly have survived. (Eventually 200,000 people throughout Asia were killed.)

About 9 p.m. our phone rang. “Hi, it’s Cheryl! We’re fine! We were inland when the tsunami hit!”

So dreams that seem to be, without doubt, Jungian and prophetic may not be. The only other possible meaning to this dream, then, was that it came from my id. I then remembered, upon waking, having the fleeting thought that if Cheryl was dead Barbara would be the sole heir, meaning twice as much money for us. So it was, after all, a wish fulfilling, greedy dream of the Freudian type, reinforcing, once more, that we human beings are self centered 2-year-olds ... in our ids.

Jungian psychology is the discipline of choice for many in the intellectual and academic community. Jung’s emphasis was on our higher nature encompassing creativity and spirituality, and his research and findings were wonderful additions to the body of knowledge. But we must also deal with our basic needs and desires which are most unpleasant and are at the core of emotional illness. To run to the spiritual and stay there, ignoring the rest, would be a serious psychotherapeutic mistake. Carl Jung would be the first to agree with me.

Waynesville resident Jim Joyce’s memoir, Use Eagles if Necessary, is being published in weekly installments in The Smoky Mountain News. Each week we begin a chapter in our print edition and then put the entire chapter on our Web site. All previous chapters are available online. The book can be purchased at, and may be ordered through bookstores after May 31.

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