Robert Winer, M.D.


DREAMS: Julia's dream


My late teenage sister sat next to me at my middle school lunch table; we were across from some of my socializing friends. I was acutely aware that she was sick and bald as she had been, and that she and I weren’t talking. I felt isolated somehow, until she suddenly looked at the girls across from us with an expression that managed to remain serene; it said, “don’t mess with my little sister.” We drew closer together and that constant void which I bear was crushed in the dream. She was my sister, and I was hers. And I didn’t need friends. (I’ve been depressed off and on since my sister’s death by cancer 3.5 years ago.)


I’ll tell you what comes to my mind as I reflect on this dream, to illustrate how an analyst might think.

The dream appears to occur in the context of a young woman’s continuing struggle with feelings raised by her older sister’s death a few years ago. The chronology suggests that Julia might now be a teenager, perhaps in high school. It would appear that she might have experienced her sister as an important protective figure and that she feels lonely and vulnerable without her. There is a suggestion that Julia feels socially isolated, perhaps actively excluded by her peers, and that she misses her sister’s support at times like these. (Which doesn’t exclude the possibility that her sister might have ignored her, and that the dream represents a wished-for relationship.) Her phantasy in the dream is that her sister is present to watch over her, and so she doesn’t need friends (who can let you down, or hurt you) and she’s fine.

Usually dreams are prompted by some event of the prior day that stirred conflicted feelings. I could imagine, for example, that Julia might have felt rejected by a peer (or peers) the day before; the person might have been a friend, but also might not have been one. Hearing this dream in a session, if Julia didn’t volunteer a context for the dream, I would likely ask about the previous day.

I imagine that Julia is past middle school now. (For one thing, the dream is much too well written for a middle schooler.) We all know that negotiating the social networks of middle school is often a harrowing experience. Peer cruelty seems worst at this age, especially for girls. So I am imagining that yesterday’s experience might have been a reprise of some painful experiences from that time, and I would ask about that. It might lead us to a useful discussion of what she went through during those years.

Some details: Julia speaks of “socializing friends,” not “friends who were socializing.” This suggests that her world might be divided into people who easily socialize (others) and people who are more isolated (imaginably, her). I was struck by the statement that she and her sister weren’t talking. This raises the possibility that her relationship with her sister might have become problematic toward the end (and that the dream imagines overcoming that). I would listen for that, and if that seemed plausible, and if she seemed ready to open that subject, I’d ask about it. I’m next caught by the phrase “managed to remain serene,” wondering about “managed.” Remaining serene seems to require effort – is she alluding to her own efforts to contain her feelings and not lash out? The idea of a void being “crushed” seems an odd metaphor (you can’t crush nothingness) – the word suggests aggressive feelings, perhaps the consequence of feeling socially isolated or rejected. Her phantasy at the end is that if her sister were with her she could feel completed, protected from the threat of loneliness.

I would like to stress that these thoughts are simply my associations to the dream, as it was presented to me, with no other knowledge of the dreamer (beyond some evidence that she writes well and is internet savvy!). If I were sitting with her I would treat these thoughts as hypotheses, possibilities to be further pursued, reexamined, or contradicted. As a therapist I don’t try to work toward certain knowledge, I look for plausibility. A good idea, for me, is one that seems plausible, given the evidence, an idea that can be pursued in the course of our dialogue.

It Was Just a Dream...

Most of my night dreams are prosaic, nothing to get especially stirred up about, plausible extensions of scenarios from my daily life, no more compelling than a typical daydream. But then there are the occasional vivid dreams, which may have a nightmarish quality or a feeling of joyous transcendence. I awake, and for better or worse they evaporate. It’s these latter dreams I want to talk about.

I don’t have this thought – it was just a dream -- when I wake up from a bad dream. I just feel relief then, glad that it’s over and that I’m awake now. And so relieved that the horrible tidings weren’t true. That fluorescent orange junk wasn’t really spewing from the center of my chest, I haven’t been sawed in half and hollowed out, I don’t have just months to live. And I don’t think: it was just a dream.

“It was just a dream” is what I’m thinking when I wake up from a great dream, and that thought signals disappointment, probably bitterness. Why can’t I stage that fabulous show in my real life? Why can’t I fly? Why can’t I be sixteen? Why can’t I have her? That’s the crux of it of course, it was just a dream. But hold on for a second. It was real in the dream. Isn’t that the point of dreams – that they feel entirely true? So why do I discount the experience? Some of the most intensely pleasurable moments of my life have occurred in dreams (along with some of the scariest). Broadly speaking, I have two forms of consciousness, waking and sleeping, and both are phenomenologically totally compelling when I’m in them. The reality I experience when I’m dreaming doesn’t feel less real than the reality I live in when I’m awake. So why do I give short shrift to my experience in dreams?

The most obvious reason is that I can’t make them happen and I can’t control them. I’m not in the driver’s seat when I get on roller coasters either, but I do know roughly what the ride will be like, and I’ve chosen to hop on board. Not so with dreams. This is ironic, of course, because the dream is entirely of my own manufacture, even though I don’t have access to its construction. I think the catch is that when I wake up, I can’t choose to fall back asleep and pick up where I left off. (Occasionally that does happen, but certainly not at my bidding.) And in that moment I feel the loss.

The exquisite cruelty of the situation is that, as Freud reminds us, a dream is the realization of a wish. My good dreams aren’t just happy scenarios, movies I’ve stumbled into; they’re expressions of specific longings that are very important to me. That’s the rub. And so, when I awake, I have to bear that the realization of my desire has been deleted: it was just a dream. Moving through my days, I feel the ache of the dreams I can’t realize, the losses that can’t be undone. We try to make the best of what we have. Our lives are narratives of loss and incomplete mourning (it is in the nature of things that mourning will always be incomplete). Contending with our losses, we push forward. We try to reach the clearing of acceptance, the recognition that what has happened cannot be undone, the knowledge that we will always be living in the consequences. We mourn our murdered alternative selves, the roads that could not be taken; we weren’t there.

Memory is both a blessing and a curse, both the warehouse for storing my experiences and the graveyard that never lets me escape my deceased. Dreams are where we revive our memories and longings, breathe life back into them, but just briefly, for they deflate as we awake, leaving us empty-handed, it was just a dream, a cruel tease. And so the thought “it’s just a dream” becomes a marker for my recognition that there’s no escaping the realities of my life, the choices made, the accidents befallen, the injuries suffered and inflicted. This is my lot. In a recent interview, Woody Allen said that at 73 he can no longer sustain the fantasy that young women would find him desirable. Age brings us that too, the cancellation not only of prospects, but even of imaginings. But we still have our dreams at night, where life is timeless and anything is possible.