Tales from the Therapist's Couch

'I'm surprised at the frequency of dreams of dismemberment. Why does the psyche come up with such horrific images?'
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A man in his fifties is perturbed by a dream. In it, he is driving along a straight main road when he abruptly veers away towards a side track. It becomes darker, and the new road is bumpy and he is irritated by the change. Then, to his horror, he notices body parts scattered along the grassy verge.

A man in his fifties is perturbed by a dream. In it, he is driving along a straight main road when he abruptly veers away towards a side track. It becomes darker, and the new road is bumpy and he is irritated by the change. Then, to his horror, he notices body parts scattered along the grassy verge.

A woman in her early thirties is distressed by her previous night's dream. She is walking alone through a dark wood and notices shapes upon the ground. When she examines them closely, she is appalled to see that they are bits of her own body. She recognises her arms, legs, torso, scattered around. She wakes up screaming.

Working as a psychotherapist, I have been surprised by just how frequently people experience dismemberment dreams. Why, in the depths of sleep, does the psyche come up with such horrific images? What do the scattered fragments say about the dreamer's state? As so often with frequently occurring dream motifs, these images are present in ancient stories. From Humpty-Dumpty to Osiris, there are stories of bodies in bits, scattered, and sometimes magically reassembled. So, what meaning has this got for psychotherapy, and the dreamers themselves?

Most people who come to psychotherapy want the chance to explore, understand and gather into one place all the different "bits" of themselves. For the two dreamers above, the dreams were a wake-up call to what had become dismembered: bits of unlived life from which they had cut themselves off, and left scattered, abandoned.

At first glance, the man in his fifties was a surprising candidate for a dismemberment dream. He seemed happy and successful, both socially and at work, and struck me as someone who was enjoying much that life offered him. He had initially come to therapy because of a panic attack he had suffered, out of the blue, and the terror of its return was inhibiting his life. As he spoke, I was increasingly struck by a single-mindedness that verged on ruthlessness. He had got to where he was through focus and drive, and was intolerant of those who lacked "purpose and vision". Yet middle age was forcing him to slow down and take stock: open-minded reflection rather than driven focus.

The panic attack was, it seemed, part of this battle towards change. A deeply uncomfortable experience, it forced him to concede that he wasn't fully in control. It also made him aware of just how afraid and distrusting he was of what lay beyond his control. Shortly after we began to work together, he had the above dream. Its symbolism was clear. How hard it was for him to move away from the straight, well-worn path. Yet how important it was to go off the beaten track to find what he needed: bits of unlived, disowned life that he now had to re-member and integrate.

For the woman, the images of dismemberment were similarly symbolic of the need to re-member bits of life, but from a very different angle. Selfless to a fault, she had spent her life nourishing the lives of others at a cost to herself.

When I first met her, she had started to experience waves of depression that engulfed her late at night. During the day, she was a wife, mother, sister, friend and teacher, but she had forgotten how important it is to nourish oneself, too. Her devotion to others had left a vital part of herself parched and abandoned.

In her dream, the dark wood is an echo of her own depression, the discarded bits of her body a reminder of what has become neglected. In order to move out of her depression, she needed to consciously gather together these cut-off parts of herself, and turn her capacity for nourishing others inwards, towards herself.

It is impossible to fully gather together and integrate all that is potential within us at any one time. Inevitably, we live our lives in many parts, but sometimes a symptom such as a panic attack or depression acts as a reminder of what has been neglected. By working with what such a symptom may mean, and by using dreams to become aware of what has been repressed, we can consciously redress the balance.

Elizabeth Meakins is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice. None of the clinical material above refers to specific cases

elizabeth.meakins@blueyonder.co.uk

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