The secret feelings hidden in our dreams

"Last night I dreamt I gave birth to a dead baby. I also dreamt I was standing by some water, and at my feet was a fish, gasping for air, dying on the ground."

"Last night I dreamt I gave birth to a dead baby. I also dreamt I was standing by some water, and at my feet was a fish, gasping for air, dying on the ground."

Dreams. We all have them, although we rarely remember them. They erupt into our waking life, leaving us with images of strangeness and intensity that dissolve into our daytime worlds. For Freud, dreams were "the royal road to the unconscious", a pathway into that huge sea of the unknown and unexpressed. Audible in everyday jokes and slips of the tongue, becoming problematic if nested in phobias or panic attacks, expressions from the unconscious offer us a unique way of breaking the confines of our conscious worlds. Dreams are one such expression, and in analytic work it is often through exploring them that change is facilitated, liveliness recovered.

Imagine that the images above were dreamt by a young woman. She came to see me, heavy with an unhappiness she couldn't make sense of. The burden was literal as well as emotional. She was overweight, and described how she fed herself continually, as if to satiate a terrible emptiness.

For weeks, it was difficult to get a sense of who she was. Nothing in the analytic space was stirring. Because things seemed so stuck, I suggested she made a note of her dreams. One day, she brought the above images to a session. As she spoke them, their truth startled her. She admitted she felt like a fish out of water. She hadn't dreamt on purpose, but there seemed to be a purpose in the dreams. Something inside of her kicked into life.

Over the next three years, I was part of and witness to a deeply moving process. Two or three times a week she sat in my room, incredulous at the wealth of dream material she was discovering in herself. At first her dreams were littered with the hungry, dead and dying. Bits of bodies scattered across some landscape, more dead babies, strange creatures in the dark. Then she herself began to appear in the dreams, often as a vet-like figure nursing wounded animals.

Gathering the images, we puzzled over and marvelled at their terrible pain and strange beauty. With the telling of the dreams began the task of understanding the symptoms that had been deadening her life. Her mother had become pregnant again when my patient was only a few weeks old, and breast-feeding had abruptly stopped. When she was only seven months old, her sister was prematurely born, and had taken up much of her mother's time. Brighter, more beautiful and more extravert than she, her sister had been a source of envy for as long as she could remember.

Her desperate hunger now began to make sense, as did the dreams of lifelessness and dismemberment. These images reflected how she had felt for so many years. Constant comparison and self-criticism meant she had never been able fully to give birth to her own potential. As she consciously began to challenge her self-negation, her appearance in her own dreams as a vet-like healer stirred a sense of hope. Gradually, she took control of the tidal waves of need that had been overwhelming her and had first brought her to me.

Her discovery of her inner life made her realise just how cut off she had been from both herself and the world around her. No longer hungry for a life that was always elsewhere, she was becoming her own person. She stopped eating her heart out, lost weight and roused herself for her own life. And then, near the end of her analysis, she dreamt she gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

Would things have shifted so much if we had stayed at the level of conscious thought? I don't think so. Dreams are not always so essential to analytic work, but are invaluable when the conscious self has become closed and rigid. No dream dictionary can do justice to the uniqueness of each utterance. Dreams are like our own pieces of poetry, our particular life forces struggling to be realised.

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