A woman in her mid-fifties, mother of three children and couple of grandchildren, who suffers from anxiety and depression and smokes to control that anxiety, asked the meaning of a recurrent dream, which she has had throughout her life, but recently, after she was hospitalized for COPD and pneumonia, was having it with greater frequency.
The dream is about myself and my sisters. As you know I have two sisters.
I am being left behind by my sisters. This is the basic theme, with minor variations. The one I saw couple of nights ago, we were on vacation in Las Vegas, in a Mall. The two were together, ahead of me, while I was left behind. I never see them but I knew they are in the Mall. I go from one floor to the next but never reach them. Everything looked unfamiliar. I just keep looking for them in a daze.
"Are your sisters older than you, and you are attempting to catch up to them to dissolve the age gap? You know how small age disadvantage with siblings is so acutely felt when one is young."
"I am the oldest. So that could not be the explanation.Though we are all just one year apart from the next. So we are more or less of the same age."
"Why the dream takes place in Las Vegas?"
"Because we take vacations together, and not too long back we took one in Las Vegas. The last one was in Florida. Both my sisters live in California. [Las Vegas is in between California and Florida though much closer to the former so the dream may have chosen a venue closer to the two sisters than to me]. But though both live in California, they are not closer to each other than to me. I am not the one who felt left out in Florida. They were the ones fighting while I got along with both. In Vegas too I was never left behind. We sometimes would go our own way to different sections of the casinos but we never were like lost to each other.
"Now I remember that being left behind also occurs in another set of dreams. In these dreams my sisters are replaced by my classmates from high school. The theme is the same, of being left behind. I am trying to catch up with my friends who have gone ahead and are already in class. I am like excluded which is odd for I never had problems fitting in with my peers in those days. The dream scene usually is of my trying to open the locker in the school corridor where my books are without which I cannot go to the class. But I cannot recall the combination to the locker. I try hard and almost get every number right but while punching the last one or two, some error occurs. There is nobody around to help either. Not even the girl who shared the locker with me. Even if I had got the combination right, and the books out, it would not made a difference for I would not have found the classroom."
After she drifted in to some other issues and I had some time to think over the dream, I conjectured that it was perhaps a punishment dream. "Could it be possible that your getting left behind by your sisters and classmates is punishment for your belief that you have done them some wrong. Perhaps it is propitiation for some guilt arising from your unconscious hostile intentions towards them?"
"Could be. But why would I dream of getting punished. I have not done them or anybody else any wrong."
"The need for punishment in humans has very little to do with having actually done something wrong. In fact the less harm one does to others more is the psychological impulse to harm oneself. It is not carrying through the intention to harm others that creates guilt that seeks punishment. The guilt turns the intention to harm others in to harming oneself. It is a vicious cycle. It sounds paradoxical but true. One would think that one would feel more guilty if one actually harmed others. But people who actually harm others do not feel as guilty as those who suppress it. For the intention to harm others does not find a discharge and sits inside the psyche requiring creation of more guilt to keep it under control. "
"I don't understand what your are saying. But I don't feel any guilt in me."
"The sense of guilt is generally unconscious. The ego blocks its entry in to consciousness. In our conscious mind we just feel a sense of uneasiness and impulse to create a situation which is harmful for our self interest. Even this self-harm is done in such subtle ways that they appear to be act of fate or bad luck rather than cleverly manipulated by oneself. We do know as a child you had quite a bit of rage against your parents for their constant fighting. Perhaps that rage to prevent it from being acted out has been been transformed into sense of guilt."
"Yes, that is true. I was angry at my parents, and I left home at age of 16 to escape their constant fighting. I don't remember having any resentment towards my sister. I do recall feeling guilty for leaving them behind in that stressful house and making my escape. I was their protectoress, and I abandoned that role and left to get married. So if anything I was the one who left them, but in the dream it is just the reverse. It is they who are leaving me. I don't think your interpretation that the dream is about punishing myself for having evil thought holds good."
"You were the first born, and your two sisters came right after you, one year apart. You must have resented their appearance. There may have been wishes towards them when they were first born to disappear. Later there may have been fear of their disappearing and thoughts of deserving punishment for having entertained such thoughts. So the dream may be showing the fulfillment of this wish for them to disappear and then the fear that you will be all alone, for you love them too and enjoy their company, is making you search for them and undo the wish."
"I don't think the dream is about punishment. Or at least it is not the whole explanation. For I wake up not so much with guilt as with anger for their having left me behind."
So we were at an impasse.
The patient then came up with the idea that the dream of being left behind, though, has periodically recurred, has been emerging with far greater frequency since the doctor at the hospital scared her by saying if you don't stop smoking you are going to die. 'He was very mean and kept shouting at me, you are going to die, you are going to die."
In one stroke the meaning of the dream became clear. Being left behind and never being able to find her sisters was nothing but the fulfillment of the wish that it is my sisters who will die before me, and in fact I will never meet the same fate and will never be able to reach the end of my journey (death). The unfamiliarity of that Las Vegas Mall was a reversal of the great familiarity of this world. "The world is still so unfamiliar and new to me and still so much in need of exploration that I cannot die yet" was the rationale behind it. "My sisters can die, but I still have a lot to discover and I therefore will keep on living."
The patient readily agreed with the interpretation and added, " I just came back from Florida where we sisters had got together for our annual vacation. And the two were fighting with each other. No doubt a continuation of the bickering that existed in the house when we were growing. And one of them looked sick and yes I felt sorry for her and did worry about her dying.
"Thought of death has always played a very strong role in my psyche. My first born died when he was 18 days old. He was premature. That left a deep scar in my mind. Even now I dread something terrible happening to the ones close to me. I think of macabre things happening to my children and grandchildren. I hate those thoughts. But they are the core of my illness."
"Yes. The thought of their death is just a displacement of the thought of your own death, which you want to avert by thinking of somebody else's death, just like fear of your own death implanted by the doctor who scared you, you were working it out of your system by thinking of the death of your sisters and your classmates. They emerged in your dreams for dreams are nothing but your everyday thoughts couched in the language of dreams."
"Interesting you say that. I must have a grudge against my classmates too, for I had to leave school because of pregnancy in final year and I could not graduate with them. Instead I got my diploma through GED. I felt odd returning to the school once I had to leave for pregnancy. So I may be getting even with them by thinking that just like they left me behind and graduated earlier than me they can once again leave me behind and die earlier than myself. For when I wake out of the dream it is not feeling of guilt and feeling of being punished that fills my heart but an anger at those girls for having left me behind."
I wondered if the locker box was not symbolic of the coffin, and inability to find the right combination a struggle against the wish to die and be over with life.
Patient stated, "I never thought of that," which is like music to a psychoanalyst's ear, for it invariably means that the interpretation is correct. By these words the patient confirms yes, it is true, but it was in my unconscious, and consciously I never thought to it.
"Could it be possible that the classroom also stood for coffin or burial room and inability to find it was fulfillment of the wish to never find the final resting place?"
"Perhaps," the lady responded.