Trauma in Dreams

When people ask me what my life calling is I usually reply: “I want to help get dreams back into medicine and health care.” When people ask me why dreams should be used in medicine and health care I usually reply: “Because they can carry so much information about what can make us sick and what we can do to be healthier.” If someone were then to ask: “Can you give me an example?” I would say: “Sure! Here’s a good example– a short single-scene dream which conveys a huge amount of information related to the genesis of a deep-seated illness.”  This is the dream of a 45-year-old woman who is battling cancer – “Holding Hands Through a Glass Barrier”

“I’m in very white hospital room with my Mom, she’s lying on a table and I’m sitting by her head behind her. There is a white sheet over her. There’s a glass wall separating us, but there are two holes in the glass and she is reaching her arms up above her head through these holes. She wants me to hold her hands. She is there to have an operation to remove breast cancer from her (in waking life she died of gall bladder cancer, she didn’t have breast cancer). They accidentally cut her on the bridge of the nose and she was gushing blood. She was squeezing my hands really tightly. There were two other women in the room on my left–one of them I didn’t know at all, the other was familiar but I’m not sure who she was. They didn’t do or say anything; they were just there. There didn’t seem to be any doctors or nurses or any kind of medical staff. Nobody was there to help. I felt helpless. On waking–I felt there was some kind of message in the dream, but I’m not sure what it was.”

I asked her if she intuitively felt that this dream was about her mother’s experience or her own experience. She replied: “I feel that the dream was about me, not my mother. It was an alarm for me. It was a message from some part of me with a warning alarm in it, to be aware of potential breast cancer.” I then asked her if she had any connection to the surgical accident leading to gushing of blood. She replied that he had hemorrhaged following a sinus surgery in 2004 and lost 35% of her blood. I asked her if she felt she had fully recovered from this incident. “Physically or emotionally?” she replied, “Physically yes, but emotionally it was a very difficult time. My husband didn’t ever come to visit me. I almost died and he never came to the hospital to see me. It was a very emotional time. That’s when I finally realized that my marriage was over. It was a very pivotal moment in my life.” This was a very emotionally resonant moment. It was one of the moments that often happens in dreamwork where everything suddenly comes together and starts to make sense.

We discussed the presence of the two silent observer figures in the dream. The most striking thing about them was that they only watched and witnessed, they did nothing to help, even while a life and death medical emergency was happening. This striking lack of help was further accentuated by the complete absence of any helpful medical staff. The dreamer was able to connect this to her feeling of absolute aloneness at the time of the original trauma: “It was the most alone I have ever felt in my life. Where was everybody? Why am I all alone? I felt like giving up.”

Together the dreamer and I were able to deduce the following from this dream, all of which has great relevance to her current health situation:

  • The patient suffered a serious trauma during this time in 2004, from which she has not fully recovered.
  • Although the physical aspect of the trauma was severe, she feels that it was the emotional aspect that was more damaging, and it is that emotional wound (aloneness, abandonment, a feeling of not being helped when she badly needs it, and a giving up) she has not recovered from.
  • This ten year old trauma is now connected to her current susceptibility to cancer (we could say that it is like a “disease root” that contributes to her susceptibility).
  • The dream is warning her that she must deal with this old emotional trauma or she may be at risk for a new appearance of cancer.
  • The giving up was (fortunately) not a complete giving up. The traumatized part of her (played by her mother) held on for dear life and did not go into complete disconnection and despair. This is depicted in the dream as the desperate holding of hands through the glass barrier.
  • The dreamer suffered a traumatic dissociative split (the glass barrier) that separated her from herself, although not completely (the openings in the barrier).

We agreed now that the dream felt fully and resonantly connected to her current life situation. But now– what could she do about this state of affairs? As usual in dreamwork, it was advisable in this case to begin by changing things in the imagination – I asked her to design a better scenario and repeat it several times in her visual imagination.

First I recommended that she remove the glass barrier and move fully into the scene, taking a place right at her mother’s bedside. This would symbolize a healing of the old dissociative split and a reuniting with her traumatized self. Glass or plexiglass barriers commonly appear in dreams and often depict the protective defenses that we create to separate and distance ourselves from something unbearably painful. In this case it seems that the glass barrier was needed for a time, but may now be more problematic than beneficial.

Should she put any energy into trying to appeal to the silent witness figures for help, we wondered? She now was able to connect these figures to key people in her current life (not just her husband in the past) who she feels watch her struggling with her illness but never step up to offer any caring, compassion, or helpful action. Overall I felt she would be better off to forget about these non-caring observers and instead focus on bringing imaginal figures into the scene who would be caring and helpful, including appropriate medical staff if this felt right.

How often do these imaginal healing scenarios need to be repeated to be effective? This is a question that I am often asked. I think the best answer is – repeat them until you feel that something is changing. The minimum would be three times (I often suggest once a day for three days, just before sleep if possible). The maximum…who knows?

This kind of “early warning” dream is not uncommon. It is a great blessing to receive such a dream because it identifies something that needs work long before it has solidified into a lesion or a pathological process. Imagine a world where doctors, nurses, and psychologists were always on the lookout for dreams like this one, and were trained in how to work with them. It may be coming….

Christopher Sowton

  • Nina Benoit Reply

    Nice one.

  • Tallulah Lyons Reply

    This is such a dramatic example of transforming the dream into a healing experience and then using it in self-guided imagery to transform the actual situation.
    Thanks for this post. I will pass it on to others.

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