“Dear Lena”: An Interpretation of Lena Dunham’s Dream of Neglected Pets

I’ve often said, if only to myself, that Lena Dunham has made a career out of portraying the same neuroses of the twenty something years that I have made a career trying to fix (or perhaps, “heal”, “ameliorate”, “support” would be better verbs). I’m a fan of Girls, even if I squirm in discomfort throughout most of the episodes–it’s all just too accurate, too unfortunately spot on. So when Lena’s new memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, came out I was excited to read it. And reading it, I was delighted to see her stance of self-reflection on all the events–sexual, neurotic, physical, dietary–that she shares with us on HBO. When depicted there without a witnessing eye, it all just looks like such haphazard misery (which it is). But with greater awareness and some modern feminist perspective, Lena sheds light (see below for pun) on what her wiser self thinks about the trials of coming of age in the modern era.

In her explorations, luckily for us, Lena also divulged a recurring dream. After essays in Section II all about the body and her relationship to it, she ends with this:

My most frequent recurring dream is one in which I suddenly remember I have a number of pets living in my home that I haven’t tended to in years. Rabbits, hamsters, iguanas, stacked in dirty cages in my closet or beneath the bed. Terrified, I open the door, and the light touches them for the first time in ages. Desperate, I dig through the clumped, wet, wood chips. I’m afraid they’re decomposing there, but I find them still alive, thin and milky eyed and filthy. I know that I loved them once, that they had a better life before I got so distracted with work and myself to let them shrivel up and nearly die. ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,’ I tell them as I clean their cages and fill their bottles with fresh water. ‘How can i make it up to you?’

Dear Lena: 

Your dream is quite telling, and its regular recurrence suggests it’s revealing an issue of particular importance to you. You intimate a sense that the dream is related to your desire to have children, and your fears. After a diagnosis of endometriosis, you’re contemplating the possible necessity to have children in the near future, but you share your resentment too of these theoretical babies. That they’ll interrupt your life, that you’re not quite ready. “I can feel them. The babies. . . .They’ve come too soon, and I can’t do any of what I had planned. All I can do is survive.”

This dream may be about your mother instinct, about the fear of your ability to care for these babies, though I think it’s less to do with future kids and more about how you care for the subtler parts of yourself. As you note in your dream, something changed when you became so distracted with work. Those sweet creatures that live in your home with you, those creatures that depend on your conscious self for survival, they became neglected, buried in darkness, earth, and wood. If–speaking in sweeping dream interpretation generalities here–the “I” in the dream is your ego consciousness and your house is symbolic of your whole being, what are those parts of you that have become so neglected, under nourished, and unseen? Where have you hid them, and why?

I wrote an interpretation last year that shares a number of themes with your dream: thirsty iguanas and other animals in the house and backyard. It was a dream, like yours, pointing towards the persistent, undeniable demands of one’s animal nature in a modern life. Just because we pretend in all our work, intellectualism, and consumption of information, that we’re not connected to our bodies, doesn’t mean we’re not. And just like with babies, the occasional snack, glance, and moment of physical affection won’t cut it. More attention, more awareness is needed.

Your dream suggests that you have let your self-care slide, and you are terrified to face that neglect. The very good news, though, is that your dream indicates you’re already taking steps to heal. Nervous and scared, you go to face what you have done, entering the dark closet and shedding light on what was once in darkness. You are coming to consciousness, illuminating an area of your life that maybe you had hoped, if you paid it no mind, would just go away into the dark recesses of the earth. Luckily those aspects, although atrophied and weak, are still alive and grateful for your renewed attention. Your apologetic attitude towards them is a good sign too: though you’re horrified that you neglected yourself in this way, you are increasingly aware of your need to be gentle with yourself and your body, and increasingly sorry that you checked-out for so long.

You’re no stranger to admitting neglect of your body. Many a moment in Girls circles around this (semi-fictional) theme, and you share more personal stories in your book. What’s new in the book, however, is a revelation of your increased awareness about the importance of caring for your body, lady parts and all. Even though they are hidden and unseen, things like your instincts and your organs, critical for survival and well-being, must be as tended to over and above emails, deadlines, dates, and drinks with friends. They’re voices aren’t always as loud as the ping on your phone or the shouts of work and relationships, but it is critical that you listen. Your dreams can help you in that arena. If you ever see a suffering animal, pay attention. Ask it what it needs and don’t run away.

If the animals you encountered had been oceanic, animals like fish and octopus and whales, I would think you were being drawn to attend to issues of your emotional life. Animals that swim suggest something related to the waters of the mind and feelings. Earth bound animals, on the other hand, may point more directly to the well-being of the physical body. Jung viewed animals like iguanas, snakes, and crabs in dreams as prognostic indicators of organic issues. Iguanas, in their dragon-like quality, might relate particularly to issues of motherhood within the body as the Dragon in mythology relates to the Mother and the tricky life path of destroying the Mother Complex.

Wonderful that you have provided these animals with fresh water. You’re providing them with new life, new emotional energy and loving attention. You are providing yourself the same. You ask the animals at the end of the dream “How can I make it up to you?” I would encourage you to meditate on this very question in waking life. Do not shy aware from the discomfort that may arise when you go into that sad, frightened place within yourself, aware of the neglect and lack of awareness that was once rampant. Instead, listen. Keep opening that closet door a little wider, keep shedding light on the issue, and don’t turn your back on them again. Increasingly, these animals will find new life and you’ll notice it, joyfully, in every moment of yours.

—-

Have you had a dream like this? Leave a comment and share!

Satya is a psychotherapist in private practice in Portland, Oregon specializing in dream work, the quarter-life crisis, and work with individuals in their 20s and 30s. www.QuarterLifeCounselor.com

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22 comments

  1. saffinch

    Same recurring dream for over ten years, all the animals are starving but have had babies and multiplied – some dead some alive. It’s awful and they are around 50 rabbits and guinea pigs all in cages too. It’s awful guilt and I try to help them too.

    • satyabyock

      Can you share if the interpretation resonated with you? What is true for you about the relationship with your body and self-care?

      • Anonymous

        I guess it could, it seems to me maybe more about elements of myself neglected which could include self care – the mulitplying animals seems to add that the issue whatever it is – continues to carry on even without my looking after it which is interesting ? I just wish I knew what issues were to be resolved as it has been many years of the same dream.

      • satyabyock

        I would encourage you to begin journaling these dreams regularly, and journaling in general. It’s a good thing they’re still alive, but whatever this issue is for you, it’s evident that you’re suffering and that your inner life is needing more attention. You and your soul are needing more attention. Look at my post on recurring dreams for more guidance here, and do consider calling a Jungian oriented therapist in your area. It would help a lot to begin exploring these dreams. All my best to you.

  2. Stacey

    I continue to have this dream. I’m such an animal lover and have always taken good care of my pets so every time I have this dream it is very disturbing to me. Interestingly it always involves the same pets, my yellow labs Emmi and Drake. I had lots of other pets before them but the dreams always involve just them and the neglect is severe. I will all of a sudden realize that I had forgotten about them and am frantic about how long they’ve been going without food and water. I immediately get them water and food but am so distraught that I’ve neglected these animals I love so much. I just woke up from this recurring dream, and this time I was finding worms coming out of their skin on one and couldn’t recognize whether it was Emmi or Drake. These dreams are haunting and I found your blog while I was trying to look up why I might be having these dreams. I relate to self neglect as I’ve gone through the hardest times of my life the last 5 years. I also worry that it could be connected to my kids. 15, 16, & 19. Wondering if I have not done them justice through this awful divorce even though I’ve neglected myself trying very hard to do the right things for them.

    • satyabyock

      I think this is about you, not your kids. If you stop neglecting yourself and deeply care for your soul and your body, you will be able to mother them from that place and show yourself as an example of how to live in alignment with yourself. They’ll see your self-neglect and learn from that too…

      Best wishes to you.

  3. Pingback: “There are Mice Helping me, Just Like Cinderella!” A Dream Interpretation | Jungian Psychotherapy and Dream Interpretation from the practice of Portland Psychotherapist, Satya Byock
  4. Julie

    I have this dream several times a year, with neglected animals and overgrown, unwatered plants that have never existed in my waking life. In the dream, however, I always recognize them. Sometimes they are pets/plants that someone else left with me to care for, but other times they are my own. I always find them in a long-forgotten, former favorite room in my house, and am horrified that I can’t recall when I cared for them last. They are parched, surrounded by bugs, and filthy. I bring them water, and they perk right up, but I am left wondering how I could have let this happen.

    I am in my late 40s, but I have been having this dream since my mid 20s. I believe the dream is directly related to the vague worry I often have that I’m forgetting to do something truly important, neglecting obligations to myself and to others, letting immediate urgent concerns get in the way of what is really important to me. I’ve had a problem where joy seems to turn into an obligation and self-nurturing feels like a chore; but if I don’t want a room full of ailing spider plants, birds, hamsters, mice, and philodendron, then I need to water myself once in a while so that the little joys in my life don’t dry up and disappear.

    • satyabyock

      I think you’re right about your sense of this dream, Julie, but I would encourage you to make “once in a while” become “all the time.” Just like with plants and animals, daily care is important to keep them thriving and not just barely alive. The goal is to integrate your soul into your daily life. Our society has taught us that it’s the last most important thing, but as we learn to make it the single most important thing, we learn that everything else in our life benefits from that source of water and life. Notice what you’re truly neglecting. Bring it forward. The choices you made in your mid-20s may help you find the way… anything you wish you’d done differently…?

  5. Deniz

    i have this dream about twice a month where I’m in my house just hanging out and I suddenly realize I forgot all about my rats (i used to be a breeder)and I run to the cage and I’m scared to check because I can’t even remember the last time I fed them or cared for them. I check and the cage is so gross but they’re still alive, they had Babies of all different ages and litters. They have a house inside the cage but I’m scared to even check inside it because I don’t know what I’ll find. Sometimes I open it and sometimes I don’t. When I do open it I see that there’s dead and trampled babies. Some have even been eaten by the other rats. I feel so horrible and ashamed and I immediately get cat food and throw it in thier bowl. I feel so bad and then I wake up right after

  6. L

    I read Lena Dunham’s book about a year ago and totally forgot this passage. I’ve had this dream for about 10 years- stacks of cages of snakes and lizards, sometimes birds. They’ve been breeding and canibalizing each I’m so disgusted and feel so terrible for letting them suffer! I’ve talked with my own Jungian therapist about this and her interpretation was similar to yours but I’ve found it hard to accept- believing rather that it’s stress about being at fault for not keeping up with my responsibilities causing suffering to others.

    Reading all these comments from others describing the same terrible feeling of watching this suffering caused from your own neglect is really powerful and I’m more inclined now that it’s about needing to be kinder to ourselves and take care of important and fragile parts of our own selves.

    It’s quite true that I’ve neglected self care (health, sexuality, spirituality and creativity) while only focus on my draining career and day to day cares. My favorite recurring dream is visiting with my warm creative old friends while they travel to new coffee house venues to play music or I make art in a big art studio complex surrounded by others who are also doing amazing things! I’d definitely like to prioritize this aspect of life a bit more!

    • satyabyock

      Yes! I hope you will listen to the other comments and the message you’re hearing. The unconscious is not about morality. It does not care for your hard-work on behalf of others, that’s a message that comes from society. It cares about the balance of your own system and self, and the harm done to the world when things are out of balance or the deep self and body are neglected. The more you listen to these creatures and get them what they need, the more you’ll start to realize how deeply you’ve been needing self-love and care. We can be so well defended… it often takes years of learning to listen to yourself to discover finally how poorly you were listening all along. You’ll never look back and your life will blossom.

      I wish you the best with this journey.

  7. Blake

    A little late here! But this story is so interesting and relatable. I have many different dreams with different pets that I or a friend of mine has neglaected. Most of the time it’s me though. I remember I have a extra copy of a certain pet, say my leopard gecko and I suddenly realize this extra pet exisists! I open up a shoe box or some small area and see this pet in such a decrepit way. I become extreamly panicky and upset. I start crying hysterically and running around trying to find food or water for this animal and I can’t! It’s like time moves slower and I’m trying so desperately to get into my car to run to the pet store, but the dream keeps going in a loop and I can’t help these pets! Last night I had a similar dream where pets were neglected, but it was by my friend and her mother who actually have a history of neglecting their pets. They were baby hippos, a goat, a baby elephant and I was trying so desperately to feed them goats milk from a syrenge. When I got to each one they ate as if they were actually starving and it was so incredbaly sad! Right as one ate I ran to feed the other one. These dreams make me feel so anxious and guilty! My parents were animal control officers for 30 years so I have so much experience with animals I suppose it’s just what I think about! Thanks for reading (if you do)

  8. kathybrown

    I have a recurring dream about having all these little furry animals, usually ferrets (I have pet ferrets in waking life who I adore and care for very well) and now hamsters and mice have entered the dream. I suddenly realize I have many more pets than I thought and they are everywhere in my house although they seem to be okay when I find them but are sometimes in unsafe places. It seems like I simply forgot I had all these pets for a time and start looking for any I missed. Then I become overwhelmed trying to care for all of them as I find I have many more than I thought. Wondering what this means. I am frequently feeling overwhelmed with life (mainly due to my job) but can’t afford to take a less demanding job (which means less pay). I’m 54 so completely changing course isn’t a reasonable option. Know I’m a little late in commenting, but if anyone sees this would appreciate your thoughts.

    • satyabyock

      Hey Kathy — I think it’s about more than your job. Take a close read to the original post and see what strikes you as similar. I bet if you find a therapist you like working with, and start engaging with your emotional life more closely that this dream will go away…

  9. Amber

    All my animals are neglected and I can’t help them. I can’t even keep them in their cages! What on earth does that mean?

    More-
    I have an entire pet store wall that I frequent. Any small animal you can think of in a pet store is in my dream- and others I can’t even describe or fully recall that could only be conceptualized in my subconscious. None of them are my pets from life but they are all under my care in the dream; many I’ve taken in. Now that I’m thinking about it rationally, I guess i did forget about them but that is not what I think in my dream. At the start of the dream, I find them and they are severely neglected- but they always have tons of babies. Even though I’ve had this dream many times, I am not aware of them at all until I see them. (But then how would I know I’d taken them in?) I try to tend to them but I get overwhelmed and there is simply too much going on for me to get everyone healthy. I am constantly caring for the animals- or wanting to- but they are multiplying and transforming into different bizarre animal hybrids, and even floating (zero-g style) out of their cages, and I just can’t keep up. Every time I look at what I thought I’d fixed (although I never actually do anything. Apparently I’m magical/telekinetic too), I find more neglect. In the end, all I can do is try to catch the animals that are floating away.

    I had no idea there were this many people with this type of recurring dream. I was always ashamed to share it. Thanks to everyone who shared theirs. And thanks for posting the original dream and it’s interpretation.

    • Julie

      To my not-formally-trained mind, it sounds as though you’re feeling like your problems are multiplying (and compounding) faster than you can keep up with them. I can relate, but is it possible that you’re worrying about problems that are someone else’s responsibility?

      I’ve often been told, “you have to pick your battles.” Maybe that means you need to focus on caring for the mice and the parakeets, and letting the other animals (problems) be the responsibility of someone else. I know that I started having this dream less frequently when I finally realized that I just cannot (and should not) care more about something than the person who’s actually responsible for it.

      You want to save them all… you’ve seen that you can’t. When you try to save them all, you usually can’t save any, and then you are devastated. But if you focus on just a few, you have a better chance of saving those few. Then maybe you can try to save a few more.

      • Amber

        Thanks for your thoughts. That’s pretty insightful. Your comment about caring about something more than the person responsible for it resonated with me. (and I considered myself an altruist.) But I am actually very much a perfectionist and an idealist. So I can get upset or bothered about one thing or another- and I feel compelled to make it ‘right’- without, honestly, even taking the agent of the deed into consideration. In effect, taking on problems that are not my own ultimately relegates me unable to successfully address any issues; be they my own or others’. I never thought about any of this until I read and reflected on your comment. So thank you! I will make a conscious effort to pick my battles. I’ve already managed to do this quite well as a parent. I just need to extend it to the other areas of my life. Thanks again :)

  10. Tonya

    I use to have cocktails my dreams recurs I remember I still have them an have been away for a long time the cages r up high and I peak in the are barely hanging on to life ..also with pet rat but it was already dead when I got to it the dream feels so real that for a couple days after I’m shook up and trying to rack my brain if I really done something like that

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