I have been having recurring memory nightmares for years. There are several different scenarios involving years of physical abuse at the hands of an ex. They are exact replicas of certain fights. Sometimes I also have bad dreams that are not memories. They bring the same fear, they also involve the abusive behavior, but they aren’t memories. It is a though they are happening now. I have not been with the ex in 12 years but in the bad dreams he invades my home and hurts my children. Any suggestions on how to stop the bad dreams?
I’m so sorry that this is happening to you. I’m sorry you suffered that abuse many years ago, and am sorry that you’re still experiencing these memories and nightmares today. I have written before about trauma and dreams, and what Carl Jung said about it back in the ’30s. In that post, I explain a bit why nightmares resulting from trauma are so distinct from normal dream function. I also link in that post to another I wrote about some work being done on “re-dreaming”, that is, working with a clinician while awake to transform the nightmare imagery into healing imagery. This is similar to Jung’s notion of Active Imagination in which dreams, even very difficult nightmares, can be reengaged to find the healing function inside the dream. For instance, while re-engaging a specific dream you might practice discovering ways you can protect yourself: Look at the sword in the corner! Notice the devoted lion crouching by the bed, ready to pounce! See how strong you are! See how capable you are of protecting yourself and your children.
For people with recurring nightmares, the innate function of imagination has been severely damaged or destroyed. Trauma makes life overly literal, ruining our natural capacity of symbol making and the experience of awe in the world. This also leads to depression and a general dissatisfaction with the world, the contrast of Harry Potter living in the muggle house versus at Hogwarts — all gray and sad, no magic or mystery or fun.
Anything you can do to consciously support your imagination to flourish is a good thing. Novels, fairy tales, free painting, sculpture, dance, music, story-telling, writing. Have you ever written about your experiences in that relationship? Have you ever tried to transform that terrible period of your life into art? I know, it may seem an insane notion at first, but if you go for it, and trust that it will take time, you’ll notice a change down the road. This is the alchemy of life: turning the yuck into gold. These nightmares are demanding your attention. The more attention you pay to it all, consciously, instead of trying to make them go away, the more completely they’ll shift.
I know it seems counter-intuitive, but I want to repeat this: don’t seek for solutions to make the dreams go away. Don’t avoid, numb, or ignore them. Embrace them. Like you would with a very sad child, look them in the eyes and tell them you’re listening. This is your own wounded soul you’re speaking to. Listen. Ask it what it’s trying to say. Spend time with the imagery so that you can hear what it is saying.
Since this work can be so difficult on one’s own, I encourage you to find a therapist who works with dreams and has experience in trauma treatment. You’ll want to both process through that time of your life when the abuse actually occurred (perhaps you have already done this a lot), but also to engage in kick-starting your imagination.
I encourage you to also explore treatments like Somatic Experiencing and EMDR. These are two body-oriented trauma treatments that have strong proven results for healing trauma of this sort. There are some books you can read, including In an Unspoken Voice, by Peter Levine; and The Body Keeps Score, by Bessel van der Kolk. Both of these books speak to the fight/flight/freeze responses or trauma, and how our bodies often default to “freeze” states in situations where we are powerless. Women in situation of abuse and rape very often experience a kind of paralysis, after which they wonder desperately why they didn’t do more to protect themselves. If you’ve ever seen a small creature stuck in the paws of a cat, you can see this physiological response in action: when the balance of power is not in one’s favor, the body knows that to stay alive it’s often best to play dead. This is not a conscious choice any more than inhaling and exhaling is a conscious choice. It’s a mechanism for survival. As long as these nightmares continue to haunt you, it suggests that your physiology is still (at least in part) stuck in a freeze state. In conjunction with re-activating the imagination, you’ll want to reengage your body with the support of trauma treatments. Therapeutic Yoga, QiGong, and other martial arts can be other good methods of treatment.
Keep in mind that there is no silver bullet for trauma treatment. You’ll need to be a very active participant in your own healing. The participation is part of what your soul and body need for you to completely come out of the the freeze state and sense of powerlessness you experienced back then. This does not mean stressful activity, however. It means mindfulness, love, effort, devotion to yourself, and the search again for play and comfort. You’ll find it. And those nightmares will go away.
Have you had a dream like this? Leave a comment and share!
Satya is a psychotherapist in private practice in Portland, Oregon specializing in Jungian psychology and the years of Quarter-Life. www.QuarterLifeCounselor.com
Q: I am in a small group of people at a big school under construction. It’s at the end of a long, muddy road, deep in the wooded slopes of mountains, including Mount St. Helens. Rain and mist and mud puddles are everywhere. We are receiving a tour of the buildings. My girlfriend is also on the tour, but in another part of the campus. I look down and notice that construction mud is being tracked through the classrooms as we walk. Then I see that the group is eating chocolate cupcakes. I mention the mud on the floor, but nobody seems concerned. I feel relieved and happy and begin eating a cupcake. Some cupcake and icing falls to the floor and I notice that the mud on the floor is chocolate.
A: Dear reader, thank you for submitting this dream and for the vulnerability that it took to do so. I know you’re struggling in your relationship with your girlfriend right now, so this dream is coming from a place of conscious pain. The underlying tones of what you’re sorting through are not surprising to you. I know you to be a man committed to self-growth, so I’ll do my best to work this dream in a way that points out places of continued exploration and learning for you, but also, hopefully, places of comfort that your conscious mind might be missing.
Let’s start by translating the setting for this dream. You’re in the muddy, deep, wooded slopes of mountains. You’re in a ravine; it’s raining. Everything about this setting suggests that you’re wandering in the deep unconscious. I can only imagine you are left exhausted by your nightly journeys these days, let alone by what is going on your waking life. You’re going deep into your being, not wrestling with surface things. Whatever is going on with your girlfriend is really touching you to the core, reaching back into your primal being. What’s good to see, though, is that at the end of this road there is a big school there under construction. If you take this at face value, the insight gained from it can be clear: new learning in this region of your psyche is in development. And you gain your first lesson almost immediately: something which you initially mistake for mud is actually chocolate. In this experience, what you may mistake as being “your shit,” your muddy mess, turns out to actually be edible and sweet.
I would explore your initial feeling of tracking in the mud to the school with some subtlety. Take some time to explore that feeling in all its nuances. Is it embarrassment? Worry? What does it remind you of from your life? My guess is that there are specific feelings and actions about which you’re feeling self-conscious and that, with some distance from them, you could discover they are less yucky and muddy than you might have initially perceived them to be.
There is another layer of this, however. What is also true about sugary treats in dreams is that they can point to regression, leading us back into childhood material, as if the image of a childhood home had appeared. Sugar can also point us back Mother, the first place of sweet foods (emotionally and literally). And, of course, it’s not a stretch either to imagine that difficulties with your girlfriend might be pointing you back into material related to your mother and your initial patterns with the feminine. Have you been exploring that territory lately? Now seems a ripe time to explore, not just intellectually and abstractly, those parts of yourself. This is a good time to go into the muck of your early feelings and patterns for relationships. Again, the alchemy of the mud-to-cupcake image would suggest that you are currently in a time when you can turn water into wine.
The rain and puddles and mud in this dream evoke an emotional quality of your psyche at the moment. Not surprisingly. I find sometimes, however, that really seeing what is in a dream can help our conscious minds to accept what is true within the depths of our beings, much like an X-Ray can validate some pain you’re feeling physically. Yes, things are watery right now. Emotional. Grief ridden. Yet water is also a time of softening. Just like with the earth, that which is hard without water can become softer with rain. This points us to that old adage about the Chinese symbol for “Crisis” being a combination of the symbols for “Danger” and “Opportunity.” The images in your psyche suggest the same: things have softened inside, but there is opportunity in that watery world for new growth too.
Getting more specific: What is your personal relationship to Mount St. Helens? As a collective image, a volcano in a dream points us to themes of eruption from the depths; material from the deep which explodes over the world you once knew, causing destruction for miles and miles. Again, however, this image brings with it hope. The ash that pours out of volcanoes is fertile soil for new growth. Don’t forget that. On the more personal level, I would be curious for you to explore your memories and feelings around Mount St. Helens in particular. My guess is that there is further information about this image in relation to your past that would provide insight into the areas of growth available to you at this time. Finally, on this image, the volcano can also be seen as an earthly allegory to the feminine, the bodily entry back into the mother from whence we each came. Again, it is an opening that provides an opportunity to gain contact with the feminine, the true earth-bound place of your own being.
And this leads me to my final exploration. This whole dream takes place in a very earthly landscape. The images are all derived from earth: woods, mountains, mud, and volcanoes. It might be worth exploring how this relates to your physical health as forests in dreams can often relate to the physical unconscious. In addition, however, he earth is again the domain of the mother. It is the material realm, the place of grounding on earth as opposed to the Yang heights of air and spirit. Again, I would encourage you in these times to pay particular attention to aspects of the personal mother,your mother and your relationship to her and your grandmothers, and also of the collective mother. And I don’t mean this conceptually. This requires deep engagement with the details of your life versus the big picture. The mother realm is physical existence, earthly existence, and our material beings. Focus on maintaining balance in money, in health, and in your day to day, temporal life. If you can keep your feet on the ground and your mind from pulling you up into spiritualism or intellect, you’ll be stronger to tackle whatever arises.
As you move forward, I wish you all the best in relationship with your girlfriend. This is a fertile time, my dear. Unfortunately and fortunately, the pain makes it so. Don’t shy away from this pain or from going even deeper into it. Don’t seek for only love, but also its opposite. It is sometimes only through diving into what we perceive as mud that we can emerge with the chocolate we were craving. Meanwhile, trust that your muddy school is under construction. You are learning and growing already.
Have you had a dream like this? Leave a comment and share!
Satya is a Jungian psychotherapist in private practice in Portland, Oregon specializing in dream work, the quarter-life crisis, and work with individuals in their late teens, 20s, and 30s. www.QuarterLifeCounselor.com