Patricia had been seeing her therapist, Dr. Liz Evans, for two months now. A disturbing dream in which she saw herself eating a cat was the first dream Patricia would bring to Dr. Evans. She felt nervous as she waited in the small waiting room, classical music playing softly in the background. What would Liz think of her dream? Would she think Patricia was evil and beyond help, eating a poor defenseless animal like that? Patricia shuddered, “Disgusting,” she murmured to herself.
As soon as Dr. Evans opened her door, Patricia’s news about her dream came spilling out. “You won’t believe what I dreamed!” she exclaimed, one word tumbling over another, “It was so gross, so disgusting!”
Liz’s eyes widened, her eyebrows raised with surprise. “Do tell all!” she begged.
Patricia moved toward the sofa in the sitting area of Liz’s office and awkwardly lowered herself onto its plump cushions. Liz sat opposite her, leaning forward in anticipation of hearing the dream. As Patricia recounted the dream, Liz listened attentively, nodding here, murmuring an encouraging word there. When Patricia was finished, she closed her eyes, afraid to see Dr. Evans’s reaction. She could hear the ticking of the clock as moments passed.
Finally, Patricia opened her eyes. Dr. Evans was waiting quietly, but smiled when she saw the wary look on Patricia’s face. “What do you make of it?” she asked. “Immediately after you woke up, what did you think or feel?”
Patricia thought back to that night and told Dr. Evans as much as she could recall about her emotions and thoughts about the dream that night, ending with comments about how disgusting and upsetting the behavior of her dream self was to her even now. “I want to know what you think about it!” she said somewhat anxiously.
“May I tell you a little bit about how we do dream work in depth psychology?” Dr. Evans asked.
“Yes!” Patricia answered enthusiastically. Somehow Dr. Evans had a way of diffusing her anxiety and embarrassment about herself. She still felt that it was shameful that she could even dream something like that. But Dr. Evans didn’t seem disturbed by the dream at all, or seem to have a negative reaction to it.
Dr. Evans spent several minutes outlining the parts of a dream and how depth psychologists see the dream as pictures of the parts of oneself that are unconscious to the dreamer. Different dreams have different functions,” she explained, “and it’s our job to try to snoop out what your inner self is trying to tell you.” The approach made the dreamer the expert on her own dreams, rather than looking to the psychoanalyst to try to decipher contents that were unique to the dreamer. “I can help you by suggesting archetypal meanings–characters or images that are common to all of us–but that’s usually most useful when you get stumped and can’t figure out what your inner self is trying to show you.”
“So every part of that dream was probably a part of myself?” Patricia asked. Dr. Evans nodded her agreement. “Even the me that was eating the cat?”
Dr. Evans nodded her agreement again. “Yes, most especially,” she said. “In fact, I’m wondering about your strong emotional reactions against that image. Tell me about that.” Dr. Evans reached for her paper and pen as she waited for Patricia’s answer.
Patricia rolled her eyes with disbelief. “You don’t get why I’m grossed out by myself eating a cat?!” she exclaimed. Dr. Evans laughed and shrugged her shoulders helplessly as if mystified.
Chuckling too, Patricia explained that she hated cats in the first place, but felt sorry for the dream cat because it was so frightened and scrawny, obviously starving. There was some sense of necessity in the dream that made Patricia feel afraid and nervous as she thought about her dream self chasing the cat through dark, foggy alleyways.
“As quickly as you can, give me a bunch of words–things you associate with cats,” Dr. Evans urged.
“Purina Cat Chow, nine lives, survivors, gray, skinny, weak, breakable, unreliable, picky, dishonest,” Patricia responded. As she finished her list, Patricia felt surprised at the way the words came tumbling out of her. Wow, all that was what she felt about the gray cat? Surprising!
“Do those associations ring a bell for you? Is there anyone in your life who fits that description?” Dr. Evans asked.
A surge of anxiety and realization swept over Patricia. “My mother!” she exclaimed. “That exactly describes her, except for the cat food!”
“What makes you say that?” Dr. Evans asked.
“Because it’s true,” Patricia answered, “She was a survivor but weak at the same time, fragile, and so dishonest. She lied to us kids all the time, said she would change, said she’d leave my dad, said she’d protect us. She never did,” she ended sadly.
“And you’re sad.” Dr. Evans looked at Patricia sympathetically.
Tears welled up in Patricia’s eyes. “Oh, my God, yes. Yes!” As the tears threatened to spill over, Patricia stopped herself. “Stop it!” she said out loud, her mouth taking on its customary determined line.
“It’s not OK to cry?” Dr. Evans asked.
“Oh, it’s OK, sure,” Patricia answered, “but it doesn’t change anything, ever. My mom cried all the time and it never changed a damn thing!”
“You’re feeling angry?”
“Damn straight!” Patricia cried, “For God’s sake, she was the mother! It was her job to fucking protect us but she was so damn weak, she couldn’t protect herself or anyone!”
“So who took care of you?”
“I took care of myself, that’s who! I took care of myself and I was just a fucking CHILD!!!!” Patricia spat vehemently.
“You’re mad! And you have every reason to be!” Dr. Evans exclaimed.
“I’m FURIOUS!” Patricia cried. “FURIOUS!!!” But just as suddenly as her rage erupted, she began to laugh.
Dr. Evans raised her eyebrows with surprise, asking, “What just happened?”
“Furious… furrious… furious… furry us,” Patricia explained. “See?” Patricia leaned forward. “I dreamed about a cat. The cat was furry. We were all kind of like my mother, weren’t we? Weak, dishonest, breakable, foggy, kinda all gray instead of … living in color, because of my dad, because it was too scary to really be alive around him, he was always drunk and flying into rages. It wasn’t safe, it was like being in a fog all the time.”
“And so?” Dr. Evans asked.
“And… and I…” Patricia trailed off.
“Where are you?” Dr. Evans asked.
“I suddenly drew a blank!” Patricia explained. “Something about the dream made sense and I just lost it, whatever it was.”
“Go with the feeling,” Dr. Evans suggested, “You were angry, you were afraid, you were in a fog…” she prodded.
“Oh!” Patricia exclaimed, “Yes, that’s it! All this rage…” But suddenly Patricia felt defeated. She was at the brink of seeing something important but she backed off from it, and now she couldn’t see it at all. She looked helplessly at her therapist.
“Let’s go with the solution your dream gave you, the one at the end, and see where it takes us,” Dr. Evans suggested.
“What? With me eating the cat?” Patricia shuddered.
“Yes, with you eating the cat. What does it mean, to eat something?”
Patricia looked at the ceiling. “You eat it. It goes inside. It’s raw, it’s disgusting, it’s terrible. But you eat it and it goes inside, and it becomes part of you.” Patricia started to feel as if some sort of light or power was beginning to open up above her head. “And you keep what you need, and you get rid of the rest.”
“Patricia,” Dr. Evans breathed, “that’s big. That’s… something. What do you think now?”
“I felt all that rage, that rage reminds me of my dad; and the cat is like my mom. And if I’m eating the cat, it’s like I’m so mad at her, and I’m a monster, and I’m eating her and all the bad about her, but the good too. I have it inside me.”
“And the bad? Her bad parts and your father’s bad parts?” Dr. Evans asked, “And your own?”
Patricia looked at Dr. Evans warily. “What do you mean?”
“Is it possible that the solution you found to surviving was to take the rage and identify with your dad?” Dr. Evans asked gently. “And yet hate him at the same time, meaning you can never really love your self, your real self, that child who was weak and fragile, breakable and all the things your mother was, too, and leave that child behind?”
Patricia began to cry. “Yes! Oh, yes… I see it, I saw it a minute ago right before I drew that blank. I can’t stand weakness!”
“We sometimes draw blanks,” Dr. Evans explained, “when realizing something that we’ve hidden from ourselves is just too difficult. But today, you had the courage to press forward, and look at what you’ve seen. This is important, Patricia. This is amazing. I’m so proud of you, that you could bring this dream and share so openly about yourself and your past today. I’m grateful that you trusted me to do this.”
Dr. Evans handed Patricia a box of tissues as Patricia continued to cry softly. Patricia thought she might never stop crying. From time to time she felt ashamed as tears and snot ran down her face, and she buried her face in her hands. But somehow, Dr. Evans was calm and accepting, and Patricia’s shame and embarrassment began to subside.
“This is why you’re here, my dear,” Dr. Evans said, “Because you were a little girl and you needed a mom and a dad you could trust and rely upon, and you didn’t have that. You had to grow up so fast, take care of your sister and baby brother, and even care for your mom. That’s a lot to ask of a little girl. No wonder you identified with your father. But now you’re in a safe enough place that your inner self, your trustworthy guide, can show you parts of the map of the way back home.”
“A dream is a map?” Patricia asked, finally calming down.
“Kind of,” Dr. Evans replied. “It doesn’t really show you where you’re going, but it does show you how to get there. Next time, we’ll see if you’ve had any other clues like dreams or events that stir you up, and together, we’ll try to figure out what path your true self is setting you on.”
Patricia stood to her feet and impulsively grabbed Dr. Evans in a bear hug. Dr. Evans hugged her back.
“Thank you!” Patricia exclaimed, “Thank you so much! I feel so much better, even if I’m still kind of confused and upset about the dream and all, but thank you. You make me feel so safe, for the first time in my life, I feel like maybe–”
“Maybe what?” Dr. Evans prodded.
“Like maybe I could be a good person some day,” Patricia answered.