Depth psychology often works with images and fantasies. These aren’t things we “make up,” nor are they daydreams (though those can be very pleasant). But like the dreams we have at night, these images come into awareness spontaneously. When treated respectfully—as if they have meaning, in other words—they can be a source of healing to the person they visit.
Mark (not his real name) came to therapy after the death of his husband a few months earlier. He was a quiet man in his early 40s, an informal reader of depth psychology and very interested in doing dream work. Which I was on board for, as I believe dreams can power treatment effectively.
What I was concerned about were some of the waking experiences Mark reported. These included seeing dead friends, seeing the Virgin Mary in downtown Los Angeles, getting messages from street lamps, and having a conversation with the statue of a bear.
Mark’s husband, Jim, had died following a long and harrowing illness, and Mark had been his primary caregiver. In this same period, Mark’s mother and his best friend also became ill, so that his caregiving duties were divided between them. All three had died within a month of one another.
I diagnosed Mark with major depression, severe and with psychotic features. One of the first things I did was refer him to a psychiatrist. I thought he would benefit from medication.
He was against this. I explained—gently but with great certainty—that it was unusual to see dead friends walking down the street, or to engage statues in dialogue. “But these things aren’t what’s wrong,” he explained wearily. “That’s not why I’m coming to see you.” He seemed too sad and fatigued by loss to even be exasperated with me for not getting it.
He brought in a dream, one of the first of many that we looked at together in our sessions. Because while Mark was consciously in state of severe depression, his unconscious seemed to be highly energized and productive. In this dream, he was showing an unknown man around his hometown. Here was the cemetery that took up one-quarter of the town, and here was the “Institute for Psychical Research” which took up another quarter. Here was the park full of memorial candles where the holy man had lived long ago, and here was the remaining quarter where the people lived and worked now. “So you see why there are some spooky things going on here,” he explained to his slow-to-understand companion.
OK, so I got it. Ease off on the referral to a psychiatrist. Mark’s experiences have meaning for him; they’re not just random “noise.” Instead, I asked Mark about some of his unusual experiences. What did he make of the conversation he had with the statue of the bear, for instance? “It wasn’t really a conversation,” he explained patiently. “This was a couple of months before Jim died. I was at the court of appeals building downtown to file some papers. There’s a life-sized bronze statue of a bear in the courtyard. I was looking into its mouth—the mouth was open, you could see all its teeth and its tongue and even down into its throat. While I was looking at it, it said, ‘I eat everything. What are you going to do about me?’ ”
Although all his loved ones had been ill for a long while, Mark seemed to have been blindsided by their actual deaths. I thought about the role denial might have if everyone you loved was moving toward end stage. I asked him about bears. One thing he knew was that they’re omnivorous—meat or fish, fruit or garbage or another bear’s cubs, they’ll eat it all. So I told him about projection—about the mind’s defense of repressing threatening material, which has a tendency to pop back into awareness as something “out there” in the environment. Mark knew of the concept from his reading but had never really applied it to himself before. Considering his experience with the statue as a psychological event shook him. It made the whole thing seem less “important.” He retreated. And his depression appeared to get worse.
I again began bringing up the idea of meeting with a psychiatrist—not to consult about antipsychotic medication this time but about antidepressants. He had no support network in place—everyone he’d known had died—and I was concerned about his ability to keep himself safe. He again declined.
One of the dreams he brought in at this time was as follows. He was standing naked in an examination room, being looked at by a doctor. His body was covered with sores, but he felt so low that he didn’t care about being seen in that condition. The sores had begun to scab over. He noticed that the scabs looked like little flowers made of gold leaf. They were still part of his body now, but eventually his sores would be healed and the golden flowers could be picked.
So I contained my own anxiety and consulted with a couple of my colleagues about my countertransference for Mark. They pointed out to me what I already knew—that Mark had no plan or even ideation about hurting himself. With their support, I was able to recognize and claim my own fear about meeting Mark so deep in the psyche and possibly losing my own way, or failing him because my nerve failed.
If we think in terms of wholeness, the psyche which has sustained the wound produces what heals that wound.
Perhaps Mark sensed my having come to some resolve about my own issues. He brought in not another dream but one of his unusual experiences. This was about the messages he received from street lamps. The messages were conveyed to him by street lamps going dark as he happened to glance at them. The communication, he said, was that “I need to take better care of myself or I’m going to go crazy.” I acknowledged that such a message seemed to have a positive impact—he had reported starting to take better care of himself, going to the gym, moving to a new neighborhood, and thinking about going back to school. Next session, he brought in some research he’d conducted. He told me about rheostats, which are devices built into street lamps that monitor their temperature and turn them off when they get too hot. “Which makes sense,” he told me. “Because how could a street lamp on a public street just be about me when there are millions of people in Los Angeles?”
I acknowledged the sense of this. “And yet how interesting that, in the whole environment, your eye landed on something that had such a personal value to you.”
This marked a breakthrough in our work. Mark became actively involved in looking at his experiences for “transparency”—no longer taking them literally, but not going to the other extreme of discarding them as meaningless or “unhealthy.” Instead, he became engaged in assessing them for meaning, much in the same way he had been working all along on his dreams. The glimpse of the Virgin Mary, upon further examination, became about the need—in the world and in Mark’s life—for compassion and mercy. And the sightings of the dead became windows into his previously unexamined spiritual beliefs, as well as his deep need that the people he loved not simply vanish into death.
We talked about seeing “two worlds” at once: the brightly colored visionary world and the daily world of rationality and sensation. As Mark noted toward the end of our sessions, “It’s not about either-or, is it? Whichever one you choose, you lose. It’s about making room for both of them at the same time.”
I believe the images our psyches produce, in dreams and spontaneously when we’re awake, can provide healing. If we think in terms of wholeness, the psyche which has sustained the wound produces what heals that wound. My work with Mark reminds me of this, and helps me tap into the courage of my convictions.
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