I had three dreams on the two nights prior to my last therapy session before a four week break – all of them betraying my fears not just about this temporary ending, but about the more permanent ‘ending of therapy’ to come. It’s a familiar pattern for me – one type of ‘loss’ cascades into layers of loss stretching into the future.
I was standing on the balcony of a block of flats and my ‘therapy jacket’* fell from where it was hanging and onto the street below. I thought to call out for help, for someone to pick it up, and then I decided I should instead run down and get it. But as I was about to rush down, a man drove up on a motorbike, picked it up, and sped away. I screamed after him, hoping someone might pursue him, but he was gone. I was devastated at the loss of something deeply meaningful and irreplaceable; even awake, I remember the quality and intensity of the distress I felt in my dream, which was so great that it actually woke me up. This is my version of a nightmare, which haunts me and jolts me awake – not fear, but overwhelming sadness and loss.
I got off a bus and found myself near my halls of residence at university. Waves of nostalgia hit me – good feelings, a sort of happiness, but tinged with the sadness of times now distant and never to be re-lived. Good memories shot through with the faint unbelief that this could ever have been my life – that I was ever there, younger, less burdened with things not done, lives not lived, joys not felt. I walked up to the building and the front desk staff recognised me without me saying a word, and the familiarity felt comforting. But when I looked behind them, I saw that the place had been gutted by fire. Only blackened structures remained, and the beautiful buildings had disappeared. I was shocked, saddened, horrified – overwhelmed with tears, and grief. They told me what had happened, but I don’t remember what they said. Something to do with Fresher’s Week, I think – it seems that what was meant to be a new beginning, had in fact brought about an ending.
I was in my car, in the bottom right hand corner of an enormous open-air courtyard within a building that completely enclosed the space on all sides. All of a sudden, the ground started falling away, starting from the bottom left hand corner and moving towards the right. I began driving up the right hand side of the square, at first managing to escape the collapse by some distance, but then having a narrower and narrower strip of land to drive on, as the break-up of the earth caught up with me, and almost overtook me. Just as the strip of land was about to disappear to nothing, I drove between a pillar and the building but the space was slightly too narrow and I crashed and came to a halt, wedged in the gap. The ground disappeared all around me, but I was pinned in place, and didn’t fall. Being stuck felt like my salvation.
My therapist suggested that perhaps my husband was stealing my therapy – a reference to the fact that I deeply resented the fact I had spent much of the last week of therapy before the break, focusing on the feelings that my couples therapy was triggering in me. It was not how I had planned ‘setting up’ for the break, and it felt like an intrusion. It felt as though I was losing valuable individual therapy time and wouldn’t be able to cover everything I wanted to before the break. My therapist was not wrong in her interpretation of my first dream, but as with any dream, a number of different interpretations are possible, all of which may lead to their own insights.
For me, it was the loss of a visual representation of therapy, and the absence of a tangible reminder, that struck me most. I was reminded of the conversations I’ve had recently with my therapist about how I’ve always hoped that at the end of therapy she would give me a photo to remember her by. I don’t think it had occurred to me it was a request she might refuse – so many therapists these days have a photo online, even if their web presence is limited to their contact details and a summary of their areas of expertise. Yet she indicated that I wouldn’t need a photo – that I would carry the memories I needed, within me. It was an implied, rather than a direct, refusal, and it was far from reassuring. Sometimes I find it very hard to recall faces – and I am terrified that one day, I may not be able to recall hers. I am scared that I will lose that vital reminder of her presence, one way or another, whether the reminder is stolen by age, or illness, or another cause.
Over the last few months, I have spent more and more time worrying not just about the end of therapy, but about the fact that I don’t know when it will end, or when my therapist will retire. She has said she will let me know at least a year before it happens – but now it feels as though I live in dread of walking into a session only to find out that it is the session at which she makes that announcement. I have been imagining what it will be like – even though I don’t want to imagine it. I imagine it in various different ways, because the possibility of it is so difficult to conceive, there is no telling how the reality will go.
I imagine the version where I am numb and in shock, and my defenses kick in to protect me from pain, so that I just carry on as rationally and as much in denial, as I can. I imagine the version where I simply can’t bear to be in such pain in the presence of the person who has hurt me, and I ask to leave – but I’ve never left a session, and I know I would regret it, so that scenario doesn’t seem very likely. And I imagine the version in which I show her that it hurts indescribably much – as it sometimes does when the premonition of the future hits me at home at night and I hold my stomach with wordless cries and open mouth and soak my pillow with streaming nose and eyes and it is unbearable but I bear it and yet I know that even when it passes, this time, it is coming, actually coming, this and more. And in the exhausted quiet after, part of me is grateful to be able to open myself up to the grief, which feels like an honouring of everything my therapist means to me; but part of me trembles in fear underneath, at the thought of the time when the grief will really, really take hold of me, and it won’t last half an hour or an hour, or ten hours, or a hundred…..
The imagined shock of that announcement is what the shock of the burnt-out building reminds me of. The distress following the shock, a dim foretelling of what the reality will be like. The nostalgia of returning to a familiar place with good memories, at Fresher’s Week, a time of new beginnings, reminds me of returning to therapy after a break. And it is then, in particular, that I imagine coming face to face with devastation. Therapy seems to run on academic terms, just like schools and universities – August is the ‘month off’ and things resume again, come September. It seems likely she would choose to retire at the end of an academic year, particularly as she sees a number of students. And so it also seems likely that, if she ‘gives me notice’, it will happen at the start of the academic year, and following the summer break. I’m afraid of therapy breaks – but these days I am also afraid of going back.
The third dream took place on the same night as the second, and I believe it is on a similar theme. It was my therapist who saw it this time – the collapse of the ground and the ever narrower strip of road, mirroring the passage of time. The longer I am in therapy, the less time I have left in therapy. If only I could stop time….There is so much that – perhaps generously – she didn’t say, about just how my behaviour and resistance in therapy is sometimes geared towards just that. Towards denying progress (or at least minimising it and trying to show how much more there is to do); staving off the end, even though the end is inevitable and ultimately will be determined by her retirement, irrespective of whether I am ‘done’ in therapy, or not. There is a sentence in ‘Lila’ by Marilynne Robinson, which perfectly sums up that denial, and that holding back: “She couldn’t lean her whole weight on any of this when she knew she would have to live on after it”.
My therapist’s conclusion about the dream’s message disturbed me – whereas I felt that getting stuck had saved me, she suggested that perhaps I needed to carry on, despite time getting ever shorter. It makes sense – that I should carry on, make the most of the time, complete the work, if the work is ever really complete. But I can’t help wondering, did her words mean more than that? Was she encouraging me to keep going not just because it’s a good thing to do, but because she now has an actual timescale, an actual date in mind? However much I tried to think about the disappearing ground as representing time left in therapy, I could not persuade myself that driving on and falling down into the chasm was anything other than dangerous and to be avoided.
“Ends are for yesterday, not tomorrows.
What will you do with the time you have left?” **
[* I bought my therapy jacket during a therapy break more than two years ago, and it is a constant comfort blanket and a warm reminder of my therapist, acting both as a jacket and a blanket, depending on the season and the time of day!
** – from ‘The Time Keeper’ by Mitch Albom ]