Candy wrappers and water bottles

Several years ago I was working with a Jungian analyst in Chicago, a woman named Anne. I kept a dream journal whose entries served as the springboard for our time together. “Our waking hours are filled with neuroses,” Anne would explain. “They distort our perception of what’s really going on. We think we see things clearly, but we don’t. Dreams present images we can trust.”

The early 90’s were a time of paradigm shifts. I was just beginning to comprehend that Ali might never walk or talk. A divorce was imminent, and I felt the first stirrings of a significant change in how I earned a living. My conscious mind was on overload, capable of little more than putting one foot in front of the other. It was a good time to be looking at dreams.

Entry: October 1991: I am running hard, navigating around giant boulders that fall from the hillside, missing my body by inches. I dodge knives strewn on the pavement. Menacing gangs in black leather and chains sit on their motorcycles and harass me from the side of the road. I pick up the pace, feel my legs grow lighter and the muscles stronger. Like a warrior, I sense danger but feel invincible. I narrowly avoid cliffs and overhangs, circle around fire and wild dogs. I round a bend and the road clears of debris. The hills flatten and the stark gray landscape morphs into verdant green. My limbs relax. Tension falls from my shoulders. My breathing slows. The run for my life eases into a rhythmic loping.

“I’m never going to worry about you,” Anne says when I close the journal. “You will be fine.”

Seventeen years later, I’m not so sure.

Entry: October 2008: I am the passenger in a car filled with candy wrappers, plastic water bottles, empty bags of chips, a scrunched ball cap and soiled t-shirt. I find grocery lists stowed in the side compartment and crumpled notes with names and phone numbers in the glove box. I hold the male driver responsible and, one by one, toss the items onto his side of the car. The trash gathers in piles around the pedals. I bury his feet. The scene changes to a house. The man has a flight to catch. He’s running late, and scrambles to pack a bag. The home is as cluttered as the car. Empty cereal bowls and glasses are stacked on the side tables. I step over dirty socks and wet towels, trip on an old guitar. I move through my home like a civilian negotiating a minefield after the soldiers leave. I can’t live like this, I tell the man. I walk in circles, paralyzed by the mess. Everywhere I look I see something that needs my attention. The phone rings. The line cracks; the caller comes in and out. She’s asking for my help. “I’d like to,” I tell her, “but I’m helping someone get ready for a trip.” The man stands at the door, smiling, his bag packed. I look around the room, furious that he is leaving, resenting that I have to stay.

Take away the conscious filters of all the things a woman is expected to do, all the ways she takes care of her family, her clients, her home, and the dream reveals its truth: I want the litter out of my life. I’ve had enough. I want to leave.

I am not afraid of being alone, I write in my journal. I am afraid of being suffocated. My candy wrappers and water bottles are the house that doesn’t stay clean, the copy writing deadlines, the trips to the grocery store, the cooking, the driving, the laundry, the commotion, the noise, the taking care of children, dogs and home. This is not about living with a man who doesn’t help. These demons are mine.

“You might as well pay attention to your dreams,” warns Anne from the leather chair in her Evanston office one Saturday morning. “In time, psyche will prevail. She will have her way. Maybe not now, but eventually, without regard for what society expects of you or what you expect of yourself. She cares only about her own well-being, which is her way of keeping you authentic. And she is relentless.”

Several months pass. It is spring. I follow Anne down the hall toward her office when she motions for me to step around the woman curled in a fetal position on the floor. The woman’s eyes are closed, her body still. I hear Anne tell her to knock if she needs anything. The woman grunts. Anne carefully closes the office door. “What happened?” I whisper, shocked at what I’ve just seen.

“She’s a prominent physician at Evanston hospital, married, with teenage children. This morning her ego said no, I’ve had enough, I can’t do this anymore. She managed to get in the car and drive herself here. I believe she will be fine. She’s very strong. But she needs to stop being everything to everybody. She takes care of her patients, her kids, her husband, everyone but herself. What you saw is psyche taking over. The woman’s ego has collapsed.”

And then, as an after thought, Anne adds, “Be careful. The two of you are a lot alike.”

Driven to perfection, task-oriented, ambitious, wanting to give others what they expect, afraid of disappointing, wanting to make them happy, Anne was right. I am like the woman on the floor. During the dozen years I single parented my child with special needs, I hovered on the verge of collapse a handful of times. Grace spared me.

I learn from paradox: Even though Ali consistently demands more than any other person or situation in my life, she also teaches the necessity of hanging on to what keeps me whole. She forces me to stay authentic. When she was young, I figured out that if I didn’t get my run in or read that book while she napped, if I didn’t take the backpacking or ski trip, a friend would find me hiding under the piano in my own home, whimpering gibberish, incapable of taking care of my child. Certain I could not survive that reality, I found ways to nourish myself. I created the time for activities that had nothing to do with Ali. I fed my soul. I have had to learn this lesson many times. Add two more children and the dream tells me I am learning it again.

The over-attentive self is inclined to push through fatigue and keep going, foolishly believing we have no choice. I know how to discount weariness and attempt to force energy from an exhausted body and spirit, leaving me with nothing to give the people I care about most. I sleep fitfully and dream of trashed cars and cluttered houses, dream metaphors for freedom and sanity, compromised. Anne’s warning bubbles up: psyche will prevail. I understand the woman on the floor. I don’t want her story to be mine. No one does. I get to work.

I make plans for a retreat in November with two writer pals. I send my husband to the store with the grocery list. I skip a neighborhood party. I decline a request for copy writing and celebrate silently when another project is put on hold. I reclaim my morning walk with the dogs. I practice forgiving myself for unanswered emails and unreturned phone calls, for going to my study to read rather than hanging out with the family. I spend a Saturday afternoon moving perennials in the garden. I go to 6 PM yoga; Tony and the kids eat take-out. I have a date with my husband on Friday night.

Dreams present images we can trust. Thanks, Anne.

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