My continual astonishment as I work with addicts and other clients is the complete dismissal of their dreams–all of them. They sometimes seem especially reluctant to consider the notion that their dreams with drug use images have something important to tell them about their lives right now. Using dreams and the attitudes towards them are important predictors of staying sober or of relapsing. They may also show how the sober addict is moving from the thought pattern of “get drugs, get drugs, get drugs,” to something more expansive, attitudes that indicate desires to stay sober.
A college student, Marcus, had the following dream:
I’m in a bare room, with a single card table covered with cocaine. There are piles and piles of the stuff. I’m sitting in front of it, anticipating the excitement of getting high. It’s all mine. Just looking at it excites me. No one else is around, no one to tell me not to do it.
When I quizzed the dreamer, he said, “I’m done with that shit. It made my nose bleed all the time and I ended up sick. No way am I doing that anymore.” The dream begs to differ. The dream offers no characters who resist the dreamer’s desires. There is no one else in the dream and no self talk from the dream ego (the character the dreamer identifies as “I”) to talk himself out of using the cocaine in front of him. When I suggested that the dream ought to be taken seriously, that maybe there was some part of him who still wanted to use, Marcus said, “No way. I’m finally getting my act together.” Marcus was a smart, motivated student. He wrote excellent essays for the class I was teaching; he volunteered at the school’s service projects; he had lots of friends. He had shared other dreams with me that were quite different from the one above; they had many characters, elaborate plots and settings. They reflected his rich, complicated family history and were quite visual. The cocaine dream, in contrast, was visually bare, plotless and uninteresting. Based upon his behavior in the classroom, the many friendships and activities he participated in, I wasn’t sure I believed what the dream was suggesting either. Yet it made me uneasy and worried. One of my best students was a cocaine addict? Oh dear. Unfortunately, it didn’t worry Marcus. A few months later, he dropped out of school and went on a cocaine binge for several months. When he emailed me later, he said, “I should have taken that cocaine dream I told you more seriously.”
Schoen (2009) and Zweben and Flowers (1998) have noted that the attitude towards having had a using dream can be a predictor of relapse or resolve to stay sober. My concern when I heard the dream was how excited Marcus became in the dream itself when he saw the cocaine. There was no self talk such as “I shouldn’t be doing this. This is going to end up badly.” All he thinks about in the dream itself is how wonderful the high is going to be. When he told the dream to me, he didn’t feel any particular remorse or concern either. He discounted it until after he had used again, and then recognized it as a “precognitive” dream. Jung coined the dream “precognitive” for those dreams that seem to predict or at least suggest a future event. Many using dreams are precognitive warning dreams. They are supposed to alert the dreamer to a possible future pattern in his or her life so that the attitudes that lead to relapse can be checked immediately. Marcus’s dream was saying,”You’re headed towards more drug use. You’re becoming complacent and unaware. You’re hanging out with users.” If you record your dreams for any length of time, and then look back on your recorded dreams, you’ll start to notice that some dreams show where the energy is heading in your life; they jump ahead of current events, sometimes warning you to watch out, and sometimes predicting positive outcomes for projects you’re working on. The precognitive dream can sometimes have a spiritual dimension to it. That’s because the dreamer asks the question, “How did my dream world know I was going to get that job, meet that person, (or whatever seems to be prophesied in the dream).” When an addict has a using dream, it’s important to determine the attitude towards having had it. Did you like seeing yourself get high in a dream? Or did you feel concern, guilt, worry, horror? The more anxious the attitude towards having had a using dream, the more likely the dreamer is to stay sober.
Consider the following dream from an addict, four years sober:
I am in a Las Vegas type-dinner theatre, having breakfast with my college friends. I drank beer last night, but in the hope of hearing a different answer, ask my friends what I drank last night. They look at me kindly and not wanting to tell me, they say, “beer.” “Shit,” I think. Now I have to start over and raise my hand as a newcomer. I am upset that I’ll lose the almost four years I have. But then I think, “on the other hand, I’ll be the center of attention.”
The dreamer, “Dianne,” expresses remorse in the dream itself that she relapsed. Her friends do not want to report her relapse, but they do. And, she assumes in the dream that she’ll report the relapse in AA and that she will start over with AA as her support. Those are all good signs that the dreamer plans to stay sober. She doesn’t actually see herself in the dream with a glass of beer; she only recalls it as something that happened in the past. The dream doesn’t show the relapse as a positive, pleasant experience, or cause for celebration, but rather as something that will upset the dreamer, were she to actually do that in waking life. Hence, the dream reinforces her desires to stay sober. When AA members or sponsors appear in dreams, their purpose in the dream is often to reinforce the waking desires to stay sober. However, when they appear in dreams and the dreamer is trying to run away from them, or avoid them in some way, that may also be happening in the dreamer’s waking life, and the dreamer may have desires to return to active addiction.
After staying sober for some time, using dreams will generally have more going on than drug use. The other images, characters and plots are indicators of movement away from the obsessive drug use that has taken over the person’s life. Gradually far more dreams without mention of drug use will occur. As the dreamer expands the self in his or her waking life, beyond addictive behavior, the dreams will reflect the interests he or she has developed. The above dreamer, “Dianne,” loves horses, dogs and the out-of-doors. Her dreams reflect her love for animals. She’s an attorney by profession, and she has lots of dreams about work. Here’s a dream Dianne had a few months after her using dream:
I’m riding Danny, (a horse) in a ring. Some of the ring is bad due to rain. There are two other riders in the ring: an inexperienced English rider and a yahoo, inconsiderate Western rider. I am working Danny, finding a good track, watching the Western rider tear around like mad. Danny doesn’t have a fit and when she does react, she’s easy to sit. I realize that her canter is smooth as glass; she is completely responsive and I am enjoying the ride so much. I think the Western rider crashes into a barrel or the other rider, but I’m not sure. But I am separate from the craziness . . . Darrow and I continue working on good footing, sure, even though the ring is quite a mess and the other riders either inexperienced or inconsiderate, both potential problems.
Dianne was doing something in the dream that she loves doing in her waking life. Riding a horse becomes the metaphor for working a spiritual program. “I am separate from the craziness” reflects Dianne’s separation from the craziness of active addiction and her sense of safety, even as the “yahoo” crashes close to her. She was working on “good footing,” by working the steps in the AA program. To the sober addict, the craziness of active addiction never feels very far away. It is always a possibility. The craziness in the ring reflects Dianne’s sense of gratitude that she’s riding “smooth as glass” in her waking life, due to her sobriety.
Paying attention to positive aspects of the dreamer’s life that show up in dreams is just as important as noticing the warning signs that appear in dreams. To only see the drug use is the equivalent to saying, “the only thing worth knowing about this person is that he or she is a drug addict.” That is never the case. Drug addicts have passions beyond their passion for taking drugs. To tap into those other interests is to remind the dreamer of all that he or she is and encourage the development of healthy habits (such as riding a horse) and inclinations. Looking at a series of dreams will generally show a wide range of people, actions, and settings, all that reflect the dreamer’s potential for positive development in sobriety.