One Interpretation or Another

I was reminded today of a story I heard back in the mid-70s when I was in grad school studying for a degree in psychological counseling. One of my instructors back then was a fifty-something woman, who had been practicing clinical therapy for over twenty years. That meant that she was a psychologist back in the mid-50s when most of America though psychology was either witchcraft or outright fraud. Her main thesis in teaching therapeutic technique was to continually remind us that there were many sources of psychological dis-ease and just as many interpretations of the what, when, why and how of a client's issues. Our task, she would remind us, was first to uncover the actual problem and then to assist the client in discovering tools to ease their pain and anxiety.

Here is her story that I was reminded of today.

As a young therapist she was interested in dream interpretation and used a dictionary of dream images to interpret any dreams a client might bring up in a session. At some point she had a 50-something business man coming in for counseling. After a few sessions she asked about his dreams and over the next several weeks, he told her of two what he called dream vignettes.

In the first, he was on a camping trip that he and his now wife had taken while they were dating. The scene was precisely the campground where they had been in Michigan's upper peninsula. In the dream, he was sitting out by the dying campfire, his wife-to-be was already in the tent but he was having trouble with the stem on his air mattress. The mattress was not fully inflated but he could not pull the stem out to add more air. His fingers were not nimble enough to grasp the retracted stem valve.

In a second dream, he was playing basketball with his intramural team from college. Again the scene was just as it had been in real life except that in the dream there was a small group of co-eds in the stands watching the game and the basketball was under-inflated so it was difficult to dribble the ball.

Our young therapist consulted her dream interpretation dictionary and found this entry:

1. If the air is clear and sunny, success lies ahead.
2. If the air is cloudy, foggy, misty or stormy, then you're not in a clear frame of mind. Perhaps you should postpone making important decisions for a few days.
3. Pumping air into a tire or air mattress implies that your support system (family, friends, colleagues) is weak and needs to be strengthened.

She offered the third interpretation to her client as an clinical intervention. The following day, she was informed by her supervisor that the client had requested another therapist. In particular, he had asked for someone male and more experienced. Being that her supervisor was the only older male in the practice, he offered to take over the client and also to share with her any insights he gained through the therapy about her work with the client.

Several weeks later, while discussing cases, her supervisor asked if she had taken note of the women in her patients dreams. The girlfriend in the tent in the first dream and the co-eds watching the intramural game in the second. She acknowledged that she had made the link with the "air" aspect in both dreams but had not gone any further.

It was then that our young therapist heard for the first time a diagnosis we are all familiar with today and one that you may have already made yourself -- erectile dysfunction.

The point of today's story is simply that there are generally many possible interpretations for images and symbols that substitute in our psyches for the actual cause of our fears and anxieties. Remaining open to possible explanations that lie beyond your own experience is a revealing practice that will potentially tell you more about yourself than you may already know.