Hysteria and its Discontents -or- On Death and Dying

Shirley, 18

My dream started that I was at a funeral for one of my old music teachers from middle school. Then back at home I noticed extreme abdominal pain and there were tumors growing in my legs and stomach as well as swelling in my face and throat. I told my mother and she rushed me to the hospital. I was terrified!!!!  I didn't want to die. The nurses there seem so calmed like it was no big deal and I wasn't sick. I closed my eyes and when I opened them I was in this huge mansion in the Victorian times and all these people were feasting at a huge dinner in Victorian dress. Someone told me that I was dead and in heaven. I felt so trapped and depressed. I didn't know anyone and didn't want to be there. I tried to escape so I could go back to earth and tell my mom how much I love her and find out what happened to me and why did nobody help me. During every escape I would end up running right back into the house. I couldn't escape. Somehow I realized it was a dream and tried to wake up. When my eyes opened for real, my body was paralyzed!  This has never happened to me before it took about a minute before I could move at all.

Learned Helplessness Model of Depression -or- Changing Your Conscious Attitudes

You clearly experience psychological symptoms (extreme abdominal pain, tumors growing in legs and stomach, swelling in face and throat) in your dream body image after your former teacher's funeral. Your mom takes you to the hospital and the nurses tell you, that you are not sick, yet your psychological fears of death persist. In "The Denial of Death", Ernest Becker sees courage and heroism as a psychological and emotional response to the "terror of death". In therapy, I have always said that courage is a key character strength ingredient needed to face everyday dangers, fears, and angst. We need courage to live and courage to die, as all of us will pass on one day. Whether there is an afterlife and heaven as your dream alludes to, I cannot say. For some, the idea true or not, provides solace.

The feeling of "terror" of our mortality is something we then try to escape. We begin to defend ourselves by denying our own mortality. Denial is also one of the psychological stages of grieving in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's "Death and Dying" model. When our courage to face this psychological terror fails us, we begin to imagine the worst possible situations of grief. As you state; you closed your eyes and are transported to a Victorian mansion with people at a dinner wearing Victorian dress. This may be an epochal allusion to the Victorian age, which was psychologically marked by strong emotional repression and hysteria of anxieties, in your case this would then point to a "conversion disorder" of your body image and the experience of the resultant psychological symptoms. Many dreams sent to the International Institute for Dream Research speak about body image disorders.

In your dream, the feelings of depression, the inability to escape, feeling trapped and feeling that no one will help, can be viewed from Martin Seligman's concept of "learned helplessness"  model of depression. The idea that you want to go back to earth, to tell your mother that you love her, perhaps is a clue that this dream may actually be, you punishing yourself for some transgression against your mom and that you are telling yourself, to dramatically realize that the relationship is an important one, one not to take for granted, and one that will come to a physical end one day. The psychological threat and fear of loss always puts relationships into a different perspective.

Said differently, the dream may be a compensation of negative adolescent aggressive conscious attitudes towards your mom and the need to find a different more positive attitude, by telling her you love her, showing gratitude towards her and don't take her for granted. Dreams often dramatically use "cognitive dissonance" to show us and tell us how we affirm and/or negate our lives. Your mom may be feeling unappreciated? Rene Spitz "No and Yes: On the Genesis of Human Communication", provides a background to understanding the psychological problems of dissonance we are all faced with in affirming communication, love and life. Your dream seems to be a cry for help. Dreams can provide help and a psychological road to attitude change and happiness.

On a final note you say that you opened your eyes for real and experience paralysis, this is the normal state of dreaming and "sleep paralysis" that occurs. As mentioned in another dream "Sleep Paralysis" sent to the IIDR, it might be prudent to discuss the problem with your family physician if it continues to happen.

Further Reading:

  • W. H. Auden "The Age of Anxiety"
  • Elisabeth Bronfen "The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and its Discontents


All material Copyright 2006 International Institute for Dream Research. All rights reserved.