Shooting the Messenger
The Clinical Report of a Dream
Jonah reports a dream: “I took my parents to Fire Island with me. I can’t imagine why I would dream that. My roommate on Fire Island told my parents that I’m gay. My parents were horrified and looked to me to deny it. I said nothing. Then I killed my roommate. I pushed him off a cliff.”
Jonah—twenty-four-years old, gay, from a wealthy family in Florida—is not out to his parents, a steady topic in our work together. He is close to his parents yet dreadfully afraid that if they find out he is gay they will cut him off completely, emotionally and financially. I have gently questioned whether his parents would in actuality be quite so willing to cut off their youngest child and only son, to whom they are clearly devoted, yet Jonah remains terrified of the prospect.
Jonah reported the dream during what was supposed to have been the final session of our work together. After two and a half years, he felt that his symptoms just weren’t getting any better, and he wanted to take a break. It seemed true that we had not made a great deal of progress with his marijuana addiction and his inability to practice safer sex; but his depression and his rather low self-esteem I felt had significantly improved. Part of the problem, from my perspective, was that Jonah had trouble keeping appointments when the going got tough, when he had to face difficult feelings that arose during our work, feelings that he was a master at keeping at bay by smoking pot. I thought that rather than quitting therapy, he should try making his commitment a bit stronger, being on time to every session and coming faithfully every week. I even suggested a twice a week schedule, and that we might explore further his curiosity about the couch; but Jonah remained steadfast in his determination to take a break, at least for a short while.
After hearing Jonah’s dream, I asked the usual questions: What were Jonah’s feelings during the dream; what were his feelings when he woke up; and did he have any associations to the dream material? Curiously, he had almost nothing to say. Though sensing the importance of the dream, he had little reaction to it.
I asked if he wanted to hear my associations and he agreed. We discussed my sense that taking his parents to Fire Island was a way of working through the idea of telling them that he is gay, mentally rehearsing what it would be like for them to find out. We discussed how encouraged I was that his parents don’t actually freak out in the dream. Yes, they’re stunned, even “horrified,” but they don’t lose it; they don’t kill him. In fact, in silently looking toward Jonah, I felt they were seeking him out rather than rejecting him. Jonah did not share my optimism. Finally, we discussed whether he was perhaps killing off some part of himself, a part that he felt would not survive his parent’s finding out, a part he continually kills off every night with marijuana. Overall, I felt our discussion had been a good one; but as the hour ran out, we left the dream behind to say goodbye before the impending break.
After the session, I reflected further on Jonah and his dream. Something felt not quite right—there seemed to be more to the dream than had been apparent in the session. I realized that I was feeling quite sad that he had indeed left therapy, and I wondered why he felt so strongly the need to leave at just that moment.
Then it hit me, perhaps the most obvious interpretation of the dream, one that we both had missed. It was me, and the therapy, that Jonah was killing. I was the roommate that was being pushed off the cliff. But why? In the dream, Jonah was killing the messenger that informed his parents that he is gay. Was I that messenger? Not in any literal sense, obviously; but perhaps over time I had been suggesting that Jonah could eventually come out to his parents and survive it. I began to realize just how much I value the coming out process, and that some part of me believed Jonah’s therapeutic success ultimately depended upon his doing just that.
As I continued to ponder the dream, it became a bit clearer why Jonah had so few associations to the dream material. He said in the telling: “I can’t imagine why I would dream that” This is true; he literally cannot imagine it. The idea is intolerable—unthinkable. And yet somehow he knew that this was my goal for him, my desire. Each of us held the opposing pole of possibility—me, the side that believed Jonah would not only survive coming out, but thrive because of it; Jonah, the side that was convinced that doing so would mean sudden death.
A week passed during which time Jonah phoned three times, “just to check in.” Finally he said that he had been missing therapy and wanted to explore the possibility of continuing our work together. During this conversation I told him of my recent thoughts about his dream; that I felt I had been unconsciously, yet relentlessly, encouraging him to do something he was just not capable of doing at present. I told him I felt that I had not been listening to him and had been pushing him too hard. And I wondered if this had anything to do with his having to leave. Jonah listened, intrigued, though characteristically had little to say. But he did agree to return, and our work seems to have taken on new energy, one that I hope we can sustain. If we can both work to integrate the dissociated aspects of our feelings around the coming out process—for Jonah, the hope; for me, the terror—we just might be able to do so.