There’s me, my mum and my daughter. We’re on a wasteland, littered with fallen supermarket trollies. A giraffe wanders through the middle of the wreckage. There’s an elephant grazing on God-knows-what in the distance. There is only one way out. A narrow crevice opening in the rockface before us. It looks too narrow for any of us but we have no choice. I cradle a tumbler, like my life depends on it. Whatever happens, I mustn’t break the glass.
This is the dilemma in one of the first dreams I brought to therapy. I was keen to understand the meaning of the various symbols and characters in this vivid dream, which arrived in the early days of my perimenopause. It opened a door onto my innermost experience of this enormous life change, and began an enquiry that has continued over several years, as my understanding deepened. The devastation and the danger. The tunnel to an unknown land. The precious and fragile object that I was holding. The generations of women.
Thankfully, we are hearing and sharing more now about the menopause and perimenopause and the significant physical and mental impact experienced by many women as we cross through and over, into this little explored territory. However, there is less information available about the spiritual and psychic journey that we take, and the inner world wisdom that can metabolise our lived experience.
I began studying my dreams a few years ago, following a summer retreat with the Jungian analyst and author of Women Who Run with the Wolves, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés. Curiously this timing coincided with the onset of my own perimenopause, so I began to have a lens on my internal psychic process that helped to decipher some of my real life experiences. I delved deeper into the Jungian approach to dreamwork and found it a creative way to accompany myself through a myriad of changes that felt difficult to describe, discuss or comprehend. I now work in a similar way with those of my clients who are approaching or moving through the menopause and enjoy the depth of self-understanding and connection this approach enables.
The menopause as a rite of passage
The menopause is a rite of passage, not dissimilar to our adolescent years, where our hormones are raging and we are coming to terms with who we are becoming. We go through physical, emotional, social and economic changes. There’s a lot of upheaval. We sometimes don’t recognise ourselves. It can feel like we are turning on ourselves, changing beyond recognition, which can be frightening for us, and for those around us. It’s easy to forget that this is a natural process, a part of life, and easy to want to just get through it and imagine we can still be the same “me” on the other side.
The reality is that, as with any rite of passage, there is a period of isolation, a withdrawing into ourselves as we ready for the change; then a severance from a way of life and being that we are familiar with, with the possibility for rebirth. We may meet great resistance at the severance stage and feel despair at the losses we face. Loss of the possibility of another or any child, our existing children leaving home, parents ageing and dying, loss of youthfulness or a sense of our sexuality, and many more.
These multiple losses ask for space to be felt and grieved. The endings need to be allowed for there to be any new beginning. So many of us want to hold onto the familiar ways, especially if our lives look “successful” on the outside. We may resist the change, and the call to a different way of being in the world. Wilfully assisted by a culture that reveres youthfulness in all its forms; that often denigrates women beyond a certain age, we may turn on ourselves before we admit that we are indeed changing, inside and out.
Learning from the unconscious mind
We know from depth psychology, and particularly Jungian analysis, that our unconscious mind contains vast amounts of information that is potentially available to our consciousness. The anxieties, frustrations and dilemmas of life present themselves symbolically in our dreams as a way of allowing us to access this wisdom. Many of us are more used to ordering another book, listening to another podcast, going on another course in the belief that the experts will tell us what’s going on. However, some time spent investigating the inner library of resources, including the dreamworld is time spent tending the ground and watering the seeds of the next crop of life.
My experience has been that my dreams are more vivid, more elaborate, and more memorable through times of great change. This appears to be true for many other menopausal women too. As I scroll through some of the menopause forums, I read of women wanting to “get rid” of these dreams and wishing they could just “not dream”. I understand that some of the dreams can be confronting, and even scary. I often find myself in war zones, with people being blown up around me; sometimes I’m on a journey without my passport, or to a destination that isn’t on any map. I wake scared, frustrated, panicky. However, if I tune into these images, symbols, the parts of me that appear in dreams that I’m less familiar with in life, then I can begin to understand more clearly what it is I’m wrestling with and what help I would like. The dreams guide and connect me with the fullest experience of this life change. It’s a way of keeping myself company, staying rooted and processing the pain, rather than rejecting all of it and myself. They don’t just connect us with the conflict and the neurosis – if we stay long enough, they will also connect us with our own deepest clarity and the answers to questions we don’t even know we have.
This takes some discipline. I have a dream journal by my bed and encourage my clients to find a way that allows them to record the details of dreams upon waking. For some, that may be a voice recording, or a sleepy scribble of main images – it doesn’t matter – but those waking moments are crucial for capturing the essence of the dream, which you can come back to later.
The opening dream held so much wisdom for me. My unconscious tableau of mid-life, with so much symbolism to decipher. There’s no one way to read a dream and the interpretations vary and deepen. The object that held most power for me was the glass I was cradling. I felt so afraid of breaking it and was willing to stay in the desolate wasteland with the wild animals, rather than go through the rock tunnel and risk crushing it. In the dream, it was my daughter who showed me the way, and tenderly encouraged me to put it down and follow her.
For me this glass represents a precious way of life that I was holding onto dearly, without seeing that I had already drunk its contents. There was no longer anything there for me. But I had got used to carrying it around. This beautifully illustrates what happens for us. We hold onto things/people/ways of being long past the time when they serve us, and in so doing, it holds us back from crossing into the next phase of our lives, and discovery of ourselves.
The dream illustration allows us to examine these patterns and consider how this might be manifesting in our daily life; helps us connect with the fears we have; allows us to feel the pain; opens up the way with some gentle, kind and loving guidance. Therapy offers a space where you can bring your dreams to explore them further. Not for your therapist to offer their interpretation but for you to begin a dialogue with your unconscious to really engage with your sacred stories and find some inner guidance. This can take place in one session or over many sessions. There is a talking element and also, I find, a creative element, as we are inspired by the symbolism and the story to write, or draw, or paint, or make, weaving the thread of the unconscious into the tapestry of this life. Learning as we go. Trusting this rich inner world.