Dreams, Imagined Dreams: Failed Therapy

In the fall of 1980, I overcame my wariness and asked Dr. Fortson, my mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital for a therapy referral. Dr. Fortson supervised my work, so I assumed she knew me well and could suggest a good match. She gave me the names of two psychologists.

I had had an evaluation a couple years before. Therapy was recommended for all clinical psychology students, and the consulting psychologist, Dr. Reich, kept a list of therapists willing to see clinical psychology graduate students, poor as we were, for a low fee. He asked me a few questions and made a family tree. When he got to me in his sketch, he blackened the circle.

"Ah!" I said, smiling, "The one with the the hemophiliacs in the Royal Family!"

He laughed. "No," he said "Just my way of keeping everyone straight."

I liked that he laughed without interpreting my comment, and I loosened up immediately. By the time the interview was up, I had earned a deferment. "You're really not a high priority, so I'll put you at the bottom of the list. I wouldn't expect anyone to call you any time soon." I stepped lightly down the steps of the hospital both relieved and disappointed.

But two years later I volunteered again, determined to serve my time.

The first therapist I called, Dr. Farber, said he was happy to see me. He offered me a regular hour at 5:30 in the morning. These were still the "macho" days of psychotherapy--when one was expected to sacrifice for the sake of the "cure." Still, I politely refused. The second therapist, Dr. Edberg offered me a more reasonable hour, and I agreed to see him.

Dr. Edberg was a handsome, athletically trim man in his 40's, with a charming Swedish accent. He had short blonde hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and he dressed casually in corduroy pants and sweater vests. His home office was in the basement of a brick townhouse in Cambridge, near Harvard Square. In the winter time he fired up a small wood stove, and his Golden Retriever laid by his side. I told him I was there, not because I was in any specific distress, but because a lot was happening in my life: I was 23 years old, living with one of my professors from graduate school (soon to be my wife); she had three kids from a previous marriage. I was at Massachusetts General Hospital, proud of it, but swimming with the sharks--was this where I wanted to be? What I didn't, and couldn't tell him at the time, was that I quietly longed for someone to hear me and appreciate me - for I had always felt rather invisible in my life, except during those years when teachers (to whom I am eternally grateful) had taken a special interest in me. It might have made little sense to Dr. Edberg even if I had been able to tell him. Invisible kids don't usually end up on the staff of Harvard Medical School at age 23 - but such was the story.


I never asked Dr. Edberg to articulate his philosophy of therapy. But his job, as I soon learned, was to discover the parts of me that I did not know about (and perhaps would not want to know), and then reveal them to me with a twinkle in his eye. He was very clever. After everything I said, he had something smart and perceptive to offer. He didn't seem to particularly like or enjoy me and he contradicted much of what I said, but I figured that was o.k: therapy wasn't about being liked it was about discovering oneself with the help of a wise person. And if I wanted to impress him, well that was my problem (or "transference" as they say in the Freudian vernacular) - after all, hadn't I wanted to impress my mother and father? This was simply something to be "worked through." Sometimes to make his points more poignant, he made up names for me. Once, he called me Dr Jekyl and Mr. Hyde when I appeared in paint-spattered jeans and a sweatshirt after doing carpentry on my house all morning: usually I came from work in tie and jacket. But his favorite name for me was Cotton Mather, because he said I had the bad habit of criticizing people who had wronged or misheard me. After that, I dared not criticize him.

One day, a couple years into the treatment, Dr. Edberg reminded me I had had a sexual dream about him.

I was confused. I didn't remember any sexual dream I had had about him. "You mean the one in which I was sitting in front of you on a surf board?" I figured he could have interpreted this as a sexual dream - although what I felt was the wish for (non-sexual) intimacy and affection.

"No. I mean an overtly sexual dream."

I thought for a minute. "I don't think so--I had a dream about seeing my boss in bed with his secretary, and somehow feeling neglected. You know, the one I had after my boss canceled our squash game and I saw him leave the hospital with the young woman. You know it turns out they were having an affair. The dream was right."

"No," he said again, unimpressed by the detective work of my unconscious. "An overtly sexual dream about me."

"Gee, I don't think so. I would remember that."

He paged through the notebook in which he wrote down all his patients' dreams. He went forwards and then backwards. Then the room went silent.

I thought of how to respond. "It must have been another patient," seemed possible. Or, in a light-hearted way, "Maybe it was a dream you had about me." But the former seemed lame, and I dared not say the latter for he would not have found it funny. So, instead I reverted back to my childhood ways and said nothing. He never mentioned the dream again, nor did I. I was afraid he would become accusatory if I brought the matter up.

A few months later I thought it time to end therapy - I thought we had talked about my life sufficiently, and I assumed it was healthy that I assert myself. But Dr. Edberg thought it was a bad idea and suggested I stay because our "work" wasn't finished - he even suggested I come twice a week. I knew from experience that twice a week therapy was helpful for many patients--why wouldn't it be helpful to me? Yet, I had no desire to come a second time - even after all the time we had spent together. Still, how could I end therapy when Dr. Edberg was suggesting I needed to come more often? Dr. Edberg seemed to have no better sense of who I was and what I needed than when we started. Still, one could attribute my dissatisfaction to "transference," the resurrection of familiar childhood feelings. Perhaps he knew me better than I knew myself - wasn't he the expert? Wasn't that why I had gone to him in the first place?

Soon I had another dream.

I was working my own farm in Germany, a peaceful bucolic place, when suddenly I realized a foreign army was coming. "Go!" I yelled to everyone on the farm, and I watched the women and children flee through the fields and into the woods. Soldiers with rifles arrived, and quickly I was captured. A soldier attached me to a pitchfork in the middle of the farmyard and soldiers stood and watched as the pitchfork rotated in circles. Somehow, I managed to free myself when they weren't watching. But they saw me and chased me toward the farmhouse. I ran desperately - a soldier was close behind - suddenly I saw a wire fence on the edge of the yard. There, a sympathetic woman teacher stood on the other side of the boundary. "I'm an American, " I yelled. She helped me across. I woke up in tears, with my heart pounding.


Dr. Edberg and I talked briefly about the dream. It didn't make sense to me at the time - it felt like a Holocaust/pogrom dream, and yet I was a German (part of my heritage is German Jew), and a foreign army was invading my land. Was the pitchfork a cross? Why was I being martyred? We were not able to shed much light on it. But I understand it now.

Dreams serve a problem solving function, and the particular problem I was working on was my relationship with Dr. Edberg. Part of me knew I was being tortured by him, and that I had to escape - even if intellectually I thought there was still hope for the therapy. And I trusted that if I escaped, my wife (the professor), like many of my teachers in the past, would give me refuge. The dream represented the story of my therapy (and, in some ways, my life) in symbols that were familiar to me.

I had the dream because I was beginning to sense the true nature of my relationship with Dr Edberg. A few months after we spoke about the dream, I left Dr. Edberg's office, without his blessing, for the last time.

About the author: Dr. Grossman is a clinical psychologist and author of the Voicelessness and Emotional Survival web site.

next: Depression: Why See a Therapist if You Can Just Take a Pill?

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, November 22). Dreams, Imagined Dreams: Failed Therapy, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 18 from

Last Updated: March 29, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

More Info