Dream Interpretation: Dying Fathers and Falling Cars
by Satya Doyle Byock
I often ask clients if they’ve had any dreams. I ask them because, to a Jungian psychotherapist, dreams are what an X-Ray is to a medical doctor: a look below what is visible to the naked eye, a peek into what is happening beyond what a person consciously knows or believes.
I took a nap and I dreamed about my father passing away. He was laying in a coffin, but in real life he is still alive. This dream was a nightmare for me; I was crying and very afraid.
I’m so sorry! Those dreams are awful. You wake up confused about who’s dead and who’s alive, and maybe worried that the dream is a premonition of an actual event. As you’ve adjusted to daily living, you’ve probably come to find that your father is alive and not in literal danger. So what does this dream mean for you?
Without having spoken with you, I would gander a couple of strong possibilities: your father complex is dying due to some new events or awareness in your life, and/or you have an unconscious and confusing death wish for your father. Let me explain.
If you’re anything like anyone alive, your relationship with your father is complicated. In your own particular blend of feelings that all children share, you love your father and are angry with him. You are hurt from past events and also grateful for things. Unconsciously, you balance out all of your conscious beliefs about him with their opposites. For instance, a woman may dream of her father all the time but in therapy will proclaim to have had a very good childhood with him, with nothing more to say. After months pass, however, she may begin to have conscious memories of his angry episodes or feeling his cold tone filter throughout the house. Consciously, she liked her dad. Unconsciously, things were much more complicated.
Carl Jung’s notion of a “complex” is a little like what acupuncturists work on when they’re seeking to clear a stuck point in the body: it’s a bundle of energy in your system that, when triggered by a word or a life event or even a nostalgic smell, can release all sorts of information. Until it’s triggered though, a complex sits there quietly, unconsciously, invisible to everyone except in certain patterns of behavior. Your “father complex” is your bundle of memories and experiences related to your father and other influential men in your life — including cultural images of the father or men in leadership positions. As an adult, some aspect of the way you view all men is filtered through this complex. A male guru, for instance, may appear all-knowing to a woman with a positive father complex. On the other side, for women who grew up with an angry, unpredictable father, even the kindest, simplest man may appear conniving.
So I would ask you, in what ways has your father complex been triggered lately? Have you begun dating a new man? Do you have a new male teacher? Or has your relationship with your father in life changed in any way? Listen to the image: The father is passing away. The father is dead. The father is going to be buried. What does that evoke for you? Perhaps you’re moving through a chapter of growth and you are gaining your own authority and leadership within yourself, or perhaps you’re able to be that much more present with a male partner now because you can see him more clearly for who he is. If you take some time to journal about this dream, letting your mind wander and your body experience the image, some significant insights are likely to arise.
As I said above, the second major possibility to explore is that you have some unconscious death wish for your father. To get into this tricky territory, let me quote Carl Jung on a woman’s dream of her dead mother:
…there does exist in our dreamer the tendency to be rid of her mother; expressed in the language of the unconscious, she wants her mother to die. But the dreamer should certainly not be saddled with this tendency because, strictly speaking, it was not she who fabricated the dream, but the unconscious.
Note that Jung is careful to emphasize what I want to emphasize with you: “The very fact that she can dream of such a thing proves that she does not consciously think of it. She has no notion why her [father] should be got rid of.”
Knowing absolutely nothing of your particular situation, it is hard for me to venture a guess as to why your unconscious may be harboring some infantile death wish for your father. Again, however, I wonder if your current romantic relationship status may have something to do with it. Are you seeking to enter into a relationship of which you feel your father would disapprove? Are you considering marriage and therefore — forgive my awkward heteronormative take here — needing to psychologically supplant the primary man in your life? Consider the deep cultural roots around the replacement of the father with the husband — think of the tradition of fathers “giving away” their daughters in wedding ceremonies.
Whether it’s a secret death wish or simply an increasing awareness around the father complex in your life, your dream suggests a threshold time. Some significant aspect of your life is changing. The image of death says as much. It is not a sleeping image or a wounded image, it is not a near death, but death itself. Old social customs and mythological tradition holds that when an old king dies, a new king is born and begins his reign. Consider this. The ground is being prepared for a new paradigm; an old ruling paradigm is falling away and a new one is coming.
I was driving and suddenly I could not control the speed of the car or stop it. I could steer, but that was all. I made a wrong turn and entered an on-ramp to an elevated road. The road got higher and higher as the car went faster and faster. The road became extremely curvy with the curves getting sharper and sharper. There were no guardrails. Steering consumed all my attention. As I came to a particularly sharp curve, I suddenly lost my eyesight and went completely blind. I felt the car going off the road and falling. I woke up in a panic.
This dream recurred many, many times until one night when, as the car went off the road, I did not wake up. As it was falling, my eyesight suddenly returned. I looked down and saw that we were falling into a body of water. I did not want to be trapped in the car in the water. I opened the car door in mid-air and jumped out, trying to get as far away from the falling car as possible. The car and I hit the water at the same time, separated by several yards. I surfaced and swam safely to the shore. After that, I never had the dream again.
Thank you for sharing this series of recurring dreams. Like a labyrinth in which you’re trapped, you encounter the same dead ends over and over again until one day, all of a sudden, you discover the way out. Out of the nightmare of the Groundhog’s Day curse, you wake up, never to have the same dream again. How and why does this happen?
The dream of driving and being out-of-control is a very common one (perhaps in particular in our culture), and it’s a common dream to return repeatedly for dreamers too. Maybe you can imagine why. Dreams in which cars are featured rarely feel sluggish. Instead, they often represent some aspect of the manic nature of the society in which we all live. Everything is moving too quickly; you’re barely keeping it together and staying alive. Indeed, much of the dream’s message can be found in our language: think of the state of being “asleep at the wheel” and “driving blind.” Dreams like yours often indicate a life situation around which the dreamer needs to develop greater awareness, as if their life is happening without their conscious participation.
When I have a client with a driving dream of this kind, I highlight the grave necessity of their increased attention — some might say mindfulness — to their day-to-day actions. The dream is indicating a state of mind or emotional life that can put a person in actual danger in the physical world. One might, in fact, be in danger while driving, but also while crossing the street, or in arguments with their partners, or at work, as they’re not as aware as they should be, possibly reeking havoc on themselves and those around them in ways in which they’re unaware.
Cars tend to represent the social persona of the dreamer. They are the armor and structure we use to travel through the world. Questions of relevance to these kinds of dreams can be: Whose car is it? Who’s driving? Where are you in the car? Again, consider our language: “who’s in the driver’s seat?” It’s an image that is easily understood. In this case, I’m going to assume it is your car and, as you indicate, you are driving (or trying to).
I would venture, as I’ve expressed generally, that during the time you were having these recurring dreams your life felt quite out of your control. It may have been a very private experience. It’s quite possible that you appeared absolutely put-together and in control on the outside, you may have even felt that you were handling everything pretty darn well, but your unconscious was mirroring back to you a private sense that you were overwhelmed, exhausted, terrified, and in actual danger. One’s public persona can very often fool everyone, even the individual, which is why dreams provide such a helpful lens into one’s actual well-being — just like a microscope can pick up on an infection that is otherwise invisible to everyone.
Now the progression of your dream is fascinating, and a wonderful window into the forms of resolution that these dreams can take. At first, you were driving and everything was getting faster, curvier, higher… manic. There were no guardrails, no back-up plan, no safety or external support around you. All you could do was try to stay in control and keep moving forward. Then, suddenly, just as you were barely managing to survive, your eyes fail you. You go blind. You can no longer even rely on your sight to survive. Things are getting worse, and fast. I wonder two things here: one, was your actual life situation continuing to spin out of control and your dream was working to reflect that to your conscious awareness? Again, we can be remarkably blind sometimes (pun intended) to the chaos of our own lives, believing we’re far more in control than we are; I also wonder, however, if you were being pushed towards a state of relying on other aspects of yourself to navigate the world. I’ll take this back up in a moment.
In the dreams, you feel that you are falling and wake up panicked. Try to read this symbolically. While you literally wake up, you also metaphorically wake up. These dreams are getting your attention, raising your consciousness to your inner life. Nightmares can work as a psychic immune system: the more out of touch you are with yourself, the graver your nightmares may get. If one can’t wake you up with a whisper, they may finally succeed with a loud shout and a shake. Nightmares often arise when we’re psychically out-to-lunch and, for our well-being, in needing of being shaken awake again. Which, I would venture, is just what happened for you.
Recurring dreams stop recurring when there’s some internal resolution; their very recurrence is indicative of a story seeking its conclusion like a record skipping until it can get back on track. At the conclusion of your dream series, you stayed conscious within the dream. This is a beautiful detail. Your eyesight returned as you were falling and you saw that you were heading towards the water. You did not want to be trapped so you thought ahead and opened the door, moving away from the car, you got safely to shore. Your awareness of your situation certainly improved, and your sight — again awareness — returned. Something major must have changed, or been about to change, in your life.
You state in your dream that “we were falling” which makes me quite curious who “we” are. This pronoun, as well as the overall tone of the dream, makes me wonder if you were trapped in some kind of toxic relationship at the time of these dreams. The manner in which you leave your car, swimming away completely and as it is buried in the water, indicates to me a total separation from a former way of living. Like a hermit crab shedding its shell, you were molting, abandoning an old life in search of another. Perhaps you gained the courage and the in-sight — the internal sight, the wisdom — through the crises you endured to be able to handle the external situation in which you were feeling trapped and out-of-control. Just like a baptism, a part of you died in the water when you immersed, and a new life was gained when you reemerged and found your way to shore, reborn.
Previously: The Mermaid and ‘The Bachelorette’
Satya Doyle Byock is a psychotherapist in private practice in Portland, Oregon, specializing in work with individuals in their twenties and thirties. Visit Back of the Brain if you have a dream you’d like to share with her.