Have you ever struggled to share your dream with somebody in the morning? What seemed most vivid and realistic just a moment ago, when verbalized, turns into senseless gibberish, doesn’t it?

What about adding another difficulty to recounting a dream, namely telling it in a foreign language? Which of their languages to use is a dilemma faced by many of my multilingual clients in therapy. It may also open doors that neither they nor I would have dreamt of.

Francesca was Italian, living in Paris. When looking for a therapist, she had reached out to me because we shared common emigrants’ background, and three languages: Italian, French, and English. She was going through a double transition: recently married, she was settling into her new role as a wife when she was laid off by her employer. As a result, Francesca felt anxious, stuck at a crossroads between countries, lost in her professional life, and unfit for her new married life.

She had chosen to communicate with me in English, as Italian felt “boring and obsolete” to her. Having left her country in her early twenties to pursue artistic studies in the US, she was now living in Paris, working as a designer for a large fashion house. Her adopted English was her language for “creativity and self-growth”, as she put it.

For the first time in the two months of her therapy, Francesca arrived early. She rushed into telling me her nightmare:

She was late for her own wedding and stood naked in the middle of her bedroom. Her groom Alain was waiting at the church; she needed to dress quickly, but was unable to find her white-laced wedding gown.

The clock on the wall was ticking, adding to her growing panic. She pulled the door of a huge cabinet. Inside, a dirty pig was smiling at her, insolently.

Terrified, she pulled a rope hanging alongside the pig, hoping to make the beast disappear. But as a result, a shower of vomit dropped from the ceiling, full of disgusting noodles.

A strong smell of vomit had woken her up.

Now, sitting in front of me, she looked sick indeed.

Going through the dream again, with me as a witness, had been sufficient for Francesca to make some sense of it: she realized that the ticking clock could be her biological clock (time for children), time passing on the job hunt, time to go back to Italy…

But, listening to her, I felt that something was missing: usually very much in touch with her emotions, this time Francesca was slipping into a very cognitive, fruitless field. Her storytelling made sense, but I wanted us to go further into exploring it. Two objects actually echoed in Italian in my mind: “the ticking clock” (orologio) and “the noodles” (spaghetti).

This “stereo effect” triggered my curiosity and I asked Francesca to tell her dream again, this time in her mother tongue.

She did, and as she started describing her anxiety, and the feeling of urgency at not being ready for her wedding, we both felt how the flow of emotions had finally penetrated the room. Francesca’s voice had changed. The immediacy of the emotional experience gave me goosebumps.

Francesca admitted that she had “felt much more emotional” when recounting her dream in Italian. If in English her mother’s not being there had not seemed to provoke any particular feeling (she had died when Francesca was a child); in the Italian version, her mother’s absence stood as a painful void. The sense of loss and solitude had become almost tangible, and I could see how much Francesca was missing her again at this stage of her adult life, when she may herself become a mother soon.

Listening to her Italian fluid words, I finally connected with the little Francesca, who, like any other young girl, had idealized marriage. In that ideal representation, maintained by a rich cultural imagery, she was to wear white and her parents would be there. The reality was different, her parents had been long gone, the white wedding dress was not compulsory, having a first child at her age was nothing abnormal in today’s world.

Now the vomit image made sense as well. She associated it with the pregnancy nausea, and her anxiety about not being able to be a good mum (or even not to be able to bear a child at all).

As she was sharing her fears with me, Francesca felt slightly nauseous. She recognized this very sensation in her throat as something she had been experiencing lately. She had been repressing it successfully, but could now understand the reason for it.

Finally, I asked Francesca to go back to her dream and replay it all over again. Playing with its own imagery seemed like an opening for re-writing Francesca’s story about herself at this stage of her life. This time, she decided to stop looking for the white wedding gown, as she realized that it was more important for her at this point to get to the church, where Alain may start to worry.

In this refabricated new dream, as she ran through the fields towards the church, dressed in her old jeans and a jumper, she reported feeling young and liberated; excitement replaced anxiety.

Compartmentalization is a psychological strategy, naturally adopted by emigrants. Francesca’s world was divided into two well-separated realms: her childhood and life in Italy before her expatriation, and her “new”, more independent, life in the US and then France.

Up until that session, using mainly English, we had been engaging with the latter; the young Italian girl had been left behind. This feeling was a familiar one: after all, she felt abandoned by her mother who had gone too suddenly and too soon. Sticking to English, I may have re-enforced this narrative, leaving the little Francesca to a lonely and sad past. On the other hand, had Francesca told me her dream in Italian only, we would have done a good job eventually; possibly an easier one. But having access to both “parts” of her through telling her dream in both languages had enriched our work.

Working with dreams in therapy is a deeply relational activity. We don’t just recount our dreams (as we do by writing in a dream journal), but we let somebody else enter its realm, and re-experience it with us. This is also why the language we use for it has a meaning. This unique experience had not only allowed me to see Francesca more fully, but our therapeutic relationship had deepened, with her younger and more vulnerable self now invited to the therapy room as well rather than waiting behind a closed door.

Dreamwork is a great opportunity to move forward the therapeutic work, especially with highly cognitive clients. The multilinguistic perspective goes one step further restoring a missing stereo effect to the music heard by the therapist.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy