I had treated Lewis for five sessions. He was a 34-year-old single male, a bit immature for his age, with an adjustment disorder. A sad sack, really, who lived at home with his mother. He had had no health problems but seemed to be dependent on his mother, and it was probably a reciprocal relationship, two parasites living off one another. On several occasions, Lewis found a suitable apartment for himself but always backed out at the last moment because of his mother’s guilt trip. His father passed from a heart attack when he was nine, but he said that it didn’t bother him because his dad was a real asshole.

At the time of admission, Lewis worked at a well-known cellphone company for the past ten years. He didn’t love the job but was afraid to leave because he wouldn’t find another with equal salary and health benefits.  His chief complaint in therapy was moving out of the house and living on his own. He described not liking his mother very much. She had a rather dark and depressing temperament, complained about everything, and would nag Lewis about how he dressed and combed his hair as if he were still a child.

For the past four sessions, Lewis was noncommittal. He sat on the sofa and stared out the window while I asked him questions.  He’d either respond with two-word replies or shrugging of the shoulders. It appeared that he was afraid of me, although I wasn’t sure what was causing all of the fear. I’m probably the least intimidating human being on the planet. I suggested that if he wanted a new therapist, I’d give him a referral, but he said he liked me, to my surprise. Then, during our fifth session, he revealed a recurrent dream that involved his parents. He’d have the dream at least once a month, for as long as he could remember.

“It went like this, Doc. I was in my room, and Dad woke me up with his screaming. His screams were mixed with curse words, and they were coming from the living room. He often hollered at my mother, but I wasn’t sure this time, so I came out of my room to look. He was leaning against the front door as someone was trying to break into the house. On the other side of the door was something scary. Whoever it was behind the door kept saying that they wanted to devour us, eat us alive, which freaked me out. My father was a big man in the dream, but he was no match for whatever size human was on the other side. My father thought if he yelled loud enough, it would intimidate them or they might run away. But they kept yelling at my father to go fuck himself. I was standing in my underwear, a puny little kid with bony knees, trying to help my father hold the door. The dream continued and got foggy and dark as if it were going to rain inside the living room. The guys kept pushing and finally managed to break in. My father fell to the floor and disappeared. I ran and hid behind our sofa. My mother stood frozen, screaming at the top of her lungs, a piercing scream that had no end. They were three tawny white men wearing sleeveless shirts with ugly tattoos of skulls and crossbones on their muscular arms.  Their fuckin’ hair was greasy black like a rat’s and tied into multiple knots; their words came out of their mouths in strange grunts and groans with spittle flying all over the place. Their hands were the size of oven mitts, knuckles cut and bloody. I remember my mother’s face turning blue and red as she pleaded with the men to have mercy. They just laughed. They were fuckin’ cannibals, and they feasted on my mother like she was a big Thanksgiving turkey, carving her up on the dining room table and making crude jokes while devouring her. Then I’d usually wake up in a cold sweat.”

I sat in my swivel chair, turning in half-circles, assessing the situation.

Lewis was silent for a moment after telling his haunting yet insightful dream, catching his breath and wiping his sweaty brow.

“How did you feel after the dream?” I asked, thinking that this could lead to a breakthrough.



“Yeah, like my balls were cut off. I didn’t have any strength. I watched my mother eaten by cannibals, and I couldn’t do anything about it.”

“You were only nine, Lewis. You were fortunate that you survived the situation. There was no way you could save your parents from those three brutes.”

“I guess that’s true, Doc. But it doesn’t feel like it.”

I sat in thought for a few seconds, trying to string the right words together in my mind.

“Yes, you were viewing it from a nine-year-old perspective, Lewis. Young kids often blame themselves for their parents’ misfortune; divorce, death, and loneliness. Every kid believes they could save their parents. It’s irrational. Try and see that dream from an adult perspective next time. It will make more sense.”

“What do you mean, exactly?”

“For one, stop blaming yourself for your dad’s heart attack.  His death was not your fault, Lewis. You didn’t cause the lipids to clog up his arteries, nor could you make him exercise or eat the right foods to prevent it.”

“That’s true. I’m not a miracle worker. He wouldn’t have listened to me anyway.”

“And your mother’s death in the dream was out of your control as well. No way you could have fought off those flesh-eating gorillas by yourself.”

“But I could have at least tried, couldn’t I?”

“A little kid against three musclebound cannibals? Lewis, come on. You’re not Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone.”

“Yeah, kind of a stupid idea, I suppose.”

“But you did save someone: yourself. And that’s all you could do in this life. Save yourself!”

“I sure wish I could shake this guilty feeling. It’s annoying.”

“Lewis, you came to therapy feeling stuck. Your life was on hold. You wanted to leave your mother, but every time you found an apartment, you backed out. I think you believe you’re that helpless nine-year-old in the dream hiding behind the sofa, unable to move. In your foolish little boy’s mind, you don’t want to lose your parents again. And if you stay at home with your mother, you think you could protect her from some unforeseen tragedy.”

“It sure feels that way.”

I could see that Lewis was overwhelmed by my interpretation. He was fidgety, squirming on the sofa like a salmon on a hook.

“When you have that dream again, Lewis, tell yourself that you’re not nine years old. You’re an adult who makes decisions based on reason and not fears.”

Lewis looked out the window for a moment, staring at the babbling brook surrounding the parking lot, and kept picking some loose skin from his lower lip.

“So, you think I’m staying home to protect my mother?”

“Yes, I do, Lewis.”

The clock on the wall indicated that we went over our hour. I wasn’t going to charge him extra, but my next patient was a real nitpicker for being on time, and I feared that she would give me a bunch of shit for making her wait.

“Lewis, I’m sorry, but our time is up.” And I pointed to the wall clock.

“Can’t I stay longer, Doc? I think we’re getting somewhere.”

“Yes, we are, Lewis. But we need to stop and pick it up next week. I think we’re getting  closer to a resolution.”

“Sure, okay, but I might be moving next week,” he said with a wry smile.

“If you find a place, and sign a lease, let me know. The next session’s on me.”

That was the only time I ever promised anyone a free session.