I had a client many years ago who was a real-life version of Sleeping Beauty. She was tall, blonde-haired, razor thin (as the saying goes), and profoundly unhappy. She was enrolled in a local junior college, attempting to upgrade so that she could attend university. She came to see me because she did not want to live. She also did not want to die, really—at least not actively. Instead, she attempted to keep herself unconscious with the use of Valium and its variants, including sleeping pills, which she procured in sufficient quantities from her (several) physicians, who were no doubt overworked enough not to keep track of exactly what she was doing. She managed to keep herself asleep fifteen or sixteen hours a day. She was smart and literate, and showed me a philosophy essay she had written on the pointlessness not only of her life but life in general. She was unable to tolerate the responsibility, by all appearances, but also could not deal with the cruelty she saw everywhere around her. She was a vegan, for example, and that was directly associated with her acute physical terror of life. She was unable even to enter the aisles of a supermarket where meat was displayed. Where others saw the cuts they were going to prepare for their family, she saw rows of dead body parts. That vision only served to confirm her belief that life was, in essence, unbearable.
Her biological mother had died in childbirth, and she was raised by her father and her stepmother. The latter was a holy terror. I met her only once, in my office, during what would have ordinarily been a clinical session with her stepdaughter. She spent the entire hour actively tearing strips off me: first for being of little use as a clinician, and second for “no doubt” blaming everything that was wrong with my client on her (step)mothering. I do not think I got more than a dozen words in edgewise. It was a remarkable performance, brought on, I believe, by my insistence that the phone calls she made two or three times a day to my client while the latter was away at school—some of which I heard in recordings—had to be reduced by a factor of ten, and certainly needed to be more pleasant. I am not saying, and did not believe then, that all this was the stepmother’s fault. I am sure she had her reasons to be frustrated. Her stepdaughter was not fully engaged in life, by any means, and was an expensive four underperforming years into what should have been a two-year certificate. But it was clear that thrice-daily phone calls consisting mostly of anger and insults were not adding to my client’s desire to be alive. I suggested that weekly phone calls should become the norm, and encouraged her to hang up if the conversation took a wicked turn. She started to put that into practice, and I presumed all that contributed to her stepmother’s demand to meet and confront me.
Sleeping Beauty described her childhood as idyllic. She said that she lived the life of a fairy-tale princess; an only child, the darling of both parents. But that all changed when she hit adolescence. Her stepmother’s attitude changed from trust to deep distrust, and they began the fights that continually characterized their relationship from then on (she was in her early thirties when I met her). The problem of sex had reared its ugly head. The stepmother responded by acting as if her innocent child had been replaced by a corrupt imposter; the stepdaughter responded by dating a series of ne’er-do-wells whom at one level she probably thought she deserved (having lost the perfect innocence of the child princess) and at another constituted the perfect punishment for her mother.
Together, we designed an exposure-training program to help her overcome her fear of life. We first undertook to visit a nearby butcher shop. The shop owner and I had become friendly acquaintances over the years. After I explained my client’s situation to him (with her permission), I asked if I could bring her into his store, show her the meat counter, and then—when she was ready—bring her to the back to watch as his team cut up the carcasses that were delivered through the alleyway loading dock. He quickly agreed. Our initial goal was merely to get to the store together. I assured her that we could pause at any time, or stop altogether, and that under no conditions would I trick, entice, or even cajole her into pushing her beyond what she could tolerate.
During the first session, she managed to enter the store and place her hand on the display case. She did it shaking and in visible tears (also no easy thing to manage in public), but she did it. By the fourth session, she was able to watch the butchers use their knives and saws on the large and still animal-like carcasses they were slicing into the standard cuts they sold. There was no doubt that this was good for her. She was less inclined, for example, to medicate herself into unconsciousness and more likely to attend classes. She became tougher, harder, harsher—adjectives that are not always meant as compliments but are sometimes the precise antidote to too much sentimentality, which is dangerously infantilizing. We also made arrangements for her to spend a weekend at a local farm where a few common barnyard animals were kept (pigs, horses, chickens, goats). I asked the farmer, who had also been a client of mine, to allow her to accompany him while he attended to his livestock.
A city girl to the core, my client knew nothing whatsoever about animals, and tended, in consequence, to romanticize them, in exactly the fairy-tale manner appropriate to the conditions of her childhood. Her two-day sojourn in the country and her decision to observe the animals carefully helped her develop a much less romanticized perception of the true nature of the animals we raise and dine upon. They are sentient beings, in part, and we have a responsibility not to inflict any more suffering upon them than necessary, but they are not human beings, and they are certainly not children. This needs to be understood at an embodied level. Excess sentimentality is an illness, a developmental failure, and a curse to children and others who need our care (but not too much of it).
Sleeping Beauty was a remarkable dreamer. I have had clients who would commonly remember two or three dreams a night, though not always in great detail. She not only remembered many dreams, but remembered them fully, and she also often became lucid—conscious of dreaming—while she slept. She was the only person I ever met who could ask her dream characters what they meant—symbolically speaking—or what message they had for her, and they would tell her outright.
One day, she came to me with one of her many dreams: She had journeyed alone deep into the depths of an old-growth forest and met a dwarf dressed like a harlequin in the darkness and gloom. The dwarf offered to answer a question, if my client had one to ask. She asked the strange figure what she would have to do to finish her college certificate, a task that had taken her the four aforementioned years and plenty of negotiation with the requisite university authorities for permission to continue. The answer she received? “You will have to learn to work in a slaughterhouse.”
Now, as far as I am concerned, dreams are statements from nature. It is not so much that we create them. They manifest themselves to us.
I have never seen a dream present something I believed to be untrue. I also do not believe—contra Freud—that dreams attempt to disguise what they mean. They are, instead, an earlier part of the process by which fully developed thoughts come to be born, as they certainly do not just appear magically out of nowhere. We must confront the unknown, as such—the great Dragon of Chaos or the Terrible Queen—and we do not know how to do it, to begin with. The dream serves as the first cognitive step—in the wake of basic emotional, motivational, and bodily reactions such as fear or curiosity or freezing—in transforming that unknown into actionable and even articulable knowledge. The dream is the birthplace of the thought, and often of the thought that does not come easily to the conscious mind. It is not hiding anything; it is just not very good at being clear (although that certainly does not mean that it cannot be profound).
In any case, this dream was not difficult to interpret, particularly because its main character, the dwarf, simply spoke his mind. So, I listened carefully to my client’s account (remember, this was after the butcher shop and the farm) and asked her what we might do about that. I had no idea how I might arrange a visit to an actual slaughterhouse. I did not even know if they existed in the city we inhabited, and if they did, I could not imagine they would appreciate visitors, regardless of motivation. She was convinced, however, that she had been told the truth, and that something of the sort had to be done. So we discussed the consequences of her toughening up, and the fact that she had successfully put her hypercritical stepmother on the back burner, and left it at that for the remainder of the session, although she was tasked (as was I) with determining something that might serve as a reasonable substitute for a slaughterhouse.
A week later, she returned for her scheduled session. She announced the last thing, perhaps, that I could have possibly imagined from her—or anyone else, for that matter: “I think I need to see an embalming.”
I did not know what to say. I did not want to see an embalming, personally—not at all. I had seen body sections in science museums, and there was something about them that refused to leave my memory. I had also gone to see one of the displays of plasticized, sculptured bodies that were so popular about a decade ago, and I was horrified by it. I became a psychologist, not a surgeon—or, for that matter, a coroner—for a reason. However, this was not about me. It was about my client, Sleeping Beauty, and her desire to awaken, and there was no way I was going to let my wishes or lack thereof interfere with whatever wisdom the dwarf who inhabited the deep forest of her unconscious mind was about to impart. I told her I would see what I could do. It all turned out to be much simpler to arrange than I expected. I simply picked up the phone and called a local mortician’s office. To my great surprise, he immediately agreed. I suppose he had seen his fair share of people grieving and frightened, and was accustomed to dealing with them calmly and wisely. So that was that. I was stuck with the visit, and my client wanted to go through with it.
Two weeks later, we went to the funeral home. My client had asked me if a friend could attend with her, and I said yes. The mortician offered the three of us a tour first. He showed us the chapel and the display room for the caskets. We asked him how he managed his job, given its endless concentration on death and suffering and grief. He said that it was his heartfelt responsibility to make his clients’ most terrible of times the least painful they could be, and that he took heart from that. That made sense to both of us, and helped us understand how he could continue with his work, day in and out. After the tour, we went to the embalming room. It was a small space, perhaps a hundred feet square. The naked body of an aged man was lying motionless, gray, and mottled on a stainless-steel table.
Because there was not space in the small room, and to provide us both with some distance, my client, her friend, and I took our places in the hallway immediately outside the door and observed the proceedings, which were entirely unimpeded by our trivial separation from the mortician’s operations. He drained the blood and other liquids from the body. They ran undramatically but in some sense all the more horribly for that, because of their mundane mode of disposal, I suppose. It seemed like something that precious and vital deserved better. He made his surgical alterations, and sewed together the eyelids, and made up the face, and injected the embalming fluid. I watched. And I watched my client. To begin with, she looked down the hallway, avoiding the scene unfolding in front of her. But as the minutes ticked by, she started to glance at the proceedings, and by the time a quarter of an hour had passed, she was spending far more time observing than looking away. I could see, however, that she had taken her friend’s hand, and was gripping it tightly.
She was seeing firsthand that something she had believed would terrify her (and reasonably so) was not in fact doing so. She could manage the experience. She did not panic, become ill, run away, or even cry. She asked the mortician if she could put a hand on the body. He offered her a rubber glove, which she pulled on. She walked directly into the operating station, in a quiet and meditative state, and placed her gloved hand on the ribs of the body, and she kept it there, as if it was a comfort both to her and the poor departed soul. The procedure terminated soon after that, and we left quietly together, after offering the mortician our genuine and heartfelt thanks.
The three of us expressed our shared astonishment that we had managed such a visit. My client had learned something vitally important about her tolerance for the terrors of life. Equally importantly, she had a reference point for her fears: from that point onward (and I am by no means claiming complete success in her treatment) she had something truly awe inspiring—something truly serious and horrifying and graphic and real—to compare with the other, almost inevitably lesser, horrors of life. Were the mundane miseries of existence as challenging as the experience she had put herself through voluntarily? Was the butcher shop more frightening than human death, in all its reality, at such close proximity? Had she not demonstrated to herself that she could encounter the worst that Terrible Nature could throw at her and face it courageously? And that was to her a paradoxical and ineradicable source of comfort.
As with the Sleeping Beauty of fairy tales, my client’s family had failed to invite the Evil Queen, the terrible aspect of nature, into their child’s life. This left her completely unprepared for life’s essential harshness—the complications of sexuality and the requirement for everything that lives to devour other lives (and to be eventually subjected to the same fate). The Evil Queen made her reappearance at puberty—in the form of my client’s stepmother, whose character apparently turned 180 degrees—as well as in her own personal inability to deal with the responsibilities of maturity and stark obligations of biological survival. Like Sleeping Beauty, as well—as that tale is multistoried and deep in the way of ancient fairy tales, which can be thousands of years old—she needed to be awakened by the forces of exploration, courage, and fortitude (often represented by the redeeming prince, but which she found within herself).
Excerpted from Beyond Order: 12 More Rules For Life by Jordan B. Peterson, published by Portfolio, an imprint of The Penguin Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Dr. Jordan B. Peterson.
Featured image: Portion of “Circe Invidiosa,” an 1892 painting by John William Waterhouse, depicting the Greek minor goddess Circe as she turns Scylla into a sea monster.