For many years, Tamara Sullivan had recurring dreams she could neither shake nor understand.
Though the details of her dreams changed each time, the basic theme was constant: An ex-boyfriend she hadn't seen in 20 years was tormenting her.
"In the dream, I am trying desperately to get away and be in my current life and I awaken in a heart-pounding terror, afraid that I haven't gotten away and am only relieved when I see my husband sleeping peacefully next to me," said Sullivan, 43, a mother of three, who lives in Thornhill.
Troubled by dreaming about someone she had no interest in seeing, Sullivan sought help from dream analyst Mary Ellen Shuntich to determine what her subconscious mind was trying to tell her.
Shuntich, 69, who has professionally analyzed dreams for more than 30 years, said she could see what the messages were in her dreams from an early age. She later began helping friends understand their dreams, many of whom had nightmares they wanted to end.
"They would tell me their dreams and I would ask them questions about them," said Shuntich, a consultant to nonprofits who has a bachelor's in psychology. "I was trying to figure out what those symbols represented to them. I helped them figure out what they meant to them, not what it would mean to me. It was important to know what significance those figures or actions in their dreams had in their lives."
Over the years, Shuntich developed a dream interpretation technique that has assisted numerous people in making dramatic changes. The key to understanding dreams on a deep level is for the dreamer to create a "dream dictionary" that provides personal descriptions of the symbols and actions in each dream, she said.
"A symbol might have one meaning to me but an entirely different meaning for you. For example, I may be terrified of dogs and you had a beautiful puppy growing up that was cuddly and cute. For me to dream of a dog following me could have an entirely different meaning than you dreaming of a dog," Shuntich said.
When the dreamer rewrites the dream using descriptions from the personalized dream dictionary, he creates a story that illuminates the meaning behind the dream that often creates an "ah-ha" moment.
In an average lifetime, we spend about six years dreaming, with most people having three to five dreams per night. Studies indicate that everyone dreams, but not everyone recalls their dreams.
Shuntich recommends telling yourself five to 10 times at bedtime that you will remember what you dream, where you go and what you do.
Keep a tablet and pen by your bed and, just as you begin to wake, ask yourself where you were and what you were doing and feeling.
Before writing anything down, go over it in your mind. Try this several nights in a row if you are not successful the first time.
Studying our dreams may help us express and confront our feelings and guide us through relationship issues, difficult decisions, health concerns, career questions or life struggles.
"When people uncover hidden meanings in their dreams that have eluded them, especially with recurring dreams, I see them making big emotional breakthroughs in their lives. Or it just gives some people food for thought on decisions they are making, or it helps them to face some fears that have been plaguing them for years," Shuntich said.
In her workshops and private sessions, Shuntich teaches people how to practice lucid dreaming - being aware that you are dreaming as you are dreaming and changing the outcome to confront troubling dreams. She said this easy-to-learn technique gives people the power to confront the scariest of dreams.
Shuntich taught Sullivan how thoughts and events in our lives form neuropathways in the brain that sometimes get stuck on the same path.
Sullivan realized the events and people in her dreams were not really what they appeared to be, but instead represented her fear of making choices in life that were incompatible with her core values. In this dream, the ex-boyfriend represented a time in her life rather than an actual person.
Because the issues Sullivan experienced during that time were never processed, it created an endless loop in her subconscious mind that had no place to go. Once she examined and filed away what happened in her past, the recurring dream changed the next time she had it.
"In my dream I was in a different place with my husband and family and the ex-boyfriend was distanced and separated. Instead of it being a nightmare, it was just a memory. Connecting with the dream's message on a conscious level is what made that possible," Sullivan said.
"With Mary Ellen's help, I can now look at all my dreams as messages I'm trying to tell myself, and she's given me the tools to interpret their meaning. It feels like a whole world of personal understanding has been opened for me, and I look forward to seeing what my subconscious mind has to say each night."