Paging doctor dream master
Charles McPhee speaks the language of the subconcious
By Stacey Wiebe 01/19/2006
Jennifer’s dream opens with a few strange men, a hundred or so Rastafarians and an ironing board that packs a mighty wallop. From there, from inside the motley-colored circus tent widely known as the dreamscape, it only gets worse. Come one, come all, to the greatest show on Earth. Pull up a seat and stay a while. This is Jennifer’s dream, which is really kind of a nightmare.
It’s 7 p.m. on a Monday night, which means Charles McPhee, the Dream Doctor, is on the air and broadcasting live from a womb-like studio folded into a quiet corner of a posh Encino home.
Jennifer, who dialed the doctor’s toll-free number from the outlying telephone ether, has made it past the new screener — a young, friendly woman with dark hair and a voice that could soothe the white from the knuckles of a race-care driver.
Jennifer may not realize it, but she’s a very brave woman. She’s hanging out the sordid details of her subconscious mind the way she might hang stained silk undergarments on a clothesline. In Jennifer’s dream, which she had about two weeks ago, there are a bunch of unwanted guests in her house and, try as she might, she just can’t get them out. Among the filthy freeloaders are the pot smokers in her living room, the Rastafarians in her garage and the gay couple who think her bedroom is a Motel 6.
“This is a bad day, Jennifer,” McPhee says from behind his microphone. “Rastafarians in your garage, people smoking dope in your house and men having gay sex in your room. Does it get better or worse?”
Oh, wait; it gets better. Jennifer takes an ironing board, whacks one of the strange men with it and sends him flying right out of her house. Then she gets down on her knees and cries as she begs God to forgive her. This has turned out to be a two-hanky theatrical event. The end. Roll credits.
“Where, two weeks ago, did you feel that your boundaries were not being respected?” It’s when McPhee asks questions like this one, questions that nose around backstage after the curtain drops, that make it plain to see he actually cares what the answers are.
It turns out Jennifer had the dream the night before she had an appointment with a male doctor — and that the appointment had to do with her “female organs.” It also turns out that Jennifer has an HMO, that she wanted a female doctor to perform her exam, that the male doctor she didn’t want in the first place was appointed to her and that she couldn’t do a damn thing to change that.
The scenario certainly puts a whole new spin on unwanted visitors in the home or, in this case, the vagina.
“What’s so infuriating to you is you’re powerless to change it,” McPhee says.
“Yes, there was nothing I could do about it.”
“Was this because the doctor was a man?”
McPhee’s smart, thoughtful blue eyes are shades darker than his sky-blue shirt. He stands for the duration of the show, sips water occasionally from a clear glass and shifts often in anticipation, like a sprinter warming up for a meet. With his tall, straw-thin frame, he could be a cyclist at the starting line. “Next time, tell your doctor that you want a referral to a female specialist. I hope he was professional with you, my dear.”
What’s most starkly revealed by one dream after another, as McPhee listens to the details of each sojourn in dreamland and ferrets out the correlations to waking life, is that the dreams really do have a remarkable correlation to, well, waking life. What is also so curiously revealed by dream after dream is that deep and sometimes hidden feelings about everything under the sun crop up as we sleep.
To hear McPhee tell it, dreams are nothing more than us talking to ourselves. The problems arise when we refuse to listen to what we are saying.
“Dreams can really be letting you know something,” McPhee, 43, says from the living room of the sprawling Encino house, which belongs to his syndicator, George Oliva III. Oliva is largely responsible for getting love-’em-or-hate-’em radio personalities Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, Tom Leykis and others out to the public ear.
The Dream Doctor Show is his latest project and he believes shows like McPhee’s, shows that tap into specific realms of thought and emotion, are the future of radio. Women, in particular, seem to be responding to McPhee’s analysis of what is essentially emotional territory — as well as his knack for being somewhat of an accidental counselor.
Perhaps, then, it’s no accident that McPhee looks more like a health-conscious therapist than one of those over-the-top radio personality types.
On air, McPhee’s decidedly laid-back, thoughtful manner morphs into something a little more highly strung. Restricted to a handful of mere minutes between commercial breaks, his analyses must be swift and pointed. McPhee’s naturally smooth and steady voice gets louder and his refined manner a tad theatrical as callers describe dreams and he digs up as much back story as possible to offer up accurate interpretations. “I’m encouraging people to get comfortable with the language of their subconscious minds and to trust that language as a logical, reasonable, practical addition to their lives,” he says. “The show is called ‘The Dream Doctor Show.’ I’m not a medical doctor but, as far as I’m concerned, if you go to all the work to remember your dreams and then don’t take the steps indicated by your dreams, it’s a waste.”
If the listenership of McPhee’s show is any indication, he has plenty of fans who agree.
Lisa Osborn, program director and morning show host for KKZZ, 1590 AM, says ratings in McPhee’s time slot have skyrocketed since he started at the station, where he’s been on air from 9 p.m. to midnight since November. “Our ratings just came out and, at first glance, it looks like they shot up significantly,” Osborn said last week. The ratings for the station’s 7 p.m. to midnight time slot have doubled since McPhee came aboard. McPhee also does a “Dream Minute” for the station twice daily, at 6:45 a.m. and 6:45 p.m., during which he takes 60 seconds to discuss symbolism in dreams.
“Ultimately, they’re curious about what dreams are revealing, what they might not be conscious of in real life,” Oliva, 51, says of the attraction of listeners to the show. “Charles gives them the tools for them to be able to do this analysis themselves … . Charles is about the nicest guy I have ever worked with in radio. He genuinely cares about people.”
McPhee’s show is featured in 16 different markets — from talk radio to country to pop — all over the country. Since he starts taping at 7 p.m. on weekdays, he’s live in several different time zones, for at least an hour a night.
“For the people who are curious about what’s going on inside their heads, listening to other people’s dreams makes them realize they have similar dreams,” Osborn says. “Anything we can do to help our listeners be more reflective is good.”
If you think McPhee’s name sounds familiar, you’re not dreaming. The Dream Doctor, who lives in Woodland Hills with his wife, Petra, and their 9-month-old daughter, Celia, is nephew to none other than the famous Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction writer, John McPhee.
Charles McPhee attended Princeton University, where he studied sociology, communications and, you guessed it, dreams. Unofficially, that is. Dreams were not and are not part of the prestigious university’s curriculum, so McPhee, who’s had a lifelong interest in dreams, began studying them on his own in earnest when he was 19. “They don’t teach dreams in college these days,” he says. “It’s a problem in the field that I am working to address.”
Part of McPhee’s work is a vast collection of dreams, which he has compiled into an extensive database. Anyone who’s even lightly treaded the landscape of dream analysis has stumbled across a book or two that list the symbolic meanings of imagery in dreams. Anyone who’s ever tried to use one of these books — essentially one-size-fits-all approaches to translating the universal language of the subconscious — has probably been sorely disappointed.
“The field of dreams today is associated with tarot, with astrology and aliens,” McPhee says. “Nobody seems to know if they mean anything and if they’re significant or not.”
McPhee also discusses dream imagery — in his books, on the air, via e-mail and on his Web site — but he does so to a far greater extent than other so-called “dream experts.” The difference, in McPhee’s estimation, is that he’s studied dreams for almost 25 years with a scientific approach. He’s catalogued thousands of dreams from 90 countries only to discover that, except for differing cultural imagery, we’re all having the same dreams.
Like other dream guides, McPhee’s book, Ask the Dream Doctor: An A-Z Guide to Deciphering the Hidden Symbols of Your Dreams, provides definitions for particular symbols — like snakes, wolves, babies, etc. — but his definitions go deeper than most. McPhee also wrote Stop Sleeping Through Your Dreams: A Guide to Awakening Consciousness During Dream Sleep, as well as a new dream diary called The Dream Doctor Dream Diary, which guides people through the process of recording dreams.
McPhee notes that 100 years after Freud wrote The Interpretation of Dreams, there has been no significant, science-based analysis of dream life, a life he firmly believes speaks a universal language. “People are very hungry for information about dreams, and there hasn’t been good information for a long, long time,” McPhee says.
Countless times, women have called McPhee with “warning dreams” about current love interests. He believes such dreams are letting women know they feel uncomfortable about the romantic situations they’re in and that their respective subconscious minds are performing the “selfish” duty of looking out for the people they belong to.
“A woman will call in and will have been involved in a romantic relationship for four or five months and say she’s having a recurring dream that she’s, say, trapped in an elevator or something,” McPhee says. “I ask, ‘What has happened in your life that you’ve been having these recurring nightmares for months?’ Often, I discover that they have a controlling boyfriend. I get the picture that she’s involved with a guy who she’s uncomfortable with.”
McPhee, who holds a masters in communication from the University of Southern California, received his board certification to perform polysomnographic testing, which records body functions during sleep, for the diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders in 1992. His résumé shows, among other things, that he’s no fly-by-night dream interpreter who decided to try his hand at dream analysis when he failed to live up to his goal of being a rock star.
He is the former director of the Sleep Apnea Patient Treatment Program at the Sleep Disorders Center of Santa Barbara; former coordinator of the Sleep Disorders Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, in Los Angeles; and former coordinator of the sleep research laboratory at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md.
In addition to his extensive dream database, which he aims to eventually incorporate into college curricula, McPhee conducts about 6,000 dream interviews a year on his radio show. Additionally, he interprets dreams sent in via his Web site, www.dreamdoctor.com, which also details sleep disorders and common and unique dreams as well as lucid and precognitive dreams.
“Dreams are an everyday part of our lives, and their language is basically lost,” McPhee says. “There are classic dreams and their meanings — and I want to get them out to the public. Our minds are so extraordinarily able to recall things and to process information, and that’s what dreams teach us.”
One surprising aspect of dream interpretation is that it can be so literal. If a woman has a dream that her husband is cheating on her, for example, it could simply mean that she feels “cheated” in her relationship with him.
Likewise, a dream that a family member is in a coffin doesn’t mean you need to sigh with relief every time a bus passes him or her by without running him or her over. It might simply mean that you feel your relationship is “dead” and the dream is helping you realize that a little mouth-to-mouth wouldn’t hurt.
These literal interpretations don’t mean dreams can’t be downright confounding, however. For instance, fish often crop up in dreams about fertility, a fact that’s heavily backed up by the 15,000 or so fish dreams in McPhee’s database. “I didn’t intuitively understand the meanings of dreams, and some of those are very elusive,” he says. To a great degree, how and why the subconscious seems to be speaking this universal tongue remains a mystery — which could be one reason why dreams tend to be so firmly linked to voodoo, tarot and aliens — but that’s another story.
In addition to explaining the phenomena of dreams — including that common nightmare about being stuck back in high school or college and having to take an exam you haven’t prepared for (which, McPhee says, means the dreamer is unsatisfied with an aspect of life, usually career-related, and that the dreamer wants to “graduate” and move on to something bigger and better) — McPhee also shares a wealth of information about sleep disorders.
Ever awakened in the night to find that you can’t move, that it feels like someone is sitting on your chest and that you’re entire body is vibrating uncontrollably? If it’s never happened to you, consider yourself lucky. If it has, rest assured that aliens have not landed in your room to probe you mercilessly.
Those midnight frights are a unique version of a nasty little thing called night terrors. “This is the origin of many mythologies about dreams, and it’s related to sleep walking and sleep talking. It’s also the origin of alien abductions and the incubus,” McPhee says.
Instances in which we dream of falling down or being pushed off cliffs while we simultaneously jerk ourselves awake — usually just as we are falling asleep — are called hypnagogic jerks. They’re the body’s attempt, McPhee says, to maintain balance as the body begins to fall asleep and a transition of balance happens in the inner ear.
But all physical aspects of sleep life aside, the meanings behind dreams are far more sought after because of the power of the emotional content.
“What you learn is that your dreams are selfish,” McPhee says. “We don’t dream about the Kyoto Treaty, plague, starvation in Africa and other global issues. We dream about personal issues. I think love and work, family and children, are the primary issues and concerns that appear in our dreams, and I think it’s interesting. It’s ‘Me, me, me, me, me’ in dreams. One of the reasons dreams are so powerful is it’s not your friends and family telling you something. You are telling yourself something very important.”
Despite his scientific lowdown on all sorts of dreams, McPhee doesn’t make sweeping generalizations about the meanings of dreams and believes that, despite the similarities among dreams, the events in the lives of the dreamers help accurately determine interpretations. And despite his popularity among women, his show is for everyone.
One caller, Matt, says he’s been having dreams that he’s breaking into people’s houses without stealing anything. “It’s more just to prove that I can do it,” he says.
Each time he breaks into a house, he’s chased out by an old lady or an old man wielding a broom. Then, as he drives home, policemen smile and wave at him.
McPhee listens to Matt’s dream, then asks a few questions. Matt reveals he was cited for driving under the influence and was recently arrested for driving with a suspended license. He will soon serve 30 days in county jail. “You’re going to do 30 days in jail,” McPhee says. “Of course you’re having bad dreams.”
McPhee says the dream is somewhat of an affirmation to Matt that, despite his legal troubles, he isn’t a bad person. Sure, he’s breaking into houses, but he isn’t taking a thing. The police even seem pleased with his behavior.
In Matt’s waking life, his mother and grandmother are terrified by his jail sentence. They are constantly tearful and worried. “Deep down inside, when I go to bed, that’s when it bothers me the most,” says Matt, who ends the call by telling McPhee that he always falls asleep watching CNN or listening to his show.
“When people have strong dreams — vivid, powerful and emotional — you know inside that it means something, and you want to know what it is.” McPhee says.
There are more callers with more dreams to understand, more people for whom the links between their dreams and waking life are important but unclear. McPhee slaps his headset on and stretches a little in anticipation of the next dreamland conundrum. The doctor is in.
Dream Rx McPhee fills a few prescriptions
Chances are, there isn’t a dream Charles McPhee hasn’t heard. Like a veteran bartender or clinical psychologist, he’s all ears when it comes to the intimate details and confounding inner workings of the subconscious mind — so we knew the likes of mundane dreams about reckless driving, faceless killers and cheating girlfriends wouldn’t faze the Dream Doctor.
That’s why, in a mad dash for self awareness, we asked McPhee to take a crack at a few of our dreams. This is what he had to say:
Antonio’s dream: This recurring dream starts when I go to the gym for my usual morning workout. I was working out and turned around to see my ex-girlfriend, with whom I had just broken up. She was with another guy, working out. I felt totally OK about it, but she says, “It’s not what it looks like.” Then her mood changes and she says, “It’s not what you think.” I keep working out and try to ignore her, but she keeps following me around and saying “It’s not what it seems.” I say, “You just can’t be trusted.” I have a sick, gut feeling throughout the dream that she can’t be trusted.
The Analysis: Antonio’s dream is transparent, which is to say there is not a great deal of symbolism. The dream reflects his disappointed feelings in the wake of a romantic breakup. His ex-girlfriend, who disappointed him, is represented literally (she appears as herself) and his feelings of disappointment are illuminated when he tells her \"You just can't be trusted.\"
Antonio feels OK in the dream, but is disappointed nevertheless. The dream reflects a person moving on from betrayal in a romantic relationship. Antonio can take comfort from his determination not to get involved with her in the dream (he ignores her and continues working out) which reflects his determination to move on from the relationship in waking life, even though the ex may still be trying to get back together or explain herself to him. Good for Antonio!
Joanie’s dream: I was in a car with my yoga teacher. She was driving and I was in the passenger seat. My left foot and ankle were hanging out the bottom of the car. There was a hole in the floor. It was almost dark, around dusk, when we crashed into a half-built barn. Then we crashed two more times. We were safe when we landed and I was able to pull my foot safely into the car.
The analysis: Joanie’s dream is a classic \"car out-of-control\" dream with a great twist to it: Her yoga teacher is driving. Cars in dreams symbolize our selves, the \"direction we are headed in our waking lives.\" This dream alerts Joanie that she feels like she is getting \"off course\" and is heading in the wrong direction in her waking life — the accident — but I am curious why...
The darkness in the dream symbolizes confusion about the direction she is headed (can't see ahead clearly because it is dark), while the hold symbolizes awareness of possible obstacles and \"accidents\" that await her if she continues \"off course.\"
Feet in dreams are symbols of forward movement again. Our feet are what take us forward from one destination to the next. So, again, another metaphor about direction and forward progress. Also, Joanie is a passenger in this car and not the driver, which is very significant in car-out-of-control dreams...
Dave’s dream: A recurring dream about a giant, clear, floating bag of knots. The knots float ever closer to me. More and more tight knots are added as the ball of knots grows bigger and bigger, and looms larger and larger.
The analysis: Dave’s dream is a night terror. The image is static and always is the same; the object (bag of knots) appears to be floating in space but coming nearer. The dream is about stress and tension that mounts (knots of tension) as the sleeper gets more and more stressed as the night terror progresses.
There is no psychological significance, other than that Dave may experience these night terrors more frequently in his life when he is stressed, which is common. Night terrors are caused by a genetically inherited difficulty awakening from deep sleep, which also causes sleepwalking, sleeptalking and bed wetting in children.
The solution is nonmedical and effective. If Dave sleeps with light on in his bedroom, the night terrors will go away, as light helps awaken the sleeping brain from deep sleep and also eliminates the confusion of \"seeing things\" that are not present in the dark. If Dave tries it, the night terrors will go away. They also always occur in the first three hours of sleep because that is when our deepest sleep is.
Julie’s dream: I was driving in my car at night on a road where I was the only driver. I am on a familiar residential street, near a park. Suddenly, my headlights went out. Afraid of being stopped by a cop, I quickly pulled the car over. I started feeling around for the switch to my headlights when everything went black.
A few seconds later, I felt an arm loop around my seat and grab me around the neck. I woke up.
The analysis: Julie’s dream is a classic dream, again utilizing the common metaphor of driving in a car. (See how common these dreams really are?) And then the lights go out, which, as aforementioned from Joanie’s dream, is a metaphor for confusion about the direction you are headed in your waking life, as in \"it is difficult to see the way I'm supposed to be going.\"
Julie even looks for the switch to turn the headlights on (she wants to \"shine some light\" on the situation that is bothering her), but she is unsuccessful in her dream. Then she feels the arm swoop up from behind and grab her around her neck! Scary dream!
Also, notice that everything in Julie’s dream has a familiar feel to it: the street she is on, the nearby park. Only the assailant is unidentified. Julie needs to ask herself where she was feeling confused in her life when she had this dream and was worried about getting hurt emotionally (the faceless assailant).
This is a warning dream that Julie feels she is around someone (familiar to her) that she does not know if she can trust....