Tuesday, February 26, 2019
Chasms Following Trauma
Bolstered by having published six scholarly psychoanalytic articles thus far, I explore an idea central to another manuscript. It has been rejected by multiple journals. But these few successes explain my courage to write about rejected concepts.
Before explaining the oft-rejected concept, consider this new one:
I believe it erroneous to think of injuries as somehow external to people, as an unusual, outlier event. Making references like “he suffered terrific injuries as a child” or “she was seriously abused by her husband” suggest these are somehow rare or unique.
I mean no derogation of psychological injuries in using these two examples.
I intend only to indicate that trauma is a normal, expected, part of life.
Everyone is hurt in some way.
The remnants of these injuries resides in the corner of the psyche like a shadow in a room:
Sometimes the shadow can barely be perceived;
Sometimes it fills the room, leaving people struggling to perceive light. Their trauma informs every aspect of their lives.
Here now comes the rejected idea:
Trauma, whether mild or severe, creates chasms, holes, or gaps in our ability to narrate them. The 20th century psychoanalyst, Wilfred Bion, referred to such a phenomenon as the “place where the thing was” (p. 124).
Jacques Lacan, writing in an even more obscure fashion than Bion—no easy task—considered this concept part of what he called the Real. (The other two “registers” consist of the symbolic, all that can be described by signs or symbols, and the imaginary, which includes all that can be fantasized or dreamt about).
Lacan defined the Real as “the essential object which isn’t an object any longer […and where…] all words cease and all categories fail, the object of anxiety par excellence” (p. 164).
Trauma results in a blind spot comparable to the one created by our own retinas.
We don’t notice our visual blind spots because a. we ignore them, and b. we unconsciously fill them in, giving us the impression of having a complete visual field.
In other words, trauma creates emotional experiences and memories that exceed our narrative capabilities.
We may develop stories of what injurious events occurred, whether they consisted of child abuse, rape, or severe trauma from a motor vehicle accident.
But, these narrations, stories, concepts, or mythologies are always incomplete.
How is this relevant to psychoanalysis?
Because psychoanalysis is the oldest form of “talk therapy,” and this idea suggests a mental phenomenon that evades discussion.
Ironically, then, certain features of trauma cannot be “talked through.”
If you think of our minds as containing complicated maps of the world, criss-crossed with roads, rivers, trails, and other delineated passages, trauma becomes part of the map which lacks routes or connections.
It represents un-chartered territory.
As an example, I have been reflecting, during this vacation in Chile, on my second cardiac surgery which just occurred during December 2018. I underwent the first procedure in 2008 when I was diagnosed with endocarditis, a bacterial infection of the heart.
Just this last November, of 2018, I contracted the bacterial infection again. Bacteria damaged the prosthetic valve, which had been implanted in July 2008. Treatment consisted of surgical removal of the prior one and implantation of a new one.
During the seven-hour procedure, the first new valve inserted leaked, requiring the surgeon to stop my heart a second time, remove the newest valve, implant another one, and re-start my heart again.
That one obviously didn’t leak.
If it did, I wouldn’t be writing this post from Patagonia, Chile.
I wouldn’t be writing it from anywhere.
I wasn’t quite sure I’d be recovered enough to take this trip, planned nearly a year previously, and am pleased, kind of, to be hiking around green fjords, snow-covered mountains, and brightly-lit meadows.
While traveling in this place identified as “the end of the world,” I am gripped by frequent thoughts of mortality.
My sense of the future has changed. Now, it includes my wondering about as to whether, or for how long, I will have one.
I anticipate the trauma will begin to fade, to become marginalized in my mind, to be filled in with more hopeful images of the future.
Meanwhile, these last few paragraphs do not even come close to narrating the effect of this traumatic experience upon me.
I could write for days, weeks, perhaps even months, and still fail to capture the many nuanced feelings and complex thoughts surrounding the health mis-adventure.
Most of my scholarly and political interest surrounds bringing the warring psychoanalytic tribes together. I look for commonalities between how Freudians and Jungians practice, as well as how Kleinians, Winnicotians, Kohutions, and other psychoanalysts work in the privacy of their quiet consulting rooms.
In my view, and many other psychoanalysts feel the same way, we all actually work much the same way—regardless of how we define our theoretical orientations or how we were trained.
First, psychoanalysts frame their professional relationships to create a safe space for transformational encounters to unfold.
Second, they bring their presence to patients through empathy, attunement, interest, curiosity, and similar behaviors.
Third and last, they engage their patients in forms of dialogue, consciously and unconsciously, verbally and nonverbally, and in other, more mysterious ways, such as, for example, through what Bion called “reverie” (1963, p. 19). These engagement processes access, disrupt, and alter unconscious or other disavowed features of mental life.
So what about the profound, albeit sometimes subtle, effects of trauma?
Trauma, as I suggested, becomes another disavowed feature of mental life.
Psychoanalysts help patients find partial narrations to describe these trauma. These narrations are always incomplete, however, and include paths leading to abrupt dead ends and waterways blocked by large unknowable landmasses.
Psychoanalysts also, in an almost mystical and mysterious way, help their patients learn to live with the chasm, hole, gap, lacuna, or blind spot that results from trauma.
After all, we cannot know everything, nor can we describe every experience, nor can we retain every memory with clarity.
In confirmation, the French, existential writer, Albert Camus, writes:
There is not one human being who, above a certain elementary level of consciousness, does not exhaust himself in trying to form formulas or attitudes that will give his existence the unity it lacks. (p. 262).
Language always abbreviates.
It necessarily has gaps in it.
Thus far, editorial boards from several reputable psychoanalytic journals have soundly rejected this concept of the indescribable nature of traumatic experiences.
One reviewer remarked,
I believe we can find narrations for every experience in life.
I respectfully, if vehemently, disagree.
I brought this oft-rejected paper with me down here to the end of the earth. I am re-writing it, and now I’ve shared it, however incompletely, with you readers.
Perhaps my observation of my own “recovery-in-process” from this most recent trauma will inform my ideas.
Perhaps, even more hopefully, it will inform you who must, of necessity, by virtue of living a life, struggle with trauma of one form or another.
In summary, then, these trauma comprise a necessary if nasty component of life, and they will always evade our ability to completely narrate them. Therefore, we must learn to live with blind spots, with incompleteness, and with mystery.
Bion WR (1963). Elements of psychoanalysis. London: Heinemann.
Bion, W. (1965). Transformations. London: Tavistock.
Camus, A. (1991). The rebel: an essay on man in revolt. New York: Vintage. (Original work published in 1956).
Lacan, J. (1991). The seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book II: The ego in Freud’s theory and in the technique of psychoanalysis, 1954–1955. In: Miller J-A, editor. Translated by Tomaselli. New York: Norton.
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Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP