In my article Time Out of Mind (Toronto, Ellen L. K. (2009). Time Out of Mind: Dissociation in the Virtual World. Psychoanalytic Psychology. 26 (2) 117-133), I write about the young woman whom I have called Casey as she struggles to acknowledge her unwelcome feelings. She has come to the edge of a psychological abyss in which the prospect of emptiness and nothingness loom large. Coincidentally in his book Nausea (1969), the great existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte describes a similar experience in response to his observation of a man molesting a young boy in a park. In his discussion of Sartre, Toronto (1999) states that the hero of the book, Antoine, is totally cut off from society. He lives alone, speaks to no one and neither gives nor receives from anyone. His deprivation is such that he has lost the ability to give meaning to events. Sartre describes his protagonist as “a teller of tales…surrounded by his stories and the stories of others…he sees everything that happens to him through them and he tries to live his life as if he were telling a story.” (p. 39)
Before long Sartre’s hero, Antoine, not only lacks the ability to relate stories and events but also loses the ability to label simple objects and ideas in a meaningful way. He recounts several nauseating experiences in which objects—including a doorknob, a beer glass, and trees—lose their definition. He can’t describe what they really are because he realizes that “we have so much difficulty imagining nothingness…things are entirely what they appear to be—and behind them there is nothing.” (p.96) He also observes that “the words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their method of use and, the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface.” (p. 127) Ultimately Antoine experiences these realizations both as freedom and, simultaneously, as a kind of death. All reasons for living have been extinguished. He poignantly describes a kind of psychological abyss, a terrifying space without attachments or connections that might constrain and at the same time support his existence.
This literary example comes to mind because it seems quite possible that Casey, in the course of her treatment, has also come to the edge of her own psychological abyss and has, indeed, peeked over its perimeter. It is no surprise that once she has done so she would recoil in horror and return to the safety of her considerable intellectual defenses. There she can live in relative security among the house people and thus avoid encounters with the emptiness around that highly restricted internal environment.
But fortunately, Casey seems to possess a quality that Sartre’s hero does not and that is a desire to “go on being.” She retains a measure of hope based on some positive attachments in her early life, and, quite possibly, in the connection and grounding that she has experienced in her relationship with me. She is tempted to turn and run but she does not. She is committed to her treatment and understands, intellectually at least, that painful emotions lurk in and around the “nothingness.” In a recent session, for example, she described having a massage to alleviate the knotted muscles in her neck. Toward the end of the massage session, she felt something release and everything turned “pink.” She got out as fast as she could because she felt that she was going to cry.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1969. Nausea. New York, N.Y. Penguin Books.