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The Internet as “Escape Hatch”

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 discuss the situation of the young woman whose personal life was greatly influenced by her occupation of prosecuting online sexual predators. For Casey the use of the internet is a much more circumscribed part of her life and as such could easily go unnoticed as a barrier to healthy functioning. It was not mentioned as a presenting problem. It is certainly justifiable as part of her work and it is not something she does in her leisure time. Yet over time, it has become clear that her investment with it serves to bind aggression, fear, revulsion, and powerlessness. It perpetuates her view of men in general as untrustworthy predators in ways that permit no modification from real-life encounters. It is a fixed part of her experience to which she reacts with only measured professional disgust. It also allows her to maintain an appropriate distance from the as yet undetermined experiences of her own life which were too horrific to contemplate.

An Escape Mechanism

This carefully contained experience with internet predators and her participation in seeing that justice is done has allowed Casey to master again and again her fear and powerlessness in relation to men. One might consider it a successful adaptation were it not for her relative social isolation and conflicted anguish about dating. Rather her use of the internet represents an escape hatch, very much like an addiction of any kind, in which unacceptable feelings and memories are sequestered outside of time and inaccessible to healthy modification and integration. While recognizing its necessity as an escape mechanism, we have begun to disentangle and support the vulnerable and fragmented self-state that it protects.

A Silent Observer

In the process, the barriers around this circumscribed piece of her life have begun to crack. In the session noted above, she was able to express the nausea she felt as she read 30 pages of pornographic blogs. Instead of the articulate and carefully worded associations, we have also begun to have periods of “nothing”, lapses into silence that Casey calls “unintentional”. Another time shortly after the “nausea” session she again described the experience of having a word lose its meaning after having said it a number of times. I understand this to be a kind of detachment from the reality that words impose and, quite possibly, a retreat to the mind and experience of the silent little girl who remains yet to be engaged.

As Ainslie points out (2007) it is the little girl who most closely parallels what Casey does on the internet, that is, a silent observer, much as she was in relation to her mother’s sexual activity. She has retreated from the toxic relationship with her mother into a defensive attempt at mastery, proud of her ability to tolerate the material she must read every day. Like Sartre, that 20th-century chronicler of social alienation, she finds that the world of reality starts to lose its meaning.


The Internet as “Escape Hatch”

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.

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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2020). The Internet as “Escape Hatch”. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 May 2020
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