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When the Internet Becomes Personal

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 talk about Casey’s reaction to external events that have conspired to make her work undeniably personal. In the session following a session that was canceled for the July 4th holiday, the patient reported that it has been a “terrible” few days. A male in-law of her closest friend was about to be arrested on a charge of participating in internet child pornography. At first, the patient was struggling with the ethical issue of whether or not she should warn her friend that the arrest was about to take place. Then she began to describe her reaction at work and when she was on the phone with her friend. She had cried hard on both occasions and was surprised that she had reacted so intensely. She was quietly shedding tears as she talked about it with me, an extremely rare occurrence in the years that I have been treating her.

Her Work Became Personal

She then said that her work had finally become personal. She could see and feel the tragic impact on the victims and the families of both victims and perpetrators. She said that it was like she had been working in a slaughterhouse, slaughtering cattle. She had been able to do her work by remaining comfortably detached. Then without warning one of the cows looked up at her before she slit its throat and she had to run out screaming. We puzzled about whether her feelings about her work had been there all the time or whether they were situational, only in response to the arrest of her friend’s in-law.

One might imagine that Casey’s reaction to these recent events and the ties to her own past would now become obvious, a slam-dunk. But that has not been the case. She has neither recollection nor reason to believe that she was sexually abused as a child. We are still in the early stages of exploring the impact that her father’s abandonment has had on her. She is well aware that her mother’s self-centered preoccupations have had a devastating effect but she has only begun to touch the hurt that has resulted from that relationship. At a conscious level, she acknowledges me as a benign facilitator in her quest but I am still only beginning to be allowed to communicate with the people who inhabit her inner world. We continue, slowly and patiently, to untangle those threads that are connected to emotional “hot spots” that alert us to a bubbling cauldron surrounding the unbearable pain she has experienced.


Let us now consider the very different examples of internet use provided by Timmy and Casey. Timmy is a child who under the guise of home-schooling spends many unsupervised hours in an interactive world of cartoon figures, one in which he can make things happen, influence the storyline and manipulate characters in amazing ways that have never been possible before now. Casey is a productive adult who uses the internet to accomplish work-related goals in a manner that most of us would find laudable. Yet for both of these individuals, their use of the internet has become a repository of thoughts, feelings, and encounters that are disconnected from their real-life experience. Infinitely repeatable, the internet encounters are immune to the self-reflexive capabilities that would allow them to be accessible to memory, emotion, and fantasy and thus integrated into an ongoing biographical narrative.


When the Internet Becomes Personal

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). When the Internet Becomes Personal. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 May 2020
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