Toxic Nourishment

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A profound look at the origins of patient's maladies and the way they lead their lives. The author describes the analyses leading to de-programming these patients from their toxins and intoxicators. The spirits of Bion, Winnicott, and Lacan grace the text.

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1. Toxic nourishment

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Emotional toxins and nourishment often are so mixed as to be indistinguishable. Even if they can be distinguished, it may be impossible for an individual to get one without the other. In order to get emotional nourishment, one may have to take in emotional toxins.

A life can so sour, and a person so accommodate to high levels of toxins, that he or she may develop aversive reactions to less polluted opportunities for nourishment. Life may not feel real without large doses of emotional toxins. Some people cannot take nourishment that is not embedded in psychic poisons.

Alice grew up in an atmosphere of warm self-hate. Her parents hated themselves, each other, and Alice. Yet the hate was not cold or icy. It was mixed with love. Alice tried to be a good girl in order to get the love. As she grew into middle childhood, it began to dawn on her that she was the family scapegoat. As she saw it, her older brother got all the support and advantages and idealizing. He could do no wrong. He was the family hero, destined for big things, the messiah. He would justify their existence.

 

2. Suicide

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Is it possible to say why some people try to kill themselves, whereas others, with no fewer difficulties, are able to go on? This question may be unanswerable, yet pondering it enables one to dig more deeply into life. Thinking about violence that people do to themselves makes us appreciate more keenly our little chance at living. Tracing aspects of the urge to end it all helps sensitize us to what it means to stay alive.

We cannot ask people who succeeded in killing themselves what enabled them to do so. Those who speak about death—even those who believe that they died or nearly died—can only do so as alive persons. Had they completed the death process, we would not hear from them now. As much as they might tell us about death and the need to murder oneself, it is from the point of view of life.

Still, we see that suicides differ. A Judas Iscariot might kill himself because he could not bear betrayal of the Good* There are souls who, attached to goodness, yet attack it, and attack themselves for their evil ways. This differs from individuals who rely on violence to feel big and then become violent with themselves when violence against others fails to bring the desired results. If Hitler killed himself, it was not out of guilt, but because his grandiose aspirations met with failure. Even if he had the imaginative perspicacity to realize that he had paved the way for Germany’s economic triumph, he could not endure the humiliation of being executed by those he should have beaten.

 

3. Miscarriages

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To some it may seem odd or unreasonable to treat miscarriage as a psychosomatic problem, yet it is difficult to avoid this impression in certain instances. Sometimes women with repeated miscarriages seek psychotherapy for help in bringing a pregnancy to term. Nearly 30 years of work have convinced me that psychotherapy can help many women have successful pregnancies. I have seen this happen with women who almost certainly would have miscarried otherwise.

I do not know why different therapies-therapists succeed or fail with particular patients, but I would like to share some impressions of work with a particular woman, Lucia. No claim is being made that miscarriages, in general, have a psychological basis, although, certainly, nearly all have psychological consequences. I simply wish to portray what can and does happen with a good number of women and touch on some things that therapy offers. The story of every woman is different, but going into detail in one case brings to light factors that many share.

 

4. A bug-free universe

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Why are there bugs in the universe? This is an egocentric question. Human beings are latecomers in this world, compared to bugs. But in our eyes and especially on our skin, bugs are a nuisance and at times a menace. They disturb us with buzz, bite, itch, swellings, disease. We learn, too, that our world and bodies are populated by invisible as well as visible bugs, and we are unwilling hosts at their mercy.

Many years ago, as a counsellor at the Henry Street Settlement House camp, I was forced to do unpleasant things, like put worms on hooks, so that disadvantaged children could have a nice time. One day in the woods we were having an especially nice time. We had gone fishing and were putting up tents for the night. Soon we would be roasting marshmallows over a fire. One of the boys, a Jehovah’s Witness, broke my absorption by blurting out, ‘‘It’s great. But I hate the bugs. Why do there have to be bugs?” It was an in-your-face question, and I had to answer it. The boy was serious. The rest of the night hung in the balance. I shrugged, then found myself saying, “To make sure you know you’re not in heaven yet/’ He nodded, and we went on with our camping out.

 

5. Feeling normal

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“TW “Tormal is what is there”, writes Winnicott (1989, p. 270) I ^L I of the baby at the beginning of life. “The baby tends to JL ^1 assume that what is there is normal/’ A deformed baby or child may not experience deformity for some time. It may have a more or less prolonged period before awareness of deformity sets in (and this is so whether deformity resides in self or in the parents). Eventually, the baby or child makes comparisons or reads itself through the eyes of others who see deformity. It begins to feel the impact of attitudes towards deformity (especially, at first, the attitudes of loved ones and care-takers) and feels the gap between inner self and external standards.

Thus Winnicott posits a period of feeling normal prior to an awareness of deformity, a “primary normalcy” (my term) subject to “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. For Winnicott, the sense of primary normalcy is contingent on being met by parental acceptance and love without sanctions. Winnicott even suggests that primary, unconditional love is expressed physiologically through the care the foetus receives in the womb. He posits a link between how the new-born is held by the emotional life of the parents and the support and acceptance that pervade the womb before birth. Emotional and somatic living are interwoven from the outset.

 

6. Unconscious learnings: beyond the lines

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Everything happens at once in therapy, but it takes a long time to unfold—so it sometimes feels. Penelope’s (Penny’s) impact was immediate: shock waves, quivering densities in my chest, tendrils of many changing colours spreading through my shoulders, in my skin, mixing joy with fear. It was an impact I could draw on, return to, find new things in, a Penny spark lighting life—fighting for life. Could she feel it? It was, I came to know, her very own spark searching for her. There are so many wandering sparks searching for lives to ignite. How lucky we are when we help the right spark and life find each other.

Penny was beautiful and expressive, yet lips pursed, somewhat twisted with tension. The room brightened-darkened, reflecting expansive feeling, hemmed by contraction that dimmed, but did not extinguish it. She was warmly expressive but also held in, as if fearing her impact. On the one hand, she knew she was a magnificent woman. On the other, she did not know what to do with it, at once openly contactful and gripping herself.

 

7. Self-nulling

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A good deal of my adult life has been spent helping people who feel badly about themselves. This lack of self-worth may vary—from feeling irredeemably evil, to needing to be treated like shit or garbage, to doubt about one’s worth allied with vacillating self-esteem. Variations are myriad.

For some, the bad self is so consuming, there is little room for living. One spends one’s time staring at the badness that drags one down. Many find ways to rationalize the bad feeling, put it aside, push beyond it, emphasize “the winner within”. Many of these individuals live more-or-less full lives this way. Some land in my office when depression or anxiety or destructive behaviour breaks through. Such a person may not know what to make of this condition. “I’ve always been an active, confident person. Nothing like this has happened to me before. Everything frightens me. I can’t go out. I cry all the time: I’m afraid I’ll smash my children.”

Most of my patients know the bad self only too well. It is no surprise to them. It is more surprising when they feel good or do something good for themselves when there is some break in the black winter and sunlight warms and brightens them.

 

8. Empty and violent nourishment

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Coreen’s mother bathed her in wealth and the promise of more wealth: “When I die, you’ll have everything/’ Coreen had heard these words ever since she could remember. They mystified her. They made her feel that she ought to have everything, that everything was possible, and that one day she would have it all.

At the same time, Coreen was told she already had everything. She had every advantage material wealth could bring. She lived in a mansion with her own suite of rooms. She had housekeepers, tutors, activities, playmates. The message she received was that she had no lacks.

Someday she would have everything, and she had everything now. One conclusion Coreen drew was that her life was filled with everything, that she went from less of everything to more of everything, and someday she would find most of everything.

“I walked around, my head filled with everythings, lots of everythings, all animated. Animations of everythings. Lesser and greater everythings of all kinds. I would meet people and classify them as this or that everything. Likewise activities. This activity would be that kind of everything, that activity this kind. Everything was some type of everything. I couldn’t do or find anything that wouldn’t be one sort of everything or another/’

 

9. Shadows of agony X

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George is dead, anxious, and intensely alive. He is all of these at once. He wants help because he cannot bear be ing so dead and anxious. He is unable to speak in public. He goes through agonies trying to open his mouth and make sounds come out: “I feel I have something to say. Something forms in me, builds. I believe in it It is my truth. But as I try to speak my truth in a group, I go blank, numb with panic, nothing comes out. It’s humiliating. I can’t move. My tongue is frozen. It’s like making in my pants as a child, sitting in invisible humiliation. Can’t people see the panic?”

He does not have much trouble speaking with me. He describes paralysis well. But I see signs of it in his face, which seems semi-immobilized with tension, gripped too tightly, something in his head contracted like tight sphincters. He is lean, tight, tense.

His father was a successful writer and lecturer, his mother a chaotic therapist. His father was orderly, warm, but away much of the time and personally distant; His was the warmth that selfcontained, reflective people sometimes have—real but measured, not wild or bubbly. His mother was wild but cold, domineering, pressing. She came at him with the full force of her being—chaotic, wilful, demanding, clawing at him with diffuse, insistent needs.

 

10. Soundproof sanity and fear of madness

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Winnicott (1965, 1974) suggests that fear of breakdown draws on breakdowns suffered by the individual before the latter could process or remember them. The breakdown feared already happened. Winnicott depicts the infant as overwhelmed by states too much for it. The infant’s environment cannot protect it from overstrain, and the person carries the imprint of being broken in infancy.

Although the original breakdown occurred too early to be processed and remembered, it can, partly, be recaptured in current dreads of breakdown or in semi-breakdown experiences that beset life. It can also be relived in psychotherapy in semi-tolerable doses.

In a somewhat later formulation (1989, pp. 119-129), Winnicott takes this theme further and writes that the breakdown occurred before it could be experienced; he goes on to suggest that it can never be fully experienced. He postulates a madness that always remains somewhat out of reach, but which we cannot stop trying to reach. His locution shifts from fear of breakdown to fear of madness (although both phrases are used).

 

11. Angling in

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The problem of being nourished by poisons seems fathomless when confronted by cases in which a person’s sense of “well-being and vitality spring from the same characteristics which give trouble” (Bion, 1965, p. 144). Bion has in mind mental illness so persistent that it is often attributed to inborn physical pathology. He wonders whether it might not be better to understand the individual’s difficulties as arising from a “normal physical state and to spring from the very health and virility of the patient’s endowment of ambition, intolerance of frustration, envy, aggression and his belief that there is, or ought to be, or will be (even if it has to be created by himself) an ideal object that exists to fulfil itself/’

The very traits that are part of illness are, in some way, part of health: ambition, frustration, intolerance, envy, aggression, belief in a compelling ideal object. Is illness/health a matter of too much/too little, right or wrong use of such ingredients, warped ways of structuring them, varied ways of relating to warps?

 

12. Desire and nourishment

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SAGE 1: “Follow your bliss. Be a troubadour, courtly lover, knight. Cut your path through the forest. Live your eye-heart connection/”1

SAGE 2: “Train bliss. School desire. No beginning or end to desire, all sorts of desires, lower, higher. Let desire evolve/’

SAGE 3: “Find the Middle Way.”

SAGE 4: “Not less than Everything/’2

“Love God with all your heart, soul, might, mind. Do not kill, steal, covet—which amount to God not being enough. Be God-centred, God-anchored. Live deep in God. Filled with God, you won’t keep eyeing your neighbour’s stuff. You won’t turn aside after your hearts and eyes, which cause you to go astray.” Opening is more than desire.

* * *

Desires are distracting.

I walk down the street with a two-year-old. He hangs on a gate for 20 minutes, swinging back and forth, falling off, climbing on, getting hurt and crying, swinging and laughing, smiling, very studious. There is nothing more marvellous or challenging than something on hinges. He is scientist, fun-lover, dancer. He does the same things over and over with slight variations. He is an experimenter. His being is tickled and thrilled.

 

13. Epilogue

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Fusions of trauma and nourishment mark all lives. Sometimes the balance tips very much to one or the other side. Trauma may be so severe that nourishment becomes less and less possible. Personality becomes so occupied with dealing with wounds that little is left over. Difficulties are even greater when trauma becomes nourishment. Still, there are cases in which deep lines cut by trauma provide access to depths that are otherwise unreachable. In such instances, nourishment follows trauma to new places. We wish things could be otherwise … easier. But we have little choice when illumination shines through injury.

Nevertheless, we do nourish each other and continue nourishing each other. Something comes through. We procreate and create, build cities and cultures, and nourish affections and creative efforts. That our nourishing efforts contain social and psychic poisons, that, to varying degrees, we ourselves are toxic, is part of the challenge we find ourselves forced to face. Our faith—ever tested—is that facing this challenge well brings us to places we could not have found otherwise, and that some of these places are very worth the trip.

 

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