|Psyche’s Footprint: The Logic of Emergence and Being|
|Congresses - 2004 Barcelona|
|Written by Margaret L. Shanahan|
Margaret L. Shanahan
In this session we will explore the issues of a young married woman. This is a case study of a treatment that began in the spring of 2001. The focus of this presentation will be to organize the corporeal field of being into the therapeutic portraits of three sand trays. During the conference proceedings, we will investigate through a series of slides how the problems of this young woman issue in the images of three sand trays done over the course of one eventful year of our work together. Perception and pain, memory, eroticism, sexuality and cultural representation of the body will all be examined through the emotional logic and experience of this woman in her early thirties. This series of sand trays will illuminate her interpretation of her marriage and family, as well as her adaptation to the pressures of a new language and university life in a foreign country.
The focus of this case rests on the problems of regulating anxiety and how this manifests in grandiosity and aggression. We will trace the discharging of destructive impulses metaphorically in the sand tray images back to forms of parental complexes as well as formulating narrative structures of non-verbal energies that once released are utilized for further ego development. Though the sand trays are chronologically portrayed, they do not represent a straightforward correlation to real time experience. They are instead sedimentary. Each one will build and layer over the knowledge of the one before. They are studies of time, memory, the shaping of destiny and the relativity of truth. They are for me a hard glance back through historical process and revisionism. We will be looking at a case that is loaded with depression, both personal and existential, as well as one of observed suspicion and betrayal.
Although sand tray work has had terrific value prognostically, the countertransference field provokes a sense of the destiny we can only observe. How deep is our illusion of control? To what degree will the future unfold regardless of our efforts to shape understanding through insight? How does desire veil the ability to experience the moment in front of us? These are some of the issues we will see emerging and sinking simultaneously in the sand.
A Thumbnail Sketch
First, I will sketch a brief history of Sophie through the memories and stories of her youth spent along the coast of an eastern European country. Her mother and father were both creative people who afforded their two children the benefits of an upper-middle class life style and education in the capitol of their country. As a young girl, she spent summers at a seaside vacation home. Her father has continued to provide her own family visits to this same coastal home each summer. Sophie met her husband as he was completing his studies. After their marriage she followed him to a job that became part of the war-torn area of the Balkans.
As a wife she was very active in the community with part-time work until she became pregnant. Fearing for the safety of both herself and her baby she returned to her parental home to have her baby and nurture her newborn son. Her mother worked for the government and was often gone in the evenings. Both of her parents struggled with depression and existential despair under communist rule. Her family had been part of the elite class that had lost and regained its fortune many times during the political conflicts of her country. The family climate was chaotic and fraught with verbal aggression. Her father was often unpredictable and absent from the home. His absence left her mother despondent. This pattern of behavior led to a cycling of depressive episodes that threatened the family cohesion and has indelibly imprinted the emotional system of this young mother. Much later it was understood that her mother’s unhappiness was a result of her father’s affairs. A binging pattern of alcoholism developed in her father as a way of coping with manic-depressive mood swings. This pattern began in Sophie’s adolescent years. Her mother’s despair deepened over the years and eventuated in a terminal illness.
After the birth of her child, Sophie and her spouse applied for and received scholarships for study in a university of a nearby country. Sophie was unaware of how ill her mother actually was as they packed up their infant and left for their academic programs. Sophie’s husband had already served two separate tours of duty on two differing sides of the Balkan crisis. He was anxious to get away, having a sense about the direction and duration this war would occupy. It was during this new field of study that Sophie heard of her mother’s death. Out of shock, she medicated her grief and regret with heavy drinking. Focus and concentration failed her. Avoiding classes, she was forced to take incompletes. Having left communism, she learned how socialism operated in her new environment. In this setting, it was not uncommon for a student advisor to make house calls when a student began to slip from the system. Her advisor found the services necessary to get her medication for an anxious depression. The university’s structure mentored her through the completion of her degree. Although socialism provided a helpful transition from her communistic homeland, it did not prepare her for what was to follow.
Sophie and her husband now set their sights on America and moved to the States to start their doctoral studies. Sophie’s regressive symptoms continue to dismantle needed coping strategies. The radical freedom of American life creates more demands as she encounters the ever mutating and shifting surface of the American English language in the multicultural environment of a big urban city. Learning to live in an integrated urban neighborhood creates fear and paranoia. Urban black rap dominates the street culture. Identity politics has never been more “in your face” and aggressive. Sophie’s child attends first grade in an integrated public school with teachers of color who speak in dialects she has to embrace with an air of confidence she does not feel. She fakes a comfort level until she finds a way to cope with the inundation of American culture. Her distress affects her child, manifesting in anemic and respiratory symptoms. The child’s sick leave averages over a month of school each year. There are many misunderstandings with teachers around homework and expected behavior. Her spouse seems less troubled and picks up the slack. Sophie’s continued drinking no longer medicates her anxiety and depression. The drug treatment has to be reassessed due to the synergistic effect of alcohol.
She and her husband have added part-time work to bolster their scholarship allowance but find it difficult to live within their means. Her own family’s standing has made it impossible to accept the austerity of student life in America. What was tolerable in a socialistic country is here a constant frustration. The privilege which wealth affords feeds the love-hate oscillation she feels toward her husband and their decision to move here. She often maxes the credit cards and depends upon her father to help assuage the mounting debt.
Her husband’s introversion and detached style along with the academic pressures of his own doctoral studies have made him seem unavailable. This is similar to the pattern of her father’s absences. Old family patterns of drinking followed by aggressive arguments lead to alienation and parallel lives. She retreats into the Oedipal love of her child and newfound friendships. Somehow, over the years of marriage, Sophie has not been able to constitute a sexual self. She is a daddy’s girl but is learning what it means to be orphaned from her mother. Frustration and resentment make it difficult to create the sexual grounding for her selfhood with her partner. She begins to treat her husband more like a sibling with jealous outbursts and competitive social maneuvers intended to be hurtful. As a graduate student, she has become encapsulated within the thinking function. It is her only means of approval and competency, other than her child. It becomes an important source for her sense of significance. She finds it increasingly difficult to cope with her studies; distraction and an inability to organize her papers are significant symptoms of depression and alcohol. She has many issues of complicated grief from her mother’s death two years before, but these are projected onto her husband and the decision to come to America. The paradox of scarcity in the face of abundance creates a love-hate relationship to American culture.
Sand Play as Psyche’s Footprint
Although I could spend much more time on the psychological profile of this patient, I hope these reconstituted portraits will illuminate the moonlit path of this young mother’s dismantlement and development. The sand trays I have selected elaborate the analytic work from 2003 to 2004. These psychic landscapes can be conjured for the reader only through a descriptive approach of the objects and their symbolic process. Without the visual representations, this is a daunting task. I hope to convey a time of unbearable emotional logic in the life of this young woman.
Sand play is a treatment modality that should be used only in the context of careful differential diagnosis. Many analysands are not suited for this modality. It demands a particular growth edge, sustained by what Jung termed the creative instinct. I have come to this approach through a blending of the phenomenology of play and a Neo-Jungian psychoanalytic perspective. Psychoanalysis, when done well, becomes what I term deep play.
Sand play developed largely through the Jungian theorist, Dora Kalff. Her original work has continued to develop and grow into a psychoanalytic practice that accesses unconscious materials in a most unique manner. Sand play combines two of Jung’s most important contributions to psychoanalytic theory – the conceptualization of the instincts of creativity and play. Sand play is the visual imprint of the psyche’s foot; concretized through a form demand that dreaming cannot embrace. It is the sort of analytic work I find most fascinating to be a part of because it is work that is only possible if it is embedded within the ability to play and what Jacque Lacan termed an “ethic to know.”
It is with this ethic that Sophie enters the sandplay room at the top of the stairs. The room is a converted linen closet now lined with objects in glass cabinets and with windows opening into the treetops. It has a largeness despite its closeted nature. I name it, “The Small Room of Great Wonder.”
(1) Seeds of A Still Nature
Sophie begins to gather the elements that she will use to construct an image of her current self-state. She orients her sand tray in a horizontal rectangle. This is a ritual practice she comes to enact two or three times a year. It has given us invaluable understanding, particularly when she is too anxious to dream or has impinging affects that she cannot integrate. This particular portrait of self-study begins the year of 2003. This tray is entitled “Seeds of a Still Nature.”
I will attempt to locate the elements of the tray by underlining and describing when necessary their use within the boundaries of the rectangular space and will add notes in italic form. The indented paragraphs are her associations flowing from object to object until she completes her descriptive process.
The central energy of this tray is the tension between the sleeping geisha and the golden pear. The pear has a powerful archetypal resonance with the “Handless Maiden” fairytale. Literally it is that which you reach for but can only grasp with your chin. What is it like for a young mother to be in the world without hands? The soul’s struggle is to overcome the recumbent position of passivity. There is paradoxical energy surrounding the sleeping maiden. The demon shadows the vampiric nature of her addictive tendencies; the bird’s song is not in tune with the reality from which it sings.
What does this symbolic portrait indicate? Diagnostically, the tray’s issue is how to be a woman, be dynamic, and emerge from the sea. How will Sophie embrace the responsibility of the apple (the Fall) and the hunger for the pear … her initiation? The witch carries the hands of the masculine in Baba Yaga’s tale. By night, the hands are the dark horsemen who do her bidding. During the day, they are four sets of gloved hands, flying throughout the woods, fetching the necessities of life, stirring the porridge, and cleaning the hearth. This is an interesting image of the entrapped masculine that serves his marriage through enchantment. Baba Yaga is the shape-shifting witch energy in the tray. The devouring desire that eats children and spins her household topsy-turvy. Her energy is directed to the lower right corner of Sophie’s conscious emotional life, poised between the unconscious beauty and the depression that threatens her child’s watchful gaze.
How will the shape-shifter bring the wind and the rain? Dracula hovers over the body of the sleeping nude. Nighttime can be tricky when you can’t sleep, you’ve drunk too much, or you simply don’t want to relate to your bedded companion. It is the dark mood that sucks the life out of relationality and intimacy. Once the vitality is gone, Sophie is left with the bloodless emptiness of exhaustion and despair. The reactive cycles of anger turn into panic that disembodies the sensuality of the maid. Dracula is the vampiric depressive mood of resentment and contempt. It is the stilled nature that ripens and rots from the lack of nurture she cannot give or find a way to resource. The sprinkling rain, the moisture received as delight, mirrored in the lover’s eye, now burns cold from the lack of provision in her lover. Longing is both the external approval of lovers and friends as much as it is the internal provisioning of the great Other who feels vampiric rather than blissful. All the energy seems to be enchanted. It is weighted with a rock-like boredom, the heaviness of depression. The spherical shapes are murky and brackish. The child appears as a passive on-looker to the energies of stones and desiccation. The dried gourd like the child is trapped in the stillness of potentia.
(2) The Shells of Body’s Longing
This second tray was created in April 2003. The winter had been a long and hard one. ENF’s have a tendency for big emotional lives. Easily over-stimulated, they have the capacity to create emotional overload in others. Sophie is prone to tension states as a result of her extroverted stimulus-seeking nature. She values and is very conscious of her social standing and appearance. She likes to be noticed and is sensitive to her personal style; novelty breaks the monotonous quality of her domestic sphere. She has gone with a girlfriend and acquired a nose-piercing stud. She has a tendency to use the social as a distraction from the other more introverted demands of her studies. At times she is too quick to form friendships before trust is established and often finds herself hurt by the inability of others to respond in kind. This leads to further despair. Although intellectual and highly accomplished, she often prioritizes her sense of style and appearance over the interests of family and fiscal responsibility. As an NF she is prone to projections and fantasy because her feeling function leads so strongly with a need to assess the future along side the current emotional state. Projections often create emotional tension and late- night dramas after drinking; rejection brings the fire princess complex forward. Facts and experience take a back seat to inconsolable crying jags that run into the early morning hours. Angered by her husband’s detachment, she reports having a one-night stand. Lately guilt and fear of retaliation have created an anxious fantasy that her husband may be having an affair. Sophie’s hunger for integrity becomes difficult because her emotional life seems to work antagonistically against her family’s harmony and consistency. Her struggle for coherency is compromised by her need for approval from others.
Sophie assembles many shells in the front of her tray along with a golden fish and a large rock. It is a remarkably dense tray that takes less than ten minutes for her to construct as she recites a fairy tale.
The interpretive process enters through the nest in the fork of the tree. Notice how the entire unconscious sits below the nest. The nest is separated from everything else except the unconscious. The Geisha represents her recent thaw from depression and the arousal of her libido. It also symbolizes her most recent sexual experience. Her sexuality is portrayed outside the nest and outside the life of the family. Venus stands with a head at her feet. The family, the Geisha, the Venus, and the trial all encompass the power of her unfolding edge along with Shiva the destroyer. These figures are located within the watery place of the well. What preoccupies me most are the pixie in the cup, and the tiny horse. These feel like the intervening dynamic factors.
As prognostic indicators, the tiniest elements can often signal the greatest importance. They seem to be related to that which is rescued in the fairy tale. The fairy in the cup is the sexual puella energy that buoys her from her despair. The tiny horse that can grow to be the Trojan horse can be understood as her fear of potential danger as well as her capacity to be reactive and vengeful. There is more danger present and more to occur in the spider, the trial, and the forward edge of the pornographic imagination.
The mother archetype has been too dominant in her family. Sophie is now in a phase of fearful experimentation. She is threatened and seeking the water to moisten the desiccated elements of her sexuality and her marriage. June is the spider energy and supports every aspect of the family. The spider’s energy is the conflictual element that has been underestimated in the past. The center of the tray is the family which must be protected. The wheel may be the water of life, but the significance at the top of the tray and the circular energy of her associations speaks to the mass confusion, and no one tending the wheel. The mass confusion is where and what she lives. Who is on trial has multiple vignettes: Sophie’s husband? June? the marriage? Perhaps it could be her tyrannical internal critic and introverted reasoning ability. Perhaps it is her guilt that wants a trial. What could this do to mediate her own fear of being found out? The secret foray locked away in the watery rooms of the chambered nautilus, lying alongside the decapitated head, signifying the eternal coming and the present. Does this speak to the castration of her husband or of her own desire?
(3) A Necklace of Charmed Potential
It is 2004. Tomorrow is Sophie’s birthday. She gave a lecture and was excited about how she made the students think. She wondered about her provocative manner. Although she enjoyed her sense of style, she questions whether she may have teased the boys too much. She talks more about the class as she collects stuff from the shelves, explaining who the professor is and how formal and uptight she is with the students. The instructor is a visiting professor. She is also angry about a telephone conversation with her father who calls her thesis idea “unimportant.” Although this hurts, it does not preoccupy her thoughts or mood. Again she creates a tray that is a vertical rectangle, but this time she starts in the backfield and organizes the objects into a circular pattern. There is a clustering of objects in the lower central part of her circle. She completes the tray with the comment, “This is interesting stuff … pleasing rather than heavy, disturbing objects.” Here are her associations.
We start with a large place of thought – the large red over-stuffed chair with a heart and lantern set on its cushion. At her word the chair is the seat of the self and her thinking function. Though quite large, it is not working. It is enantiodromic to her current situation because it remains compensatory to the emotional life. The emotions soften as Sophie moves down the tile path of recovered history. The necklace strand complexifies into cluster of energy located in the lower center. This is where her current struggle is symbolized. She associates death with the unanimated wooden feelings in her marriage and the struggle for a sexual self. Motherhood has also been compromised through the high-chair tyrant antics of the fire princess complex. The excessive demands for attention and adoration, excitement and knowledge of the world through seduction have depleted her partner. Her projections for unconditional love have fallen away with her husband’s inability to carry the idealizations of the parental complex.
Turtles, often a sign of the overburdened self, are doubled, facing in opposite directions. Each seems to ride a separate current of ambivalence about her own dependency needs – one flows into merger and disappointment; the other flows outward toward isolation and depression. Ambivalence stands in nearly every sector of her relational self: informing her sexuality, motherhood, and, of course, her transference to me. Turtles particularly carry the puzzle of gender differentiation, which has also surfaced as an issue of confusion for Sophie. Her needs for merger continue to be fused with the sexual instinct. The now tragic betrayal of June’s secret affair with her husband was initially stimulated by June’s homoerotic overtures to Sophie. But Sophie’s own pornographic imagination and earlier sexually provocative stance/dare to her husband for a threesome with June created a half-life of unfulfilled longing. This concretized in a sidecar romance of sadomasochistic sexplay between her best friend June and her husband. All of this, forecasted in the earlier trays, has now been outed. Yet for Sophie, it remains a knot of projective blame. This knot crisscrosses over the jack – initially seen as the negative animus complex and later as wreckage and weaponry. The marriage – an old path loaded with judgment and accusation, deceit and lies – is a reminder of the double-crossing lies that each has told the other. Her desire for multiple truths and revisionist histories is no doubt based on her immense suffering. But this will continue as a repetition compulsion if she is unable to take partial responsibility.
Given this challenge, the sea flower may be a compromised form, of either a flowering in the unconscious or a flowering of a hidden identity. This may reference the affair with a professor in which case both would be true. The sand tray objects form a necklace laced with charms of recovered memory and desire. From the central cluster flows one path of reflection back to the historical child and a mother only recently cherished, along with times of success and fulfillment. In the opposite strand lies the path of brightly colored stone. These seem to be the fruits of becoming, the magical garden of the idealized lover. The dynamic energy of this charmed necklace coalesces in two objects forming the clasp of the necklace, completing the revision of history and the potential for new symbolic order: first, the wheel of fortune which leans against the matriarchal chair, and secondly, the chambered nautilus which lies alongside the standing blue bear.
The blue bear is an image of her lover … funny goofy, protective … and for now asexual. Only he can make the female-potential dance within her as signified by the blue spiral egg. Perhaps her next pregnancy will be her own creativity or perhaps it is another triangulation lived out across the table of a student union bar. Whether this affair occupies the real in the imaginal sense or the real in the physical sense, the secret garden seems to serve two very important functions. Foremost, it is the reconstituted lover from the watery place of the unconscious portrayed in prior trays through images of the sea and the well. It has released her from an episodic depression through “perfect mirroring” and novelty – the beautiful hand mirror. As a non-anxious presence in her life, the blue bear also protects and serves her becoming. She has left her original course of study. With this new alliance she’s received another scholarship. This has allowed her a separate apartment for her and her son, who is now a pre-teen. Secondly, it functions as a weapon to avenge her betrayal. This new love interest is the living representation of her animus energy. It must be pulled back in order to move her own becoming forward. To seduce him is for her an encapsulated life within the walls of a secret garden. And this would be more in line with the rose that lives under the bell jar in the kingdom of the Little Prince.
The chambered nautilus longs to be free of its vacuous rooms of memory. This may carry the soulful image of reconciliation. The poem of the chambered nautilus refers to the serialization process: “Build me more stately mansions, Oh my soul … until it flings itself out into the ocean.” What must occur here is the integration of the extroverted fire princess. If this complex continues to be fueled by grandiosity and fused instinct processes, the derailment of initiatory process through seduction and defensive dependency structure cannot be transformed from cycles of failure, exhaustion, and depression.
The wheel of destiny rests against the great chair, her grandmother’s lap, cushioning the torn heart of her motherhood. The little girl squeezing the pink flamingo has not yet mastered her instinctual life. She looks out across the wreckage to the female juggler struggling to stay erect in the shifting sand. Alone she attempts to balance her child above her. What will turn the dharma wheel – the light of the lantern or the watery tides of the moon’s own gravity?