Through object relations psychoanalytic psychotherapy, Sherry re-finds her mother after a lifetime of feeling shut out, misunderstood, and emotionally abandoned. When Sherry surrenders to a critical regression in her treatment, a powerful moment of connection with her mother became possible.
The psychic turning point comes in a late evening session several years into Sherry’s once a week therapy. The session begins like many others. Sherry seems tortured in the silence, unable to speak, unable to begin. Something is building up inside of her, and her facial expression showed her unspoken rage at me for not rescuing her from what was within her.
Her body shows tremors of tension that cry out to me, reminding us both of the traumatized child within her that threatened to break into consciousness. The tremor speaks to us of the internal child, a child crying for attention in an emotional vacuum, with her mother withdrawn from her. Yet none of this is in Sherry’s conscious awareness at the time. The child-self dissociated in her body has been trapped by a mind that is forced to carry the critical memories but cannot speak. I am only consciously aware of the tension in the room with Sherry. I am waiting, wondering if Sherry would find her way to words. I was wondering if she would find her way to feelings, wondering if it would be helpful for me to speak.
Suddenly Sherry darts out into the hall. I find myself leaving my office and going after her. I had developed an inner bond with her that compelled me, urged me, to do it. I stood by the banister while Sherry stood agonized and torn apart on the top of the stairs, leaning on the wall. I watched while Sherry fought with herself, frantic with the pain and tension of indecision. She seemed to be seeking release, but was also terrified of losing control. Turning a lifetime of rage inwards, against herself, Sherry began to bang against the unyielding cement wall, as all her life she had banged her fists against the emotional wall put up by an unyielding mother. As Sherry seems about to bang her head against the wall as well, the head full of mental instruments of torture, derived from her unprocessed memories, – she suddenly turns swiftly away instead. In a second, she pivots away from self-attack and enters into self-surrender. She bends over like a swan, yielding to her pain, and surrenders to the child within her who had needed to cry for decades.
When the parent is incapable of tolerating regret, and therefore of communicating a validation of early traumatic events in the family, the analyst naturally becomes primary source for the patient’s validation. The analyst must also help the patient salvage her sense of reality in the face of the parent’s denial of the traumatic events that have so impacted on the child’s psyche and view of the world. The analyst needs to help the patient see the parent’s incapacity to offer validation by helping her understand the psychic capacities needed to face the regret. This can help the patient to differentiate and separate from the parent, rather than to remain stuck in endless rage and retaliation, or in unavailing efforts to extract the yearned for validation – like Sisyphus endlessly pushing his boulder up the hill, only to have it fall again.
Sherry’s surrender was complete for the first time. On the edge of the stairs, about to run away, she stops abruptly, looks at me, and begins to vent a tidal wave of grief and yearning. She lets go and begins to sob and sob. I watch her body convulse in cathartic release. I gently suggested that she come back into my office. Having chosen to let go of her opposition, Sherry followed me. She also wailed out loud, in a testimony to her need to purge herself.
Eventually I said the words that matched her feeling, as I experienced it through our emotional connection: “Mommy, hold me. Please hold me, mommy.” I spoke for the child within Sherry. There was no effort. I knew she was inwardly responding. She does not have to speak to me. She continues to sob out her inner oceans of tears from deep down, filled with sadness and longing, so different from earlier tears. I bring her the tissues box, and hand her some tissues. We are deeply in communion, and I am struck by how effortless it all is now. The aggression that had been causing so much resistance has temporarily left us.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.