ΑρχικήΨηφιακή ΒιβλιοθήκηΆρθραΆρθρα (Αγγλικά)Anasontzi Sofia - "The absence of the myth of Estia in a contemporary adoption case"

Anasontzi Sofia - "The absence of the myth of Estia in a contemporary adoption case"

Sofia Anastotzi

At the start of its life, the infant can’t distinguish between self and the external world, since it finds itself in a realm of internal and external triggers, which some times induce a state of happiness and others, a state of distress.  Until the infant’s psyche has matured, the mother’s psyche fulfills a great part of the task which relates to the control of arousals.  The mother "includes" and "keeps" the psychic world of the infant, as she had done since before its birth, during its life in the womb.  The two expressions, the first one by Bion and the second by Winnicott, denote that the mother understands the events that take place in the internal and external environment of the infant, in order to maintain its experiences at a level of intensity that doesn’t frustrate its capacity for growth and development.  Consequently, the birth and development of the psyche is product of a psychic process that evolves through both mother’s care and mother’s absence. The question raised, is what happens when conditions of deprivation cause this process to deteriorate to the extent that these conditions can no longer be dealt through the ordinary defensive mechanisms, thus triggering primordial fears.  It is likely that such deprivations in contact, communication, psychic coordination and relief from stimuli, are often found in cases of adopted children, where the premature mother-infant bond is disrupted, and the infant experiences his/her severance from primal motherly care as a trauma.

In this presentation, I will be referring to L.: a tall and slender 10-year-old boy with dark skin, brown hair and intense expression.  L., an adopted child from Yugoslavia, displayed multiple difficulties, starting from learning problems which disquieted his parents who asked support from specialists, up to deeper psychological problems relating to the control of the child’s drives as well as his psychic organization. The parents described the child as lacking confidence in his self and his abilities, having many phobias as well as difficulties in withstanding any sort of pressure--resorting instead to tears or a passive attitude. His best friends were girls instead of boys and he had trouble investing and performing adequately in school, where he was often the object of his classmates’ teasing and insults.  L.’s parents had sought the advice of specialists in the past, who tried to deal with L.’s difficulties mainly through linguistic and pedagogical programs.

As regards the adoption, L. was informed about the adoption by his foster parents early on in his life.  The adoption was realized through the Yugoslavian institution when L. was 3 years old.  According to existing data relating to L.’s personal history, when still a baby, he was found alone on the street (hence without a family), and he remained in the institution until the time of his adoption.  According to information from the file, the delivery was premature and the infant had to be placed in an incubator.  It is mentioned that he remained in the hospital for many months, receiving treatment for pneumonia and other medical problems.  At the age of two he was again treated for acute meningitis, enterocolitis and contagious hepatitis.  Already during the period of his stay at the institution, specialists observed psychokinetic delay and speech difficulties, which were also pointed out by the foster parents.  Previously, the foster family had adopted a girl younger than L., and subsequent to L.’s adoption, another boy was adopted by concession, also younger than L.  The relationship between L. and the girl is described as good, while that between the two brothers is described as conflicting and explosive.

From the above-mentioned information, it can be noted that issues arising from L.’s past and his adoption existed from an early point, and needed to be processed.  These included the parents’ unconscious motives and conscious expectations, their projections and fantasies about L., their fear regarding their competence as parents to L., their projections and fantasies about the biological parents, the announcement of the adoption that had taken place, the problem of the absence of his biological family for L., as well as the negotiation between the real-foster and the imaginary-biological parents.  Finally, there is also the issue of his and his parents’ narcissism.

From the outset of treatment, L. seemed to look forward to the psychotherapeutic sessions and very soon, a positive therapeutic alliance was created, where L. could place his thoughts and fantasies into the room, the objects, the dollhouse, the box of psychotherapy and myself.  Session A’ is quite notable for reflecting the main issues that were discussed and worked on in the first year of therapy: L. begins by saying that he thinks and feels many different things, but he can’t easily find the words to express them.  He talks about school where they swore at him and beat him and about how lonely he feels there.  From the start he talks about his fears and his dreams, for example that boogiemen are coming after him and trying to hurt him, but also fire and injured people.  He is afraid that thieves will break into the house and try to rob or harm him.  He keeps saying "alone" and generally refers to the female gender to refer to himself, and when I point this out to him, he tells me that he often confuses boys with girls.  He says that he can get very upset very easily and for this reason refrains from getting into an argument or a fight.  He wants to be strong and have everyone’s respect and for this reason wants to be an athlete.  He wants to give me a present so I will help him.  The issues that he has put forward lead me to believe that he has introduced himself to me on a psychic level: he speaks of his defense mechanisms (projection, splitting, acting out), his difficulty in fitting in with others his own age, and mainly his problems with managing his aggressiveness, so that his external environment always seems and feels dangerous.  He talks about his adoption and his fantasy about thieves that steal children, and also about his separation trauma, which made him feel passive and incomplete.  He personally avoids fights and confrontations, always submitting and leaving the strong L. to exist only in his imagination, along with his imaginary parents.  He wants to offer me a gift, so he can keep me close to him, putting himself in the position of an undesired—insignificant child and testing my attitude, as a 3rd parent, towards him.

In the early sessions, L. works on issues relating to primal anxieties and the absence of a primal relationship.  He makes up stories about a family, in which he is the baby and where they all face great dangers.  Usually, there are also wild animals, bandits, ghosts chasing them, battles leaving people injured and killed.  His aggressive fantasies unfold through the game and the characters often change, the bad become good and vice versa, as there is a pervasive ambivalence whose consequence is the co-existence of these two sides of himself, the good and the bad; these are expressed in sadomasochistic relationships and fantasies, where he and others alternate between the position of victimizer and victim.  The child has to choose between but also combine the two sets of parents, both in his reality and in his imagination.  It is clear through L.’s stories, that for him there is one family that is present and with which he plays, and a family that is absent, which he has difficulty representing.  At the center of these stories, there is always separation, orphan hood and reunion, all of which are played out in scenes inside the dollhouse, which serve the purpose of reconstructing his trauma.  At times he identifies with the strong characters, who manage to survive despite the grave dangers that they face; and at times, he identifies with the weaker characters—those who are hungry and experience both physical and psychological pain.  The war at Yugoslavia, which took place when he was still a baby, raises these fantasies.  The adopted child always has his/her own fantasies about his/her biological parents and his/her adoption, and may often develop feelings of guilt, imagining that he/she is responsible for the abandonment he/she experienced.  Further because he/she was saved, the child feels that he/she must take care of the parents, which is done either out of fear, guilt or genuine desire.  According to Erikson, the identity of the Ego is formed through an integration of his/herself that touches the past, the present and future, and for this reason the adopted child needs to have his/her own fantasies about them. L. talks about all of these aspects through the figure of a baby: he wonders where the baby’s parents are, and says that together we must "find words for this child" because he/she does not speak, but always watches.

As the sessions progress, L. begins to bring issues that relate to the absence of a secure framework, the abandonment trauma and the adoption, but events taking place inside the family begin to affect the treatment process significantly.  S., the third child, who is adopted by concession and is still in the trial period, runs away and the familial situation, becomes disorderly.  At this point, L. makes a new house from clay as if to show a very fragile type of house-family, where residence is conditional and for this reason its stability is questionable.  He says: ‘Good children stay with their parents, but bad ones have to leave’, and I wonder which parents he is referring to and to what extent the conditions for residence relate to his passiveness, sadomasochistic fantasies, fears and desire to be liked by others.  An omnipotent mother has the final word about who stays and who goes, and identifying with her, L. feels guilty, thinking he did not help his brother enough, and in a sense, let him leave.  He yells ‘a family can’t just fall apart like that’ and expresses the pain he feels as a result of his loss.  In 1996, Pollock mentions that many adopted children show problems with separation and abandonment, which, despite being situations that every person experiences, are more traumatic and more common, in adopted children.  During this time, L. and his brother sleep together at night, for a sense of safety.  This way, L. considers the role of gender in adoption and refers to the possible differences between a girl and two boys.  It seems that gender triggers different fantasies and projections also on the part of he parents.  To them, it seems that the two boys have the potential to be destructive and thus possess the ability to destroy the family; their aggressiveness grows in the eyes of the parents and varies the parents’ projections, which however, never become the objects of serious reflection or inclusion. 

For L., his relationship with the mother specially seems deficient, since she cannot withstand and include his libidinal and aggressive drives, but instead moved on to projections, creating problems on the process of reparation and leaving L. with fragile internal objects.  When S. finally leaves the house to go back to the institution, his absence has a traumatic effect on L., who draws a family with 3 children on a dock.  When one of the children falls in the water and is in danger of drowning but also being attacked by sharks, his parents do not save him, and it is the coast guard that takes him away.  His family leaves the dock and L. then manages to talk about his own sorrow and differentiates between his own stance and that of the two parents, especially the mother, saying that "she doesn’t really care".  He can now express his sorrow but also his anger towards a mother who abandons her child (whether real or imaginary).  He asks: can mothers send their children away?  If S. leaves for good, will he no longer be my brother? And concludes: I have to be good at home.  At this time, he talks about his fear of being abandoned, in transference and in all his games, where the members of the family keep scaring one another and the parents even wear masks and play tricks to scare the children.

           

 

As regards transference, it is at this time that L. begins to worry about me, if I am all right, that someone might hurt me, at the same time wondering if I’m also frightened by everything that is happening, if I can deal with it all.  He even says that I risk being subjected to things that foreigners do and he talks about those who come from foreign countries, thus approaching the subject of his own origin.  He begins however, to imagine this foreign country either in the past or in the present, but he does not want to play with the dollhouse.  He begins to disclose his fantasies about the other country, the other family, the other mother; he also talks about the war, the danger, the trauma he has experienced, the way he managed to get away but also his anger and his sense of guilt, and inventing stories about those who stayed behind.  For the first time, he associates these thoughts with his present fears and also creates and refers to protective characters.  The positive and protective side now sheds light on the past and L. starts to build the internal image of a protective mother: he says that the birth mark on his foot, will help his mother—who is seeking for him— identify him.  She probably gave him away to protect him from the war, but she wants to find his again; he begins to imagine his house, his room and his entire town.  In stages, L. invents a personal story, filled with associations between the past and the present, the psychical and the physical, the adequate and the deficient in his relationship with the mother.  He begins to settle for this storyline, this identity; he wants to talk about it, wishing to be Yugoslavian again.  In his country of origin, he was called Drazen.  All of this brings forward the existence of two mothers, the biological one and the foster one.  He starts to talk about whether he can have both of them together, if he will have to choose, or if he can be both here and there—in short, how he can join together and reconcile these forms, relationships and sides of his self.

During the following period L. begins to negotiate not only a way to unite, but also a way to separate, as the holidays approach.  His anxiety is evident, so is his anger, as I become yet another mother who abandons him and leaves him to question her return.  L. can now speak about these issues, to express them in words, narratives and to even play— not with the dollhouse, but with the office, using it as a bigger home for all that takes place between us, for our relationship.  Kenrick refers to the way that in every separation, the adopted child relives the premature trauma; for L., every loss or absence functioned as a relived trauma.  Consequently, premature defense mechanisms were activated by way of reciprocation, which led to behavioral problems and a constant wish for merger and incorporation with the object of transference.  The trauma in a relationship of transference is manifested in the various types of defenses as well as behavioral patterns.  This way, as Kernberg mentions, in the treatment of adopted children, there are often strong feelings in transference, as the familial idyll takes place in therapy, and the therapist is under pressure not to ever abandon or forget about that child. 

Upon his return from his summer holidays, L., back in a relationship that was preserved even after the separation and which continued to exist in a remedial way, began to talk about the two mothers who love him together, as well as the two fathers, and they become family.  In his games, he manages to play with narratives that include both tame and wild animals and he talks a lot about his own fantasies and drives.  The story of Tarzan, who lived in the jungle, hence with both wild and tame animals but also with the wild and the civilized side of his own self, and who was of course adopted as a baby, having lost his real parents and having to adapt to a new environment, a new language and new habits, but always wishing to go back, became L’s favorite narrative.

 

This story brought back to the scene the issue of gender, but in a different way: L. now wants to explain to me the various differences between girls and boys: he speaks of physical differences (the penis, hair) but also to differences in behavior and in aptitude, referring to boys using the first person and adopting a more boyish if not ‘cool’ style, that resembled his father’s.  L. says that he wants to be like him as it was mainly he who rescued him from the war and certain death by deciding on the adoption.  During that period, L’s dreams related to matricide and the news on television focused on sons who killed their mother.  The father, a powerful third figure, assumes his place in L’s world and guides his identifications.  At the same time, L. can now speak differently about the topic of loss and his own deficiencies: he begins talking about handicapped people who have lost a limb and have added an artificial member to replace—compensate for their loss.  He talks about these remedial interventions and notes that for those who have a physical deficiency, there is some sort of replacement so there is no void, as opposed to one who has no ordinary home, or family, and is more disabled than the disabled are.  It is at this point that he desires to repair all of his broken toys, to tend to the box that contains them as well as to the dollhouse, so that the wounded objects can be restored, repaired and re-formed.  Reparation in the field of psychotherapy has become meaningful to L., who tries to assign meaning to his own situation.  In stages, L’s ego becomes more powerful and better regulated, the substance of his drives acquires some representations and symbolizations, while his Super-Ego becomes less strict and accusatory.

As another holiday period approaches, L. begins wondering how I would want to him to act in order to keep him with me and whether in our relationship he could be genuine and natural and if I could accept the whole of him, even his handicaps.  He seems to be idealizing our relationship in the same way that adopted children idealize their biological parents, underestimating their foster parents when their negations or oppositions threaten the adopted child’s narcissism.  L’s anxiety regarding our separation increases, the stability of our relationship is questioned and he himself feels threatened.  His separation from S. again become a point of reference as a trauma-inducing experience, to which all other experiences are reduced, and which fixates him, renders him permanently vulnerable.  The destructive battles, the fires and the bandits return; the room becomes filled with anger, fear, danger, evil.  He refers to the many separations he has had to live through and how angry he is with me for all of them.  He once again uses the office as a home, or a cave in which he can take refuge and withdraw narcissistically.

I wish I could say that in September we managed to contain in practice his anxieties and his trauma and to continue to progress in a reparative way, that is to carry on the process of healing the complete, though handicapped, L.  However, during the summer holidays, his parents decided very conclusively to end the psychotherapy, stressing their satisfaction with the child’s progress in school, but also his busy schedule in Middle School and that it was difficult for them to bring him to the office.  L. agreed to all of the above and limited himself to a farewell.  Specifically, in the last session the parents noted their satisfaction: L. had no phobias, he could express himself more spontaneously (he could even show anger) and go after what he wanted; he did very well in his classes and never complained about school or his classmates, and for the first time had a male friend.  Their remarks showed that they had also stopped treating him like the defective-adopted child (an expression they now used to describe S).

Nevertheless, many questions are raised, demanding serious reflection: was the disruption of the treatment a parental attack on the therapeutic space in order to preserve, albeit dramatically, their role as omnipotent parents?  Did psychic difficulties of their own lead them to undertake these consecutive adoptions of abandoned children, which they later could not "keep", neither literally nor metaphorically?  Were there any shared fantasies and methods of defense in the parent-child relationship, which denoted a wish to preserve a psychic status quo even if that was painful or false?  Left to wonder to what extent L. could have suspected or known about the future in our last sessions, I said goodbye to L. experiencing along with him the loss, separation and trauma through a painful repetition. 

From my point of view, in L.’s therapy there were many issues which became equally painful in counter-transference.  The premature deficiencies and absences, the traumatized wishes and his powerful fantasies often filled the therapeutic relationship.  Some times assuming the position of the perfect parent who will use his omnipotence to help heal the wounds of the past, other times as the parent-victimizer that loves sadistically and imposes the trauma of abandonment, and others as the child-victim that experiences a traumatic event, I had to encompass all sides of L’s fantasies, accompanied by feelings of anxiety, pain, anger, despair and envy.  I also had to process all that was happening in counter-transference from this therapeutic material.  The defense mechanisms that were accompanied by the intense fantasies through projections, acting out, splitting, idealizations and identifications, comprised a continuous challenge to the therapeutic relationship in general, but also to my own.  As the sessions progressed, the desire for reparation touched the therapeutic relationship, by maintaining the stable, positive therapeutic alliance. 

The process of psychotherapy is in itself a therapeutic time-space, which includes reliving but also reparation; a symbolic place, which, not having participated in the events in the child’s history, can nevertheless include them, assign meaning to them and represent them in a different way.  L’s therapy lasted for about two years, and ended with the hope that he could represent, even in a limited way, the meaning of integration, continuity and origin.                                             

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