HomeΨηφιακή ΒιβλιοθήκηΆρθραΆρθρα (Αγγλικά)Adamidou Vasiliki - "Emptiness and absence in a continuous effort of seeking a stable home – hearth (Estia)"

Adamidou Vasiliki - "Emptiness and absence in a continuous effort of seeking a stable home – hearth (Estia)"

by Adamidou Vasiliki

The importance of a stable motherly function during infancy has been underlined by many theoreticians and has been associated with the structuring and development of the psyche. The concepts of containment and continuity in care constitute the basic parameters of the psychic function.


Each person’s premature life experiences are often confused and impenetrable, filled with impulsive drives and premature mechanisms. Could these perhaps comprise the ‘mythical period’, which provides the basis for structuring all of our personal histories? Or, do perhaps the symbolisms and condensations that characterize the mythical references, better correspond to the unconscious space of the psychic function?

Mythology has helped shape the history of most countries, just like premature experiences help shape the history of every human being. They precede as well as follow. Some of the possible functions of the psychotherapist include the attempt to understand symbolisms of the ‘mythical’ unconscious and to relate these to the ‘historical’ facts, thus enriching their meaning and significance.

In cases of adoption, the child carries the trauma of the ‘interruption’ to the existence of the thread that connected him/her to the biological parents, but at the same time possesses the potential for a reparative experience with the adoptive parents. However, in cases where abandonment is followed by a period of residence at an institution, the child’s situation changes significantly. How can the psyche respond to the multiple part -objects and the absence of a stable object? Which adjustment functions does the child need to ensure his/her psychic survival? In such cases, the Goddess Estia and all she symbolizes seem to be worlds away.

When I met Stavro at the age of 7, he had already experienced numerous losses and absences. Shortly after he was born, he was transferred to an institution where he spent the next 5 years of his life. At the age of 5, he was taken in as a foster member by a family who had already adopted two other children. There would be a "trial" period, decisive for the child’s final integration into-or removal from-the family. The foster parents do not have any information about Stavro’s biological parents but even the information they are given about Stavro’s 5-year stay at the institution is inadequate. Yet, Stavros himself seems to be ‘attuned’ to this position, as he never mentions his biological parents or his experience at the institution. The only piece of information that was acquired about the first 5 years of his life is that he was the product of an ‘undesired pregnancy’. This significant lack of information, this emptiness that seems to form part of the child’s history, creates for the therapist, a dark and impenetrable field in which Stavro’s psychic function is based. It seems that the undesired pregnancy was actually perpetuated in the child’s unnoticed existence. The cutting of the umbilical cord, which interrupts physical continuity, had taken for Stavros the shape of a total break, not only from the parental figures, but also from a stable form of care that would ‘nurture’ with touch and with milk, that would mirror the expression and that would integrated through its ‘holding’.

Stavros has experienced a cut in the continuum of his life, which lacked the potential for reparation. The exclusivity and stability of motherly care was replaced by the multiple, half-objects of the institution.

Two years later, the parents seek psychological support for Stavro. They describe him as a difficult child, who had trouble concentrating his attention, who set no boundaries and who exhibited dangerous and destructive behavior, often aimed at himself. He was restless and had already attempted his first escape from the house, "disappearing for 5 hours". His integration into the school environment proved particularly difficult and it was often necessary that he be removed from it, because he would "disturb the class".

The foster parents mention their inability to "keep" Stavro in the family and that the possibility of adopting him was very slim.

Stavro’s last name was foreign, that is, different from that of the other 4 members of the family which, although always a fact in cases of foster families, in this case it seemed to reflect the reality of his particular situation. On a mental level it highlighted his non-integration into the family, solidifying his position as a "foreign" member or "stranger".

According to mythological references relating to the Goddess Estia, which Ms. Narnou has already analyzed in detail, the altar of Estia that burned at the center of the House, constituted an asylum for strangers and the point of integration for the pleader, who, banished from his own city, sought to be integrated into a new group. This process of integration and containment seems to truly be weakening, as it cannot be realized by the foster family.

Since the therapist is aware of the above-mentioned information about the 7-year-old boy, different thoughts, feelings and questions are raised. At the same time, there is the danger of the therapist’ premature counter-transference altering the transitional space. In this space, mass deprivations and injuries make their presence felt-before the subject that has experienced them-as if fantasies, concepts and feelings are born to "give shape" to the emptiness, making even more difficult the "without memory or desire" stance of the therapist, as Bion mentions.

Stavros was a slender boy with an intense expression, particularly active and exploratory within the therapeutic space. He posed questions in succession, he felt the need to touch all the objects, climbed on furniture or changed their position in the room. His feelings, intensely present at all times, were mainly that of anxiety and the desire to "cling" to the therapist. All the activity that he manifested, seemed to have more to do with "recognizing" the field, the therapist and the function and it did in part resemble the "clumsy" – "abrupt" movements of an infant that touches its mother’s face or pinches her cheeks and nose in an effort to recognize her. At the same time, he gave the impression of executing a mass "raid" into or "occupation" of the therapeutic space, practically limiting my own. At times, I felt that his intense activity and curiosity had the aim of "keeping" my attention and my eye on him, this way maintaining an intangible thread between us. Other times, I felt that he used his hyper activity to avoid contact altogether. The therapist and the space were thus to be recognized by Stavro and possibly, to be identified as non-threatening and non-destructive objects, preserving their stability and their quality in a continuum. As a "stranger"-"pleader", Stavros sought, yet again, a home (Estia) that would keep and contain him.

As expected, it was not long before the primitive, confused and oftentimes fantastical material unfolded through the play. Splitting, projection and omnipotent defenses reigned. The qualities and characteristics of the play - figures he used would change drastically, overruling previous ones. It was impossible to maintain anything. The savage war between the good and bad groups of animals would end with their complete annihilation, only to start all over again with the good becoming bad, the young turning into grown-ups and the males into females. His descriptions were violent; himself absorbed by the play, it became clear that he was describing his own fragmented self, his own scattered part-objects and inability for stable identifications-in other words, the absence of integration.

A little later and as he starts to use the human figures more, he stages his own personal narrative: ‘the child that is crying because…not the boy’s mother who cries because her child left. And here the Cyclops and Cyclopsesses wait to eat her child, the boy set fire and they will burn, they will all burn. The fire approaches the breasts of the normal mom, not the Cyclopess’s, they are all burning, all burning, the whole house is burning. The child takes a knife because the bad people are coming to steal him, he stabs them in the belly, they all fell down dead. The child sits and waits in case more thieves come, he holds the knife and stabs them’.

The mourning of his loss, projected and accompanied by anxieties relating to annihilation and devouring, is expressed through his fantasies. The breast, burning and destroyed in the attack, cannot feed. The persecutory objects overwhelm him and constantly threaten his existence. His only escape is to stay alert and attack, defensive in a state of complete solitude which only omnipotence can salvage.

In his game, the concept of the house is not symbolized by the dollhouse, but it does seem to be symbolized in the therapeutic space, which is called upon to function as a space of acceptance and containment, a secure and stable framework that provides continuity. Jean Pierre Vernant, in his work Mythos kai Skepsi stin Arhaia Ellatha (Thought and Myth in Ancient Greece) states: Estia is the first amongst the gods of the family to teach people about the construction of a house and to bestow on them the goods and benefits of family life inside the home. She is a symbol and pledge of security, stability and permanence.

Possibly, we can identify the function of the mythological Estia in the therapeutic process, which sub-assists in the construction of the self but also comprises a space for the acceptance of drives.

The therapeutic space seems to fill with primitive fantasies, fragmentations, persecutory objects, attacks and violent scenes, while at the same time it is called upon to "preserve" its existence in face of these attacks, not to seek "revenge", not to "rid" fear and finally to survive and then to "maintain" the scattered pieces to form a complete entity.

The framework (space - therapist - function) was initially tested and psychical releases began to take place. Its fiber and its essence become manifest in its having managed to survive. Winnicott states: ‘the quality of the object that "always destroys" renders the reality of that object’s survival felt as such, strengthening the degree of the sentiment and contributing to the object’s stability. The object can now be used’.

At the same time, a change in Stavros’ usual way of functioning during the therapeutic process becomes manifest. The adhesive tape now makes its appearance. As if he discovered it in his box of toys for the very first time, it will constitute the dominant object in our sessions at this period. Using it again and again, he sticks the furniture to the floor, ties furniture together, the door and window are "sealed", the light, the paintings, the box of toys, myself…everything is stabilized, immobilized, they "stick" and unite. The space is filled with horizontal, vertical, diagonal, circular, real lines made from a type of tape that leaves nothing unconnected-openings close. The objects become connected and they have to remain in that state protected from intrusion, interruption and loss. Stavros is in a state of heated excitement. He laughs, plays with the tape as he forms his connections, asks whether the space will remain like this until our next session, if we will have any more tape. The therapeutic space and the therapist seemed to have become Stavros’ ‘internal home’. The objects in this space, like other internalized half-objects had started to connect. I, in a position to be annexed, had also become one of these in Stavros’ fantasy. His effort to seek and find connections, his wish that they all remain stable and immobile within a space where nothing can "enter" or "leave", offered him a great sense of satisfaction but also security.

While Stavros has begun chart his own course in the therapeutic process, the foster parents express more and more, their anger as well as their inability to keep the child in the family. It seems that Stavros’ premature mechanism of function triggered corresponding mechanisms in the vulnerable mental state of the foster parents and mainly the mother. In a meeting with the parents, it became evident that in the mother’s fantasy, Stavros had taken the form of a persecutory object that "threatened" to disrupt the family’s but also her own, balance and function. Her fear that Stavros would stab them in their sleep was materializing into a very real experience, keeping her awake and alert at night. Her fear was becoming all the more clear and the aggression between them was reaching its height. At the same time, her strong feelings of guilt created an intolerable ambivalence while the weak presence of the father could not induce any sort of balance. Since it was difficult for them to process these and accompanying psychic operations, they moved on to commit sudden, drastic but also aggressive acts. During the summer holidays, and in the absence of the entire therapeutic team, the foster parents decide that Stavros should be transferred back to the institution where he lived before the foster parents took him and a week later Stavros was moved for yet another time to another institution for abandoned children.

When I met Stavro after the holidays, I came face to face with both the preceding events as well as the new decision to end the therapeutic process. The support and treatment of the child would now be taken up by the psychologist at the new institution where Stavro would be staying.

The sudden interruption, the underestimation, the position of incapacity, stirred feelings within the therapist which were maybe closer to the feelings of, anxiety, threat, anger and aggression that Stavro himself experienced. I wondered what the temporary "absence" of the therapeutic team could have triggered. Could it have been a reminder of the "emptiness" that comes with the absence of an object when its psychic representation is not stable or present all the time? A series of violent and impulsive actions came to cover this "absence", the void in the representation of the therapist and his function. Or was it the parents’ negative therapeutic reaction, which was implied but never stated, that clearly unfolded in the absence of the therapists, confirming their omnipotence?

In our last session, Stavros posed multiple questions about the foster family and mainly about his "brother". He would curl up in the entrance of a closet, silent. The recent continuity, permanence and stability of the framework had been destroyed. Stavros was once again faced with and unprotected from the mass separations, immobilized, with the same intense expression at the entrance of the closet. The promise of an effort to continue the therapeutic operation with the fellow psychologist at the institution seemed to be the sole thread of continuity and yet even that seemed particularly unpleasant at that time.

My encounter with Stavro within the frame of the therapeutic function did not last longer than 4 months. My attempt to create a therapeutic home encompassing stability, continuity and containment, a reparative home for the multiple traumas and deprivations that Stavros had experienced, never reached its completion. The therapeutic effort itself in a way constituted a "part" operation, another personal space, practically repeating one could say, the constant changes in Stavro’s personal history. Nevertheless, elements of the therapeutic relationship, differentiated in quality from his other relationships to date, may have been preserved in his endopsychic world, paving the way for future connections. Stavros’ mythical period was signaled by his severance from one form of motherly care, while his recent history confirms and recycles the difficulty in the containment of this child by a stable home-hearth (Estia). The people and relationships in his life continued to alternate with a precise redundancy. O. Elitis in "Ìéêñü Íáõôßëï" notes: ‘Sometimes I lose myself in my many different selves’.

Maybe in a similar way, Stavros felt, in the consecutive incorporation of part-objects, the absence of a stable form of care, which, like another ‘Goddess Estia’ would help him in building an internal home, integration.

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