Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Etch-A-Sketch Brain

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on March 23, 2012

Nilu, forty-two, married, two teenage kids, is constantly put down by her mother. One session she says “My mother is so mean to me. She tells me what a terrible mother I am to my kids. She tells me that I am fat, and ugly and I am lucky that my husband is still married to me.” The next session, the next day, she states “I feel so close to my mom. I am so lucky to have her in my life. I talk to her every day and I am fortunate.” As the Etch-A-Sketch image has made the news, I begin to imagine the process. Nilu’s painful relationship with her mom is evident by her need to constantly erase each experience so that she can believe she has a good support system. Her dissociation, her forgetting, from one day to the next is a coping mechanism that speaks to the pain of her relationship with her mom. This dissociation also speaks to the fragmented nature of her personality; a need to divide each event into forgettable parts in order to cope from minute to minute or from hour to hour. The integration of the meanness of her mother with the notion that this is the woman who raised her threatens the integrity of her sense of self. Seeing Nilu frequently, helps me help her see how she is fragmented in her thinking leading to dissociation and magical thinking. The Etch-A-Sketch brain implies deep psychological pain. Our work is challenging and deep, but the alternative would mean that Nilu continue to be a shell of human; one who cannot make decisions for herself. One who is dependent on her mother’s approval for every left and right turn in her life. The more permanent her memories can be, the more Nilu can begin to develop her own sense or herself. I hope to move her from an Etch-A-Sketch brain to a three-dimensional sculpture brain-one with depth and facets.

6 Responses to “The Etch-A-Sketch Brain”

  1. Jon said

    Shirah, you state in your final (ultimate) sentence, “I hope to move her from an Etch-A-Sketch brain to a three-dimensional sculpture brain-one with depth and facets.” I will argue that you need to add another dimension – that of time. In addition of the structural integrity of a three-dimensional sculpture, Nilu needs to have a memory of what has transpired in the past. She will need to be integrated with her experiences as opposed to the “Etch-A-Sketch” shaking the slate clean. However, rereading your penultimate sentence, “The more permanent her memories can be, the more Nilu can begin to develop her own sense or herself. “ I see that you have really already addressed this, but without benefit of a four dimensional space-time .

  2. Shelly said

    Shirah, I am not so up on your lingo. What is an “Etch-A-Sketch brain? Does it mean that Nilu distorts her picture of her mom and then erases that picture each and every time she thinks of her? Would you want her only to remember the bad and not any of the good? Obviously Nilu has an enormous amount of guilt in dealing with her feelings of her mother. And we who are parents will also make mistakes with our own children……..who will one day be sitting in chairs such as in your office telling therapists like you about us. Sigh.

    • Shirah said

      I made up this lingo because “Etch-A-Sketch” was a gaffe by one of Romney’s people. I thought I would use the image to describe, as Jon says, a brain that fails to include the fourth dimension of time. This is a person who does not have continuity of thought, so like an Etch-A-Sketch, the picture is drawn and then there is no trace that the picture was ever made. Imagine having such a brain and trying to maintain friendships and responsiblities. Continuity of thought is essential for adult responsibilities and relationships. Yes, feelings like guilt interfere with this fourth dimension of time. The extent that it interferes with understanding time often suggests the extent of the emotional injury leading, in the extreme, to dissociative disorder where personalities switch without knowledge of previous personalities.
      My feeling is that if parents can raise children who are well enough to process their issues with a therapist, then they have done, as Winnicott says, a “good-enough” job. The problem is the millions of people who, for one reason or another, resist accessing help and thereby stay stuck with their emotional disabilities. Those children concern me more than the children who are raised with implicit permission to complain or work through their childhood disappointments.
      Thank you, as always, for sharing in this discussion.

  3. Hi Shirah, in reading through your recent posts (Etch a Sketch, Inertia and Denial, Unconscious Living, etc…) and comments to them, I’ve had so many thoughts but the overriding thing I see here is that this kind of deeply insightful information is available to anyone that is interested enough to take the time to look and read…The internet is such wonderful opportunity for helpful information and exchange of ideas that could and would help so many people if they would take the time to do the research to find sites like this. I found your blog through the ApsaA Facebook page because these issues are interests of mine. but so many people don’t know where to look to find sites like yours (I know, I know……most probably don’t want too 😦 I mean, if I brought up “psychodynamic theory” at a social gathering, 99 percent would run, not walk, the opposite direction!)…. I know highly intelligent people who are totally unaware that humans have an unconscious mind that plays such a huge roll in who we are……Your posts are written for the layman and show easy to understand insights into the depths of human nature. Thanks for doing such a great job.

    • Hi Eleanor,
      Thank you very much for your comment. It is really helpful to know that you found me throught the ApsaA Facebook page. I will showcase that in my next post. Thanks Again! Shirah

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