Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Psychic Retreats

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 14, 2017

Tomorrow, in my Psychoanalytic Technique class, the topic is silence, and what to do about it. The meaning of silence, the challenge of silence, and the patience with silence will all be ripe for discussion. We will springboard from John Steiner’s work about psychic retreat, where he teaches us that patients often withdraw into silence as that is a safe space; safe from anxious and depressive feelings. More to the point, many people, particularly males, who withdraw in social circumstances, due to fear of having feelings, are often labeled as “on the spectrum” when in fact, they are using a defensive psychological organization to cope with psychic trauma. The misunderstanding between trauma symptoms and “spectrum” symptoms is particularly upsetting to me, because it is one thing to understand a patient as trying to cope via withdrawal as opposed to understanding a patient as incapable of nuanced feelings and social skills. This distinction is critical and it takes time with patients to really understand this difference. A severely traumatized individual will have no friends because he/she is frightened of the feelings generated by friendship, and this can seem identical to the “spectrum” individual who has no friends because he/she is not able to have the reciprocity required in relationships. Two fictional examples come to mind. One, a young male, isolated, lonely, and despairing, has never had friends because he is antagonistic and arrogant, by his report. In the intensive treatment he is often silent, requiring what I have called “hide and seek” such that he hides and I need to seek out his psychological state of being. Without my seeking, he remains hidden. The meaning of my seeking is that it serves to reassure him that I am indeed interested in his mental state. The issue of how long to remain silent as opposed to “seeking” him is the art of my work. The second fictional example is a fifty year old woman who often says, ten minutes into the session “that’s it. I have nothing more to say.” This seemingly abrupt ending to her thought process has puzzled me for many years. It is clearly defensive in that she protect herself from deeper intimacy with me, but at the same time, she is frustrated by her inability to deepen her treatment. Her psychic retreat would not be confused with “spectrum” issues and yet, she isolates herself in our sessions such that there is no reciprocity. She does not play “hide and seek” since she simply hides from me, in that “she is done”. She does not leave however, as she waits, perhaps with unconscious hope, that there is more to be said. Our work is focused on understanding these retreats and how historically speaking, these withdrawals saved her from feeling unloved in her family. Both these fictional examples illustrate how silence is as important as verbal output, as they both convey how the patient organizes his mental interior and as a result how the patient can share, or not share, those very private experiences. John Steiner has helped us a great deal with talking about the quiet, the dark space, if you will, within the psycho-therapeutic hour.

2 Responses to “Psychic Retreats”

  1. Shelly said

    So do your patients hope to explore the hidden and not talked about issues or don’t they? Does it mean that they don’t think about them at all? Are they unaware of the issues they don’t speak about, or are they part of their consciousness? Do they want to play the game? I realize that it is part of your art, but if they didn’t want to speak about it, then why come to you?

    • There is ambivalence. They want to talk about it and they are afraid to talk about it. Walking that line is very tender and challenging, particularly in more traumatized patients. Working with their ambivalence is the challenge. You say it is a “game” but I prefer to think about it as a protective mechanism so as not to experience short-term pain at the expense of not having long-term growth. Thanks, as always. Shirah

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