Containing No-Things

W.R. Bion utilized the term “no-thing” to refer to a dimension of ineffability. Experiences, words, thoughts, dreams and feelings. That which is non-sensible. The world of “things” refers to that which can be perceived via the 5 senses. That which can be observed and measured.  The world of logic, rationality and science.  Where there is not space for unexplained phenomenon, always answers and solutions and fixes.  Always something to do.  As the surgeon said following the operation, “The operation was a success.  It was by the book. I don’t understand why the patient died”.

And yet, in the consulting room, it seems to me that there is a lot of “no-things” which can’t be contained and are perhaps searching and waiting for a container.

A new patient complains of “new” disturbing thoughts and feelings.  They feel hopeless and helpless which is not who they used to be.  They feel like they are not themselves.

Another patient tells me of witnessing someone kill themselves.  The patient states that this has turned their world upside-down.  They can’t sleep or eat.  Their moods are unstable.  They dream about the suicide, and get flashbacks of it.  They can’t get the pictures out of their mind.

Of course I cannot see a patient’s feelings, thoughts or dreams.  I cannot measure or observe their experiences, and yet patients do complain of these “no-things”.  That is if “no-things” actually do exist.

I have begun to imagine a trans-generational model of “no-things”.

I imagine that all humans, especially when we are babies and infants, come into contact with these “no-things” which are too much for the baby/infant to contain and digest.  And a significant task for the parent/caretaker is to provide a “container” for these uncontainable experiences of “no-things”. How the parent is able to do this may determine how the baby/infant learns to deal with their “no-things”.  Of course parents were babies and infants once upon a time and their parents “taught” them what to do with “no-things”, and this gets passed along generation after generation.  Can the parent be “receptive” enough to the babie’s/infant’s uncontainable “no-things”? Do babies/infants need receptive parents?

Of course I can’t “prove” any of this, because by the time a patient enters my consulting room this imagined process has already occurred and all I can intuit is how the patient now handles “no-things”.

If one can conceive of “no-things”, another question would be what is the fate of the “no-things” that could not be contained by either the parent or the baby/infant?  Do they go away?  Do they erupt at a later time searching for a container? Do they drive the person “crazy” or to my consulting room?

Several patients have recently told me that their very religious families think they are “crazy” because the patients can’t “pray-away” their feelings and thoughts.  Religion has not proven to be a receptive container for these patients, so in their families see them as “crazy”.

Another patient frequently and repeatedly describes their interactions with their mother.  These interactions appear to describe a mother who is attempting to “help” their adult child by offering advice and admonitions to be positive.  But the patient experiences this as talking to a wall.  The mother is unable to receive/accept what the patient is trying to communicate, and the patient feels alone, isolated and overwhelmed with her feelings and thoughts.

What happens when the uncontained “no-things” meet an unreceptive container/human?  Do they remain uncontained?  Do they disappear?

I see a new couple.  The husband is very logical.  He states he believes in using common sense to solve problems.  He also says that he doesn’t like things he can’t control.  The wife is very emotional.  They frequently frustrate each other and end up bickering and arguing.  They each make no “sense” to the other.  His logic cannot receive or contain her emotions, and her emotions can’t receive or contain his common sense.  I imagine that they are each trying to get the other to contain what they alone can’t contain by themselves.  But they keep hitting a closed door.  An unreceptive other.  But they keep trying to get the other to receive what they are sending.

Perhaps this is less painful than the experience of meeting a non-receptive other that leaves one alone with one’s uncontainable “no-things”.

As the commercial says, “Can you hear me now?”

Dr. Brody

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