Depression, loss and separation

In a previous post on depression I gave the example of a man who was suffering from depression after the break-up with a long term (female) partner.  I went on to explore the idea that this depression, linked closely with the loss of a loved one, could be seen as part of pattern of broken relationships which dated back to the break-up of his parents, which resulted in the boy being left with his father.  I argued that therapy could help this individual by exploring the nature of the relationship with his mother and what it meant to lose her to another man.  I ended the post by  writing:

True, this (therapeutic exploration) still won’t bring his mother back, but it might well change how he feels and thinks about his mother, how he remembers her – and this in turn may well affect how he relates to women in the future.

However, the key issue here is what his mother was to him; in other words, what did she represent for this particular individual?

This is perhaps the point where psychoanalysis starts to part company with other talking treatments.  What I’m getting at here is that for many therapists ‘everything goes back to the mother’, i.e. the client’s early relationship with his or her mother.  As I pointed in out in a post on transference there is a tendency in many therapeutic circles to interpret a person’s current relationships in terms of a re-enactment of early childhood relations, especially those with the parents.  What this fails to recognise, however, is that those ‘primordial’ relationships themselves represent something else.  In other words, the child’s mother and father meant something to them, represented something for them.  This is a bit like the way Freud is often misquoted as saying that everything comes back to sex, that every object represents a sexual object.  What most people fail to ask is: what does sex itself represent?

In one sense the answer to the question ‘what does the mother represent for the child (or adult for that matter)?’ can be quite straightforward: security, love, attention, nurturing, basic survival.  For the infant or young child their mother is their whole world, their universe.  A loss of the mother is a collapse of their world, a loss of security, love, attention, nurturing.

However, there is another side to this.  At some point the child has to separate from its mother; not only physically, but psychically as well.  If such a separation fails in some way, the child (and later on the adult) will struggle to cope with being in the world as a separate individual.  This is not to say that anyone truly manages such a separation; at best one might argue that there are degrees of separation.  Neither is this to argue that somehow we can all be self-reliant and not have to depend on others.  This is as much a fantasy as the idea that we can all be fused into a single union with one another or some higher being.

The key point here is that any degree of separation represents a loss; and such a loss is deeply painful – at any age.  This is why so many people become depressed in later life; at some point those they have loved – spouses, partners, friends (and sometimes even children), die, and they feel left alone and abandoned in the world.  But this can happen at any age, and the sense of loss and abandonment can be no less painful.

The problem is that as human beings we seem totally unprepared and equipped to cope with such loss or losses.  We come into this world only partially formed, and the truth is we are never ‘mature’ enough  to bear the weight of the world and its indifference to loss.  So this begs the question: how are we to bear the weight of such loss?   However unhelpful and frustrating it may sound, psychoanalysis cannot answer that question.  Each person has to find their own way of coping, their own way of bearing the weight of the world, and it is not for psychoanalysis to ‘advise’ or ‘guide’ them in a particular direction.

However, this is not to say that psychoanalysis has no role to play here.  On the contrary, in my view psychoanalysis has a key role in encouraging the patient/client to recognise the true nature of their depression and its relation to loss and separation.  Only then can the individual chose how they are going to confront the question of how they are going to live in such a world of loss and separation.