Abandonment, Rejection and the Search for Union

From: Modern Psychoanalysis, Vol. 27, No. 2, 2002 (P. 205 – 218)

The author traces the vicissitudes of a thirty-year analysis. The patient came into analysis as a suicidally depressed teenager and has become a confident, content wife and mother of four. Among the most intense conflicts that were worked through were transference issues related to abandonment. The patient was given up for adoption at birth, and during the course of the analysis, developed a longing to be reunited with her biological mother, The author understands this longing as a displacement and avoidance of the pain of the transferential fear of the analyst repeating her history of rejection and abandonment. Through fits and starts, through the patient repeatedly leaving the analysis, and the analyst searching her out to come back, this analysis is testament to the power of self-transformation that is possible when historical repetitions are resolved.

Perhaps it was my awareness of the pain of that first hello never heard that has engaged me so intensely in the analysis of Audrey. Audrey never had the benefit of a warm and receiving early hello. Her first emotional experience in life was rejection, as it is for all adoptive children. She didn’t then find a home that gave her the feeling of being wanted and loved. Audrey’s next mother, her adoptive mother, replicated the same rejecting emotional experience for her. These two, adoptive mother and adoptive child, were not a match; there was never an emotional resonance between them that might have helped to heal the wounds of Audrey’s initial rejection. Audrey grew up feeling alone, unloved, untethered. By the time Audrey came to me, she had withdrawn into a silent, sullen teenager. She spent her evenings drinking and doing drugs in a vain hope of anesthetizing her pain, her sense of unremitting isolation.

For thirty long years now, Audrey has struggled mightily in her therapy sessions with me, feeling her aloneness, her isolation and her essential strangeness to the rest of humanity, including to me. She has struggled to talk to me, feeling that words themselves, communication meant to be heard by another, only make her feel more alone, more empty, as she has wondered whether or not I care enough even to listen.

Recently, Audrey told me about the suicide of one of her husband’s students, a high school senior. Audrey was particularly disturbed by the event because she remembered that it was when she herself was a high school student at the very same school that she first presented herself on my analytic doorstep, contemplating suicide.

With her history of early abandonment, and feelings of being unwanted by both biological and adoptive mothers, Audrey’s primary conflict, a life-long vulnerability, has been around the issue of separation. Her wound of aloneness has been with her for as long as she has memory. With this wound, Audrey has lived every day of life feeling that she was not lovable enough to be loved, not lovable enough even to be kept. Separation has been, for her, both a terrible fear as well as an unremitting desire. It has been both her salvation as well as her curse. It has been what she has run from, but it has been what she has embraced.

Audrey has struggled mightily in her analysis against her impulses to stay separate from me through silence or through leaving; she has struggled, for all these years, to talk and to stay. She has fought me and resisted me; she has left me for stretches of time. And I have struggled just as mightily as she against my own induced impulses to throw her away, cast her out as was done to her originally. I have had the same feelings that I believe both of her mothers must have felt toward her – that she was too much trouble, made my life too difficult – better to just expel her and be rid of the problem. I have struggled to not act out these impulses, but rather to keep her, using my words, at times, to persuade her, assist her, even coerce her and force her to continue this process of self-exploration that we have embarked upon.

My Not Knowing What to Do with Her Any More Than She Knew What to Do with Me

Audrey was wise enough to get herself into analysis at an early age so that she could repeat with me the pain of too much separation – too early of a separation. She was wise enough to seek a therapeutic method of being released from that pain.

There we sat in our first session, myself, as a burgeoning analyst, as anxious as she, my new patient – not knowing what to do with her any more than she knew what to do with me. It was clear to me that she was in the throes of pain that no sixteen-year-old should have to experience, but all that she allowed to be visible to me was a resolute wall of mute silence. After a few sessions of sentences uttered in fits and starts, but mostly long stretches of uncomfortable silences, Audrey informed me that she was quitting. We were both relieved at the anticipation of being released from the tension that was between us. But, for me, there was regret as well. I knew that for this girl to have a better life in the future than the one she had already had in the past, she needed to have a different kind of emotional experience with me in the present.

Psychoanalysis as Mothering; Mothering as Psychoanalysis

It was with Audrey, so early in my career, that I found my voice as an analyst. It was with Audrey that I learned first to looking inside myself, observe my own emotional experience as it related to her, and find a way to communicate this experience so that our relationship could move forward. My hope was that within the safety net of our developing relationship, Audrey would be enabled to explore the dimensions of her psyche.

And, finally, I think it was Audrey who blessed me with my first experience of mothering. Now, and both a psychoanalyst and a mother, I am able to see the profound commonality of these tasks. Being a mother is, in some sense, being a psychoanalyst to one’s own child; and, of course, the opposite is true too: being a psychoanalyst is, in many way, like being a good-enough mother to one’s patient.

It is the mother’s job to help her child to first create the most unbreakable of bonds – the symbiosis between mother and child. And then, having established this bliss, the mother has the horrific job of helping her child to separate with as little pain as possible and with as much joy as possible.

This is an equally apt description of the job of a psychoanalyst. Psychoanalysis is, after all, a form of remothering. Both have a as their goal the maturing of the personality. Both begin in the period of narcissistic togetherness before separateness emerges. Both require a wide range of feelings in order to have a rich, ever-alive relationship – not just the pretty, positive feelings, but uglier, darker ones – the “murder as metaphor” ones, as well. And both psychoanalysis and mothering demand a method of communicating thoughts and feelings that is constructive and has the enhancement of the relationship, as well as authentic expression of self, as a goal. Because constructive expression and authenticity often contradict each other, acquiring skill in such a methodology is not always so easy; teaching constructive communication, while simultaneously using and honoring negative feelings, is part of the responsibility both a psychoanalyst and a mother assume. It can’t be done successfully without both eros and thanatos, the desires for both fusion and separation, becoming activated.

Yet, in spite of the difficulty of the tasks of remothering that psychoanalysis represents, it affords, for certain individuals, an opportunity to redo an initial mothering experience that was injurious. For certain individuals, psychoanalysis provides hope that painful emotions need not define the entirety of one’s life. This was mhope for Audrey – that in giving her the remothering experience that psychoanalysis affords, she would be free to release her depression, her sullen withdrawal, her basic stance toward the world of distrust and fear. My hope for Audrey was that I could provide her with a good-enough remothering experience so that she would want what I had with my mother, a sharing together, a feeling that all news is good news because of her hunger for contact with me.

The First Real Feeling That She Had Dared in My Presence

This is the voice I found with Audrey, as she informed me so long ago that she was leaving: I complimented her on what a good patient she had been. On the face of it, given our mutual discomfort, our inability to succeed at having even the most basic conversation, this compliment would have seemed to her to a preposterous communication. Audrey than showed the first real feeling that she had dared in my presence. She asked, with a brutal contempt for my idea, how could say such a stupid thing. I laughed, enjoying the pleasure of her outburst of feeling, and nodded acquiescence of the absurdity of my idea. I continued: I told her that I had every reason to believe that she could make a fine patient, and should she ever want to resume therapy, I would be happy to treat her. Furthermore, I believed that she would make real progress. I told her that in my mind it was totally miraculous that she was there at all: she was not there because her parents had forced her to come and wanted me to change who she was into the image of their liking; she was not there because she had committed petty thievery and a court had ordered her to be there. She was there because something from inside of her had called to her to be there. She was there, on her own free will, because she wanted to be there and recognized her need to be there. And even though she didn’t have a clue on what to do when she got there, being in therapy was, nevertheless, where she belonged.

Audrey decided to stay, and thus we began together the long journey of her healing and her growth into adulthood, her growth into an individual, her evolution into a woman with a separate, integrated identity.

For years, Audrey remained incapable of talking to me. I talked. I told her about my day; I told her about world events; I read stories to her. I did what any good mother does with her infant. I taught her to talk by talking to her.

Session after session – years – passed with her maintain her silence. Then she found a way to talk. She started writing me letters between sessions. Although she uttered barely a word when was with me, I was getting long, heartfelt, anguished letters detailing as rich of an internal life as any I have ever encountered. Though she may have been mute on the outside, her letters show her seething with feelings and conflicts on the inside. This girl wasn’t talking, but could she ever write.

Dear Jane,

I called you on the way home from my last session but were already with another patient. I was thinking that if you handed me a gun I would have shot myself, and then I tried to figure why I hated myself enough to even think of such a thing. Before the session I was sad. During the session I was on the verge of tears. I didn’t know why I was feeling this way. Now I feel powerless, like a freak of some kind. I can’t make myself do what I really want to do. I want to be with you and to let you see me. But I think it is impossible. I try to think of what to say, I try to give you the best of myself but there is nothing worth telling you, and somehow I reduce myself to nothing, and that’s what you get. I am trying to care of myself. I am pushing myself to be with other people to give them a chance to know me, even I feel like crawling under a rock. I thought things would be better between you and me by now. I hate myself.

Audrey’s letter reveals that she is living in the underground of her psyche, the land of self-hate. It is her self-hatred that is paralyzing her and silencing her.

Growing Down

I think of the process of being analyzed as a “growing down”. In order to give up the compulsion to repeat the past, you have to grow down into that past, return to it, defenseless and open. You must return to that psychic place where the pain began, and allow yourself to re-experience it. This is the only way to find who you really are, who you were and who you should have been, who you would have been naturally, unimpeded by whatever forces threw you a curveball and took you off track.

Being psychoanalyzed is the process of being grown down on purpose and with intent. The people who avail themselves of it are those who, like Audrey, have had trouble with the normal growing up process. The job of the psychoanalyst, then, is to return the patient to that period of time before defenses were erected – before there was a tightness in the chest instead of a raging anger, before there was numbness instead of unbearable hurt. This is the time when feelings are still raw, unfiltered, conflicting and irrational. This stuff is the natural state of the child, but becomes the unconscious of the adult.

When analysis is done properly, this growing down is done quite artfully. It is a guided tour. This excursion into one’s internal landscape is quite a different matter than when one grows down, or stays grown down because one simply can’t grow up. The former has maturity as its goal, and is organized and freeing; the latter is chaotic and constricting. The analytic process is done with great deliberation and control. It is the analyst’s job to make sure that this delicate, even dangerous, growing down heals rather than harms.

And so, Audrey and I commit ourselves to this arduous process of growing down. Audrey’s life-long open wound around the issue of separation means that the very slightest intimation that I want to leave her devastates her. The mere act of ending the session is a trapeze act; I know that if she senses that I want her to leave, or that I relieved that the session is over, or that I in a hurry to get on with the rest of my life, even to see my next patient – I know if she feels these feelings coming from me, she will never come back. I cannot leave for vacation’ I cannot innocently change an appointment’ I cannot let her pass in the hall the patient before her nor after her; I cannot have any distraction from her when I am with her (such as the phone ringing or my becoming aware of traffic noise outside the office) – none of these things can happen without her sinking into regression, falling down into that psychic space where she once again feels unwanted, cast out.

Her response always, is to leave. The pain of her feeling unwanted is so deep that it is intolerable to her. She leaves frequently, and leaves for long stretches of time. There are a host of stimuli that cause her to leave the analysis. She leaves when she feels better and she leaves when she feels worse. She leaves when she cannot bear for one more moment the idea that she is sick for putting so much into our relationship. She leaves when she feels too grateful for my attentions and care. She leaves with no stimuli other than the demonic images within her mind of her revulsion to others, to me. She tells me that I will be a free woman without her, as though she had chained me, forced me against my will to tolerate her presence. She tells me that I will be well rid of her. He tells me that she can’t imagine why I would want to be with her, that I have to be doing it only for the money.

But she always comes back. I always take her back. More often than not, I pull her back -0 I chase her down, make her come back. We follow this pattern of leaving and coming back, struggling to find a voice for years. I watch her marry; I watch her give birth to four children and I watch her embrace of these roles with real joy and satisfaction. Her life outside of the analysis is rich and full; she has matured into an independent, productive woman, wife and mother. Yet, inside the analysis, she stays regressed to the place of her open wound. As she says, “I save the sick part of me for you.”

Tricking Me into Rejecting Her

In exploring her past, Audrey reaches a point where she comes to believe that finding her biological mother will fill her emptiness, will satisfy the perpetual longing for union that has taken residence in her psyche. We explore this. We discuss every possibility – that her mother is dead, that her mother is a prostitute, that her mother is fat, ugly or disgusting, that her mother rejects her once again. Audrey is like a pitbull once she has got hold of this idea of refinding this mother. It’s all she can think about.

Audrey has become really brilliant at this endeavor we call psychoanalysis. She has become a model patient. For moments, sometimes for weeks on end, she is actually able to forego her obsession about her long-lost mother, and concentrate on the relationship that is alive, the one with me. It takes me a while to catch on, but I eventually realize that so many of her questions are tricks to get me to give her the same feelings that she has had in relation to her biological mother. It’s not enough that I end the sessions, not enough that I leave her to go vacations. She wants me to actually reject her. She wants (in that silly send of the word “wants” that psychoanalysts use) to re-experience the same pain of disregard and indifference with me that her mother gave her. This is the brilliance. This is what every analyst waits for, prays for – the patient bringing into the analysis the core conflict, the issue that has plagued them, followed them, the issue that cannot be shaken. Without that re-experience, without Audrey going through the same pain now with me as she had initially with that first mother, there is no hope for resolution, no hope for freedom from her pain.

She spies my cleaning man. He is young and handsome. She asks, tentatively and fearfully, if he is my son. At first I am offended. I do not consider myself old enough to have a son his age. Then I wonder if she wants him to be my son. I ask’ she roundly denies that her fear is an unconscious wish or that her question has any unconscious meaning.

Yet, she understands that the battle she is fighting is the struggle to re-find her lost self, and she knows that this struggle is entirely related to her early mothering experience. She understands too, that she has transferred onto me all of conflicts about this early mother. She writes:

I am trying to grow, trying to become the person I was meant to be, whoever that is, but I don’t have the right tools. I had two mothers and neither one could love me. It’s like I have a hole in my heart and in my soul and nothing can fix it. I don’t want to let it defeat me, but somehow it does. I feel I am fighting a losing battle. I need someone who is always on my side, someone to turn to for comfort and support. I am trying my best to keep you separate from the other women who have hurt me so deeply – it’s easier to just mistrust all women. In so many ways, I am an orphan and think it would be more truthful if everyone behaved that way. If I could just that my life began when I met Larry (her husband), there would be no confusion.

This growing down process, and the growing up that ensues, takes Audrey and me years, decades. Slowly, cautiously, she begins to allow herself some trust:

After our last session, when you blindsided me with that question about my biological mother, I didn’t want to vow to never speak to you again. I think maybe things are finally beginning to change for us. I wanted to understand what was happening and I wanted to reach that understanding with you. Thank you.

Audrey assures me that she is ready, with me, to confront her past, to find this mother who abandoned her. She has decided that whatever the truth, it will be better than the perpetual wonder, the endless longing to know. She embarks on her search, and, indeed, finds her.

We Have the Idea That Her Story Will Have a Happy Ending

Audrey and I have the initial idea that her story will have a happy ending. When Audrey first contacts the woman, this/lost-now/found mother responds to her by saying, tearfully and movingly: “I have thought about you every day of my life. When I look at pictures of my other two children, I always know that there is one missing.” I cry when Audrey tells me this, and I think that maybe Audrey is right, maybe this mother will in the hole in Audrey’s psyche that I have been unable to fill; maybe Audrey will, at last, find a resting place for a few moments. Maybe Audrey did have once a mother who relaxed into their togetherness, if only for a brief moment. Maybe Audrey could have that mother again. Audrey’s spirits did seem to pick up a bit during these contacts with her mother. But such was not to be the case for very long. After a few phone calls and letters, exchanging news of lives missed, exchanging photos, just as they were poised to meet, this woman disappears. She refuses to return Audrey’s calls, and ceases responding to her letters. This is a mother whose emotional stance is today just as it was thirty years ago: abandonment and rejection. Audrey writes her begging her to please just say that she can’t handle the contact, or that she is too ashamed to tell her other children – something, anything to assuage Audrey’s feeling that the problem is not just Audrey is disgusting, hateful, unworthy of attention, of love, not deserving of even just a plain old note explaining the reasons for her need to disappear from Audrey’s life once again. Audrey’s first letter to her after the rejection is sweet, undemanding – just a request. In the next letter, she pleads.

Audrey and I struggle with the bloody aftermath of having found this woman who feels that no news is good news. Audrey has entered a profound depression, much worse than the kind of low-level chronic ache she felt before she found this woman (it is hard, under the circumstance, for either Audrey or myself, to refer to this woman, Nancy, as Audrey’s mother). This is an acute pain – a red-hot inflammation, rather than a dull, never-ending throb. It feels to me as though I am not particularly helpful in guiding Audrey through this pain. She begins the car ride to her sessions with eagerness and hungry anticipation, looking forward to seeing me and talking to me, longing for some comfort from her pain that she hopes being with me will bring her. She can maintain this hopeful posture until she crosses, approximately, the Queensborough Bridge; sometimes she gets as far as when she parks her car; on rare occasion, she makes it to my front door in good spirit. Then her depression begins to set in again, and by the time she reaches the analytic couch, she is as close to catatonia as a normal neurotic can get – unable to speak, lying on the couch in a confused stupor, not knowing what she feels nor why she feels it. She leaves the sessions, most often, with a headache, wondering when misery will end and what will make it go away. She is convinced, after these sessions, that she means nothing to me, that she needs to find a way to make me mean nothing to her, and that our sessions are torture with no purpose. Yet she doesn’t end our relationship.

Dear Jane,

You were so right about how Nancy’s rejecting me makes me feel – did I tell you that or was it an educated guess? This may sound dramatic but I do believe this is killing me. I know I can’t be a complete nothing, there has to be something to me, but what little there is – is being chipped away. I remember this feeling. I know how people can reach the point of not wanting to live – I’m not at that place, and I don’t know if I will ever reach it again, but I can see it. It is there for me to see, not so very far away from where I am. I look at my girls and I promise I will never leave them – and I know Larry and I will be together forever – these three are the only people on this earth I can be sure about. I wish I could be sure about you. I always think about you and I want to talk to you and be near you. These are my first thoughts. If I really think about it, I always come to the conclusion that you really wouldn’t be interested. I know I’m not good enough for you – you’re just too nice to tell me. You once asked if I felt humiliated because Nancy rejected me. The answer is yes, but I am too humiliated even by the humiliation to even want to admit it. Also, I am deeply hurt by her rejection. The most humiliating part about all this is that I still have to hunt around for all the facts about the beginning of my life’ the one person who knows the whole story is refusing to speak. How can she do this to me? And I know what she is doing is fucking up my thoughts and my relationship with you. Today when I saw you, I just wanted to leave. I want so much to be near you, but I feel like you are going to kill me too – as if my loving you will lead to my destruction. I believe that when I was in her womb, Nancy probably wanted to kill me. This is so hard for me to know. But I do know it now.

I wasn’t sure at the time, but I believe it was the birth of my girls when I began thinking about finding my mother. It was after Larry almost died that I began searching. I think my love for the girls and my connection to you was what really triggered this need to find what I think, what I thought was my connection with my mother. Now I can see that she and I never lost each other. No one stole me from Nancy. She ran away from me. And let’s face it, if my own mother can’t love me, how can I expect you to? I can’t write any more.


When I was leaving your building today, I heard the construction men downstairs say that your building is 17 years old. That means I’ve known you for over 17 years, and I can’t even look you in the eyes. I hope this is going to get better. I’m really tired.

It is clear that Audrey, in analytic terms, is now reliving the very early rejection when her mother gave her up for adoption. This is clear to both of us. Some would say that this act of knowing is what is helpful, that it should be helpful. It isn’t.

The Only Cure That Psychoanalysis Has to Offer

The only thing that ultimately makes Audrey feel better, and truly the only promise that psychoanalysis can afford her, the only help I can give her, is to help her to talk. Limited as it is, this is the only cure that psychoanalysis has to offer.

The thing that uniquely defines psychoanalysis, separates it from all other therapeutic methods, is its belief in the unconscious, belief in the meaning of what’s not said. What Freud discovered is that people would rather be sick than to think and feel and say the unthinkable, the unfeelable and the unmentionable.

What Audrey can’t say to me and can’t feel when she is with me is that the painful, unvarnished truth is that her long, arduous search for her biological mother has been simply a diversion from her analysis and from me. It’s been a way of running away from her true devotion, her true love affair with me. What she can’t say is that I am the only mother who has ever mattered to her. She can’t say it because she is humiliated to feel it and she wishes that it weren’t true. She wishes that did not have the psychic construction to care as much about a relative stranger, a person who see for a mere 50 minutes a week and to whom she has to pay money to see, as she cares for her children and husband. This feeling of caring so much seems perverse to her, and she feels herself to be perverse, really “sick” as she puts it, to be this person. She fights being this person every time she sees me and her internal fight with herself gives her headaches, depression and catatonia in my presence.

Audrey has a breakthrough. It has taken twenty years of analysis. She finds voice to rage. She is angry at me for leaving her. She is both rational and irrational. She knows that I have a right to take a vacation, but she is no longer devastated by my departure; she is just angry. She is able to articulate, at long last, the idea that she has been fighting all these years – that she wishes I belonged to her, wants me to have no life other than to care for her. She wants me to be like Sleeping Beauty, asleep until she awakes me. Audrey is giving herself over to that earliest period of life when symbiosis between mother and child is the definition of life. She tells me these wishes without any need for them to be true; merely acknowledging them and feeling comfortable them is sufficient.

And then the rage spills out into her feelings and bout the rejecting mother that she was cursed to be born to. She writes her third, and final letter, to Nancy and she is no longer kind, nor whimpering. She is outraged at this woman’s lack of the basic human decency to acknowledge, in words, face to face, tat she cannot continue the relationship. This silent, unresponsive woman does not even have the decency to tell her daughter to go away; she just disappears.

Audrey has reached the point where she can just let her feelings be; she has stopped judging them and trying to butcher them to death.

Dear Jane,

For the first time in a great while, I left the session feeling hopeful and with the same amount of energy I arrived with, if not more. I did not feel drained, broken, or crushed. I feel somewhat energized. Now I believe our relationship has possibilities. It can become a source of pleasure for me. When you said that you have been more of a mother to me than Nancy ever could be, it didn’t have the same sting as it would have in the past. It was not an altogether unbearable though. It did bring tears to my eyes. You know those basic laws of decency – like you don’t sleep with your siblings or your parents, you don’t fall in love with someone else’s spouse. I have been feeling that loving a mother other my own was like breaking one of those laws.

Audrey continues working her in analysis on sorting out her feelings about me and her biological mother (we seem to be fused in her mind). She continues her pattern of wanting to bolt. Burt, for the first time, she doesn’t. She tolerates her feelings without action. She reports to me a dream:

There were rats in the basement. When I discovered them, they were asleep and somehow I got them into a box with low sides. I covered them all with a blanket because I wanted them to sleep while I figured out how to get rid of them. I called an exterminator and I told him not to wake them up when he looked at them. I didn’t want to kill them in the basement because I wasn’t sure if I could get them all once they started to run.

And then she says about the dream:

I haven’t had a rat dream in a long time. In the past, I think the rats represented my fears, and they were terrifying. Now I think the dream is about self-awareness. I feel freer these days. Now that I am sharing my deepest feelings with you, I feel less burdened. But I know there are still hidden places, and I guess I’m still a little fearful of waking up the rats again.

Her pain from being rejected by her mother is still an ache, but she is able at least to rejoice in the strong love that she and I have for each other. We need not be separate any longer. She says:

I can now accept that you care for me and it is okay if I feel the same way.