ALIENATION AND MISRECOGNITION: "I WAS CONVINCED THAT I WAS THIS MONSTER."
A secret wound, often unknown to himself, drives the foreigner to wandering. Poorly loved, however, he does not acknowledge it: with him, the challenge silences the complaint.
(Kristeva, 1991, p. 5)
The literature on depression is filled with descriptions of monsters, demons, beasts, and terrors that torment the soul. Some people describe their anguish by using this vivid imagery, a personification of suffering in the form of a waking nightmare. For others, the agony is so constant and so familiar that it begins to feel innate, an intrinsic part of their identity. In this sense, when darkness overwhelms our subjectivity so completely, we can become the monster, that unrecognizable alien creature that hijacks our mind, body, and spirit and lurks in shadow and daylight alike. Often, these qualities of detestation, these marks of a misshapen identity, of everything a community wishes to disown, are gathered together and placed on the position of the Other. This process prohibits existence for one who inhabits the space of the Other; as Kristeva says, “Always elsewhere, the foreigner belongs nowhere” (1991, p. 10). Kristeva describes this feeling of being a foreigner, when embodied by an individual, as a form of alienation in which the person becomes a stranger to him or herself, no longer able to recognize anything familiar in subjective existence:
Living with the other, with the foreigner, confronts us with the possibility or not of being an other. It is not simply—humanistically—a matter of our being able to accept the other, but of being in his place, and this means to imagine and make oneself other for oneself. (1991, p. 13)
Lena’s despair was all-encompassing, and in her darkest moments she too felt that she embodied the Other, an unfamiliar being in circumstances that were foreign to any whom she recognized as belonging to the human race. When speaking of the deep scars that had been inflicted on her by the hostile environment of her childhood and the conflicted relationships that accompanied it, Lena said:
I was just I was convinced that I’m this monster, like I’m not even like a human being. (Exhale) And, it didn’t help that I already, like I was still like trying to recover from what happened to me growing- earlier in my life I guess that coupled with like my my experiences and you know like living at home and in that neighborhood, it just it really messed me up and you know I was convinced that I was this monster and that’s one of the reasons why like I stayed at home a lot, just to avoid going out, some- sometimes. . . .
I interjected, “You said you felt like you weren’t even a human being?”
Yeah. (Pause.) It really like, it just it messed up how I thought of myself like . . . uhm like what ah, just my childhood like things like that like I already I already didn’t have much like co- I didn’t really have any confidence, I I didn’t have any like self-worth, just like my thinking is just distorted and, yeah I was convinced that I wasn’t like really a person.
A major component of Lena’s core struggle was this sensation of unrecog- nizability. She felt alienated from others and alienated from her own experience. The symptoms she exhibited—self-cutting, alcohol abuse, promiscuous sex, and suicidality—are all signifiers of a deeper underlying problem. These behaviors were attempted solutions: to escape, to numb, or to in some other way alleviate unbearable suffering. However, they proved ineffective because they only further exacerbated Lena’s pain due to their destructive nature. Lena could not represent her inner torment in words, so she demonstrated it through action. One of the reasons that Lena was forced to enact her suffering in the ways that she did was because she inhabited an environment that never provided any space for her to symbolize her experience in any other way. No one seemed able to hear her. Kristeva beautifully depicts what happens when a person is stuck within his or her own painful experience, unable to be recognized by another:
A certain imbalance is necessary, a swaying over some abyss, for conflict to be heard. Yet when the foreigner—the speech-denying strategist—does not utter his conflict, he in turn takes root in his own world of a rejected person whom no one is supposed to hear. (1991, p. 17)
Lena articulated this difficulty by acknowledging that in all of her struggles, her family had
never been like emotionally supportive. Like they never- they’ve never supported me enough. And like if if I ever happen to uhm, tell anyone in my family how I feel, they they would just tell me that I’m just that that that maybe I’m not being appreciative, you know that you know these different people in the family have done so much for me and, I you know I shouldn’t complain about anything.
Lena’s family members’ responses that she was “not being appreciative” enough were a direct invalidation of her feelings. It was a foreclosure of exploration and discussion, and this type of response ultimately resulted in a shutting down of symbolic capacity. In fact, any attempts she made to verbally metabolize her pain were explicitly rejected, refuted, or otherwise negated. Lena was met with a similar response from the people outside of her family in whom she attempted to confide:
I’ve noticed when I try to talk to other people, people outside of my family about it, some of these people would tell me things, “Well there are people in other parts of the world, people that don’t even have a roof over their heads, people that don’t eat enough. You should be glad that you have all those things.” And it’s just I’m just never satisfied with what anyone has had to tell me about it.
This presented Lena with a psychological impossibility: She was struggling to create meaning from her experience while the people around her were simultaneously invalidating it. This made it incredibly difficult for her to cope with her feelings of loss, sadness, and worthlessness and to use them in a way that would help her understand and move beyond them in a constructive manner. Even though she had internalized a great deal of shame and guilt about her feelings, Lena still acutely experienced an inner tension due to the fact that at some level she could recognize that the anguish she was experiencing was incongruent with what she was being told she should feel about her experiences. When I commented to Lena that it seemed that she had been through a lot of painful experiences, she was initially silent. She seemed puzzled by my statement, so I asked her whether she felt that way, or whether this was not aligned with her subjective perspective on her life. After a moment of consideration, she responded:
It does feel that way to me all the time but, I mean I remember I was telling you earlier that I’ve had some people tell me you know like there’s many people they’re suffering, they have a lot of these things you know there are a lot of things that they don’t have, like that like really confused me so now I now I have like mixed feelings so, I don’t know I mean does that mean I haven’t suffered as much as I, as much as I thought? Or I mean I mean am I just being am I just being like melodramatic or something? I mean I don’t know, but I don’t, I don’t,
I don’t think it’s really nice though for people to even tell me anything like that.
Instead of recognition or validation of her experience, Lena was given a different message. She was told that she had no right to have the feelings that she did, that her perception of her own suffering was inaccurate, and that what felt real to her in terms of her emotional experience was actually misaligned with the reality that other people ascribed to her. The message she was given was this: Instead of complaining, you should be grateful; your pain is irrelevant in relation to those who suffer more; there is no space for you to be heard here, and shame on you for feeling sorry for yourself when you should be doing more to help the people who have provided you with everything you have. Some of these statements seeped into Lena’s psyche and contributed to her worries as an adult about her role in her family and her suspicions that she was not good enough:
I feel guilty about you know living at home with my family, not pulling my w- not pulling my weight, like like they all have been like in some ways and, just it- not not uhm, just not uh doing as much as I think I should be doing now. And not, not being that reliable like in my fam- to anyone. Not being reliable enough.
As a result of this constant negation, Lena internalized a sense of guilt and shame, as if she were the one at fault for her feelings and her inability to cope. This left her feeling not only confused but also protective of her right to name her own experience. She seemed to resent the invalidating responses of those around her, but she was unable to completely dismiss them, as it was so rare that she was met with anything else:
I think they’re, by, by, by telling me this they’re just comparing me and you can’t, I mean that’s suffering I mean you can’t really, I don’t know how to put it into words but I but I- that’s just something I I never felt comfortable about and that’s why I don’t, just I mean I think I went through a lot but if people are telling me otherwise, I I don’t know.
Lena characterized her home environment as hostile, and she stated that her family members’ ways of communicating involved yelling, cursing, physical fighting, and assaults on each other’s character. Therefore, it is likely that in addition to a sense of alienation due to constant misrecognition, Lena also internalized this means of relating. She did not describe any positive relationships that would have served as protective factors with all the obstacles she faced. The internalization of a good primary object, of a relationship in which she felt safe and secure in early childhood, would have helped her hold onto that same sense of attachment later on in life, and this likely would have instilled in her a sense that she would be able to work through her problems because there would be someone nurturing there to hold her (Kaplan, 1978, 1995; Mahler, Pine, & Bergman, 1975). This internalized sense of being held also protects against vulnerabilities of feeling dropped, abandoned, and neglected. The development of this sense has been an ongoing struggle for Lena in terms of her attempts to emerge from the darkness that encompasses her subjectivity.