Home Mental Health & Well-Being Pubertal Nightmares of the Sexual Difference

Pubertal Nightmares of the Sexual Difference

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The sexual maturation attacks the nervous system, increasing over the excitability and lowering the resistance.
– Josef Breuer

His incessant night terrors cause the mother of Kevin, aged 13, to make an appointment. ‘At his age,’ she says, ‘to have still night terrors, there should be something wrong.’ The mum lets out however that this is her own mother who ‘convinced’ her to come to the consultation. This detail is important to notice.

At this first meeting, the essential rule for teen support is recalled to the parents: This session of psychoanalysis – like all the others if he decides to continue – will be that of Kevin. Nothing will filter of this work by the psychoanalyst, except what that the teenager will choose to say outside. Kevin notes this assertion with clear interest. This fact enlightens the reasons why two previous attempts with psychologists, who were more looking for a therapeutic alliance with the parents, have failed.

At 13, Kevin is not yet ‘entered’ into the puberty. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the boy resists to the ‘penetration’ of it. He describes in full detail his fears and its consequences: an obsessive ritual compels every night Kevin to check all doors and windows of the house and to refuse to sleep in a room where the exit would be closed. These ‘external devices’ were announced at the time by Sandor Ferenczi. Despite the systematic nature of these inspections, he wakes up at night, ‘assailed’ by terrors. An important element should be noticed: during his nocturnal awakenings, an incompressible urination need forces the boy to run to the toilet. The fact of moving in the dark scares him. A desire which is not followed by urination or ‘for almost nothing’, surprised himself.

Another item is worth being mentioned: Kevin is succeeding to preserve a pre-squared ‘reason’ from which it tries to persuade himself, as his fears arise, that nothing can ‘logically’ happen and that ‘he can go back to sleep’. Not without difficulty, he admits. We shall come back to what appears to be close to a reality testing which allows this case to ‘distinguish stimuli from the outside world of that of the internal stimuli’. After this interview, the analyst does not answer to the desire expressed by the mother to give her his prognosis on the treatment. Kevin decides to return the following week.

During the face-to-face session, Kevin continues to move on his chair. No inadvertent or abrupt hyperkinesias but many languid movements, as if the body was flowing the excesses of too intense inner reflections. It appears to be more an instinctual discharge than breaking in. Once confident, Kevin painfully pours on his desire to ‘do great things in his life’ when he sees himself as ‘someone average’, he said in tears. He evokes his feeling of being ‘different’ which makes him think a lot. He does not play the same games and reads much more books than boys of his age. Girls are more like my ‘friends’. Kevin does not let show anything of its intimate questions to his family or to his friends. But he wants to understand. His psychic drive to know takes the place of a psychic dam. Later, he will become an archaeologist: something that we interpret through the Freudian metaphor of the city of Rome and with the analytical method of the Latin quotation: Saxa loquuntur [Stones speak]. Kevin understands and agrees.

Once extended, Kevin quickly adopts a fetal position: This, he says, ‘allows him to relax and to fall asleep at night in his room.’ On the couch, he wriggles like a worm, turns over or rolls himself into a ball. He constantly criss-crosses his legs, rubbing his feet against each other or sliding his hands folded in the crotch. He brushes his arm with one of his hands or caresses his head slowly. Sometimes, lying face down, half his body hanging over the couch from where he traces with his index some patterns designed by the weaves of the Persian carpet. This shows fascinating choreographic gestures elaborated with seductive lasciviousness: who was first seduced will then seduce?

Peacefully, Kevin lets his body speak – the word melt would better suit – while half opening this reflexive dam mentioned above to get started, as indicated by Ferenczi, a masturbatory game with the body organs where ‘the action is removed from the thought’. Kevin shows us almost physically how ‘the facilitations serve the primary function of the nervous system’. It tackles the subject of his own body and poses an enigmatic look at his hands, indeed long and thin, as if he was questioning their membership or was interrogating their identity. Were these hands really his own? Why and where did he get them from? We point out this scene to him: he punctuates, as he is doing it usually, by accepting the proposal that we formulated once to him: ‘This speaks to me.’ He recognises ‘his distaste for the sport‘ unlike his father and his brother, both of them accomplished athletes.

The transference operates one day when his mother picks him up after a session and that she wanted to change the schedule of the next one because of a competition the following week. He quickly replies: ‘This is the end of the season, it does not matter if I miss it.’

After some time, he brings two dreams: he walks on the beach, quietly and then he is suddenly assaulted, abducted by two masked men. He finds himself sequestered in a car and taken hostage in a house. Then, nothing left. He expresses his astonishment over the ‘lack of end’ and that of the fact that ‘he did not wake up’. His free associations punctuate the work of the previous sessions where the antagonism of the two psychic drives had been interpreted: ‘one wants, the other refuses’ – a battle which leads to a compromise-formation. He explains, not without acuity, that he ‘identifies himself with these two men’: the mask is used not to appear vis-à-vis the outside while the existence of the two protagonists is aimed at concealing one of the two forces that assaulted him. He added: ‘I want and at the same time, I’m afraid to know the outcome of that dream.’ A second dream follows: he drowns while swimming, he who feels ‘so comfortable in the water’. He felt no fear at that time and that, unlike the previous dream.

Can we deduce, beyond a ‘thalassal regression‘, the possibility of coalescence between ‘sleep and intrauterine coupling’? This dreamlike story leads him to associate about its deep concern when his father or his brother returns late from the sports training. He feels some ‘stress‘ when he finds out the delay. The father is at the centre of his concerns when he insists on ‘his anxiety to disappoint him’. This father is probably unattainable for Kevin: ‘The psychoanalytic sessions are for him,’ said once his father, with detachment. How not to perceive the significance of the fantasy of castigation about which Freud reminds us of the ‘passive dimension’, the ‘feminine attitude towards the father’? We whisper to him: ‘What about your mother?’ He replies promptly: ‘She’s strong, almost invincible.’ He mentions, ‘the pains of the menstruation and those of the childbirth.’ While betraying the weight of his own debt, Kevin ensures that women go through ‘more hardship than men and this is what makes them stronger’.

What can be done with this pubescent body tossed between a male fragility and maternal omnipotence? ‘The paternal hypnosis is equivalent to the terror of being killed, the maternal hypnosis is equivalent to the terror of being abandoned by the mother.’ How to get out of this dilemma? Is this just a problem of a homosexual object-choice suggested by ‘the traumatic awareness of the illusory nature of the alleged relationship of love?’ Is Kevin tempted by the transgender registry?

Several thoughts arise in the analyst’s mind at this stage: we are first of all struck by the ambivalence of Kevin, by his oscillation between the masculine and the feminine, referring to the riddle of bisexuality. The very one about which Freud writes in The Ego and the Id that it ‘makes so difficult to see through the primitive reports of the choice of object and identifications’. Bisexuality or a trans-sexuality whose the maternal aetiology – the mother with a penis – makes little doubt: a ‘too gratifying mother-child’ symbiosis is causing ‘extreme femininity in the boy’ and this recalls the ‘initial impression that parents engrave into their child’, sometimes even before the birth. We endorse radically the assumption of a sexual ‘allocation’ of Kevin by his mother: allocation in the sense of a ‘complex set of acts which extends in the language and in the meaningful behaviour of the entourage’. An acquired gender which is preceding the sex ‘but which is organised by him’. As if the mother had unconsciously ‘infiltrated’ Kevin with her ‘sexuality’, by her reactivation of her infantile sexuality. The gender is connected to the ‘male-female distinction’ says Professor Laplanche elsewhere.

We must also elaborate on Kevin’s ability to operate in the midst of his dreams, the discrimination referred to in the psychoanalysis and called Realitätsprüfung or the reality testing. How to understand this ‘little inner voice’, the one that ‘a normal person kept hidden in a corner of [their] soul’ and ‘let parade morbid ghosts before her as a disinterested observer’? To recognise the rise of it in his case does not necessarily lead Kevin on the paths of the psychosis: every neurotic, according to Freud, ‘reacts the same way in respect of a small fragment of reality.’ In the early days of his analysis, this ‘little voice’ has parasitised somehow the transference: Kevin was clinging to it in order not to ‘enter’ work on himself. A paradox of the early stage of the treatment: what Kevin seized as an ally was, in fact, an obstacle for his analysis. The ‘reality testing’ donned the role of denial with the risk to ‘underestimate the value of the fantasies in the formation of the symptoms by invoking precisely that they are not realities’. What Freud puts, as well as the censorship, in the great institutions of the ego should not make us forget the mistakes in that what too much trust in this agency, is likely to lead us.

What about this ‘reality test’ as shown by in Kevin? Should we place it ‘at the outer periphery of the ego, governing the communication of the ego with the ego-ideal’? Let us remember that this ‘little voice’ arises also in our dreams when we are curiously involved in a situation threatening our integrity. We get reassurance by the fact that this is ‘only’ a dream. This element should maybe make us think to move it towards a device linked to the superego as a ‘particular critical agency of self-observation’ as well as these punishment dreams want to ‘fulfil the wishes of this critical agency’?

This similarity is probably not innocent: in the waking state, Kevin mobilises the possibilities of his pre-conscious system in order to convince himself of the nullity of these threats of aggression. But, when he sleeps, his hallucinations sign this regression where the perceptual system is invested by internal excitations. Originally, don’t we have to deal with the same remnants of ‘the domination of the pleasure principle’? The ‘blank’ in Kevin’s nightmares – the harsh reality of his sexual desire – could possibly be ‘arranged’ by the punishment which he seems to be the expiatory victim. The subsequent sessions develop a sense of acceptance of himself that he translated in his own way: ‘Everyone is different’… ‘what I feel is not monstrous.’ He ‘forgets’ to close the kitchen window before falling asleep. The assaults of the night – mental and physical – decrease and, then, vanish without enabling us to identify the start of tipping from an infantile self-erotism into an adult genitality.

Did we manage to achieve his autonomy and to help him to ‘develop his individual desire’ which should be the ‘sole purpose of the analysis’? We will not have enough time to discern in this work this part potentially devolved in the ‘adult post-education, a correction to the child’s education’ stated, not without a certain ambivalence, by Sigmund Freud. The end of the night terrors and the abandonment of the obsessive security precautions decide the mother, as the summer holidays approach, to stop the analysis of her son. During the final session, we want to provide a date for resumption in September in order ‘not to let Kevin in the nature‘. ‘We’ll see,’ she decides. Since a while, she complained of Kevin’s silence at the end of the sessions while, as she told us, ‘He was telling me about it at their very beginning.’ In her phone message announcing the interruption of the treatment, the mother said: ‘Thanks for everything. Kevin goes to see a psychotherapist with whom he can share.’ The mother obviously spoke for herself.

Jean-Luc Vannier is a French psychoanalyst based in Nice (French Riviera). Jean-Luc is an editorial board member of the Psychreg Journal of Psychology


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