“‘I AM’ – Vitality, Creativity, Destructiveness and the Value of Contributing: Winnicott’s unique view of Depression”.

“‘I AM’ – Vitality, Creativity, Destructiveness and the Value of Contributing: Winnicott’s unique view of Depression” presented by Chris Brogan, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist in conjunction with Kate Purdy, Child Psychotherapist on parent-infant psychotherapy.

The autumn Squiggle North East Conference was held at the Mining Institute in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne on Saturday 4th November 2017 titled, ‘I AM’ – Vitality Creativity Destructiveness and the Value of Contributing: Winnicott’s unique view of Depression. Chris Brogan, psychoanalytic psychotherapist, presented his paper on Winnicott’s ideas on Depression drawing upon Winnicott’s 1963 paper ‘The Value of Depression’ published in the book Home is Where We Start From.[i]

This was a very well attended event and the atmosphere inside the Mining Institute was warm and lively in contrast to the November chill. Chris presented an immensely rich discussion on Winnicott’s ideas of depression where rather than it being necessarily a pathological state of mind, Winnicott suggested it to be a sign that the person has achieved a certain stage of development; where the individual has an outside and an inside and a sense of “I AM”. Chris did an excellent job of shining a light on this lesser known area of Winnicott’s thinking in contrast to his widely recognised works on maternal preoccupation and transitional objects.

Essentially, Winnicott suggests, depression has value, and despite the paradox, people with depression suffer and, in extreme states of mind, may be driven to suicide; depression can be seen as a developmental achievement, where a seed of recovery might exist by contributing and having a space for working through one’s destructiveness. To be depressed implies a certain stage of development and maturity.

The infant comes to the realisation that there is an ‘other-than-me’, resulting in feelings of rejection and exposure but, with physical and emotional holding, the infant can be helped to manage such feelings rather than breaking down. Chris’s discussion drew on Winnicott’s metaphoric of fog which descended over Berlin: though little can penetrate it, people move back and forth, transactions occur, under cover, until it recedes and lifts – so it is with depression, where despite the mental fog, the work essential to bringing the person back to life might be happening,.

Condensing such rich and fascinating material into the space of an hour was a remarkable achievement and Chris made excellent use of clinical examples. Winnicott’s observations of the child that used mother’s own depression as a means of escape: this served to cheer up the mother but created the potential that this could become a ‘false self’ which stymies reliance and creativity in the individual. This led to an interesting discussion about perception and apperception and the mother’s face as a mirror of self – ‘when I am seen, so I exist; I can look and see’. Such experience serves to bring the mother back into being and provides the space for “me – not-me”, between creativity and objective perception. Shakespeare’s famous line in Hamlet, was an appropriate conclusion, ‘To be or not to be’, but Winnicott had the last word, ‘Oh God, May I be alive when I die’.

After a restorative break, Kate Purdy, Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist working in the Newcastle Parent-Infant Partnership (NEWPIP) presented sensitive and thoughtful clinical material from her work. The service receives referrals from GP’s, midwives and health visitors and in contrast to traditional psychotherapy practice, this work often takes place in the parent’s home or community settings and is with the parent, usually the mother and their baby but occasionally with the father also.

Kate brought a piece of work with a young mother struggling with depression and afflicted by terrible fears about the dangers that might lie outside the family home. Such fears seemed to belie ambivalence towards her baby and Kate demonstrated how she needed to be ever alert to ‘ghosts in the nursery’[ii] that remained haunting this mother and affecting her and her infant’s developing relationship. Kate was skilled in remaining in touch with both the mother’s anxieties about whether she could be ‘good enough’ for her baby, as well as the deeply painful feelings of envy invoked by being brought into contact with things that had been felt to be missing in her experience as a baby with her own mother.

Kate spoke about the need to remain closely in contact with transgenerational aspects in this work; it appeared that previous losses or the experience of a depressed and emotionally absent mother had potentially made it hard for this mother to feel her destructiveness could be survived by the object. Indeed, she had become as if stuck with feelings of grievance or complaint and Kate observed her own feelings of irritation in the transference. Despite such gloom and it being difficult to think at the verbal or conscious level, contact can be possible at the non-verbal level as something which can be communicated and made knowable; this brought us back to the possibility of a potential creative space for working through in spite of the ‘fog’ that had descended.

Kate’s talk was followed by a comprehensive discussion informed by insights and observations from the whole group about both presentations. This provided a fitting conclusion to an excellent and stimulating morning at the Mining Institute.

David Cornelius, Child Psychotherapist

January 2018

[i] Winnicott, D.W. (1963) The Value of Depression in Home is Where We Start From (1986) ed. Clare Winnicott, Ray Shepherd and Madeleine Davis Harmondsworth: Penguin 71-79

[ii] Fraiberg, S., Adelson, E & Shapiro, V. (1975) Ghosts in the Nursery: A Psychoanalytic Approach to the Problems of Impaired Infant-Mother Relationships Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry 14:3 387-421