The Explosion of the Present and the Encapsulation of Time: Transference Phenomena in the Analysis of a Psychotic Patient1

By Weiss, Heinz | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, December 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Explosion of the Present and the Encapsulation of Time: Transference Phenomena in the Analysis of a Psychotic Patient1


Weiss, Heinz, International Journal of Psychoanalysis


The paper deals with some basic problems concerning the experience of time and space in the psychoanalytic treatment of psychotic patients. Whereas borderline patients tend to distort the experience of time and space under emotional pressure, the concepts of time and space seem to dissolve in acute psychotic states of mind. Sometimes this manifests itself in an explosion of the present, where the past is ubiquitous and the future is perceived as the end of all times.

The case of a 48 year-old patient with the external diagnosis of 'paranoid- hallucinatory schizophrenia' is presented to illustrate that the main task is to recreate a structure to contain the experience of space and time. Such a development may occur if primitive psychotic anxieties can be taken up and metabolized. A near-psychotic decompensation before the first break and the development of a transference psychosis in the second year of the analysis are depicted in detail. Subsequently some developments became visible which helped the patient to better tolerate catastrophic fears of loss. This included the formation of a structure which the patient called 'hibernation' enabling her to psychically survive without falling apart. By retreating into her 'time capsule' she managed to overcome breaks and to delay her fears of fragmentation until they could be taken up and worked through in the transference. The creation of a structure like the patient's 'time capsule' is considered to be an attempt to construct the experience of time and space. It prevented a collapse of her internal space thereby enabling further steps towards thinking and symbolization. In conclusion, some theoretical and clinical aspects are discussed including the role of the countertransference.

Keywords: psychosis, space, time, containment, symbolization

Temporal experience and inner space in borderline patients

When Freud speaks of the "timelessness of the unconscious" (cf. Freud, 1915, p. 187), it is with reference to those processes that have become timeless due to repression. Much like antique Pompeii (Weiss, 2010) excavation work of analysis can free them from the ashes of repression (cf. Freud, 1907; 1937, p. 259), bringing them back into subjective time in order to be stripped of their pathogenic force by means of working through the transference and then to be remembered as history.

This is not the place to discuss the complex issues of temporality in psychoanalysis and their philosophical implications which have been highlighted more recently in a number of publications (Glocer Fiorini and Canestri, 2009; Green, 2000a, b; Lombardi, 2003; Perelberg, 2007, 2008; Weiss, 2009). However, I think that the classical model of temporality may account for the neurotic individual, but has only limited validity in the analytic process with borderline and psychotic patients.

In this paper I will argue that, whilst the borderline patient often deforms the experience of time, the space-time-continuum is shattered in acute psychotic states of mind. I will further suggest that during the course of an analysis a provisional structure can sometimes be created to prevent further fragmentation and to construct an experience of time. In the clinical material that is presented my patient referred to this as a "time capsule" and respectively as a state of "hibernation". I will use excerpts from two analytic breaks which brought the patient near to a psychotic breakdown and led to the development of a transference psychosis in the second year of her analysis. It was only thereafter that she gradually developed mechanisms which helped her to survive and to wait without falling back to a fragmentation of time.

The issue of time is, of course, a vast theme in psychoanalytic literature which cannot be covered in a single paper. Among the authors who have dealt with alterations in the sense of time, H. Loewald (1962, 1972) has elaborated the importance of superego development for conceptualizing time, differentiating between a standstill and a fragmentation of the experience of time. …

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