To explore the theme of falling apart, I will start with an image from infant research, drawn from the well known work of Ed Tronick, a professor at Harvard. Tronick’s now famous studies involve an experiment that asks the mother to suddenly present a “still face” to her infant without warning. Healthy infants expect reciprocity and thrive on emotionally regulated interactions. When deprived of the reciprocity and somewhat predictable cuing he or she expects when interacting with another the baby rapidly becomes anxious and agitated. In my view, this reaction has been vividly described many years ago by Bion in his work on what he calls “a projective identification rejecting object”. In any case, when a healthy infant suddenly encounters the mother’s unresponsive face he or she will immediately amplify her bids to recruit mother back into the nonverbal “dance” of communication. If mother remains inaccessible the baby becomes irritated and eventually starts to fall apart in distress. Falling apart is accompanied by more frantic attempts to engage the mother. Finally, most babies withdraw into a kind of collapse and despair. They give up until the animated communicative presence of the mother is restored.
In the earliest weeks and months of life, and, I would argue, throughout the lifespan, we use others to help us feel whole, safe, and valued. Certainly, the opposite can be true as well. Others can make us feel wounded, violated, and fall apart. For the time being I will take for granted a basic background of safety that begins though interpersonal interaction and becomes internalized over time. The hallmark of this experience is a transformation from distress to comfort, or, in current neurobiological terminology, an affect regulating interaction. I shall describe some experiences of falling apart in relationship to several primary emotional experiences.
Consider, here, that the experience of falling apart can be in the mind, in the body or both. Laughter is a good place to start. Is laughter in your mind, your body, or both? Laughter can make you fall apart in a pleasurable way. Excitement, like laughter, can make you fall apart with joy or sometimes with painful pleasure. Intensity can become so hard to contain and transform because of the rush of disorienting energy and possibility that floods into awareness. Some of the children I work with who have been diagnosed with autism literally spill out of their bodies with excitement. They flap their arms, curl their hands into fists, squeak and squawk with animal like noises. Sometimes they even hit their faces or rub themselves frantically. This looks painful but I have learned that it is more about the flooding of overwhelming feelings of energy into the body that cannot be contained by words, images, or narratives. Instead, the child is literally swept away by bodily sensations of excitement that flood their capacity to hold experience and to organize it with attention.
Fear is another emotion that can make you fall apart in profound ways. Have you ever woken from a nightmare and had its atmosphere linger long after you intellectually realize you are safe? Trauma is a situation where safety is so compromised that the body reacts as if fear is always appropriate. After a traumatic experience you feel as if you are always in the presence of an immediate danger. I remember that once after being mugged I began to literally fall apart in my body. My body began to shake uncontrollably. I had been hit in the face, knocked to the ground, and taken by surprise in a random act of violence late at night in a large city. I was able to stand up and for some reason this simple act made my attacker flee. However, once I was safe, I began to have unbearable feelings of fear, almost a kind of psychic collapse. It took days for me to be able to calm myself to a more ordinary level of relaxation or safety. So, fear is a deeply embodied emotion and it is sometimes the memory or anticipation of fear that can trigger a feeling of falling apart. When fear takes over the brain the mind tends to be high-jacked too, sometimes producing all kinds of frightening images, scenarios, and even hardening into a kind of agitated certainty. Bringing reflective awareness to these kinds of experiences is the long and necessary process, often needing the caring understanding of another to accomplish, of reclaiming attention and grounding oneself again and again.
Then there is desire. Desire can make you fall apart with frustration or with anticipation or with yearning or with guilt and the shame of rejection. Containing desire may be one of the most painful experiences. Yearning and longing create tangible aches that can, as some poets have described, bring you to brink of madness. So much identity is woven into desire. There is a longing to go backwards in time, back to youth, back to missed opportunities or lost loves. There is a longing to go forward, to possess the future somehow, to know its outcome, to guarantee the most favorable scenario. And there are longings to live other lives simultaneously, to have multiple identities and to live in parallel worlds. To accept the impossibilities of all these wishes and hopes can feel like dying, and, at the same time, can make the self feel more whole, less fragmented, more real, and less dissociated.
Anger tends to organize some people but for others it is shattering. For some people to admit how much anger dwells within is akin to provoking God and courting certain punishment, even flirting with death. Can anger be so powerful it makes you fall apart? Hot anger can be irrational, impulsive, violent, spontaneous. It explodes and then dies away. Cold anger tends to pull some people together. It may be more dangerous because it is linked with psychopathic states. It tends to organize rather than to fragment, indeed, it may not even be rightly called anger anymore. Rather, there is a kind of destructiveness that fuels the self and violence is used to make others fall apart, which seems to be the basic motivation for some individuals bent on the pleasure of destructiveness.
Sadness, too, can have a profound momentum toward falling apart. What after all does having a broken heart feel like? “My heart was shattered” can be taken not just as a metaphor but as a description of a real feeling. Grief, in my experience, is one of the things people most defend against. There is something so profound in deep grief, something that almost shows us the illusory nature of the self. To fall apart in grief almost transcends a personal experience, (think of Orpheus) becoming an egoless howl or scream. Pain giving voice to itself. The song of pain. But, there can also be a strange freshness, a clearing of the senses, of vision and energy, after touching a certain kind of really deep sadness. I have sometimes found myself connected to a feeling of psychic truthfulness, a kind of coming into the body of grief, surviving the wound of intense experience, something almost like an affirmation, the pulsing of life despite the awful awareness of a hole in the world.