[13 January, 2012]

on being an immigrant part 5.2

What I've worked out for myself so far stems in part from (drum roll please for how therapist of me this will sound) Freud's essay, Mourning and Melancholia. Therein he ponders the sources of sadness and effects of loss on people's beings. Reading every sentence of this essay has been like getting hit by a train of realization.

Of course there is no way of telling who I would have become if I hadn't moved away from my home, but I do know that as a kid, pre-immigration, I was happy, imaginative, rambunctious, and a leader of all the other kids in the neighborhood. I had hardships and difficulties, yes, but I also had many people around me for support and I felt a sense of belonging there. Since coming to the U.S., at least, (and it has been close to 15 years now), I have felt a low-grade but ever-present sense of sadness, loneliness, and somewhat emptiness. It's not that I am depressed; I have energy and friends and interests. I have some zest for life. And it's not that I am completely empty either. My life does have purpose; my personal and professional goals give me a sense of meaning. And yet, I go through life feeling sad and lonely, without a heartfelt connection to many things in the world, my existence sometimes seeming futile. Deep down, I'm melancholy.

In his funky and specialized, yet precise and well-thoughtout way, Freud writes this (emphasis is mine):

Mourning is regularly the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as one's country, liberty, an ideal, and so on. In some people the same influences produce melancholia instead of mourning and we consequently suspect them of a pathological disposition. It is also well worth notice that, although mourning involves grave departures from the normal attitude to life, it never occurs to us to regard it as a pathological condition and to refer it to medical treatment. We rely on its being overcome after a certain lapse of time, and we look upon any interference with it as useless or even harmful (p. 243).

The distinguishing mental features of melancholia are a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment. This picture becomes a little more intelligible when we consider that, with one exception, the same traits are met with in mourning. The disturbance of self-regard is absent in mourning; but otherwise the features are the same. Profound mourning, the reaction to the loss of someone who is loved, contains the same painful frame of mind, the same loss of interest in the outside world—in so far as it does not recall him—the same loss of capacity to adopt any new object of love (which would mean replacing him) and the same turning away from any activity that is not connected with thoughts of him. It is easy to see that this inhibition and circumscription of the ego is the expression of an exclusive devotion to mourning which leaves nothing over for other purposes or other interests (p. 244).

It is evident that melancholia too may be the reaction to the loss of a loved object. The object has not perhaps actually died, but has been lost as an object of love. One feels justified in maintaining the belief that a loss of this kind has occurred, but one cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost, and it is all the more reasonable to suppose that the patient cannot consciously perceive what he has lost either. This, indeed, might be so even if the patient is aware of the loss which has given rise to his melancholia, but only in the sense that he knows whom he has lost but not what he has lost in him. This would suggest that melancholia is in some way related to an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness, in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing about the loss that is unconscious (p. 245).

In mourning we found that the inhibition and loss of interest are fully accounted for by the work of mourning in which the ego is absorbed. In melancholia, the unknown loss will result in a similar internal work and will therefore be responsible for the melancholic inhibition. The difference is that the inhibition of the melancholic seems puzzling to us because we cannot see what it is that is absorbing him so entirely. The melancholic displays something else besides which is lacking in mourning—an extraordinary diminution in his self- regard, an impoverishment of his ego on a grand scale. In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself (p. 246). 

Even through Freud's jargon, my condition becomes much more clear to me now: I lost a loved object (the country, the city, the home base, the culture, the language, the people, the sense of belonging) and I have not processed the loss in any conscious or tangible way. In a sense, I am stuck in a loop of "pathological" mourning: I am sad and unable to allow myself to love a new object (new country, new language, new culture, new people) that might "replace" the old one. Because I've acculturated well enough--to the outside world, it looks like I fit in with the new environment--the loss is harder to see, and yet, my entire being is in many ways absorbed in this self-depricating confusing loop of pseudo-mourning. When there is nothing outside of myself to put a finger on, it is I, not the world, that becomes empty and dark.

For now, I am thankful for this clarity and new perspective. It doesn't make the pain any easier, yet, but I know that I am moving in a healing direction. All I can do for now is let myself be still, listen to what is going on inside, and be patient with the timing and unfolding of this process.

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