Fear of Falling:
Multiple Sclerosis, Potential Space, and the Ghosts of the Real
What happens if one dare not dream anymore? If—because of an illness that steadily strips away one’s ability to actualize those beautiful imaginings of the dream—the creative, potential space of the psyche quite simply collapses, and one forgets how to play? Is this madness? I confess that it often feels like madness.
I am certainly mad. Mad as hell, in fact. I was not mad when first diagnosed; I was simply stunned. But now that I have had time to reflect (and to suffer immensely), my attitude has changed. I am mad that just at that point in my life when many of my goals were starting to be realized—I became a popular, tenured university English professor; all those years of studying and reading and thinking began to pay off with publications in prestigious Lacanian psychoanalytic venues; I bought a lovely house; and, most importantly, I found a partner I love and respect, as well as a group of the most wonderful friends in the world—none of these things seemed to be happening to me, nor did they seem to matter. They were happening to someone who was and still is preoccupied with other things: with constant pain, with uncontrollable trembling, with incessant dizziness, with increasingly uncooperative legs and the fear of falling down in front of other people, with speech difficulty, with double vision, with countless visits to neurologists, and with a host of drugs whose names are as meaningless as the drugs themselves are ineffective….
Winnicott once said that the “place where we live,” if we are to live creatively in a world of the “me,” “the transitional object,” and the “not-me,” in a world, that is to say, of “healthy” separation, is in the “playing” and the “cultural experience” that we value. We value them because they “link the past, the present, and the future.” They recall the “potential space,” in other words, between mother and child, and make orientation in a world of time, space, and otherness possible. This potential space, this “area of human living . . . neither inside the individual nor” fully “outside in the world of shared reality,” is crucial, for it enables us to shape the world we inhabit by finding compromise between some of our wildest imaginings and the resistances of objects. If we cannot live there, our world is dead, devoid of meaning, no longer safe.
I do not live there anymore. Multiple sclerosis does not just make the defense mechanisms of one’s body its own worst enemy; it does not just cause one’s immune system to begin destroying one’s own brain and central nervous system. It also psychically splits one. It turns one’s own psychic defense mechanisms against the dream, against the imagination, against phantasy life. It shuts them down, or so seriously distorts them that they become fearful monstrosities. I do not dare to dream anymore of ever returning to my beloved London, for fear that I will be too far away from doctors my HMO would pay for me to see in case of emergency. I do not dare attend parties anymore, for fear all the noise and activity will make me so dizzy that I will begin seeing double and will become nauseated. I do not go out shopping or eat out at restaurants anymore, for fear my legs will cause me to walk too slowly and irritate others, or that I will begin shaking suddenly and uncontrollably and make a grotesque spectacle of myself as I try to eat. I do not even dream of ever again having a love life with my partner, for fear that he will find all the bruises that cover my body from the daily injections disgusting.
Lacan’s work has much in common with Winnicott’s concept of potential space, for it posits that living in a world that has not gone “mad” requires that one have an experience of meaning. This is why the concept of “the symbolic order” is so central to Lacan’s work. In his third seminar on psychosis, he insists, significantly, that “what is refused in the Symbolic returns,” hauntingly, “in the Real,” that those products of experience or of the Imaginary that are not signified meaningfully for the subject come back to him as all too real. They return in daily life as frightening, overwhelming, nightmarish companions. In the collapsed (non) space of my potential space, I have many such companions. Simply watching television terrifies me—as I watch people doing things I know I can never do again: playing sports, enjoying vacations, smiling at one another over dinner out, sipping wine and laughing at parties, having witty conversations with groups of people they love. And the reality of what will happen if I can no longer do my job, if I become permanently disabled—an increasingly real possibility, as I am now on my second semester of medical leave and have been warned that if I cannot soon resume my full duties I will have to be let go—those terrible realities press on me constantly. I will lose my home. I will lose my health insurance. I will no longer be able to interact with those student minds I have come to love so much. And, most terribly, I will lose my partner, a beautiful, sweet, kind, and good man who loves me infinitely, but who does not make a great deal of money, and could never afford to support the two of us. And then I will have to go “home” to be “taken care of” by my mother, a “place” where there was never any potential space to begin with, a place where I would suffocate. A place, in short, where I will most assuredly die, either by giving up entirely and slowly diminishing, or by suddenly finding a way to free myself from all this suffering and crushing disappointment.
You will tell me that you can still hear hope in what I write, that something Real is still being signified here, that I still have some preserved potential space. And possibly you are right. Possibly that is why I am still here today. But I live, nonetheless, with the terrifying nightmare of getting out of my bed every morning, which, by the way, I often literally cannot do. And that nightmare, I think, is still preferable to dreaming and having every one of those dreams utterly destroyed by this disease that curtails more and more of my possibilities. Dreaming hopefully, I suspect, is something I cannot—will not?—ever have the experience of doing again. I am now far too afraid of falling for that.