In Sydney, my husband and I make our way to the International Transfer Terminal, not without a few mishaps and irritable moments. Jetlagged, with my ticket in hand, I board the plane to Melbourne. I am looking for row 15. I pass 10 in Business Class and suddenly find myself at 19, in Economy. Braving the oncoming flood of stressed fellow passengers, I turn around and try to find a flight attendant. “Row 15,” she says, “is upstairs.” I gasp.
Upstairs in my mind is every bit as wonderful as Ben had pictured it in our play. And I didn’t even have to pay for this upgrade. Of course, the upgraded part of the flight lasted 1 hour and 11 minutes, 3 of which were used up by the safety film, but we enjoyed every bit of it.
But getting back to Ben. It is not that Ben has no imagination. Actually, he is a visionary. The problem is that his imagination cannot bend and blur into something that isn’t quite real (Winnicott, Playing and Reality, London:Tavistock Publications Ltd., 1971), that can give him pleasure in that dreamy kind of way that enhances you just by picturing it. For Ben, as soon as he begins on that path of dreaming about what he desires, the intensity of his desire is not mitigated by fantasy. It short circuits into “needing” something real. In Fonagy et al’s term, he stops mentalizing (Fonagy P, Gyorgy G, Jurist EL, & Target M, Affect Regulation,Mentalization, and the Development of the Self. New York:Other Press, 2002).
Imagine the plight of his parents. When Ben gets a bee in his bonnet, he wants the real thing, the biggest boom box, the most powerful electric fan, anything. The internet is an opium den for kids like Ben, where they can identify and locate the biggest, the best thing that they desire. When his parents tell him that he cannot have it, he becomes disconsolate, he cannot stop asking, demanding, pleading. He promises that this is the last time he will ever ask for something like this. If they set a limit, he is miserable and makes their lives miserable. If they give in and get it for him, his excitement is unbounded, and he cannot talk about anything else, making their lives miserable in a different way.
How do I help his parents make decisions about what to do in this kind of situation? It is not easy. In our therapy, I try to engage Ben in building new capacities. “Ben,” I tell him, “You have a remarkable brain.” He looks content. “You are one of the smartest people I know.” He still looks happy. But there are parts of your brain that need work.” He looks mad and exclaims vehemently, “Not true.” “Well,” I say, “It is hard for you to stay in your imagination long enough for you to build your dreams bigger and better. Suddenly, something cracks and you fall down into reality again and want the real thing right now. That is a problem because life doesn’t work that way.” He gets belligerent for a while, but he sees that I am unflustered. He restates his position that when he desires something, he has to have it, and that is that. I call up in my mind another boy years ago who struggled with similar issues and decide to use his solution. “You can have your opinion, and I can have mine.” Ben cannot argue with that logic.
But I have gotten distracted from my message to his parents. I am on the right track now, though, because I am fully in empathic contact with them. As I leave the plane, I think, “Shall I tell Ben that I went upstairs?” But even more pressing is my concern that if I did tell him, he would ask me if there were a private pool, and somehow I feel a huge resistance to taking that fantasy away from him. That must be how his parents feel, too.