Pioneers in Object Relations Clinical Thinking:
Wilfred Ruprecht Bion (1897-1979)


On September 8th, we celebrate birthday of Wilfred Bion, one of the influential British Object Relations theorists and psychoanalytic thinkers. Here are some of his thoughts:

Psycho-analysis itself is just a stripe on the coat of the tiger. Ultimately it may meet the Tiger - The Thing Itself - O. (W. R. Bion, A Memoir of the Future, 1991).

Most people experience mental death if they live long enough. You don't have to live long to have that experience— all you have to do is to be mentally alive. (W. R. Bion, A Memoir of the Future, 1991).

Meaning is revealed by the pattern formed and the light thus trapped - not by the structure, the carved work itself. (W.Bion, A Memoir of the Future, Book I)

The human animal has not ceased to be persecuted by his mind and the thoughts usually associated with it - whatever their origin might be. (W. R. Bion).

If you have no stomach for anxiety, you are in the wrong profession. (W. R. Bion).

“Psycho-analysts must be able to tolerate the differences or the difficulties of the analysand long enough to recognize what they are. If psycho-analysts are able to interpret what the analysand says, they must have  a great capacity for tolerating their analysands' statements without rushing to the conclusion that they know  the interpretations. This is what I think Keats meant when he said Shakespeare must have been able to tolerate negative capability.” “...Beta-elements are not amenable to use in dream thoughts but are suited for use in projective identification. They are influential in producing acting out. These are objects that can be evacuated or used for a kind of thinking that depends on manipulation of what are felt to be things in themselves as if to substitute such manipulations for words or ideas. . . Alpha-function transforms sense impressions into alpha-elements which resemble, and may in fact be identical with, the visual images with which we are familiar in dreams, namely, the elements that Freud regards as yielding their latent content when the analyst has interpreted them. Failure of alpha-function means the patient cannot dream and therefore cannot sleep. As alpha-function makes the sense impressions of the emotional experience available for conscious and dream –thought the patient who cannot dream cannot go to sleep and cannot wake up.”

“I shall state the theory first in terms of a model, as follows: The infant suffering pangs of hunger and fear that it is dying, wracked by guilt and anxiety, and impelled by greed, messes itself and cries. The mother picks it up, feeds it and comforts it, and eventually the infant sleeps. Reforming the model to represent the feelings of the infant we have the following version: the infant, filled with painful lumps of faeces, guilt, fears of impending death, chunks of greed, meanness and urine, evacuates these bad objects into the breast that is not there. As it does so the good object turns the no-breast (mouth) into a breast, the faeces and urine into milk, the fears of impending death and anxiety into vitality and confidence, the greed and meanness into feelings of love and generosity and the infant sucks its bad property, now translated into goodness, back again.”

About Bion:

“Bion the analyst is indescribable. Insofar as analysis is so unique and private an experience, it is too laden with subjectivity, and is also too unrecoverable an experience to journalize about. Nevertheless, most of those who have been analyzed by Bion agree that he constituted perhaps one of the most formidable and impressive psycho-analytic instruments of ours or any time. His sense of self-discipline was monumental, and yet his fount of interpretation was almost overflowing in its richness, depth, perspective, hue, allusion and originality. One at first has the idea of a DaVinci working on the restoration of one's shabby structure until the idea gradually develops that the shabby structure is but the current ruin of an edifice worthy of this DaVinci; and, moreover, he was building it with the mortar and brick from one's own productions. Herein lay his genius as an analyst and also his deep respect for human beings who may have long since forfeited their own self-respect… ‘Bion paradoxically seems to advise people not to read books but rather to write them. I myself have become a great and grateful ‘victim of this advice” (Grotstein 1981).


"In addition to introducing the reader to Bion's ideas, the Symingtons offer a highly interesting critique of his work. Because of the limitations of space, and because the critique is not only the most original part of the book, but is bound to be the most controversial as well, I will focus my attention on that. It centres on some important questions about the nature of psychoanalytic knowledge and the relation of theory to observation and practice. These questions were also quite important to Bion: inLearning from Experience, he described a psychotic patient who was unable to recognise the qualities that distinguish a mind from non-mental objects, and whose world, as a result, consisted only of inanimate material objects. He went on to observe that:

The scientist whose investigations include the stuff of life itself finds himself in a situation that has a parallel in that of the patients I am describing … It appears that our rudimentary equipment for ‘thinking’ thoughts is adequate when the problems are associated with the inanimate, but not when the object for investigation is the phenomena of life itself … [this] means that the field for investigation, all investigation being ultimately scientific, is limited, by human inadequacy, to those phenomena that have the characteristics of the inanimate. We assume that the psychotic limitation is due to an illness: but that of the scientist is not. Investigation of the assumption illuminates disease on one hand and scientific method on the other … Confronted with the complexities of the human mind the analyst must be circumspect in following even accepted scientific method; its weakness may be closer to the weakness of psychotic thinking than superficial scrutiny would admit (1962, p.14).

The problem Bion has formulated is this: the scientific methods and modes of thought that are appropriate to an understanding of the inanimate world (such as those of physics or chemistry), or to an understanding of the mechanical aspects of biological or social systems (such as those of physiology and behaviorism), yield models that are mechanical and therefore inappropriate for understanding states of mind. How, then, may we psychoanalysts arrive at a description of the mind without falling prey to the scientific version of what crippled Bion's patient—an inability to think about or perceive emotional realities that restricts (perhaps disastrously) our thoughts and imagination to the realm of the inanimate?" (Caper, 1998).


Wilfred Ruprecht Bion. Past and Future

W. R. Bion: Between Past and Future - Introduction


This is the Introduction we wrote to Parthenope Bion Talamo, Franco Borgogno e Silvio A. Merciai, Eds. (2000).
W. R. Bion: Between Past and Future. Karnac Books, London & New York.

It is reproduced here as an homage to Parthenope, courtesy of Graham Sleight and Karnac Books.

Retrierved from: http://www.sicap.it/~merciai/bion/en/future.htm


Parthenope Bion Talamo died on 16 July 1998 in a tragic car accident, together with her younger daughter, Patrizia, who was only 18.

This book, along with its companion title, Bion’s Legacy to Groups, concludes several years of work dedicated to the study, clarification, and dissemination of the thoughts of her father and culminating in the International Centennial Conference on the Work of W. R. Bion, held in Turin, Italy, 16–19 July 1997. Parthenope acted not only as its President, but also as a gentle host to the many participants from all over the world. Although she was very tired when she opened the Conference, she was smiling and excited—and this is the way we remember her.

Work on the manuscript was almost finished when Parthenope died. One of us [S.A.M.] completed the final editing, in no way changing or revising what we had done and shared. This is why, for example, we have left the original dedication to our spouses, Luigi, Mariella, and Mirella.

We feel indebted to Parthenope for all that she taught us and for what we learnt together with her. She created a special atmosphere among us, emphasizing W. R. Bion’s core idea that to be a psychoanalyst implies a willingness to maintain a full sense of freedom when thinking, feeling, theorizing, and being curious and aware of one’s ignorance.

We deeply miss our beloved friend Parthenope. This book should be read as her legacy and as our grateful homage to her. In producing it, we would like to share our mourning with all colleagues who met her and came to know and love her.


Parthenope Bion Talamo, Franco Borgogno, Silvio A. Merciai

Only the Ship of Fools is making the journey this year.
W. H. Auden, "Atlantis"

This anthology can be thought of as being the natural off-spring of the International Centennial Conference on the Work of W. R. Bion, which was held in Turin, Italy, in July 1997. It is its "natural" offspring not so much in the sense of illegitimate—though some of the papers have been slightly revised from the original presented version, making use of the stimuli furnished by the Conference itself, and so could be said to have an unknown plurality of parents—but in the sense that as the Conference was a transient occasion, the desire to leave some more tangible sign of its existence was "naturally" very strong.

We decided that the book was to represent as nearly as feasibly possible the atmosphere that resulted from the intermingling of:

(a) the original formulation of the Conference philosophy as expressed right from the start in the call for papers (i.e. not to celebrate Bion’s thought, but to give room to all who have continued his work with an independent way of mind: very much a work-in-progress affair, with the possibility of presenting ideas that may not have been fully worked out or tied up to other parts of psychoanalytic theory—Bion’s or other people’s—with which they might seem to have a natural affinity);

(b) the development of the above during the preparatory months, as more and more people contributed advice and ideas, especially via the Internet mailing list—a kind of open group working through the possible meaning of the Conference itself;

(c) the realization of our dreamt philosophy, the Conference itself, that is to say, the resulting mix of our intentions, other people’s interpretation of them, and the actual outcome.

This obviously means that the criterion for the inclusion of papers in this collection is a subjective one (though, on the other hand, who has ever seen a human being do things for objective reasons—i.e. other people’s—and still feel that their own capacity, great or small, for creativity, is satisfied?). We three pooled our individual feelings, and, basing ourselves on what we each felt about the Conference, while still warmed by the heat (metaphorical and, unfortunately, also physical) of the event itself, made our choices on the basis of an emotional adherence to the spirit of the Conference as we understood it. This perception of the "quiddity" of the meeting itself (to use Joyce’s term)—the realization of what had, up to the opening of the Conference, only been a partially shared and barely verbalizable set of fantasies and phantasies—was an extraordinarily important experience for all three of us and, we believe, was shared in different ways by nearly everyone at some point during the four days. It was indeed a scientific meeting with a significant emotional component, which was perceivable at the time and which we have tried, if possible, to transmit via this book: our desire to think, keeping mental freedom and openness and preserving "wild thoughts" as such.

* * *

We feel that the Conference—and also this book—are faithful reflections on the development of psychoanalytical thought following on the stimuli provided by Bion’s work. He was not the founder of a "new" school of psychoanalytical theory but was very firmly embedded in Freudian theory and ways of thinking: thanks to the detailed analysis and further study of many of his intuitions which this book provides, it should be possible to integrate them more thoroughly into the Freudian cultural heritage.

The chapters of the book have been organized using an intentionally neutral criterion—that of the alphabetical order of the authors’ surnames (with the exception of the first two chapters, which are by way of a more personal introduction to Bion)—so as to leave the reader free to invent his own non-sequential reading, a creation of his own pathway through the book. This choice mirrors the almost "do-it-yourself" atmosphere of the Conference itself, at which, while subject to the inevitable limitations of reality, people could choose from among the several ongoing panels those threads that they wished to follow up.

Most of the authors deal with Bion’s later work as well as with the earlier—a new departure compared with the many (even fairly recent) writings on Bion that did not take the second half of his production into account, as well as a certain persistent tendency to discount his later work as irrelevant or not serious. Almost all the authors are psychoanalysts, and the differences in language reflect both different approaches to different parts of Bion’s writings and also, probably, different styles of psychoanalytical culture in different countries.

* * *

The Foreword by Léon Grinberg is almost more of an "introduction to Bion as a person" than a survey of the book’s chapters, and is in itself much in keeping with the spirit of the Conference, at which personal reactions to the stimuli furnished by Bion’s ideas were much to the fore. It is followed by Francesca Bion’s recollection of W. R. Bion, which touches mainly on his individual characteristics, and by Parthenope Bion Talamo’s short chapter, which tries to bridge the gap between "my father" and "W. R. Bion", making an attempt to show how his personality had certain stable features that suffused both his private and his professional life.

Four movements and three "contrapuntal episodes" go to make up Deocleciano Bendocchi Alves’s symphony, a sort of poetical tale or personal echo of an autobiography inspired by Bion and his work. In order to appreciate this chapter, the reader is required to make the same effort of refinement and close listening as the author has made, and to participate in the affectionate aesthetic experience of not knowing right from the beginning what the paper’s theme will be. Instead, he is asked—as happens every day in our professional lives—to be available for hearing, for listening, in short, for dreaming.

"Human reasoning"—and specifically psychoanalytical reasoning—are taken severely to task by Emanuele Bonasia in "The Sick Syllogism", in which he discusses what he feels to be the fundamentally unsatisfactory results of all theories, philosophical and psychoanalytical, when it is a question of coming to terms with the reality of one’s own death. he states that the anxiety, which he terms realistic, connected with the inevitability of our own end "has, to a great extent, been denied in psychoanalysis, through the defensive employment of different theories, which include those of castration anxiety and the death instinct". After a brief discussion of the main aspects of Freud’s and Klein’s theories in this field, the author suggests that Bion did develop some conceptual tools useful in thinking about death, namely the concept of the psychotic part of the personality, transformations, invariance, catastrophic change. Bonasia uses these concepts to develop the idea of lies about death as based on a hallucinatory transformation, particularly in the fields of myth and religion, and links this up with a sort of primary, basic resistance to analytical work.

Franco Borgogno and Silvio A. Merciai take a specific aspect of Bion’s development as an analyst as their subject. Without feeling hampered by having to "belong" to a given school of analytical thought or "depend" on some specific clique subscribing to a limited field of theory, they follow up Bion’s development, comparing him to other analysts (Winnicott, P. Heimann, and, above all, Ferenczi) who bravely fought against the use of jargon in the representation of psychoanalytical experience, trying, as they went along, to free themselves from the ideological components of thinking and from the socialized narcissistic defences that feed the latter. From this standpoint, the authors—while commenting on Bion’s entire output as an analyst—focus their attention on Cogitations in particular, suggesting that it can be read as a sort of new "Clinical Diary" à la Ferenczi, showing us both the link between the writings of the London Bion and those of the American one, which is, so to speak, closer to us in time, and the dramatic change that took place in his psychoanalytical position around about 1967.

The authors emphasize the relevance of this change, stressing the great extent to which it was prepared and matured, slowly and not without contrasts and suffering. This led Bion to part company to a certain extent with the Kleinian group to which he had principally referred until then. Indeed, he gradually formulated theoretical and technical positions that were increasingly autonomous and independent, more centred on listening to the patients’ individual specific voices and more authentically open both to his own thoughts and emotions and those of the patient during the analytical encounter.

Remembering a week’s work with Bion during the summer of 1968, Haydée Faimberg identifies Bion’s principal message as a critique of the position of the analyst as regards knowing and coming to know. This is a position that narcissistically blocks the session that "has not yet come to pass". Referring to previous papers of hers, the author ties up her thought on "listening to listening" (1981, 1996) with the "negative capability" of which Bion speaks and discusses the Freudian concept of Nachträglichkeit from an original stance. According to Faimberg, Bion is classical in the sense that Calvino gives to this term—namely, that a classic produces a new meaning at each reading for every reader. He is a classical psychoanalyst, therefore, since by choice psychoanalysis deals with what is new, different, unconscious, in its attempt at releasing the process of knowledge and comprehension from alienating ideologies and identifications.

The chapter by Antonino Ferro does not deal with sexuality as such, but, as the title declares, with sexuality in the consulting-room, with all the tales that gradually characterize the analytical couple’s experience being a metaphor for it. It is a metaphor of the meeting of two minds and of the qualities that characterize its basic attitude—producing transformation and thought or not doing so.

The author reflects on what it is in the session, which furthers the burgeoning thought of the patient. in an original way he melds Bion’s theories with those of other authors, introducing his own intriguing concept of "balpha"-elements, neither beta nor alpha, which imply a lack of "alphabetization" with which the analytical couple has to deal by making the balpha-elements visible so that they can be digested and become elements of thought.

André Green, after a brief introduction in which he remarks amusingly on his credentials for having been invited to give the opening main lecture of the Conference, programmatically entitled "The Primordial Mind and the Work of the Negative", states the architectonics of his paper: "Bion’s work can be divided into two categories: the first represents his attempts to build a new psychoanalytic theory which would not only be an extension of Freud’s work or even of Klein’s, but a contemporary new formulation of psychoanalysis starting from an entirely different point of view." This new formulation is that of psychoanalysis as a scientific deductive system, whereas the second category is that of Bion’s "psychoanalytic science fiction". Green suggests that we apply Bion’s own model to his thinking and wonders what we can learn from the experience of reading him: Green himself has picked out the theme of the primordial mind as the main path to follow in his study of Bion, and he illuminates most clearly the roots of Bion’s thinking in Freud’s. This pathway leads him to a very important discussion of the "negative" and shows how in Bion’s work this concept has been deepened to include two different types of negative—"nothing" and "no thing", whose differentiation has very far-reaching consequences.

James Grotstein, one of the most affectionate and inspired students of Bion’s work, read a stimulating main lecture at the Conference and wholly revised it for this book, starting from the suggestions offered by the floor discussion that followed his presentation. His chapter, even if somewhat affected by the limited space available in the book, offers the reader an illuminating vertex not only on Bion’s episteme, but also on Bion as analyst and thinker. The main focus is, nevertheless, the concept of O (one of the most controversial and discussed themes in Bion’s work, and possibly a frequently misunderstood one) and the suggestion of a "transcendent position": on this matter, the author strictly adheres to "psychoanalytic and epistemological vertices even when applied to mysticism itself". "O", he says, "is one’s reality without pretence or distortion. This reality can be a symptom, the pain of viewing beautiful autumn leaves, gazing upon the mystique of the Mona Lisa della Gioconda, contemplating the horror of Ypres (for Bion), trying to remember Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Auschwitz, or Vietnam, or resting comfortably beside one’s mate trying to contemplate the exquisiteness and ineffability of the moment. Transcendence is the mute ‘Other’ that lies ‘just beyond, within, and around’ where we are. It is the core of our very Being-in-itself. As I shall hypothesize, the mystic or genius is that aspect of us which is potentially able to be at one with transcendence as O—but only after we have ‘cleared’ with P<->S and D. The mystic, according to Bion, is one who sees things as they really are—through the deception or camouflage of words and symbols." Grotstein not only offers us a comprehensive framework for understanding the so-called mystical dimension of Bion the analyst and thinker (quoting from philosophers such as Kant and Heidegger, and from psychoanalysts, such as Klein and Matte Blanco), but he also puts forward the idea that the transcendent position could be seen as a significant move "beyond" Freud’s and Klein’s main theories and as an interpretation of the analytical process, which is at one and the same time both classical and modern.

As Isabel Luzuriaga points out, the title of her chapter ("Thinking Aloud about Technique") represents the contents exactly: the author’s emotional experience with Bion as an internal object, while she reflects about her work with her patients. The author describes in detail how Bion’s theory of container and contained has modified both her analytical attitude and her technique. in a Kleinian way, she underlines how, in the light of Bion’s classical papers of the 1950s and 1960s, the principal difficulty in using oneself in order to understand the patient lies in having to keep in mind the different aspects present in the session (healthy and ill, libidinal/vital and death-dealing/destructive, neurotic and psychotic) all at the same time without excluding or undervaluing any one part in favour of another.

Alberto Meotti, in his interesting chapter on A Memoir of the Future, "A Dreamlike Vision", explores the possible meanings and intentions of Bion’s last major oeuvre. He suggests that Bion proposes in the Trilogy "a sort of dream full of images, a kind of manifest content that could be the anticipation of a latent controversy that might involve in the future the collapse of a substantial part of present knowledge and the development of new psychoanalytic theories". The author’s philosophical background emerges in his further suggestion that Bion has drawn on the servants of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit as a sort of model for the most innovative members of the group, who have to labour in the background with the most obscure matters in order to humanize the latter and make them generally accessible and useful. In his clarifying exploration and discussion of this difficult text, Meotti illuminates the reasons why Bion may have felt that the dreamlike vision was the most appropriate for his presentation of his ideas, and he touches on the very sombre side of Bion’s theorizing on aggressiveness and destruction.

Gianni Nebbiosi and Romolo Petrini’s chapter clarifies and deepens our understanding of Bion’s concept of "common sense", illustrating its central position in Bion’s work in general. The authors highlight the dual definition that Bion gives of "common sense" (meaning the correlation between sensorial perceptions in the individual and also that "sense" which is common to all the members of a group), teasing out the important implications of this concept in clinical experience, with particular reference to the analyst’s position, communication, and interpretative activity. The authors’ standpoint can be thought of as being in many ways relational, and in this sense they suggest links between Bion’s thought and that of authors who have studied the subject of attachment and have worked in the field of infant research.

We are indebted to the devotion of Rosa Beatriz Pontes Miranda de Ferreira for the preservation and recent publication of Bion’s 1963 paper entitled "The Grid" (Bion, 1963b). The fruits of her continued study, backed up and permeated by her own mathematical training, of this important paper, carried out over many years, together with a lively, friendly group of students and colleagues in Rio de Janeiro, are presented here. This is an extremely clear discussion of the structure of the Grid and the theories connected to it in which the author goes back and forth between the many scattered references in Bion’s own work to weave together a richly textured fabric of theories, showing how the latter mesh together and lead out of each other. In the interesting section that shows practical uses of the Grid on clinical material, the author brings out several subtle points, such as, at the beginning of Section V, the need for the language of achievement to be couched in Category C terms. The last section, which seems a mere "outline" of Bion’s work, furnishes a great deal of food for thought as one struggles to tease out the implications of the subdivisions and caesuras that Rosa Beatriz has chosen to highlight.

Paulo Cesar Sandler deals in his contribution with the core problem of thinking and attempts to help us focus more on thinking than on thought—expanding one of the more penetrating intuitions of Bion’s theory. Through the constant emphasis and practice of paradox and brilliant, somewhat surprising suggestions as a way of keeping our minds free and open, the author suggests that the digestive model and the reproductive one of the thinking activity should be integrated and consolidated in a working model for our comprehension of the analytical session as well as of life itself. We hope the reader can feel the same sense of "sane" confusion and richness of stimuli to be worked through, when reading his chapter, as we felt when editing it for the book. Actually, this book was prepared to stimulate free thinking, as we share the author’s idea that "Thinking allows a marriage of the person with his or her inner reality, instinctual needs, and real possibilities and limitations—the person as he or she really is. With the aid of thinking processes one is able to reach some partial knowledge of who one is in reality. To know, to think, to live, and to love are inseparable facts, made separate by failures in thinking."

The last chapter of the book, written by a group of Argentinian analysts led by Elizabeth Tabak de Bianchedi, who is well known, together with Léon Grinberg, for her pioneering work on Bion’s theories, discusses the development of Bion’s thought about lies and truth and illuminates the shift in his position as to the nature of truth from a more Aristotelian view to a more Platonic/Kantian one. The authors tease out, in a passionate and moving way, the distinctions between lies and falsity with reference to the truth; they reflect on the implications of their ideas with regard to both mental functioning and mental health and illustrate their points with telling clinical vignettes.

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