I had quite a day. Well, maybe not particularly. But my head is full of stuff bouncing around in it.
I am in the Capital City now and it’s different for me than the last time I was here. It’s hard to describe, but I will try, because the main thing that happened today is I realized my experiences are real. I am not making this stuff up.
I don’t mean the abuse—that’s the part of it that is acceptable to talk about and people can understand and relate to. I mean the other stuff. The way things feel to me at other times, ordinary things.
The thing is that it has seemed that things could be made up, because it is easier to deal with them if you do make a story out of them. It kind of makes them make more sense, so if I tell myself about them in a way that doesn’t feel real, that is maybe too romanticized or in some way feels fictionalized, that’s easier.
But the way I feel inside and the way life feels to me, the part that seems to be different from what most other people feel, I do feel. And there are other people who feel the same things I do, and there are reasons for it.
It is far beyond just the schemas that arose from being abused. It is more than flashbacks. Something happened that changed my entire experience of being alive, and it is quite real. I think it can be changed but, even if it can’t, I can work with it. I can accept that I am like this.
What happened, mainly, is I left C with her biological father who is astonishingly like C—very much seems to speak from the heart just as C does, looks like C almost exactly. And he asked me to come to his house and stay with him, although I think he is a poor man and probably has no space in his house, and C first said rather abruptly, “Uncle wants to leave,” meaning the driver. A few minutes later, he asked again and C looked pretty much blank. Somewhere in there was some texting.
I kept thinking about this later, her total lack of expression at that moment, when two important people in her life came together and met for the first time. What happened?
And then later in the evening, I thought how everyone describes her as “frank.” That is a very typical description of her from friends writing TBHs (To be honest), for example.
Those two thoughts came together in my mind and I thought she has an attachment disorder. She absolutely does. She is the kid on the playground who runs up to strangers for a chat but keeps her distance from her parents, because she has relationship needs, but all of the feelings associated with relationships are too distressing. It is absolutely real. About one tenth of the time, when I am writing texts like “You are in my heart” kind of randomly in the day just to reach out with whatever might help her, I feel like this is really important and it helps. And the other nine tenths of the time I feel like a madwoman who must be terrifically needy and lonely to be doing this shit.
I am not mad. I am seeing her experience of disorganized attachment and responding to it at least minimally responsively. I am telling her, indirectly, I know separations are stressful for you, and I care about that, but it is also okay. It is okay for you to feel the stress of separation, and it is also okay for the separation to happen.
Which is what normally happens when you are little. You are distressed over a separation and someone sees your distress, acknowledges that distress as real, and takes some action to soothe your distress.
And somehow, this didn’t happen for C. Nor did it happen for me, and so that distress of the separation never became a perception that could be acknowledged or made sense of. That idea that separations from important people are distressing and stressful, but still manageable events never became a part of my emotional landscape. It became something else. It became my distress over separations is very bad. It is a life-threatening, but I cannot express my distress in any way or take any action to soothe it. It is both overwhelming and hopeless.
What I have been trying to communicate to C over the last year is that the distress is real. I see it. I know it exists. It is not bad, and it can be managed.
That blank expression at the moment of reunion from one important person and a separation from another important person would have happened because she totally shut down. She was so terrified of one separation and one reunion that she shut down entirely, and she wanted it to be over with quickly because it was disorganizing her. Those feelings of distress and anxiety over both events were bad and wrong, could not be acknowledged, and could not be managed either. They were both unreal and hopeless.
That’s why she went blank.
This happens because in your own family normal attachment behaviours are not responded to the way that a child needs them to be responded to. The parent does not know how to respond to attachment, because their own attachment is disorganized. So the child cries over a separation and they don’t know how to soothe that child. It might not even be that they respond in a rejecting way, but they themselves respond in a disorganized way that isn’t effective. The parent might rock the child, then hit them, then leave them in the crib to cry for hours, then want to play.
That is something I have noticed about VP Ma’am. She gets disorganized around me. She rushes forward, reaches out in some way that isn’t always quite appropriate, and then runs away again before I even respond to her. Or she lashes out. It used to drive me insane—why does she ask me things if she can’t be bothered to listen to the answer? Why does she seem to revert to broken English around me (which I can’t figure out)? Because she becomes disorganized. She stops being able to coordinate the information she is taking in through her senses with her experiences and create an effective plan of action. Her mind falls apart entirely.
I have also noticed I instinctively recognize that disorganized state, and it frightens me. As soon as I see her when she is in that state, I want to flee. Because the disorganized state does not always end well. It ends with feeling disregarded (because she reaches out, I respond to her, and she doesn’t take in my response) or worse—attacked. I think anyone with a parent who has disorganized attachment recognizes that state.
Disorganized attachment is passed down.
Something must create it initially, but after that it gets passed down. And I think it actually means that no element of living within relationships gets managed smoothly. Looking for points of connection doesn’t get managed. Feeling ashamed (I just did something wrong and we need to re-connect again) doesn’t get managed. Setting boundaries doesn’t get managed. You don’t even manage separations. Because none of those perceptions are permitted. Ironically, this means they manifest as overwhelming impulses, with no coordination between the desire (whatever it is) and memories of other experiences of that desire—which would normally give you a roadmap of how to do it. It’s just kind of patchy. Like snuggling worked well that time my aunt came over when I was six, maybe we should snuggle. (Thinking of the second time I tutored C, when she pressed her body against mine, something totally inappropriate for a 14-year-old Country X child to be doing to a teacher.)
From a therapeutic point of view, I think what helps with an attachment disorder is to widen one’s range of acceptance a bit beyond what is normal in society so that the feeling behind it can be seen as real. From there, the person with the attachment disorder can start to integrate that feeling and begin to make different choices about it. (Like maybe we shouldn’t snuggle, but I can tell you something I did today.) There are no choices about how to get a need met when it seems that that need cannot be seen or be real. Of course, it isn’t that simple.
Because shame is the foundation of conscience, and conscience is shaped by punishment and rejection of various kinds. Conscience is something felt, and not just articulated, and a person with an attachment disorder feels implicitly that everything to do with relationships is wrong without being able to articulate that. I mean, you feel it is wrong, but that actually makes no sense within your conscious mind.
So you reach out, and you feel ashamed. You set a boundary and you feel ashamed. Everything makes you ashamed. And there is no way around it. So regulating that shame so that you can reshape your conscience to accommodate the reality of relationships is part of the process. It’s pretty dreadful. As a process, it’s awful. I keep having to do things that feel wrong to the absolute core and I have to be able to stay in touch with my feelings enough that I can begin to have other feelings that would let me know it’s safe.
And you’re afraid. I have spent so long just calming the fear in my body, but that’s the only way to do it. Lie there—mostly when I am beginning to relax enough to sleep or when I have woken up from sleep—and just control my breathing and notice my body is afraid and just keep working at calming myself so that my body can begin to learn that it doesn’t need to be afraid right now.
It’s fucked up, but there you are. If you shut down the shame, the other feelings don’t get integrated, and you never quite notice that, in this case, it seems to be okay. Or it isn’t okay, and the reason it isn’t okay is X. And the fear just has to be gone through. Again and again. It’s quite horrible, but it has to be done.