I read some really good stuff on attachment yesterday, and it explained to me what is happening in my mind in a way that nothing ever has. I have never read anything that made what I am going through actually make sense. I have always ended up with a feeling of incompleteness, like there is some piece of my experience that makes what I am reading or learning about not make sense.
One of them was Relational and Body-Centered Practices for Healing Trauma by Sharon Stanley. I read the free bits online, but it was mind-blowingly instructive. The other was “Does Attachment Theory Really Matter?”
It was something else to read. I have never felt that my experiences were ever heard or understood by anyone, that anyone felt like they were worth thinking about or listening to or trying to imagine. I was told about them by people who could not imagine what I felt or what life was like for me. I had never registered that before at a conscious level. I have told my experiences to people who did not know what they were, and thought they did. I knew, sitting across from my therapists over the years, I am not being heard or seen. The therapist cannot imagine the feelings I am having or what life is like for me. And I did not know that was what I was experiencing. I felt like I had to try harder to not see myself so that I could be and feel what they believed I already was and felt. It reinforced that feeling that I am wrong and bad.
It is hitting me very hard this morning, a day later, what it is like to be 43 years old, and feel for the first time that I am worth someone seeing and understanding, and that in the past my experiences of trying to get help for myself reinforced the idea that I was a throw-away person and the only way to get any support at all was to stop seeing myself, because I am not worth seeing. No one can see me, and I should try harder not to see myself, because who I am and what life is like for me is wrong and bad.
And here someone I didn’t know was writing in a way that felt accurate to me, that made me felt seen and known. It felt like a miracle. So I was sitting in the staffroom, having eaten lunch, reading this.
I don’t know that someone else would read that and feel known in the same way, but it worked that way for me. The main point was about connection and how painful it is not to have it and that the problems with emotion regulation and with fear that the trauma causes later deprive people abused in childhood of connection throughout their lives.
Yes, it does.
I sat in the staffroom later. Some of the support staff were sitting there just kind of killing time. The other teachers were in a meeting which I did not need to attend. I was re-marking papers, and the staff members were chatting. One of them was hitting the table and I was scared, and it made me think life is always like this for me. I can’t connect to people that easily, because we are on different wave lengths a lot of the time. They are bored and just kind of physically stimulating themselves, and what they are doing terrifies me. People make loud noises, they make startling noises, and they also express strong emotions and I am really, really scared. It is scary for me to be around people, because the things they do just normally really, really scare me. My inner world is very different from most other people’s, and it’s hard to attune to each other—at all, I don’t mean in an intimate way. I just mean in a normal way. So I end up profoundly deprived of connection. All the time.
I was sitting quietly, looking at papers, and probably 90% of my attention and energy was being devoted to calming the terror inside me. If I am trying instead to attend to a conversation or there are many people around all doing things that frighten me, I don’t have the attention or energy left to calm down. My attention is being demanded elsewhere, and I just freeze inside. I stop feeling. I lose my connection to myself when I am around other people, because I run out of attention and energy to calm myself down.
It is really, really lonely.
Getting connection stirs up all of these old feelings for me, but it also creates feelings in the present, because I am so profoundly deprived of connection. When a connection ends, I don’t know when it will happen again or if I will feel connected again in an hour, or a week, or a year, and so it creates a lot of sadness for me and a lot of anguish. I have these profound losses in the past, and also this feeling of loss in the present, because I can’t reliably create a feeling of connection—for a lot of reasons, but one of them being just that my trauma experiences create a different inner world for me than for other people, and it is hard to bridge that gap.
The other factor it made me think of is that I have so little control. I can’t control my internal reactions to things. I know there is nothing dangerous about someone banging on a desk as they speak, and yet I feel scared anyway. I can’t control that fear response in me. It is conditioned. Like Pavlov’s dogs salivating, I feel fear a lot, about a lot of things that don’t scare other people. I can’t control the scary things that other people do or that just happen, and I can’t control my internal response to it. People like to tell me that I have control, but I don’t. I can control my response to that fear to some extent, in some situations, and when I am not overloaded with other mental tasks, I am able to calm myself. But a lot of the time, I am overloaded, and I just shut down, because life goes on. It doesn’t give me a time out when I have too much going on.
I have seen that—as I have started to be able to feel calm and connected at home (it used to take days and not just hours). I go to school and gradually shut down over the course of the day until, by the time I go home, I pretty much feel made out of wood.
I was thinking about the idea of emotions going in waves. Mine still don’t, because inevitably something happens. The phone rings, someone comes to the door, I need to do something that requires a different mood in order to accomplish, and my feelings just switch off. I was sitting outside today for a bit, waiting for the group marking to start, and I was still pondering what I had read. Someone asked me a question, and I answered it, and we talked a bit, and I suddenly realized I just shut down. I was thinking about something intense that made me feel really alive. I had to put it away, and then I felt dead. I was talking to someone, and I was feeling dead so that I could talk to them, so that I could have a normal, low-key conversation with someone.
So losing connection feels painful to me. It is really, really painful. Because connection happens so rarely and I have so little control over it happening.
Also, I have read that people with disorganized attachment have stories about their childhoods that are incoherent.
Yes, they do, because their minds are incoherent. The problem isn’t the childhood narrative. The problem is the ability to process emotions, which is part of pretty much everything. To create a coherent narrative, you have to become someone capable of making sense of emotions. It’s really, really hard, because it’s hard to communicate your experiences to someone else in that case. I remember having that realization: if I want anyone to understand me, I have to really work at it. I have to do homework for therapy, which is to prepare my narrative, because otherwise I have absolutely zero chance of being understood. I didn’t connect it’s because I don’t make sense, but that’s the reason it happened. I remember the frustration of never being understood, but I did not realize I don’t make sense to people. I can’t create a narrative of myself that makes sense.
My life proceeds as a series of bright patches amidst a sea of woolly emptiness and despair. There are these moments when, for whatever reason, I am able to connect to myself or to other people, and they are very, very bright. I remember them as things which are alive in every way, in a sensory way, in a felt way, because I have been kind of switched “on.” The rest of it is like this boring movie. I don’t even want to remember it, because it’s this torture just to get through. It’s so boring. It’s a weird way to live and I think it’s also weird for someone else to try to understand that.
I was marking the day before yesterday all day, and I wound up extremely tired. I think I fell asleep at 6 pm yesterday. During the marking, I suddenly realized I am really, really bored. I think that is probably why I felt so tired. I was bored for six hours, continually. My mind was on a mechanical task that had no interest to me, and I was using all of my attentional resources to screen out distractions: everyone’s terrifying behaviour, which I could not escape, my own experience of fear internally which I was too exhausted after hours of trying to calm to keep trying to calm. And I shut down. All day long. It’s horrible. It’s a horrible way to live. Other people were coping with the boredom by reaching out for attention, by sharing bits of things, by making alarming sounds or singing. I couldn’t do anything, because I was just scared.