I have this little microcosm of something, which is the staff room, where I have been watching people interact for 3 years. Now, they are Country Xers. We are culturally different. And there are only about 10 of them, so who knows if their behaviour is typical. There are four of them that seem to me to have disorganized attachment to some degree, and they are the ones who upset me. VP Ma’am pops in from time to time, so she would make five. The others don’t scare me most of the time. We have a very nice PE teacher who just joined the school, and when he hums and whistles, I don’t feel scared, but when Arts Sir whistles and hums, I feel really scared. Because the PE teacher is not demanding my attention unconsciously. He is just pleasing himself. But Arts Sir is unconsciously demanding my attention, because he feels rejected and unimportant and lonely that I am deep in my work.
About a month ago, we had a meeting during which the principal told us about how to do the new performance evaluation document, which is a stressful topic for most people, and especially stressful for anyone with some degree of childhood trauma. There was a moment in which VP Ma’am and Arts Sir both had urgent business to discuss with me of some kind—they called my name and spoke to me at the same time. Meanwhile, I was being kind of funneled through a crowded doorway and one of the others with disorganized attachment (in my opinion, of course) pushed me. So two people were demanding my attention, and someone else was physically invading my space. I think one of the kids—the Boy or C—had also sent a text, but that would have been about an expectation that it was well past time for me to come home and reconnect to them. Meanwhile, the meeting made me stressed, and I wanted to be left alone to calm down.
It really struck me at that moment how stress affects people with trauma backgrounds and we respond to the stress within each other in how we interact. Three people, by reaching out, one person by shoving someone away, me by wanting to run away.
But I have also noticed over the course of the last year that most people, in times of stress, do reach out. It isn’t something only children do. Adults do it, but we don’t notice we are doing it, because it’s sometimes quite sophisticated. It might not be an overt, “I need support with this issue.” It might be you talk more about the Blue Jays or whatever. We gather people close to us and biologically, when we pull people to us, their proximity helps us calm down.
When people with traumatic childhoods do that, it doesn’t work as well, because people are frightening as well as calming. The instinct to pull someone close is still in force, but what happens after that is different. There might be a rupture or an intensification of the distress rather than an automatic soothing.
The other thing is I have realized I have more people in my life with attachment issues than is typical. My acquaintance circle is not a random sample, and the people around me have more trouble regulating their emotions just like I do. So in times of stress, my difficulty coping with my intense emotions is shared by them, and they might feel just as overwhelmed as I do, even though my problem is not their problem and they don’t need to feel stressed about it.
I noticed something like that when I was really stressed over all of the formalities of leaving plus the death anniversary—the performance evaluation, plane tickets, what to do about C—and we also had these other activities that VP Ma’am and I were both doing, so I had to interact with her and she also reached out to me for support a lot and it was support I couldn’t give her. I remember it was terrifying just to stand next to her and feel the terror and anger in her body at assembly. So there were these times when she reached out to me, and I felt very trapped by this injection of terror and anger into my already stressful day. I felt so trapped my mind stopped working completely sometimes.
I was reaching out to my therapist at this time, and I remember sending an email after one of these instances because I knew I needed to do something in order to get on with the day, to teach my class, and somehow behave normally, and just framing the email calmed me down. Just imagining her mind as I tried to explain my mind made it feel that I had this person with me, and I felt calm enough to think again and my mind kind of unstuck.
I went through years of therapy feeling ashamed of reaching out for support so much, but I have realized in the years since that this is human, it is natural. The difference is that what happens after I reach out does not necessarily help me feel calmer. That is Problem A. Problem B is that I am much more frightened more frequently than most people, so if I gave into my natural, human urge to reach out, I would be intrusive to other people. I have to self-soothe in situations where other people would get soothing from others, because I am not always soothed by others and because I have trauma memories to deal with.
But I think for years I have talked to people who saw my reaching out for support as a wish to stay dependent on others and a refusal to develop adult levels of independence. It was so shaming, although that was never deliberate. It was never overtly stated, but I know that various therapists did think that about me. I wasn’t imagining that.