I want you to watch this video. No need to listen to the music if you don’t like it. Watch the images.
This is disorganized attachment—in my opinion. This is what it feels like.
It is a series of disconnected images because shutting down emotions a lot of the time affects your experience of events and the way memories of those events are formed so that a lot of life is a blur, and these other moments when your feelings break through are experienced as moments of vivid, vibrant life. Whether they are pleasant or unpleasant experiences, you feel more alive in them, because they are encoded in a way that feels real.
So they don’t make a lot of sense, because they are experienced in isolation, partly due to these long gaps in between, when emotions aren’t part of the landscape, but maybe also because you have no way to understand them. There isn’t a way to explain them—no story that binds them together, because your story has been silenced, and the stories on offer collapse in their explanatory power in important ways.
Look at the beginning—there are colours. A red coat, bright flowers. Fingers touch. This person is feeling the aliveness of connection. And there is a rush forward, but what you see juxtaposed with that is an expectation of hopelessness. This has never worked before. It’s not going to work this time. There is a simultaneous feeling of despair—drowning in a bowl of water is emblematic of that.
The other thing you see is a kind of frozen-ness, a blankness. This isn’t really about a new love. This is about a baby, entirely helpless, feeling so completely without stimulation that the baby feels dead inside. It’s almost like cryogenic suspension. The mother comes, and the baby is lifted out of this state of internal blankness—because babies basically can’t manage their level of internal stimulation. It’s a baby so bored, essentially, she has a feeling almost of death. Mom comes and she feels alive. Mom leaves and she feels dead again. Normal babies don’t feel this, because mom comes before the feeling of being dead sets in, and because there is no confidence that the feeling of aliveness will ever come again.
So you see the new boyfriend come along, and the woman seems to come out of a dissociative fugue. There is a moment of life, as the woman receives attention and warmth and a feeling of life. Just like mom once came along and brought the baby to life for brief moments.
And then suddenly the rejection and the abandonment—you can see the shock very clearly in one of the women’s faces. Then there is this abrupt need to retreat and to hide—physically, the women go into a cupboard. C went into the kitchen when she was rejected, and it’s the feeling embodied within these images. I am not allowed, I cannot be, and I need to hide. It feels terrible to hide, to retreat—to stop wailing and protesting against my loss—but I don’t feel I have other options.
There is some disorganization after that—reaching, hiding, reaching, protest and anger, and within it one woman literally lies on her back, just as the infant was compelled to do when her mother did not come.
That happens to me in times of great sadness. I feel compelled to lie down. Because that’s all infants can do. That’s what I did. It is a physical flashback of mom never coming.
And then there is a return to despair: the women lie in chalk hearts, like chalk outlines of dead bodies, because having no stimulation to an infant feels like death. There is a lot of reference to suicidality in the video, because the feelings cannot be expressed through words. What you see instead are feelings the child is trying to communicate through behaviour: this feels like death. I am showing you with references to death that I feel dead inside.
This is what a love affair feels like to an adult with early neglect or abuse: it raises these intense, implicit memories of babyhood that you have no way of understanding.
Guilt is about a perception of wrongdoing. Shame is about loss.
I have spent a lot of time with shame and that’s what I think as a result of all of that time we have spent together. I found that on an atlas of emotions, too. (Shame: embarrassment over sadness about a loss.) Shame is from wanting something you aren’t allowed to have. That’s my opinion.
The shame spiral is my mind providing the reasons I am not allowed to have it, and urging me to try harder to control the impulse to get what I am not allowed to have.
When grief is not seen or supported, you end up with shame I think. If someone dies and everyone knows that you have experienced loss, you don’t feel ashamed. You are allowed to want that person to still be alive.
But what about I want my mom to play with me, but she’s sick? I want a cuddle and a story, but she’s depressed? What about I want her to kiss my cut, but she gets mad at me for interrupting her?
What about, even, my mom grew up with abuse and neglect and she feels no one can want her, but she’s my mom, so I want her. I don’t just need her, as a kind of machine who attends to my needs. She fills my whole body with joy, and that has been denied her—that feeling of connection that fills you with joy—and so she rejects me. She rejects everything about herself that was rejected—her needs, her vulnerability, and also her feeling of warmth at being loved.
Loss makes us angry. Anger is a part of grief. I feel like hurting myself in moments of shame, because I think I know what has caused me to experience loss—my own badness—and I have an instinctive need to punish the cause of my loss.
I got kind of a job offer on Friday. It’s a long-term sub position, and they seem to just want to get me in the classroom quickly, without any further vetting. Okay.
I forgot actually some things should be more ready before I do this, and not everything is in place to start working that ought to be. I should have gotten a TB test already and have to get that done. I did that on Friday, but it needs to be read on Monday and I am meeting with them on Monday. Also, I don’t have a transcript I need. I think it will be fine, but it makes me think remember that under stress my working memory falls apart and I can’t plan well.
I went to a clinic for the TB test and forgot to bring any ID, had to walk home, get it, and head back again.
My friend mentioned this as a trend—I was going to head into downtown for a protest about immigration and forgot my metro pass. It’s a 20 minute walk to the station and I was running late anyway, so I just headed back home.
I am not particularly surprised this happened, but my friend is. I seem like an organized person, but part of the reason I do is to simplify my world for me, so that I have less to process and less to remember and so in moments of stress, you can’t see that I can’t process anymore. I can rely on routine and habit. She doesn’t know that.
Some of it is the shrinking of working memory that happens during stress—brain activity gets shifted away from higher-order thinking and away from your executive functioning, which is how you organize tasks and work towards goals. Some of it is that I am fighting a freeze response. I think I mainly go into freeze mode during moments of stress, because I was so little when I was abused. You have no other survival strategy as an infant. You can’t run, and you can’t fight back at that age, and I think freezing is very hard-wired for me because of that.
I had a psychiatrist who is very psychoanalytical—I hadn’t really realized this when I met with her. She pretty much just adjusted my medication when I took it and we kept things pretty light. But I know now what she would think is I didn’t really want to go to these things or do these things, and these are expressions of ambivalence and inner conflict.
I was thinking about both of those points of view: my friend’s view (possibly) that I am kind of hiding a tendency to be scatterbrained, which is a view VP Ma’am articulated to me before I left (“You are like me,” she said, “A little bit panicky, a little bit absent-minded.” Not exactly. I am afraid of you.) And this psychiatrist’s view that maybe I don’t really want a job or I don’t really want to go and support the rights of immigrants, and I now feel space in my mind to see things differently, because both of these issues have to do with my childhood and with how it affects my present.
A job search is stressful for many reasons, but there’s a lot about the past in there. A lot that is only partially processed.
One theme for me is that in trying to understand my internal world, when it is missing my real history, my parents’ mental illness, and the lack of nurturing and protection I received because of that, I have no real way to understand my own mind or cope with what is going on in my life. I end up resorting to explanations that might be true of other people and their lives—I am reminded of my bloggy friend’s grandmother. Yes, someone else might be homesick. You were sad for other reasons she couldn’t guess.
The doctor is frightening, because I was seriously assaulted, taken to hospital and then into care from the hospital. Being taken into care was a positive outcome, but you have to think how this feels to a child. It feels basically like an abduction, like you can just be picked up and moved at any time. So the doctor’s office is like window when being abducted feels like a real possibility.
But I think also the issue of documentation is very real for me. I don’t know if there ever specific traumatic events, but an ethos of fear—like being around people who all share a fear of spiders. You learn to be afraid of spiders too.
Anything to do with immigration or legal status really, really frightens me. When I am truly aware of my physical, emotional state, this is really startling. I think it’s something I just need to know about. I will need to be conscious of them, and calm those fears as they come up.
I have realized that any psychological work I did in the past was really product-oriented, rather than process-oriented. A focus on achieving insight meant that I expected when I could come to or accept the proper conclusions, the pain would go away. Now, I realize it’s about the process, which does involve insight, but insight doesn’t solve the problem or make the feelings go away. They only help me understand how the feelings got there, so that I know why the process is necessary.
I have to unlearn what constitutes danger, and the way to do that is not to ignore one’s fears and dive into the source of fear. The way to do that is to calm those fears as they surface, and they will surface repeatedly. It’s not about thoughts. It is about a sensory experience. We learn from the calm in our bodies that there is no real danger—we once learned from our parents’ calm bodies or from their efforts to calm our bodies that we were safe—or other people with competent parents do anyway, and now I need to do that myself, intentionally. It won’t happen automatically. I didn’t learn how to calm my own body down.
So each of the things I learned were frightening, I will need to soothe my fear as it comes up. The things I learned were not allowed, I will need to soothe my sadness about not having. This is going to happen as frequently as I choose or am required to extend myself into those areas I learned were forbidden or dangerous. It will get softer and less intense over time, but I am going to need to do this for quite a long time. Probably years. Multiple times a day.
I was walking down the street after some errands—one of them unsuccessful, which may or may not be relevant—and I started having lots of fairly dreadful thoughts. I can’t actually remember them, but after a while I began to identify them as shame thoughts. Okay, so I feel ashamed. Then I began to think about why, dredging my mind for suspects (a task once too dangerous for me—I found too many things and that made it worse. Being able to calm my body more automatically really helps.)
Well, I was walking to what is now my home, and also walking towards where I expected my friend to be. Oh. Yeah. Probably that.
Then I began to think, so shame comes from feeling you have broken a rule. What’s the rule? That’s how I have begun to think about this. Be specific. Don’t judge what I am going through. Don’t try to alter it, unless I need to calm down—that’s always worth doing. Just be specific.
Well, I think the rule is you don’t approach mom. You don’t approach anything that is mom-like or any of the human needs a mom needs. You don’t get attention or nurturing or help or recognition or praise or approval.
You also don’t talk about the abuse or allude to it in any way, but that’s a separate rule.
The more mom-like a situation is, the stronger the rule comes into force. I am searching for a job—that’s approval. My friend triggers other stuff (she’s 20 years older than me).
I have been wondering why C seems so much more triggered by me than any other adult she is close to. Well, I am very, very mom-like. The other adults she is close to that I have seen her interact with are closer to being peers. They are much more like older siblings. There is a difference, quite a difference. The same rules are in place for her.
And she might trigger me so intensely because in her presence, I am mom-like. Students who are just students don’t trigger me to anywhere the same extent, because they are students. There is a difference there too.
I had the feeling then that everything has pretty much just clicked in.
Waking up is hard. I have a suspicion it has always been hard, and this is just something I avoided knowing for many years.
Today, I woke up and completely lost my mind. It was around 6:30. That’s around 8:30 in the evening for Country X. Still daytime. No one has gone to bed yet. I checked my laptop. C was online. I messaged her, which these days she never reads, or maybe she does read and because of the network, Facebook does not tell me. That has happened before, where months later, the little check suddenly appeared that she had read it immediately.
There are times when she doesn’t write anything, she just reads. And what she reads matters to her. I don’t actually know what she is doing at the moment.
There are times when it really is Freud, and I am on the couch getting no feedback at all.
I lost my mind completely. The thoughts in my head were of some variety of how worthless I am, that I make a mess of my own life essentially running after people who hurt me. I completely lost my ability to reflect on this or to consider whether my thoughts are really true.
After about 30 minutes, it wore off a little.
I am left thinking that in the past I have dealt with these feelings by trying to alter reality—if someone does want me, I can know securely that my thoughts are distortions, and I have tried at these moments when I am overwhelmed by this feeling to make someone want me. It hasn’t been like this in a long time, because I have just withdrawn so that these feelings never had to surface.
I was thinking about this and then C’s aunt came online to chat with me. I got involved in some other things, and now I am trying to come back to this idea.
It crossed my mind that trying to alter reality to suit me isn’t a habit acquired as an adult. It seems like this unhealthy adult habit in order to avoid the pain inside me, but when I think about, that’s kind of what children do, isn’t it? We are born with that as an instinct and only later learn how to accept reality that doesn’t suit us.
Feeling childish doesn’t exactly help me feel better about myself, but I have been going with this theme that this is the past—these moments of overwhelm are the past—and because it’s the past, I can’t change it. I was 3 or a baby or whatever, and I was overwhelmed by this impulse to obtain nurturing and warmth and that is what happened then. That’s what I am looking at. I am looking at a time when I did not have the impulse control not to reach for my parents to comfort me even when I didn’t know whether reaching out to them might result in serious injury or even death.
I don’t know. But I think I get that whole, “This is the past” thing. I do have to make decisions in the present—that’s the hard part, because it’s hard to know what the present really is when this surfaces. And there often are decisions that need to be made: the window of our shared awakeness is a few hours long every day. How do I relate to C in that time? Because I have reached out to her every day, even not reaching out is a decision. So I do need the present, and I worked for a while with that, because that wasn’t what I thought it was. Just because feeling unwanted and unloved was the past doesn’t mean everyone continually adores me now. I do have to know something about what is happening now. I can’t just ignore my feelings because I find them confusing. What I need actually is clarity.
Anyway, it’s a different approach, because I used to think that it’s the past, and the reason it keeps coming up is that the past actually needs to be changed. If I felt worthless, for example, then I need to replace that feeling of worthlessness with worth, but I now feel the opposite. Instead, I feel I need to contextualize that. I felt worthless and why was that? Why did I feel worthless? I really felt this way as a child, and it wasn’t because I was somehow hopelessly defective. Something was happening, and that’s how it was recorded in me—as an ego state.
I am not sure I am getting at anything here. Thanks for reading.
C told me in a chat the night before last not to call her again. It’s too painful. I said the pain goes away little by little. I don’t think she really responded to much I was telling her. She kept saying some variation of “never” when it didn’t make actual sense as a response.
I didn’t call her for a while after that. I let it be. Actually, there wasn’t any cell network for a while and later her phone was switched off, but I didn’t try again when she might have had signal. I don’t know if that was helpful or not, but basically I was tired.
I forgot to mention before that happened, following a much nicer phone conversation, she was very angry and posted very angry things on Facebook—perhaps about her boyfriend. She said “she” but English isn’t her first language, and pronouns are hard. Later, she posted an old picture of herself with her grandfather, looking like happy baby.
“Build up the core” I thought.
A therapist told me that once. When the work is really difficult, you try to strengthen the core personality. C needs a sense of herself as loveable before she can integrate how it felt to be unloveable by her parents.
So I thought it was a good thing.
Later, I was thinking about this, because I tried chatting with her and didn’t get any response, posted some things on her wall, and got some likes, but no direct interaction. I know, intellectually, this is because the shame is so great that’s all she can manage. She can’t manage anything that exposes her to contact more directly, because it triggers too many intense feelings of being bad.
It really didn’t feel good though. Or it didn’t later, as I was thinking about it.
I started to wonder if she’s just playing me. I felt she’s happy, she has the attention she wanted from me, and now I have been discarded.
I thought about why that was going through my mind for a while—I just let that feeling be for a bit—and I realized I am watching a TV series about a serial killer. Distrust has been activated by this other, unrelated thing I am doing. The serial killer was manipulating a young, female accomplice, and I was thinking about C. That’s basically confirmation bias. I am feeling distrustful, and whatever goes on in my mind while I feel that way will render distrustful kinds of knowledge. All of our brains work that way, but it matters more because so many of what goes on for me is this intense trauma material. The switches in my head between points of view aren’t gentle. They are extreme.
C really loves me. C doesn’t feel anything—she’s just playing me. Extreme, because my emotions are extreme, and emotions really do shape our thinking.
Anyway, I let that be too. Just the distrust of C, and feeling discarded and used. I began to have a very strong felt sense of what it was like to be little and lonely and for the loneliness to feel like it will absolutely kill me, and feeling also that doing anything to get the approval and attention and interaction with my parents is going to be worth it, because the loneliness is so terrible. I had the sense too, of how helpless I was, of just being a helpless baby who can’t even properly move—can’t crawl, can’t sit up, can’t do anything to create interaction with anything on my own other than cry and crying is dangerous or pointless. And I had an incredible sense of the depth of that helplessness. I had a feeling of lying somewhere, totally helpless, just waiting for something to happen. Being sad and lonely and waiting.
There is so much abuse that happened later, but sometimes I feel what happened to me before I was even 6 months old was really enough to do this to me, to cause this amount of pain. The rest of my childhood didn’t even need to happen. My infancy was enough.