I have been pondering some things this week.
One of them is about the need for control among teenagers with attachment disorders. It came up in that context, but actually that is what everyone does who grew up not feeling safe: the way to be safe is to make oneself safe. If people around you have no interest in your safety and can be presumed to have goals that compromise your safety, then you will only be able to relax if you feel you have control over other people and over your surroundings. This might be especially true if you feel you don’t have control over your internal state. The only way to cope with your inner world, in that case, seems to be to control what your inner world is responding to within the outer world.
There are two parts to that. One of them is that my mom was, a lot of the time, responding to her inner world. She was, most likely, having flashbacks of a neglectful and abusive childhood, just as I am, and trying to manage or prevent those flashbacks by controlling the world outside her. By, for example, pushing me away so that she wasn’t overwhelmed by shame at her inadequacy as a parent, or rejecting my affection so that she could avoid paired experiences regarding being loveable when she was a child. Things like that.
I am not excusing her, but it makes a lot of her behaviour make sense. It makes her lack of empathy for me make sense. She wasn’t thinking about me. She was just thinking about how to get herself through the day in the absence of basically every emotional tool.
The other element of this is that someone like my mother—and probably I have done this, as has C—is that one starts to be able to experience connection only when you are in situations of power or have control, rather than being in relationships of reciprocity. But that isn’t usually going to remain comfortable for the other person. I think this is the real foundation of “codependent relationships.” It’s not about needing to rescue someone to distract from your own problems, nor is it about giving up your autonomy and becoming enmeshed. It’s about settling down in a relationship where there is a kind of illusion about having more power—maybe because the other person is not functioning well, or because there is a real difference in status (like myself and C). The rescuee feels, for the moment, nurtured while the rescuer feels safe enough to attach. Only later, as the relationship starts to develop, does the power struggle develop as both people end up needing to maintain a feeling of having control over the other in order to maintain the ability to feel safe enough to experience intimacy.
I was thinking about this recently because there was a news item, at around the same time as I needed to undergo training about child abuse reporting, about a female teacher who initiated a sexual relationship with a child about C’s age. I couldn’t imagine someone doing that, and yet it happens. I remember how C thought we were having a romantic relationship, and I just can’t fathom how a woman in a position of power over a teenager could forget that there is no way for an adult to have an intimate relationship with a teenager without their being an abuse of that power. There is no way not to betray that young person, not to create confusion within them, or to raise the question within about whether they actually have value or whether they are simply being used as an object.
I can’t imagine how that couldn’t kill an adult’s sexual desire.
So I was thinking about this need for power, and how the illusion of control over someone would cause anyone with an attachment problem to feel safe enough that they might be able to relax enough to form a relationship and to begin to attach.
I think that leads to the cycle of abuse as well: at some point, the person seeking control realizes no matter how much power he or she might have, there are still two full-fledged human beings involved and the other person lies outside their control. I have power over C, but I don’t have control. I learned that fairly quickly—that I needed to let go of any sense that I have control over her, and work at building trust with her instead. I also realized that I needed to work at being aware of my vulnerability with her: not splitting from it out of shame and allowing her to caretake my vulnerability, and not abandoning myself either, but realizing at every moment I was dealing with complete, separate human beings who have rights and feelings I need to be sensitive to and who have within their power the ability to reject me. And just cope with that. Be aware of how it feels within me to be vulnerable in that way—how ashamed and frightened it makes me feel—and also maintain an awareness that the people around me of whatever age are not objects for me to use.
Because that’s one coping strategy: I don’t want to be triggered by all of the feelings I have about vulnerability or the events these relate to, and so I am not going to acknowledge within me that I am vulnerable or that I am asking for help even a child has a right to refuse to give me, or to be uncomfortable giving (in which case, I need to set the boundary for that child on his or her behalf and not ask for the help they don’t feel comfortable in offering). That’s a strategy: just to pretend that the child has no feelings and must do what you tell to do without having any feeling of annoyance or inconvenience.
At a practical level, what this meant is that I needed to say thank you to the kids who brought pancakes and other items up to C. I needed to take note of whether they seemed perhaps annoyed about it and accept that maybe they could be annoyed. I needed to sometimes give that young person some item they might like too, so that they would see that I was grateful for their help and understood they had the right to refuse me. I needed to treat them like human beings with feelings.
The thing about grasping for control is really it allows you to avoid what happens inside you in reaction to feeling vulnerable. It isn’t so much that someone might hurt you, as that you might be reminded of times you were hurt.
The growth for me came from that. I had to be so vulnerable in order to build a relationship with C. I had to let everyone see my affection and warmth for her, because otherwise she would not be able to see it, and I knew she needed it. I had to be brave. I had to ask for help, and deal with how I felt at asking for help, because I knew I couldn’t treat the people who were helping me—mostly other young people—as objects.
Thinking about this is kind of rearranging things in my head, and I feel better. I feel better about myself. I always had my shit to deal with. There was never a time it wasn’t there. It’s good when someone comes into your life and makes you realize you have to do that.