C woke up in her grandparents’ house in the morning–the house she lived in until she was around 7–and had that desperate feeling of someone being missing.

She came online suddenly and posted a bunch of stuff to me about her boyfriend at around five in the morning (her time). She couldn’t live without him, etc.

I don’t really think it has much to do with her boyfriend. He is just a logical person to think is missing. She woke up in my house, entirely pre-boyfriend, demonstrating similar feelings.

She just wakes up and has that instinctive feeling of, “Where is my person?” and I can imagine as a child looking for her person or crying for her person to come was a moment of risk.

It’s hard for me to get my head around that having happened. Not as a specific event, but just as her instinctively crying to locate her attachment figure and having an attachment figure that was not able to be consistently soothing, who maybe became enraged instead, frustrated at being unable to soothe her child or at having the interruption come at some inconvenient time, or who felt depressed and hopeless about the possibility of soothing her child and didn’t try, or who became as distressed as her child was, instead of being the source of soothing and calm and the body that communicates, “You’re okay. I am here and everything is okay now.”

So C sent a bunch of stuff very abruptly via Messenger, didn’t really check back for my responses, called and hung up.

I said whatever I thought would help if she did read it, not really having any idea if she would. Mostly, I said I was with her during her hard times. Meanwhile, I got to feel inside me all of my pain this relates to. That’s the thing about my empathy. In order to empathize, I need to walk through those paths in my own mind, and they are not fun.

Afterwards, I felt sort of unwell. It was hard to be with her in those desperate moments. She did not surface from wherever she was emotionally hiding, and I had to live with the idea that I didn’t know how she was coping with her desperation. I did know her grandparents are there. Physically, she is safe.

She chatted with me a few hours later, again about the boyfriend. I suppose it went well. At the end, she said, “I love you like my [boyfriend].” (She used a word in her mother tongue that means idiot.)

I think it might be that what matters during these crises is someone stays with you. Someone being able to see from your point of view, even if they feel other views are possible, helps you stay a little calmer, calm enough to keep your mind integrated so that things can begin to sort out. And that’s really the goal. To allow the mind to integrate itself.

I have been thinking about a few attachment-related strands. One of them is that the difficulty with disorganized attachment–one of them–is that it revolves around this idea that we don’t know if the people we depend on for support are actually friends or foes. One of the cues that tells us someone is on our side is that they can see from our point of view. When your parent is mentally ill, as mine was, she can’t see from your point of view. She is not really in touch with reality enough to see it. So there is this confusion. It’s not just that my mother was destructive and harmful. You can end up with disorganized attachment with less overt malignancy and abuse. I think so, anyway.

Our brains are wired–I believe–to be alert to whether someone is “us” or “them.” The way we know someone is us is they seem able to see our point of view–and we can see theirs. I think this confusion about whether we can understand and be understood leads to disorganized behaviours. I think because they arose in this context of the family–there was no way to make sense of them, and you learn not to try to make sense of these signals that do really have to do with survival and that can lead to all kinds of spectacularly bad relationship choices.

Anyway, that said, my strategy at moments of crisis with C is to try very hard to see from her point of view, so that the feeling of alliance can tell her body to calm down. If she can calm down during moments of crisis, maybe they will not always be a crisis. Who knows.

My other attachment-oriented kind of thought has to do with dismissive attachment. When you feel insecure about attachment, being dismissive can seem like the way to go. In reality, dismissive attachment develops when seeking out support or interaction is not effective, and what seems to work is passivity. You go off, do your thing, and hope that attachment figure will get lonely enough to demand attention from you.

You can feel independent and like you don’t need the attention and support you are passively waiting on. It can seem like this is the way not to hurt, to busy yourself with your own stuff and pretend you aren’t waiting on someone to swoop you up and love on you.

I’ve heard lots of advice that is basically this: adopt a dismissive style. A lot of couples’ counseling was devoted to how having a dismissive style was preferable, without ever naming it as that. There was a lot of talk of taking care of oneself.

However, what I have realized is that empathy is more effective. If I know how I feel and I know how the other person feels and I try to find some kind of compromise if those feelings are at odds in certain moment, then that is much better.

In other words, it wasn’t that I ought to busy myself more with my own activities and be less reliant on my partner when I had one. It was that I needed to be able to accept when she had her own activities lined up. Of course, it was more complicated, because a lot of it comes down to control. She was dismissive because her own need for consistency–to have her own need for interaction be met consistently by one person, one attachment who could be there not in every situation but in enough situations that a pattern could form in her mind–was very frightening to her.

Our relationship was not fixable. But from the perspective of my own development, striving for attunement has worked a lot better than withdrawing to “take care of myself,” and it comes down to being more aware of feelings–mine and those of others as well as their internal worlds and mine.