I am coming back to a place that feels somewhat more normal. Not entirely, but somewhat.

Yesterday, I learned something interesting. I learned some other interesting things today. One of the interesting things I came across was that children with disorganized attachment have a primary attachment style that corresponds to Bowlby’s. (Crittenden does not recognize disorganized attachment–instead arguing that disorganized attachment is the use of alternating strategies.) Disorganized behaviours may be seen only briefly, and outside of those moments the child uses organized and coherent attachment strategies. This makes sense to me, as The Girl seems frequently disorganized, but is the rest of the time anxious and preoccupied. C seems dismissive most of the time and has intrusions of great anxiety, but is only sometimes disorganized. The Boy is avoidant and only occasionally disorganized.

So I was watching a YouTube video on dismissive attachment and it mentioned that the problem with dismissive attachment is that social learning is impaired, because the dismissive person does not pay attention during stressful moments: they are trying to mentally escape them in order to cope. Later, it becomes impossible to take anything from that situation for use in other, similar stressful situations, because there isn’t enough data.

This really hit home for me. I miss out on a lot of things in life because I am avoiding reminders of pain, but it also felt explanatory in terms of repeating patterns. You cannot modify your behaviour with much subtlety if you aren’t gathering information about what works and what doesn’t in a robust way. The temptation, I suppose, is just to tackle those painful situations head-on instead of avoiding them, but this doesn’t actually lead to resolution.

The other thing I have been reflecting on is how some parents actually do express a lot of anger at their babies and young children. C’s uncle is very close to his youngest child who is around 2 or 3, I think. The child wants to be with him all the time, but hurts him. The uncle is unable to see that he also hurts the child–that he sometimes plays too rough, that instead of attempting to set boundaries around displaying aggression (“When you bite daddy, it hurts,””No hitting. Daddy doesn’t like when you hit him.”), he hides his revenge in painful play. They both feel affection and anger toward each other, and some of it comes from a lack of finesse–just not seeing that the play has become overstimulating and it’s time to be quieter and gentler. Some of it is more intentional, but stemming from this history of hurting the baby.

I don’t think I have ever seen this kind of painful interaction with a young child before. I imagined abuse to look like whaling on your kid.

These are the behaviours in a parent that have been linked to disorganization in babies.

As described by Lyons-Ruth and Jacobvitz
(2008), these behaviors include: “(a) negative-intrusive behavior
(e.g., mocking or teasing the infant); (b) role confusion (e.g.,
seeking reassurance from the infant); (c) withdrawal (e.g., silent
interaction with the infant); (d) affective communication errors
(e.g., eliciting approach from the infant, then withdrawing from
him or her); and (e) disorientation (e.g., unusual changes in intonation
when interacting with the infant).”

The other thing I read (in the same article) that was interesting to me was that disorganized children have been subdivided into three types: two of them controlling, and one of them not controlling.

strategies can involve one of two controlling types: (a)
punitive, where the child is hostile to the parent and seeks to
punish, challenge, or humiliate him or her; and (b) caregiving,
where the child takes on the role of the parent and engages in
soothing behaviors or takes charge of interactions, even to the
extent of subjugating his or her own desires.

The third type is not considered controlling and displays these characteristics:

manifestations of fear in the presence of
the parent, lack of consistent strategy for interacting with the
parent, confused behavior after conflict with the parent, behavior
that invades parental intimacy, difficulties in addressing the parent,
a negative self with possible self-injuring behaviors, markers for
dissociation, and preferences for strangers over attachment figures.

(Crittenden considers compulsive care-giving a dismissive strategy.)

I have other thoughts about this, but they are still not very coherent.



C came this morning.

I was full of feelings I couldn’t really decipher, and I went in the kitchen to make breakfast and cried. Things went through my mind that made sense as possibly causal, but it also crossed my mind that perhaps it was like mornings or falling asleep. She came. I was reminded of sad things, because I felt sad about her coming.

She had a plan to spend the day with her friends. The way she talked about it, it sounded like she wanted to leave immediately and then go off with her friends the entire day. She said she would take The Boy with her, but not the girl, because the girl wanted to play football. I said the girl does not want to play football. I am forcing her to go. She was excited about it for 2 days, and then when it turned out to be a less than 100% thrilling, she didn’t want to go anymore. But I am insisting she stick with it.

The Girl has so few coping skills she feel as though she cannot tolerate any distress and her strategy is to exaggerate her emotions in hopes that someone else will relieve it. I suppose that’s why.

Anyway, it made C’s plan to take one child and not the other make no sense at all. It became impossible to discuss this with C. She just kept repeating that The Girl wanted to go to football. It was a puzzling conversation, and then C retreated.

I started to think yesterday that she feels real fear when she acts this way. When she is distressed about a reunion or departure, the fear at those times is not imaginary or played up. She might not be processing the fear, but it exists. Her brain really is flooded with hormones. I feel a very deep sadness about this.

When a child has been abused, the things that would normally comfort a child become potentially frightening. Vulnerability is this opening to vent rage on someone too helpless to retaliate or an opportunity to use the child’s need for proximity to exploit them. What comes out of this is a deep distrust: if I express vulnerable feelings, then someone will use that as an opportunity to hurt me. If someone wants me to be close to them, it’s because they want me to do something that feels good to them, but hurts me.




C is supposed to come today.

I felt happy about this and now I don’t. I try to maintain curiosity about what is going on in my mind, and to see it as a filter for reality. A different filter would make reality seem different. So I try to maintain this awareness that my mind exists. It is not directly reality entering my brain.

The reason I don’t feel happy is that I began to think she does not actually want to see me. She needs to use my laptop for a project she needs to do over vacation, which may actually be true. I began to mentally prepare myself to feel like an object and to feel exploited.

People who use dismissive strategies don’t find as much reward in relationships. They have their own agendas and find reward in activities and accomplishments, but not human beings. Human beings are either a means to an end or an impediment to their activities. The more pronounced the use of dismissive strategies, the more this will be true.

C alternates between dismissive and anxious strategies. It’s possible to do this. People who alternate between very extreme strategies are considered to be psychopathic, but ordinary people use low-numbered strategies and manage to get through life without robbing banks or murdering people.

It’s completely possible for C to see me as only a laptop provider, and not a full-fledged human being. It’s hurtful when people do this.

I once saw a therapist who told me about another client whose wife was very dramatic and expressed her feelings in frightening ways. He said as his client’s self-esteem improved, he was less upset by this, and would tell his wife he would come back later, when she was calmer.

I now think his wife used very anxious strategies to maintain the relationship: she exaggerated her emotions to maintain the attention of her partner. Her husband, in contrast, increased his use of dismissive strategies by ignoring her. The extreme nature of their use of protective strategies increased and became more entrenched rather than improved over time. But the husband lost awareness of his emotions, and forgot that having someone yell and throw things is upsetting and confusing. He was not safer or more supported, but he stopped complaining about it, and so our therapist saw it as success.

It’s not my goal to stop feeling hurt. Instead, it’s my goal to think in a way that allows for uncertainty and doubt and reflects more sources of information.

I think there was a point in my life when I dd not see minds existing as minds. There were distortions in my thinking and by this I don’t mean there were particular thoughts I tended to revert to: that’s possible, but it’s not what I mean.

I mean there may have been a point when I did not see minds as existing as minds: thoughts were reality, and so I could not tolerate thoughts, because to me they seemed real.

In other words, in the past I might have had the thought that I am only a laptop provider and then felt compelled to ensure I wasn’t one, because if someone has that thought about me, then that is who I am.

I have one particularly clear memory of an incident with my ex-wife–most experiences with her are not clear, but this one is. I often felt upset and did not know why or what had happened to lead up to this.  But this one I remember very vividly.

I recall helping her with a sewing project. She was making cat toys stuffed with catnip. She sewed the edges with the sewing machine, and I sewed up the little hole left in order to stuff them by hand. When I finished with this, she was somehow very dismissive about it, and I felt exploited. I tore out the stitches that I had made, because I never wanted to be anyone’s slave again. I would rather not have relationships at all than be exploited.

In therapy, there was no discussion of this. The therapist assumed my actions were meant to communicate with my partner and that I was behaving vindictively. It’s not that I didn’t try to get across what I thought and felt, but there was not sufficient space in what he believed to accommodate my experiences. He couldn’t grasp that I assumed my actions did not communicate to my partner. Whether they did or not, I don’t know, but I grew up in a world so unresponsive it was very easy for me to revert to a presumption that what I did would not matter one way or another to anyone other than myself. He assumed my behaviour was covertly aggressive, and I was being deceptive about this, because i did not want to acknowledge the aggressive nature of my actions. It did not cross his mind that I assumed she did not care. I did not expect any reaction to my tearing out the stitches and it seems to me, if I remember right, that I was correct in my expectation and there was not one. I lived in a world where I was my only audience and my actions communicated only to myself.

The confusion was about the nature of reality: I felt I could change a perception only by changing reality. I could change the feeling of being exploited only by undoing te exploitation.

Other kinds of men

I did not feel very rational yesterday. Today isn’t looking good either. I feel deeply wounded, as if my feelings have been hurt. There is no readily identifiable cause for this. I am not sure what to do about it, or how to make sense of it.

There is this awkwardness with C’s dad, because of his dream about being a happy family of three. Dad, mom and C. I think there is an element of pretend to this: what if my life hadn’t been the way that it was, and I wasn’t 16 when I knocked C’s mother up and I had been able to marry the mother of my child?

I think there are real feelings involved too, though. He gets worried about C, and I feel worried about the same things and we discuss it and find a solution. And what I felt before was that I couldn’t share my worries about her with anyone, because people either did completely unhelpful things or told me I was imagining things and all would be well. He may have felt the same way. There is a real feeling of being supported.

Anyway, if you recall, at that point he said he didn’t want to call me sister anymore, and he called me mom, which confused me. Since then we don’t call each other anything–just you. It doesn’t feel good to me. I have lost my way of expressing warmth and affection to him, which came in the package of calling him “brother.”

So yesterday I asked him about this, and he said I could call him father or dad. He said he would call me mummy and I could call him whatever I wanted. I don’t think this is as weird to him as it is to me. In the languages here, mother and wife are the same word. I think I have heard women call their husbands “dad.” It has a larger range of meanings than “dad.”

But it immediately made me aware of all kinds of “dad” feelings and associations, and that I can’t actually think straight about what he said until some of that is worked out. I have managed to get by in life by never putting certain pieces together in the same box in my head. Some men feel protective of their daughters and some exploit them. Those are two pieces I have managed to never put together, because those feelings are too painful.

I think I grew up believing all men used their power in society to exploit women and girls and if they didn’t, it was because they couldn’t. If I start thinking other kinds of men are possible, it was not inevitable that I have a father who murdered women and girls and was obsessed with cutting up their bodies, then it becomes very painful.

C’s Dad and some other stuff

Psychic equivalence and pretend mode are ways of thinking that developmentally precede mentalization. They can be thought of as pre-mentalizing modes or pseudo-mentalization, because they appear to be mental state thinking, but are distorted.

Fonagy talks about them developing in place of mentalization in babies who don’t receive contingent, marked mirroring (marked means the expression of the mirrored emotion is marked in such a way as to indicate that it is the baby’s emotion and not the parent). If the emotions simply leak into the parent via affective empathy, but the parent is not aware that these emotions are the baby’s, or if the parent feels the same way about the situation as the baby does, then the emotion can seem to magically transport itself into the parent. This can lead to psychic equivalence: if I feel things to be this way, then they are this way.

Pretend mode means that thoughts and feelings are disconnected from reality. So this is the person who shows up to therapy, seems to be having all kinds of important insight, and goes on with life as though nothing has happened. Because actually nothing has happened. The thinking about mental states was decoupled from real life. I suspect this is also parts.

I had an especially difficult day yesterday. The kids, in the end, did go to football practice, and I did get some time alone. I spent some of it crying and struggling with various painful feelings. I do not know why this happened. I don’t know what my real source of pain is or if the thoughts going through my head at the times when I feel pain are actually the source or some tangent I have drifted into.

I struggled when I woke up this morning. I am having an intensely hard time with my relationship with C’s dad, since he opened up and shared with me that I feel like his wife. This is, I imagine, pretend mode. There is certainly a real feeling involved, but he has a wife and three children with her. Psychic equivalence would demand he leave her, because feelings are reality. Pretend mode says I have a feeling but I am not going to attempt to resolve the contradictions inherent in the situation.

But on my end, I am overwhelmed with pain that I can’t completely understand the cause of.

He has been my friend. When there is a problem with C, I can talk to him about it, and we help each other. I can tell he feels real warmth for me.

Something about the situation makes me realize that I need to wade through my experiences of loss so that I can have relationships without those losses causing me to shut down or avoid the pain they remind me of, but it seems impossible. It seems impossible to grapple with the pain I realize stand between me and other relationships.

This morning, I was thinking about this. I was thinking that I didn’t really understand that boundaries of what makes someone who they are–myself or others. I think I understood care for me as a personality trait, something particular to Nata, which was part of her being and not part of anyone else’s being. The loss of her felt total, because her existence was tied up with concern for me.

I think perhaps that’s how the loss of a parent feels: it’s the only relationship which is so unique that their loss feels the loss of that entire category of experiences.

I know there are complexities to my relationship with Nata, because we were sexually abused, and because we had a sexual relationship. It’s not as simple as “she felt like my mother,” only she did feel like my mother. That’s the most painful part of the loss, because that relationship can’t be recreated with someone else.

Some resolution

I mentioned the kids were going to play football today. Well, we went. We went more or less on time, because I remember the Coach (whom I have mentioned before, but not this year) got cranky if kids are late. And by cranky, I mean verbally abuses them. So we went, no one was there, after 30 minutes I came back again. Now, the Girl came back with me. I was not happy with this, I will admit. There went my me-time.

Now, there is this thing that happens between us, where she ratchets up her demands for attention in quite unlikeable ways–making noises, literally putting her head in front of mine to see the computer screen if I happen to be looking at something, pointing out mundanities that interest neither one of us.

Then she becomes very angry. Then she decides she is not wanted and decides she must go back to her parents’ house.

This plays out in more or less dramatic ways, depending on how well I handle it, but it’s a consistent enough of a pattern that it’s worth paying attention to.

I think it’s essentially the uncertainty of unstructured time, but it’s coupled with this idea that she’s very anxious, and she’s so anxious that she can’t leave me to do pleasant things. If I can’t provide the pleasure to her, she’s trapped between this world of despair (because I am not entertaining her) and rejection.

So later, when the Coach did turn up, I decided to look into this. I learned some enlightening things.

This had to do with styles of attachment and how they actually feel, rather than just the behaviours they are linked with.

I don’t have an anxious attachment style. What has happened to me is that I have a dismissive style which is sometimes overwhelmed when I reach the limits of my own ability to cope, and suddenly I become conscious of how much I need support or connections.

I did not know this about myself, because during the times I am in relationships I am often overwhelmed by them, and I am not able to function very well anymore. I start to look more dependent and less dismissive, because I actually have more emotional needs due to the stress of the relationship itself.

People with dismissive attachment styles tend not to have a very good understanding of mental states, although they may have amassed a collection of coping strategies so they know what to do. It means they don’t have a good understanding of other people’s either, so when they are actually in close relationships, people seem unpredictable and difficult to understand.Relationships themselves create stress.

This lies on a continuum–all the way from my exploitative and psychopathic father, who used people as objects much the same way as he would make a sandwich, to the person who is maybe just too annoyingly task-focused and forgetful of the human dimension.

I think about reading and writing, where I have this world where people have emotions and I can feel connected, but it’s at a distance from me. It’s not frightening–there’s less personal risk.

In the video I was watching on avoidant attachment in children, it talks about these children becoming externally focused. The external world becomes a place where these children can do things that are rewarding for them. They can take care of themselves. They may become super-achievers, so that they develop a sense of wort that doesn’t conflict with a core sense of unworthiness. (It’s okay to receive attention now, because I won a baseball game or because I got the lead in a play.)

I think this happened to me, and yet the 2x2s made this impossible for me. Even achievements were not safe sources of enjoyment.

I can see how the more anxious I am, the more I become oriented towards tasks, and this is the opposite of what happens for the Girl, who becomes less and less focused on the task at hand. So, maybe she’s hungry and she’s worried about whether or not there will actually be food, because food at home is an issue, but she is so demanding it becomes increasingly difficult to actually cook. This has been hard for me to understand or to know what to do about, because it’s so counterintuitive.

What I realized as I was reading this was how my mother’s own issues were the result of a very sensitive nature and an emotionally dismissive mother who did not attend to her, so she had this mother who couldn’t understand her distress and didn’t necessarily know how to comfort her. So contact because this situation where she was driven to seek it by mammalian instincts, and yet it wasn’t rewarding. It was equally likely to be painful as soothing. The anxiety of not knowing whether she would be soothed or not made it impossible for her to take in soothing even when it was there.

Her brain became this thing that just spun out of control. In stressful moments with my mother, her brain did that. It just spun out into a place of extreme dysregulation and she began to see me not as her child, but as an enemy to be defeated.

What I’m getting at is that it wasn’t my fault.

Trauma mama

It is exam time. Country X has a very strong exam culture. Children from pre-primary on up have twice yearly exams. These count for increasingly more of their marks as they go up. In fourth grade, which I teach, the exam is half the mark at midterm and 2/3 at the end of the year (overall, 3/5 of the mark).

The odd thing about this is that Country Xers have no concept of the unit or unit planning, although their textbooks are arranged in units. They do not routinely give unit tests or plan culminating activities at the end of units. I suggested that backwards design is intended to be a part of unit plans and was met with blank stares. Teachers give tests according to whim. Some teachers only give 1 or 2 tests a year. We now have a cycle of tests on Saturday, so that each of the subject teachers must give a test every 5 weeks, whether it is needed or not.

Anyway, so I spent yesterday morning monitoring about 150 4th and 5th graders sitting in an echoing multi-purpose hall while they took an exam. It was an unpleasant and frustrating experience, as it often is.

Nothing about it was organized or coordinated in terms of the human beings involved–there were 3 monitors and 3 subject teacher. We train the student to ask permission to enter a room, which means you have students standing in the doorway asking loudly, “May I come in?” whenever they need to return to the classroom (and students you have given permission to go to the toilet asking whether they can leave the classroom), but if no teachers are present, they walk on in. It’s one of the stranger things about the culture (for me).

So 150 students entered the exam hall unattended, because someone had left it unlocked. They have to be checked for cheat sheets beforehand, because Country X students cheat as much as you let them. While I was checking, the math teacher began to give instructions to his students at a deafening volume in the National Language. This meant students as a group were not first given any instructions generally about the exam–there was a page to attach to the front. They needed to be reminded to raise their hands silently if they needed something rather than calling out or leaving their seats.

It also meant when the children asked me what he said later, I had no idea. I find it frustrating that whenever there are ordinary matters to talk to the children about, the teachers who are meant to teach in English lapse back into the National Language. How is it they can understand the complexities of the subject in English but they can’t understand “turn to page 7 and look at question 14”?

In the long run, it means students do not learn what we call “mortar words” in language development, which are the vocabulary words common to all subjects. They learn the specialized vocabulary of their discipline, but not things like “open” or “draw.”

In the short run, it means I am left out of the loop and cannot fully participate with the group in many situations, although I would like to.

So that was a frustration.

In the afternoon, I sat with the math teachers and tried to mark the 5th grade math papers. It is done in a group to minimize the unfairness that comes from one teacher being very punitive about marks and another teacher inflating the marks.

Also, Country Xers like to do everything together.

I don’t like this system, because I find the people with me spend half of the time marking and half the time off-task and dragging others (including my distractible mind) off with them, so that the effort of maintaining my attention feels Herculean. Also, several of the math teachers are very careless in how they mark, and I find I need to redo it anyway. So it’s not a time-saver.

The thing is they have been giving me the multiple choice sections to mark. It’s very easy, of course, but I began to think they do this because they are all men and they see me, as the only woman, as not being very capable. I can only be expected to do the work normally given to non-teaching staff who have 10th grade educations.

It’s not always very easy to make sense of social messages in another culture, but yesterday I began to suspect men here typically do not see women as being very intelligent. This had never crossed my mind as a possibility before.

It’s an odd experience for me to ponder this, because in the US, I am never seen that way. The gender bias is less intense, but I also talk less here because I am consistently left out of conversations (or the endless gossip and complaining bores me to tears) and no one has any special reason to think I have thoughts of any kind, let alone intelligent ones.

While I was marking, The Girl called. She had wanted to go home in the afternoon, because she is off school in the afternoons, but I am not, and it gets lonely being in the house by herself for 3 hours. I know it doesn’t seem like a long time, but this is Country, where people don’t buy shampoo by themselves.

Then she got home and evidently found the household in more chaos than anticipated. The best cow had died, a second cow was sick, and her mother had responded by embarking on a drinking binge. She said she wanted to come back. I said that seemed like a good idea.

After the marking was finished, I tracked down The Boy, and told him we were going to fetch her. He was not at all happy about this, but went. I have recently (as in, day before yesterday), instituted the “naughty chair,” although we just call it a chair, because I was fed up with his obstructionist tendency (if I can keep you from doing what you want to do, I can feel I have some power and I feel safer). I started this after he was gone for a weekend, and I began to see that life is actually fairly pleasant. He just objects to everything so relentlessly that he sucks the joy out of daily life.

The (maybe) strange thing about having traumatized children is that it’s possible to see them in this very negative way (that he really is grasping at control, it really does make me feel like life is nothing but bleak and unremitting desert), but still feel concern for them. I can’t live with someone who spends so much time trying not to mop the floor that it’s actually more pleasant for me not to try to teach him responsibility, life skills or teamwork, and it’s also not going to be good for his adult homelife if he needs to be in control all the time. (I think of C’s family, and I am pretty sure her stepdad’s need for control is one of the core reasons behind their collective misery.)

What I am getting at is an attitude of acceptance rather than paranoia about negative behaviours. What I see in the children at times appears to be the result of alternating over-indulgence and neglect. I think in The Girl’s case, her parents are afraid of her dramatic presentation of emotions and so either become punitive or frightened in the face of them: either placating or abusing her. What you get out of that as a child is that you are a frightening and dangerous person, and yet that is how you know to get your needs met. It’s not a good self-image to have, and it’s also confusing. Why am I so bad? Why do I do such bad things? You haven’t learned to curtail your own aggression through deliberate control of your impulses, and you also haven’t learned other strategies. What I see in The Boy is more a kind of laziness on the part of the parents or maybe the result of despair. Enforcing boundaries is just too difficult, or maybe the parents feel guilty for the times they have punished their children harshly as a result of lost control and in the same situation where they have once lost their tempers enforce no rules at all. I am not sure.

There is some kind of confluence in my mind of knowing that what I am faced with in the children is re-doing normal developmental stages which were not successfully mastered and trauma-based behaviours.

I remember last year, my therapist was surprised that I mentioned that for traumatized children, personality disorders are one possible outcome. Specifically, one reason I intervened in C’s life is to  to try to prevent this. Maybe it’s neater to categorize the world into victims and perpetrators, but sometimes perpetrators are former victims who are now in positions of power.

It’s exhausting, and I feel very keenly I have no one to talk to about it. The loneliness is sometimes quite intense.