My therapist, Riona, suggests that I have an attachment problem. Riona is a tall, beautiful, dark haired woman who I started seeing as my career at Mt. Holyoke began to fall apart. The fact that her office is in a suburb of Boston, an hour or so north of Providence, still does not faze me, but maybe it should. Back when we began, I scheduled my hour with her as part of my drive home from western Massachusetts after a short week of teaching. It was almost on the way. These days the long drive there and back affords me plenty of time to ruminate. The news of my attachment issues comes as a surprise. Given that I have absolutely no idea what Riona is talking about, I take the adult attachment style test at home that evening.
“According to your questionnaire responses, your attachment-related anxiety score is 5.00, on a scale ranging from 1 to 7. Your attachment-related avoidance score is 6.27, on a scale ranging from 1 to 7.” On principle, I love to score high on all tests, but in this case, a higher score means a more chronic state of worry, which worries me. “An ambivalently attached child experiences the parents’ communication as inconsistent. Sometimes their needs are met, sometimes not, and sometimes the communication can be overly intrusive. Because these children cannot reliably depend on the parent for attunement and connection, they may be insecure and anxious. They may also display excessive clinginess and dependence, on the unconscious hope that their needs will be met some of the time.”
I glance away from the computer screen balanced against my knees in bed. I hear the electric toothbrush as David, humming, stands in the bathroom down the hall. The house is quiet. I am in my own bed in Providence, my happy place, my nest, and my stomach is balled up as tight as a fist. I remember “inconsistent” and then “intrusive” communications from my parents. What human child has not? As a parent, I look back through my memories of being parented and have more compassion for the ways love is always a complicated and humbling enterprise. But attachment and communication styles. That I know I did better than my mother, not that this is a competition. Rather it issues a kind of comfort to hear it stated clearly. I felt invisible or misunderstood as a child and adolescent; I tried to spare my children that specific injury. I loved talking to my mother but she was an inconsistent partner. I learned early to watch her eyes. It became a sixth sense, a tingling in the C-curve of my head when someone’s attention had wandered. It had left me insecure. But I thought it was just me, just my terrible hypersensitivity that made communication set my nerves jangling. Could it be a symptom rather than a cause? I scrolled down the page.
“Disorganized attachment occurs when the child’s need for emotional closeness remains unseen or ignored, and the parents’ behavior is a source of disorientation or terror. When children have experiences with parents that leave them overwhelmed, traumatized, and frightened, they become disorganized and chaotic. Coping mechanisms may include dissociation, withdrawal, extreme passivity or aggression in getting needs met.” Check: unseen. Check: dissociation.
“Insecure attachment can be a vicious cycle. Due to problems with social relationships, insecurely attached children may become even more isolated and withdrawn, making it hard for them to form relationships that may mitigate the effects of insecure attachment. Children with attachment disturbances often project an image of self-sufficiency and charm while masking inner feelings of insecurity and self-hate. Children with attachment problems may have learned not to cry if in pain or frightened, for example, or not associate touch with being soothed.” I remember teaching myself to stop bringing my mother any cut, bruise or upset because the disappointment hurt worse than the injury. I shut the computer and push it under my bed.
As I did more reading and as more hours with Riona passed, I came to understand with what I had been wrestling all these years. Attachment issues are notoriously unavailable for treatment: disruptions in the relational field happen when the person is still without language, still communicates with gestures and sounds and is as impressionable as dough on a board. The relational disruptions can be as subtle as eye contact, tone of voice, or as obvious as neglect, violence and abuse. What makes it so hard to capture in narrative, much less treat in therapy, is that the infant immediately adapts and adjusts to the relational situation in which she finds herself. The baby learns to modulate his or her desire to better match the offerings, sealing the longing for connection in non-verbal silence, recorded only in the visceral and subtle body. Once contained, development goes forward. The child hones skills and nurtures compensations to fit the caregiver’s emotional style and presence. So early and so thorough are those adjustments that they become the foundation for an adult’s worldview.
I know the relational deficits I adjusted to only retroactively and by a set of intense and anachronistic emotions: self-doubt, self-consciousness, self-aggression, insecurity, anxiety and depression, symptoms of a loss I can’t recover from culminates in my feelings of abject (non-represent-able) sorrow. “Jane” loves. She is a verb. Her object: Ernestine. My problem is strung along two competing narrative lines: one, the irrepressible desire to connect; the second, a determined and disciplined effort to isolate, to stop contact. These days I live at the intersection of these key storylines of attachment.
At the same time Mom throws tantrums and turns threatening at Tamarisk, my symptoms, for want of a better term, are escalating. I am afraid of therapy. I don’t sleep more than a few hours at a time. I exercise too much. I use alcohol, Valium, Ambien—anything I can to shut my brain down. Mom is in the bardo of dementia and I am in my own in-between world.
I thank you for this beautiful piece. It is so healing to read. I can relate to a lot of what you are saying.
Thank you for sharing
Hi Jane, thank you for your openness and vulnerability here.
It resonates deeply.