ATTACHMENT THEORY

I recently read an article about the long-term impacts of institutional neglect in Romanian orphanages. The consequences of life without early attachment-bonding could scarcely be starker. Attachment theory, hearkening back to John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, is one of the most powerful concepts in the field of therapy. I think about it a lot, albeit not with the strict categorical breakdown of attachment styles—secure, avoidant, resistant, disorganized—as I find those limiting. We humans are too complicated, ever-evolving in our hardships and strengths, our risks and resiliencies, to say that we are one thing or another. Interpersonal dynamics reveal our complexities. One person can leave us feeling secure, another can disorganize us, but even secure relationships can have their moments of feeling abandoned, and therein lies some of the work of commitment. Then, too, we are also biological, not merely relational, and research increasingly demonstrates the impact of, for example, the microbiome on mood, which can impact our self-presentation and the responses we get from others.

I also think that attachment is an ongoing process as we encounter different types of relationships in our lives, and that early positive experiences, so formative, can nonetheless fail to protect us against later negative ones. Working for a mercurial employer, sometimes warm and sometimes belittling, can leave a person in a compromised psychological state, cowed and demeaned, as one example I’ve experienced firsthand. Then, too, the chilling, heart-breaking still-face experiment reminds me of the distress that can come when romantic relationships fail, when one person demonstrates continued investment while the other ceases to. Similar to a baby’s response—which is, after all, a human response, at its most transparent—an adult’s emotions can encompass confusion; familiar bids for closeness that used to be returned; distress when efforts fail; and, sometimes, total shutdown to avoid further pain. Like the famously misunderstood stages of grief, such feelings can cycle, too, and layer. We are mammals, and mammals are social. Is attachment only about safety and bonding within primary relationships? No, it’s also about being alive, being human, feeling recognized as meriting care and experiencing connection to others in a world of mutuality where we can survive and thrive.

Because I think so much about therapy, and also about contemporary culture, I have lately been thinking about racism through the lens of attachment as human mutuality. Not adult to baby, not parent to child, not caregiver to dependent, but person to person—that version of attachment, the version that I perceive to be ongoing across a lifespan. As humans, we present our faces to one another and show each other that we care or don’t. Blank faces can feel deadly, nullifying one’s existence—and that’s only one type of adverse response. The face of racism can be blank but also hostile, hateful, leering, condescending, and other damaging things I’m failing to list. But it seems to me that what’s consistent about racism, whatever face it wears, is its failure to interact in a human-to-human way and to register the deep and destabilizing distress of another being who rightfully looks for recognition and respect, and who finds none. Over and over again, down centuries. And I’m talking about all forms, in all places, all indigenous persons, all persons of color. The first-hand pain of racism isn’t mine to speak about, and so I’ll stop here. Until it’s addressed, and redressed, though, that betrayal of humanity remains.

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Text and image copyrights on this site are held by me. I value your time and appreciate your reading. There are many things to do in a day, and I’m often ambivalent about posting my monthly contribution to the overwhelming world of content we live in; for a little more on that, see my updated About. Ambivalence notwithstanding, this month marks my 6th year of blogging. Feel free, as always, to share this post. Take care, and give care. EA

INVISIBLE INK

 

We were walking together alongside the building when he veered away from me to climb the perimeter of an unused loading dock. He had done that before, on another walk, and appeared cheerfully confident of my discomfort as he placed one foot before the other on the concrete edge, tightrope-style. Dismissing my worries about his safety, he compared me to his granny, who was his guardian and whom he described as “your standard, everyday grandmother.”

Well, I didn’t correct him on that point; for a kid with his background, being able to take a caregiver for granted is a hard-won luxury. However, I can tell you, she was anything but ordinary. For one thing, she was actually his great-grandmother; her early life unfolded against a backdrop of WWII, yet she was still working full-time and ferrying kids to after-school activities when I started seeing them.

Before she obtained custody, she drove to Jason’s house each day—never knowing what she would find—to take him to school. Without her, he wouldn’t have gotten there, neglected among adults whose lives were given over to pills and needles. Now she was raising him. On a rainy afternoon, as she and I were chatting, I glanced down and noticed matching holes, big as silver dollars, worn into the top of each shoe; she laughed as she admitted she was too busy to try on new ones.

It’s thanks in no small part to her, I’m thinking, that Jason was able to hold his own in the world. His bravado on the loading dock notwithstanding, he had at least one quotidian fear that could send him into a panic. Perhaps that’s why it was tempting for him to show off a bit of fearlessness with me—it was probably empowering for him to scare me in that little way.

Someone had given him a pen that wrote in invisible ink. He brought it to show me once, and was writing secret hieroglyphs on the waiting room walls when I walked out to greet him. They would only be visible in purple light, he said. I think about that, and I think about his history, which he wasn’t inclined or equipped to discuss. Hopefully that exploration would happen one day. So much of our lives are written in invisible ink; it takes the right kind of light, shone in the right places, to reveal what is hidden in plain sight. At its best, counseling can shine a soft violet beam—which is, in fact, a careful reflection of a client’s own light.

Late November is meant, in my part of the world, to be a season of gratitude. This year I feel grateful on Jason’s behalf for the care I saw him receive—for the memory of his great-grandmother’s hand ruffling his red hair as she said, when I asked how his week had been, “He’s a good boy.” And I’m grateful for the invisible heart he drew on my hand. Despite innumerable washings since, it’s still there.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted, and details may be altered in fact while relevant in spirit. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, I hope you’ll consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. “The Numbers Game” (July 2017), now long delayed, will be continued in a future post, when I have more stamina for the topic. Thank you for reading!