HIE THEE HOMEWARD

Walking home just now, I overheard two couples talking. I’m a brisk walker and was overtaking them. One was saying to the others, “They were very tender tonight.” Par for the course with me, I assumed they were talking about people. Tender people–it was such a warming thought. It turns out they were talking about scallops.

The environmentalist in me would like to send you directly to The New Yorker, the March 8 issue, to read about the disaster that is the worldwide fishing industry, devastating ecosystems and traditional fishing communities both. That’s not to mention the state of the waters themselves, the plastic, the chemicals. However, this bit of writing is about therapy.

A client’s boyfriend was depressed and using substances. She was afraid he might be suicidal, and his reassurance wasn’t much comfort–only because of her, he wouldn’t hurt himself. She asked him to see a therapist, and his response was that he didn’t want to pay someone to listen to him.

I feel sympathy for that sentiment. To me it says less about my profession than it does about the widespread and entirely comprehensible hunger people have for real intimacy and support. I do think there are some misconceptions in that statement, though, as well. Good therapy is about much more than just being “listened to” in some timed and compensated way. Among other things, it’s an opportunity to know and speak our truths more clearly, to shape our preferred narratives.

Many people in our lives–good, bad, or indifferent–lack the skills or insight to meet our needs, or their own needs conflict with ours in ways that don’t result in satisfactory compromise. We can walk through the world in a state of confusion, our powers of reason working overtime to sort through the cognitive dissonance: If we really deserved consideration, we would get it, so working backwards, the fact that we don’t get it must mean we don’t deserve it.

Good therapy holds open a sacred space, yes, but the goal is for clients ultimately not to need it because they’ve reached a point of getting what they need within their personal spheres–with family, with partners, at work, among friends. It’s a transformation I’ve been privileged to witness many times. I don’t mean that last statement to ring of false humility or passive enabling of change; I take an active role in my work. But transformation is something greater, irreducible to input and output, “evidence-based practices” notwithstanding.

I’m not talking about “evidence-based practices,” however well-studied they may be, however nicely their results can be graphed. I’m talking about corrective experiences, the back-filling of holes, the healing of wounds. I’m talking about tenderness, joy, logic, laughter. Present-moment learning. To quote Ted Lasso–any excuse!–“I’m talking about practice.”

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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

LETTERS AND WORDS

The waiting room had been freshly painted over, institutional off-white where once there’d been a warm robin’s egg blue. Not my choice, needless to say; the change felt aggressively bright and depleting, uninviting and not at all therapeutic. Someone else apparently took issue with it on some level, too, as a bit of vandalism appeared in short order where none had ever occurred before, at least not in my time. A defacement of the wall that I noted but blocked out, the way I note and block out the crumbling exterior details of the building and the grout in the bathroom tile that probably hasn’t been clean in decades. My client had studied it, though. “Um, do you see this?” Nodding toward the damage that suddenly resolved from random scrapes into a rough approximation of the word “slut.” Weeks passed, with kids and adults coming and going, sitting in the chair under that word. Was anything done about it? I could have submitted a work order, but at that point I was perversely curious whether anyone involved in admin or maintenance would notice and address it. Weeks more passed. Finally, an act of vandalistic intercession: someone scratched away diligently to transform “slut” into “slurp.” I appreciate that anonymous act of transformation while disliking both words for different reasons and finding the whole scenario to be yet another reminder that I need to be moving on from this place where I’ve dedicated so much energy. I need to be in a place more of my making, and that time is coming. I know it won’t be easy leaving, though. The collegial bonds forged in shared adversity are uniquely strong, of uncommon mettle, continually tested by the agency model. And then there are the children and families, and the honor and inspiration of working with them. The proud pencil marks on my door where I measured the heights of kids whose growing wasn’t always celebrated elsewhere, and other reminders in my office of clients who’ve come and gone. A paper painted fish above my coat hook. A little wooden house balanced atop a picture frame left over from a game of object-hide-and-seek. Sparkly stones on my windowsill. And this message on a post-it from a girl who used to end every visit by challenging me to a race down the hallway, glorying in her own speed: “Strong is the new cool.” A lasting gift that she, so fleet, gave to me.

 

 

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Text and image copyrights held by me. My posts have gotten shorter as I deal with other things. As ever, I’m grateful for your reading. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too.