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

OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS

 

I noticed right away the whiff of chemicals on his coat, but I didn’t want to embarrass or offend him, so I didn’t ask him to hang it up in the waiting room. I thought of him as shy and inward, in ways that might have had to do with poverty and tumult, and I didn’t want to drive him further down into any of that. I did mention lightly that I noticed something, and he told me it was diesel that had spilled on him. I opened the window, giving the excuse that I was warm, while keeping my sweater on. Did he catch that discrepancy of logic? If so, it wasn’t apparent. I liked him but didn’t know if I was reaching him in any helpful way. We sat in long silences together while he sorted out the tactile puzzles next to him. I asked him to name his feeling when he solved one, and encouraged him to notice sources of pride in his life. I told him he deserved to feel pride, and his eyebrows went up—his strongest reaction ever in session, I think. Not because of him, but for the sake of my breath that day, I was relieved when he left. He’d been sitting on a pillow that I knew would never air out; I would have to remove it. The day proceeded. I saw two more clients, then transferred my plants from the windowsill, where the morning sun through the glass is always too intense, to the little table where I sit with kids, and left for my evening job. The next morning when I unlocked my office, the diesel was still eye-burningly thick in the air, and my fluorescent pothos, formerly a glowing green, thick and exuberant with leaves, was at least half-dead—the wilted leaves brown and sickly slick. Pothos rate high among potted plants both for ease of growth and for their ability to clean indoor air; I felt as though this one had taken the hit for the other two plants in my office, and for me. I picked the dead parts off and discarded them, realizing only later that I should’ve photographed the whole plant first, to capture the devastation that had been wreaked, that evidence of ecosystem in action. Then I did what I had to do: I opened my window and sat at my desk to start notes. Absentmindedly I reached for my mug, forgetting that the water had sat overnight, and realized I was tasting diesel fumes that had settled there. I spit into the garbage, rinsed my mouth, washed the cup multiple times in the staff kitchen, rinsed my mouth again, drank filtered water. Every day for over a week, I came in to more dead leaves. At first dark like overripe bananas, then dwindling to jaundiced leaves with darker spots, like burn marks. The foliage sparser and sparser as I pruned and hoped for recovery. An acquaintance who heard about all this, after the fact, said, “Never sacrifice yourself that way again. Ask for the coat to come off.” Well, the boy didn’t wear the coat next time I saw him, which, given patterns of attendance in such an agency, wasn’t a mere seven days later. It got warmer. But meanwhile—just imagine—he’d been walking around like that, breathing that in.

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