FLOWERS UPON FLOWERS

A smart, artsy teen client once described her math homework as “more flowers than numbers.” Such moments in therapy visits abound, arresting in their unexpected turns of phrase, their poetry.

Poetry has been on my mind because my writing adviser from grad school just retired. (I have two degrees; writing came first.) She was a magnificent teacher in many respects, most notably for me this one: she never, ever imposed her aesthetic values on her students, but instead had the insight to see what each and every poem was trying to become, and how to help it along.

As someone with pronounced aesthetic preferences, her gift was like the higher math to my clumsy arithmetic. I’ve known for years that I could never be a teacher, in part for that reason. But I had the gratifying realization recently that I get to live by her example in my work as a therapist.

Progress notes are more numbers than flowers, and the bane of my existence, but therapy appointments are veritable gardens of perennials, annuals, and ectoplasmic chalk drawings that brighten my path and sweeten the air I breathe. I’m grateful to my clients for sharing them. I’m grateful to you for reading.

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RADICAL ACCEPTANCE

You may have heard the phrase “radical acceptance.” It’s a term in DBT for the recognition that, echoing the Serenity Prayer in AA, there are things in life we cannot change. Faced with the immutable, we have only our responses. An accepting response hurts less, the way a childhood friend emerged from a car accident with only a bruise, because her sleeping body had been relaxed at impact. If anyone reading this feels that radical acceptance of certain biographical facts is an impossibility, I understand. The losses in this life can be enormous. Abuse, neglect, betrayal. The failures of one’s own mind, a loss I know all too well. I could be haunted by the most grotesque and terrifying memories, from when the veins in my brain leaked blood and irritated the surrounding tissues. Still, as I walked through a light rain this weekend, I reflected on my good fortune. When I thought I was plummeting in an abyss, throughout most of 2019, I was actually falling backward into arms that caught and held me. Love can accomplish amazing things, just as March accomplishes the miracle of crocuses, gathered in shy regiments, silken petals at attention, violet and white. Life can be so fucking awful, it’s hard to imagine a worse punishment than breathing. Please hold on. Believe in spring. Believe in love.

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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.

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