Being Heard (or, The Attachment Ache)


The agony of insecure attachment has been kicking my butt this week.

I have felt really settled for a few months now. The security of T and GP together feels like secure ‘parenting’ and I’ve been able to watch the impact of that. I was much more secure during an ending at work, I have been very brave in this new relationship, I was much more confident than usual when travelling… but most importantly, the day to day stuff has felt secure. I haven’t felt that attachment ‘wobble’ for a while.

Last week, I went on holiday to Amsterdam, which meant that I missed out on a session with T. Obviously, this was my choice because I wanted to go on holiday, and we did have a few lines of email correspondence throughout the week. Despite those check ins, though, things started to wobble when I got back last weekend. I wrote, in a panicky email to T, that I’d lost her sense of permanence – that security that I had felt for the last few months, where I know she will be at our session and she is still there even when I can’t see her etc., it had gone. Completely. I wrote that it is like when you walk up the stairs in the dark, and you think that there is an extra step when there isn’t. You fall through the air and, in that milisecond before you land again, you forget that you ever knew solid ground beneath you. It felt like that feeling, except constant. Constant, pulsing with its own strength inside me. Agony.

I spoke to T on Monday, which helped a little but as soon as we had ended the phone call I was overcome by panic that I didn’t feel better and I had to get through to Thursday feeling like this.

Thursday’s session was a complete mess. I must have been very dissociative as I don’t remember vast chunks of it. I know that when I sat down I had no words, and my whole body was shaking. T was trying to get me to speak, but there were no words inside me – just overwhelm. I remember her coming to sit on the floor next to my chair – I remember her placing her hands on my feet, and I can remember the tone of her voice but not her words – soothing, gentle, but worried. I gave her my hand then, and she opened my palm and noticed where my nails had dug in, in an attempt to stop the shaking. I remember saying ‘ouch’, and I remember how loved I felt when she ran her thumb over the marks, stroking and soothing them.

I can remember her telling me, over and over, that she doesn’t think I am bad. “I don’t think you’re bad. I really, really don’t. Can you hear me say that?”

Eventually, she must have come to sit on the sofa with me, and I fell into her. We must have cuddled like that for a long time. Her heartbeat and the way she strokes my hair away from tickling her face… the littlest parts of me can do nothing but adore her. I know that our conversation was very young. I can remember her telling me that I couldn’t fit inside her tummy, even though I wanted to, because she would have to be a giant. I can remember her talking to me through Rabbit, telling me I was silly for thinking I’d lost her because Rabbit knew she was there and safe all along. I just want you to love me all the time, I whispered. Love isn’t dependent on two people being in the same place. Don’t you love your children in work even when they’re not there? Can’t I care about you, even when I’m not with you all the time?

Eventually, slowly, I must have regained some adult control, as we both sat up a little. I know I talked about how scary this attachment need is – how it is all consuming in its immediacy, how it just spirals and gets worse and worse no matter what I do. How I try to remind myself of all I know, but Little had lost her sense of T in the world and that was too much. Unbearable. I can’t really remember leaving.

The next day I had a session with GP. He’s now on holiday for two weeks – so yesterday’s session (and the text conversation afterwards) was full of classic, button pushing attachment panic. Please don’t leave, please come back. GP is wonderful and explained to me very patiently that he needed a break to be able to give himself in the way he does. That he would be back. He said all the right things, but I still burst into tears the minute my car door slammed shut, and they didn’t stop until sleep finally won the battle.

Today I saw R. It has felt like a long time between sessions this time, which is daft as it hasn’t been, but is a good sign I was craving the space she creates. R is a breath of fresh air – she is vibrant and beautifully human, and I feel restored just by being with her. I had written her an essay of an email just before I went on holiday, about how I feel everything is going almost too well and I’m constantly waiting for something to go wrong, for my mask to slip and for me to be exposed as a fraud… which felt important but I had written it before this attachment blip had kicked off, and that felt more important today.

I value R because I never feel I need to be anything other than just myself, with total honesty. We’ve worked together a crazy long time now and I just trust her integrity. I talked about how it feels like a negatively spiraling blip at the moment, and the pain caused by the insecurity and instability. I talked about my frustration that I do lots of things that should help me feel better – I have lots of coping strategies that I use, but the pain of my overwhelming, immediate need for T doesn’t go away. I could feel the frustration and stress and pain of this week bubbling up behind what I was saying, tears choking my voice.

R is very good for me because she helps me reframe my thoughts and some of the things I say – she is gentle in her approach, but firm and absolutely unwavering, too. The first part we tackled is my equation doing coping strategies = no pain. I get frustrated when I’ve tried a coping strategy I’ve been taught, or I try two, or ten, and the pain is still there. Then I panic, because I have very little distress tolerance and limited emotional resilience (which R and I have talked a fair bit about before). It helped, bizarrely, to hear that my coping strategies aren’t going to magic the pain away. I really want them to, but they aren’t going to. R acknowledged how young this pain sounds when I talk, and it is unreasonable of me to expect that it will go away because I’ve read a book or cuddled Rabbit when this pain comes from trauma and heartache at a very young age. I can’t describe how refreshing that was to hear – I could feel myself getting very stressed with T this week because (and I think this is because I look to her, in my panic, for a solution – a quick fix) she tells me that I have an adult part that can look after Little etc, and I need to access that part. I get very stressed at her when she says it because it’s not enough. I already try all those things but it’s not enough to make it stop. R and I agreed that coping strategies might lessen the intensity of my feelings (or at least limit the damage I can do to myself, making it worthwhile to do even though it’s not going to make it perfect…), but I felt a lot of pressure lifted off me in the acknowledgment that no matter what I try, the pain probably won’t go away altogether, right in the moment.

We talked quite a bit about my frustration when it still hurts, even when I’ve tried to make it better, and how my panic and internal bullying then makes it all worse. I remind myself, when I’m in that frustrated place, of the children I work with. When we make models, for example, if they’ve put glue on once and it hasn’t stuck, the world might as well have ended. Their frustration and disappointment bubbles over and me suggesting they should try another glue or another method doesn’t actually help to soothe the upset. We also talked about my mum. When we were away, she told me how I was a difficult baby – I would cry, and she’d do all the right things, like feed, change nappy etc., but I’d still be crying. She had shared with me her frustration in my continued suffering even when she’d done everything right, and R and I reflected on the parallels between that situation and my own now. It’s so ingrained, my inability to self soothe.

R listened to me talk about what mum had said, and then she stopped me. I just need to challenge what your mum said, R started, you were not a difficult baby. The situation might have been difficult, your mum might not have known what to do, but you were not being difficult. You were just being a baby. I choked at that, hid behind her cushions whilst she finished speaking. I know this is hurting you to hear, she said, but you really need to hear it. You are not difficult.Much like T telling me she doesn’t think I’m bad, what R said stroked that very, very young, extremely vulnerable part inside me, which at the moment believes I am never going to get better, this is always going to hurt this much and that is because this is all my fault because I am bad. I cried and cried with how soothing it was to hear her say it.

She backed this up with reassuring me that her son (who I feel bizarrely connected to because I watched that bump grow for 6 months into a fully fledged human person!) needed holding a lot when he was a baby – but he wasn’t being difficult, just expressing his needs at that point. We talked about how babies do eventually learn to self soothe but this takes time, and especially if I’m trying to learn to do this as an adult. Little’s needs are being met by T (and GP), she is getting the holding and loving she so desperately needed before – but coping without agonising attachment pain during the other 167 hours a week is going to take time. We talked about how, during those hours, I still need to use coping strategies because doing something is much better than doing nothing, but my frustration at being told to ‘listen to my adult’ etc probably stems from my mother’s frustration with my constant tears, and her belief that I should ‘cry it out’ makes me panicky and silenced which makes the pain more unbearable. It doesn’t feel helpful right now to be told I should go away and try to self soothe (which feels like being told to silence myself, to stop the crying) because what Little really needs is T, and that fact isn’t going to change just because, as R said, I got out my shiny box of coping strategies. Just to say this out loud helped a lot. R reminded me that Little’s needs are being met by T and that will slowly expand, along with the self soothing, to support the rest of the week. She reminded me that therapy as an adult does mean drilling into the heart of the pain and working through that, but even though it will feel much worse to begin with, that’s how it gets better. R’s faith in this gave me my faith back.

None of this means that I shouldn’t be trying coping strategies when I feel pain, or that T is the only way I am ever going to feel better. But I work extremely hard in therapy and in the time in between, and I don’t need to be told I’m going to be okay or that my adult part can look after me – I already know that. I think T and I can fall into this trap because I look to her for a quick fix, and when she isn’t with me, her quick fix is to suggest coping strategies, when I think what Im actually craving for (and need to learn to ask for) is just to be heard – that this pain hurts, a lot, and that is shit. And though it will pass and I will cope, it’s still shit even though those things are true – and it’s okay for it to be shit! That R heard how shit this feels. I feel like R and I used the word shit as an adjective repeatedly, because there is no nicer way to describe how shit this is. Shit!

With a few minutes to go, R said she wanted to check in. It had felt like quite a rough session, and I was pretty raw and tearful by the end. Our sessions are brilliant because they are not like therapy with T at all – they’re very different, and they are challenging and involve a lot of processing for my adult head, but that’s why I value them, and I reassured her of that. I don’t want you to think I’m not being compassionate, or not hearing the pain you’re experiencing, R said, because I really am. I hear you. I don’t want you to have to feel this pain, I don’t want you to hurt and I wish I could take it away. I really wish I could take this away from you and stop it hurting. I cried to hear that.

I’m just so scared of letting you all down, I said, you’re all working so hard and here I am having yet another blip. R laughed at me gently – I can promise you none of us feel that way, she said, and what are you doing? You’re hardly floating along through this drinking pina coladas – you’re working harder than anyone. Your fears of letting us down are your thoughts, not ours. I laughed, believing her and feeling so reassured and grateful and emotional all in one.

We hugged, and as I left I felt lighter. Bruised, beaten up emotionally, but lighter. This is going to take time. But today’s session told me what I’ve been unknowingly craving to hear this week – R has heard that this pain hurts. She’s hearing me. She’s standing by me through it. I’ve come a huge way in my own resourcefulness – but its okay that what I needed this week was a show of solidarity and support, and someone to truly listen to the sadness of the song my soul is singing right now. R heard me, today. She is the anchor charm on my pandora bracelet, and today I left feeling much more grounded, stable and still. I left feeling heard.. And that’s given me a refill of strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other, on this long, painful, messy but beautiful therapeutic journey.



15 responses »

  1. I’m really glad you have these people
    in your life. And I wanted to echo what R said– you were being a baby. My daughter cried almost nonstop for 2 years. I held her, her father held her. Mage slept in my bed, held in my arms. And still she cried. But I never have thought her difficult; I’ve thought that time in our lives was hard for all THREE of us, and I’ve often thought that Kat has suffered all that she should ever have to in those first two years. We tried everything, but nothing helped. People assume we tried everything because it is hard to deal with a crying baby all the time; we tried everything because we wanted our child to be happy. And now? She does still struggle with self soothing, but we are working to teach her how in a kind and gentle way. I hope this is making some sense. My big point is that you were not being a difficult baby. I really don’t believe there is such a thing as a difficult baby. Xx

  2. I love your honesty here; being able to talk about having fears resurface, AND that not diminishing one bit of your progress and growth. I hear a whole lot of smartness and insight in handling very tough emotion that is in no way a reflection of who you are and what you are. Thank you for sharing; helps remind me that even tough days will happen in a positive and healed place.

    • Thanks. Yes – R is very good at keeping my perspective in focus – things can feel shit AND I can still be a whole million miles further along than I was a year ago. There are so many millions of shades of gray in recovery, I guess. Thanks for reading x

  3. Wow … Just wow. My daughter was just dx with attachment disorder. No idea what else is going through her little 5 year old mind. Maybe this will help me help her. This brought tears to my eyes. You are so raw in expressing yourself. I can’t wait to read more and get to know you better.
    …Happy healing…

  4. its amazing to me how much I look forward to your posts and miss you when there is not a new post. just wanted to tell you that. I struggle a lot with attachment also.

  5. I love both R and T for you. So much. I am so glad you have them.
    And I want to echo them — your needs are never wrong. Sometimes they can’t be met by a particular person and sometimes they are overwhelming but your needs are never wrong.
    I work with children with Autism and our whole approach is that the learner’s needs are never wrong. If something is going wrong, it’s because I’m not meeting their need. Maybe I’m not the right person to meet it or maybe I need to try another tack but the need isn’t wrong. They aren’t wrong for what they need.

    I am so grateful that I have a therapist who believes that for me, as well, though applying that to my own life is inifintely harder then seeing it in my students.

    • Thank you, for your comment and for the reassurance. I do love them both, immensely. “They aren’t wrong for what they need.” Change the pronouns and that needs to be my life motto…

  6. “You were not a difficult baby. The situation might have been difficult, your mum might not have known what to do, but you were not being difficult. You were just being a baby.” When we are little our parents have the job of adapting to who we are. Being a parent isn’t a “one size fits all” project. Sounds like your mom was expect “little you” to do most of the heavy lifting. Babies aren’t weight lifters — yet. You are getting there now.

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