35. The turquoise coat – Part three: Darker than night
April 18, 2013. This is the 62nd time in my life I have lived through a date of the 18th of April. I am surrounded by the blooming beauty of the many roses and other perennials in my high desert Arizona garden as the morning light pushes away the shadows left by the last nightfall. Although I sit outside writing wearing my knitted winter hat and long black down coat I know by the time night shadows are gone I will be warmed again by that magnificent orb we call the sun.
I think about many things including the dreams I had last night about two of my brothers and the bush of pink roses whose blush has never been matched by anything I have seen in my waking life. I think about the many disadvantages I have because I was given so few opportunities as a child to learn to be a social being among others of my species. Flowers in my garden take care of themselves as long as I make sure their roots don’t dry out, as long as I trim off old growth and shape them when needed.
People, on the other hand, seem to need perpetual care and mostly I don’t understand what they are asking for. I think of a chapter I read several years ago, Responding to need in intimate relationships: Normative processes and individual differences, whose lead author was Nancy Collins (Department of Psychology, University of California in Santa Barbara). (See note below.) I found information about human relationships in this writing that I needed to know.
Because we are members of a social species we have built within our body a sophisticated collection of interrelated physiological systems that are all geared toward modulating our attachment to life that includes other people. Of course, as the Teicher article I mentioned in my previous chapter makes clear, abuse and early relationship trauma changes how our physiology develops so that these systems then operate differently from ordinary.
An ordinarily-built attachment system is designed to turn itself off and on. Those of us with early relationship trauma have built into our body what can be simply termed an insecure attachment disorder. One of the consequences of having been built this way is that our on/off switch becomes essentially broken.
In Collin’s description our body also grows within it an interactive caregiving system that is also based upon physiological abilities in our body that come into play ONNLY when the operation of our own attachment system is turned off. People whose physiological development was changed through chronic exposure to early relationship trauma and deprivations can have an attachment system that never turns itself off. Those people therefore experience detriments in their ability to genuinely and appropriately “give care” to others.
How all of these systems work together to balance our ability to have our own needs met “good enough” so that our attachment system CAN and periodically DOES turn itself off so our capacities to caregive to someone else is very complex. Understanding what these systems are supposed to accomplish is part of what we need to know before we can accurately figure out how to make positive changes. As long as we blindly allow ourselves to follow along the attachment-caregiver routes our physiology dictates for us we lack the capacity to consciously modulate how we are interacting in our relationships.
People who were given the opportunity to grow the best possible body-brain in a resource-adequate predominately safe and secure early attachment relationship environment can trust that the operation of these two main systems is working “good enough” to give them opportunity to both take and give in their relationships in a balanced and healthy way. Those of us raised in early environments scarce with resources and deprived of safe and secure attachments will spend most of our lives struggling in ways that safe and securely attached people never will.
For us the shadows of nightfall are never fully chased away by a new day’s sunshine. I could even say that we are walking stress response systems that never had a chance to build the physiological ability to experience the counterbalance state of peaceful calm into our body. We can easily be in a chronic state of unmet need which means our attachment system cannot turn itself off.
I would suggest that for any “psychological” or “psychiatric” or even sociological approach to be effective (or even rational) it must set its beginning point of thought at the beginning point of human life. Recent advances in technology now take the guesswork out of what truly makes us the same and what makes us different in terms of how our physiology is forced to accommodate itself to a life of woe versus a life of ease. The essential changes that happen through adaptation to stressful trauma during the first 33 months of life (conception to age two) determine the trajectory of any individual who experiences them. NOBODY, for example, can be spared degrees of debilitating change to their physiological development during those first 33 months of life if chronic stress-related biochemical reaches toxic levels in their body-brain. On the other hand, being spared the flooding of these toxic hormones would benefit anyone.
Taken to extremes it is specifically the difference between the levels of toxic stress (distress) that infants are exposed to through the presence or absence of trauma in their earliest attachment relationships with their caregivers that creates the physiological body-brain that is designed for a lifetime of either plenty or of scarcity. Degrees of change directly affect all social-emotional interactions a person has with self and with others for the rest of their lives. The operation of and the balance between their attachment need and their caregiver systems will be impacted.
Rather than getting lost in an abyss of confusion about what I am attempting to describe I will ground my writing in the life experience of my mother whose attachment system had been formed in an early environment of such stressful trauma that only in the strangest ways in the rarest of circumstances could it ever be turned off for even the briefest periods of time. Mother, as I study what patterns I can see of her life, more than ran on empty. She ran on a perpetual vacuum that meant not only could she not caregive, but she sucked the life out of anyone she was around if they could not stop her from doing so. Certainly Mildred’s dependent children had no capacity to protect themselves from her appetites of need except as they were able to preserve the inner integrity of their own mind.
I doubt there is any greater potential for child abuse than that which exists in a mother who is left alone with her children to suck their experience of childhood out of them by creating such an environment of continual trauma that any safe and secure attachments are prevented from forming.
Life is in me and life surrounds me. Life itself is a “one thing.” It is tenacious in all of its variety of expression in form. Life has a voracious, insatiable appetite essentially for one thing: More life.
As I sat perched alone that night on the metal kitchen stool I had what all life yearns for. I was alive. I was carried through that night by the same processes that carried me in their current all the way through my life with mother. I had my life. I had the greatest powers on my side in existence. Life itself carried me forward in its grip and it did not let go of me.
That level of attachment cannot be questioned, but it was not an attachment to humans on any but the most basic level of my having received what I needed to sustain my body that my parents “took care” of me. Mother fed off of me as her (psycho-projected) all-bad child because the cord of her connection to being alive was contorted and twisted. In very real and profoundly disturbed ways Mother robbed enough from me to stay alive herself and to have enough to give to her other “adored” children to sustain them.
She left me alone in the darkness on that stool all night because she needed to. How she turned my suffering into cheerfulness to give to her other children is a mystery of psychotic Borderline Personality Disorder that needs to be solved. Mother’s broken attachment system required that her needs be met through reverse-caregiving me.
That is exactly, in my thinking, what all adult abuse of children is meant to accomplish: Take away from a child everything but its very life to get what’s needed to take care of the unmet needs of self. Additionally in Mother’s case she also took from me enough to minimally take care of her other “adored” children. What is left over when these patterns are in operation is the great suffering of one that achieves some form of benefit for others.
These are excessively primitive, evolutionarily altered patterns of survival. It was never Mother’s direct intention to kill me. I was, so to speak, the perpetual fountain of her “youth” (life). Her madness needed me alive. It did not need me happy.
I do not believe any other species has the ability to create and sustain such a distortion of natural systems’ operation. Because of our innate complexity humans have more to give, more to get and more to spare than other creatures do. Mental, psychological, emotional and even spiritual abuse happens to children because it can. Children are alive in each of these areas. They have within them mines of resources that a deranged needy abuser will simply go after – because they need to and because they can. (Society lets them.)
It is only to the extent that an infant or child who is under such attack can sustain itself and continue to replenish its inner resources that it will survive. Without access to protective factors nobody can remain alive. Certainly not young infants and children.
I hung onto life because life hung onto me. I was not uprooted. Yet seldom in my life have I ever been able to experience true rest. Perhaps such survivors as I am were forced to stretch a tap root so deeply into ongoing life itself that our continued existence was guaranteed simply because we were able to do so.
But on this my 62nd experience of the 18th of April I consider a body of information provided by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) through their Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study research. This research has shown clearly that the more of these ACEs a person experienced the more likely it will be that they will suffer from difficulties throughout their lifespan that those with a low ACE count will not. Long-term (longitudinal) research that attempted to follow high ACE count survivors became difficult to pursue because these survivors die on the average of twenty years earlier than low ACE people do. (Again, basic information on this research and its findings can be found through using “CDC ACE study pyramid” in an online search.)
As a high ACE count survivor who has already survived advanced aggressive breast cancer I do not take for granted that I will have dozens more of these dates to account for. Between this April 18th and the next one I am committed to completing the writing of what parts of my story I feel have something useful to offer to others. I realized this morning that hope itself can so fade into the background as a motivating force that it can seem to vanish altogether. It is no longer hope that keeps me writing. It is the extent of my caring.
I realize today that hope is connected to an attachment need that seeks fulfillment. Caring comes from the quieting of attachment needs that allows for that system to turn itself off. In all but the most pathological cases when the human attachment system has turned itself off the caregiving system is activated. This happens when there is an excess of resources one can then release and give away.
The fact that we know there are over three million infants and children suffering abuse in our American nation each year, with millions more suffering under conditions of deprivation, tells me that on the whole there must not be enough Americans living here who have the ability to turn their own attachment system off so that they can begin to take care of these suffering millions of our nation’s offspring. Perhaps the reason we have not yet stopped their suffering is because we are still too needy as adults to do so. I have a small suggestion that might be of some assistance.
The more we educate ourselves about the lifelong benefits given to those whose bodies were formed in a safe and secure attachment relationship environment the more we will identify the riches those people have always had in comparison to others who experienced an early life under the opposite conditions. With this recognition can come the realization that where it matters most there is probably not enough need present in a safe and securely attached person’s life to prevent them from NOT letting their attachment system turn itself off so that their caregiving system can turn itself all the way on.
A drizzle of caregiving done by only a few people will not accomplish what needs to be done to improve the life of the suffering millions of abused and deprived infants and children alive in our nation. A recognition of the privilege that safe and securely attached people have always known might stimulate an increase in their personal experience of caring – and I mean as in GIVING a meaningful DAMN – about suffering caused to other people’s children.
If caring does not follow into actions of meaningful caregiving it is not really caring at all any more than an empty promise is a promise.
Note: Collins, N. L., Ford, M. B., Guichard, A. C., & Feeney, B. C. (2006). Responding to need in intimate relationships: Normative processes and individual differences. In M. Mikulincer & G. Goodman (Eds.), Dynamics of romantic love: Attachment, caregiving, and sex. New York: Guilford. (pages 149-189)
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The first part of this chapter is in the previous post