It’s Not That I Don’t Love You…My Struggle with Attachment Disorder
From age three to eleven I was sexually abused. Repeatedly. Horrifically. My abuser was a man who should have been a safe, loving person in my life. He was someone I should have counted on to protect me, rather than a man I needed to be protected from.
The aftereffects of that trauma have been devastating; post-traumatic stress disorder, vulnerability to re-victimization, and persistent depression. But it also damaged me in a way I never knew it could, and in a way few people talk about, by dramatically decreasing my capacity to bond with other people.
Humans are born with only a few natural instincts. One of them is attachment. Our desire to bond with our primary caregivers is innate. We are hard wired to attach to them for our own safety. Simply put, it’s a survival instinct.
For a child who is being harmed by someone they are instinctively drawn to bond with, attachment becomes a morass of confusion. I wanted my abuser’s love and protection. But I was also fiercely afraid of him. When I saw him come into the room I experienced a wave of conflicting desires: to run toward him and to run away from him.
The best description I have ever read about this simultaneous wish to both cling to and flee from a caregiver is that it is akin to putting one foot on the accelerator and the other on brake of your car, full force at the same time. The first result is that you’re frozen in time and space because you aren’t going anywhere with those opposing forces at work. The second is that eventually you will wear your engine out.
I think my engine wore down to hardly any function before I even reached my teens. In my late twenties, after a marriage that ended due to my husband’s multiple infidelities and a broken engagement due to my fiancée leaving for another woman, my capacity for attachment self-destructed. My engine burst into a ball of flames due to so many years of being told I was safe and loved but at the same time being horrifically betrayed and hurt.
I haven’t experienced a significant attachment to anyone since that time. I had a wonderful therapist who I worked with for five years after my suicide attempt in 1994. She was loving, kind and endlessly supportive. She poured so much of herself into my therapy. And she taught me to love myself, something I had never done before. But one day I walked away from her without a backwards glance when we differed over an aspect of my treatment plan. To this day I’m ashamed of how easily I walked away.
I’m also ashamed to say that I didn’t feel that overwhelming love and adoration everyone told me I would feel when my son was first placed in my arms after I gave birth. We have a fierce bond now. But I’m full of deep regret that I couldn’t figure out how to make that work until a few years into his little life. I feel like he deserved better. But I just didn’t have it in me. My capacity to attach was destroyed by years of abuse and betrayal. My engine was more than just damaged, it was obliterated.
I don’t have many friends in my life, especially in real life. I have many people whom I love and adore. But if they walked away from me tomorrow all I would feel is shame that I didn’t miss them. I listen to friends talk about the people they’ve known since high school that they still see and talk to. Others share these wonderful college friendships they still value. I have none of that. I have people from high school and college who I think about and have connected with on Facebook. But I have no emotional investment in our relationship. There’s just nothing inside my attachment bank to draw from anymore.
I have three friends in real life. I love them deeply and dearly. And yet I know if they moved to Mars tomorrow I wouldn’t be devastated. I feel broken. Flawed. Like a square peg in a round hole world. I have worked very hard to divest myself of the shame from my childhood of sexual abuse. But the shame associated with my inability to form attachments to other people is still my constant companion.
I can’t change it and I can’t fix it. If I really were a car I could get a new engine. But there are no attachment transplants for humans. My highest and best choice to it accept this damaged part of myself, grieve that loss, and do the most I can each day to stay connected emotionally to the people I love.
It’s hard work, and when my depression is at a high level I don’t have a lot of energy available to invest in keeping up those bonds. So I frequently lose connections with other people. They get tired of waiting for me to return phone calls and emails. When they walk away, so to speak, I feel very disappointed in myself. I’m never angry at them. I understand. Who wants to be friends with someone who doesn’t behave like the relationship means something to them?
So many things have come into my life because of my childhood abuse. Hard, painful things. The depression, flashbacks and nightmares are difficult. But they get better with treatment. The loss of my capacity to attach to others, though, can never be made whole. I’ve built a life without it but I’ll always wonder how differently my journey would have been if I’d never lost it.
Bobbi Parish is a therapist, author, entrepreneur and Trauma Recovery Coach. She’s a founder of The #NoMoreShame Project and Trauma Recovery University. Every week she’s a podcaster, videocaster, Twitter chat host and Facebook support group leader in an effort to help Trauma Survivors reach a place of peace and recovery. You can contact her at her website BobbiParish.com