This picture showed up in my Facebook feed this morning and, like most things still do, it brought to mind a memory of you. One of the very last evenings I spent with you was at Target Field for a Minnesota Twins game the week of the Fourth of July, 2010. You had met the rest of the family at the game and left a bit before the fireworks were over in hopes to beat some of the traffic out of there. I’ve told you before that throughout that last few days that there was a growing ache in my heart for you– that your overwhelming sadness was palpable and I didn’t want to let you out of my sight. We were so in tune with one another and I knew you were not doing well and I felt helpless to do anything about it. I would be lying if there wasn’t a part of me that wasn’t terrified watching you leave the stadium that night wondering if that night would be the night “it” happened. I didn’t want you to leave. But turned out it wasn’t “the night” after all and I had the fortune of spending one more evening and one more day with you.
For a few years now I’ve been reading up on the topic of attachment disorders… particularly since your suicide. Your choosing to die was a huge trigger for my “anxiously attached” personality style and my lifelong abandonment issues. I’ve been talking about it in therapy here and there for several years but have really been taking a better look at it recently. I asked Mom just the other day about my behavior as an infant and as a toddler/child in hopes of uncovering the source of some of my attachment issues which I’ve been discussing in therapy. She told me that I was a pretty well-adjusted baby overall and was seemingly comfortable allowing others to hold me… but she did say that once you came along that you and I were desperately attached to one another and to her as well.
In last week’s session I was recounting a story to my therapist about an event from my very early childhood. I recall, when I was about 4 years old or so, that my Grandpa had dropped us gals (me, Mom, Grandma Mary and Auntie Barbie) off at someone’s home for a party. Upon his return a few hours later he came inside the house. As he stood in the doorway he spotted a little girl (who I later found out was my third cousin) and with arms wide open he shouted to her, “Hey you! How’s my favorite girl???” as she leaped up into his outspread arms to catch her. They embraced warmly as she giggled excitedly. My heart was broken. I was his only granddaughter at that time so the title of his “favorite girl” had always been reserved for me… or so I’d thought. I remember that moment so vividly; I was hurt, sad, lonely and also so very angry at this little stranger no bigger than myself who was stealing the attention of my favorite man in the whole, wide world. I remember crying about it later, when I was alone, because it caused me to question his love for me. It might seem a benign scenario because I was just a little munchkin at the time… but I really don’t think it is. Looking back on it I see that my fear of abandonment and sense of heightened awareness to any perceived threat (“perceived” being a crucial identifier here) started so very young and it caused me to act out (and continue to act out to this very day) and become, at times, depressed and withdrawn. Instead of being curious and seeing this little girl about my age as a potential new friend with whom I might enjoy hanging out with, I only saw someone who might take my grandpa away from me when he realized that she was so much cuter, smarter, more outgoing and had a prettier dress than I had. Seriously, where does that come from?? That problem persisted throughout all kinds of relationships– with romantic partners, friends, family, teachers, bosses… you name it. High praise and affection for someone else always seemed to result in me questioning whether or not I was still valued or loved. Saying that out loud is both humiliating and infuriating.
In the book I’m reading called “Attached” they say that our attachment styles aren’t necessarily only a product of our environment or experiences but that we can be born “hard-wired” into a particular attachment style which can be exacerbated by our life circumstances. It isn’t specific to our genders, either; though it is widely accepted as a norm for women to be considered the “needier” of the sexes. Not true at all. (We just might be more comfortable being vocal about it!) But this book has really been so helpful to me; honestly so many examples are hair-raisingly similar to my own thoughts and behaviors. At bare minimum, this book has paid for itself with the valuable reassurance that I am not, after all, a freak of nature who is destined to fail in all her relationships. Yay, me!
I found myself intensely engaged in the chapter describing the “anxious” attachment style– I identified with so much of it. I’m extremely emotional and crave closeness with my partner. But I’m also hyper-aware of even miniscule changes; it’s as though I’m “taking the relationship’s temperature” at the slightest hint of a change. Studies conducted routinely showed that people with an anxious attachment style hyper-vigilant when it comes to others’ moods and emotional expressions. They tend to jump to conclusions very quickly and, as a result, can often misinterpret what they are seeing or hearing. If the anxious person can simply wait a few minutes before jumping to conclusions and reacting hastily, they likely will be able to use better judgement about what is really happening at that moment. For example, the anxious tend to interpret the slightest of withdrawal from their partner as a sign that there is immediate danger to the relationship; I can see how it may come across to other attachment types as a bit self-indulgent if you ask me. Someone could honestly be having a bad day and just because they avoided eye contact I would jump to the conclusion that I’ve done something wrong and they are upset with me and I throw myself into a total panic trying to “fix” things that aren’t even wrong.
Then you have the “avoidant” attachment style which, often to my own detriment, I’ve been drawn to for most of my life. These are people who are not typically very expressive with their emotions and are rarely an “open book.” They are often hyper-sensitive to what they perceive to be as “neediness” in others and find that quality very off-putting and intrusive. They feel a deep-rooted aloneness even when in a relationship. They are capable of connecting with romantic partners but always leave just enough wiggle room to create a safe distance for an escape route as they feel that the confines of an intertwined”togetherness” is more of a threat to their independence than a loving, life-improving connection to another human being.
So what happens when you get an anxious and an avoidant in a relationship together when neither is aware of their issue? Absolute chaos. Well, not all day every day by any stretch… but it certainly makes things infinitely difficult. They are basically speaking different languages! Anxiously attached people cope with a perceived threat or rejection by becoming jealous and fearful, obsessing about the relationship and attempting to seek reconnection at any cost. However, the avoidant sees these attempts to regain closeness as an attack on their space and independence and as a result they withdraw further which only triggers the fears for the anxious person. Turns out that about 50% of the population would be considered of the “secure” attachment style while the anxious and avoidants each make up about a 1/4 of the population with anxious at 20 percent and avoidants at 25 percent. It was so comforting to know that it is extremely common for opposing styles to be attracted to one another. So I’m not alone in my shaky boat. Again… yay, me!
I honestly don’t think I’ve ever NOT been of the anxious variety. Had I read this book years ago, I might have had less volatile experiences within my relationships. Or, at the very least, had the courage to walk away from those situations in which the other person wasn’t willing to meet me halfway. If both parties are willing it can work; the avoidant can learn to slowly open up and become more emotionally available over time which serves to ease the anxiousness of the person who is fearful of rejection; this will, in turn, cause the anxious person to become more relaxed which will, in the end, allow for the avoidant to feel less pressured. And it works the other way, too; if the anxious person continues to work on their triggers and find ways to become less reactive, the avoidant person will naturally become more open to breaking down some of those barriers. When the opposing triggers are no longer fighting, there is much to be gained.
I guess this is a lot of personal info to share so publicly… but honestly I don’t really care. I think there is a lot of power in recognizing our own strengths and weaknesses and owning them and then fixing what needs to be fixed. Much like the feedback I’ve received from strangers on this blog telling me they are grateful for what I’ve shared so they don’t feel so alone… I’m grateful to the writers of this book because it’s really opened my eyes. In therapy I’m working on my attachment issues as well as the self-esteem issue which is some hard work, I tell you what!
Thanks for listening to all of this, dude. Talking about this with you has made me wonder which style you were… after all, you rarely talked about anyone you dated so you were a closed book where that was concerned. Could mean you were of the “avoidant” type but I really am not so sure. If I had to guess, I’d say you and I were cut from the same cloth because I know you too had a heart too big for your own good sometimes, too.
I miss you, dude.