This is extremely long. And it talks in depth about attachment stuff so might be triggering. A medal for anyone who actually manages to read to the end!!! (#sorry)
Part 2. Thursday, 11th May.
In the dying embers of my last session, something happened, some switch tripped and suddenly I found myself in floods of tears and touching on a core wound that has been the centre of my therapy for years; the need for a mother.
I was sharing a memory with Sienna from when I was about 10 and my mother never picked me up from school for some reason and how upset I’d been and scared she’d forgotten me, scared I’d done something wrong- forgotten the arrangements or something.
I was telling her this in relation to not knowing that someone will be there when they say they will.
I related that memory to how I can’t trust her when she says she’s staying with me or that she’s not terminating me and how that week had spiralled so much because it was all abandonment and attachment stuff.
We spoke about the different parts who do different things for different reasons in relationships. Sofia is really good at pushing people away but the younger ones are need their attachment figure.
Sienna said to me “ And there are two or three parts who would expect me to be like your mother, to be there 24/7 and not to have a life and just to “be there for me”…”
I nodded and laughed slightly “Yup.”
But I felt a slight twinge as Sienna pointed that out… embarrassed, exposed, hurt that she was pointing out the obvious elephant in the room (that she isn’t my mother and won’t be there 24/7). The inevitable pain of reality. I felt rejected too; Another hangover from the attachment wound, rejection. I felt like by not allowing me the fantasy that Sienna is the next best thing to having a mother, by not allowing me to just pretend that she’s a “sort of mother”, she was rejecting me. That she didn’t want that role.
I need that fantasy. I need it like I need air to breathe. The younger parts need it. The power of that original core wound is so annihilating that I literally can’t get close to the pain or the grief or the reality of it. To accept the truth, that I never got the adequate mirroring in infancy, or that constant stream of attunement from my own mother and I never got to build a safe place within her….and that I never had a devoted selfless mother who took care of my needs in infancy and childhood and in fact she not only emotionally abandoned me, she eventually physically and literally abandoned me when I was 10. It’s too big a truth.
When I have searched out mother figures, it is a defence against the truth, a defence against grieving. But it is so much more than that. For that young child and baby part that is frozen in time it is literal survival- to find someone who will look after me and love me and protect me. The hope that I will get another chance to build the inherently important bricks of the psyche a human needs to thrive, let’s the baby live.
Without that hope, there is only death. I truly believe that’s how it feels to a baby and toddler not getting their needs met and it’s that fear of total annihilation that compels children and eventually the adult to continue to seek a new mother, a second chance…. A new hope that they can get what they are missing inside of them and stave off the vast emptiness that exists inside the cavity of their chest.
Lots of therapists seem to work off the assumption that they shouldn’t offer false hope to a client, that they should reparent the regressed part of a client with attachment trauma, that the true goal is getting the client to face the reality of what they missed and to grief for it.
But that is wrong.
At least in part it is wrong. That is the end game, the desired end result is that the client will finally get to a place where they can grieve that pain that exists in them, that they can allow that frozen in time baby to realise they grew up, they survived and the sad truth is they missed out on an attuned Mother.
However, to push that onto a client before they are ready and before the other steps in that journey are completed, is at best cruel and at worst life-threatening to someone with attachment trauma.
If you are going to take away that baby’s hope of survival, then you better have something better to replace it with. Never take away hope. People die from lack of hope.
If you’ve never had attachment trauma, you can never truly understand the true physical agony and emptiness that exists within a half-finished soul. And I’m not talking about existential pain, I am talking about physical pain in your body, and emptiness so immense and bleak that nothing could ever full it. And it gnaws at your perpetually, some days more than others. And the pain is so bad that you have to dissociate it.
I always keep touch with the reality that Sienna is my therapist, not my mother. She will never be my mother. I need her as a therapist. But I also need her as a “good enough” mother. I need her to build the bricks I should have got as an infant. I need her to replace the crumbling bricks that were never formed correctly, I need to see myself internalised by her and reflected back to me. I need just enough “mothering” to help fill the void and take away the pain.
And she does that in bucket-loads. She really is mending the baby and child/children who are frozen in time and with enough mirroring and empathy and caring, they will melt from that frozen place and begin to grow. I can feel it happening. It’s not perfect, it can’t be perfect, she can’t adopt me (Though why not??? 😉 ) She can’t be there 24/7, there’s limitations. But somehow that’s okay because what she does give- which is a lot, is just enough. For the child parts, her attention is almost never enough, of course they want or need a lot of her time but mostly they accept what is possible and what is given.
But what I am realising is, for the baby parts, they crave symbiosis, they want and need this strong attachment to their caretaker/mother-figure, where we are one unit not two separate people. This fusion is powerful and demands this symbiotic stage and any space or differentiation between us is a threat to their safety, a threat to their life.
So, when Sienna inevitably creates space between us through breaks or more likely, just by pointing out that we are separate, or that she can’t be my mother, I think it triggers me into some sort of flashback of being a baby and having a disrupted attachment to my own mother. And the feelings of annihilation and impending death surface. It’s the most powerful of dissociations that I have and it’s the most dangerous too because that is when I am in so much pain over the loss that I want to die.
I’m sure there’s experts who can explain it better than me and I might even have it wrong, I can only describe my process and what it feels like to me.
When Sienna said to me “ And there are two or three parts who would expect me to be like your mother, to be there 24/7 and not to have a life and just to “be there for me”… I immediately felt that distinction of “ I am not your mother and we are separate.” It felt like a rejection, that creation of space simply by stating the obvious that “ I am not your mother, I am not going to be responsible for you, nor do I want to be.” Was enough to throw me back into those baby terrors of mother not being there.
I can tell it happened instantaneously because on the audio tape, my voice changes, my speech slows slightly and I begin falling over my words. This was my brain beginning to feel the shock of the separation and the dissociation stepping in. I try to keep talking though, try to power through the hurt of Sienna’s (honest and accurate summation of the parts wanting her to be there all the time.) statement and separation.
Sienna talked about the terror and mistrust I feel at times and have felt this week and my inability to take in that she wasn’t terminating me and had no intention of doing so. She said “ I think it’s authentic distress. I don’t think there’s any manipulation there, it doesn’t feel as if there is.”
I said quietly “ It’s not (manipulation)… it’s trying to find safety, I think. And it’s really hard that some of this recovery work is trying to be….like, learning that attachment is a good thing. And it’s hard because as a humans we are wired for that, so the attachment comes naturally, it comes inevitably. But to me that’s danger and death and….” I trailed off.
Sienna replied “ so, sometimes the aim is to try and get it (the attachment) good enough where you eventually can sit (in the relationship) – so it doesn’t have to be the perfect attachment or secure attachment but much better than it was, so that you can get to the point where it feels quite stable and that Sofia (teenage part) is okay with that, that she doesn’t try and disrupt it. Because obviously, she is desperate for attachment but it’s too much and she starts testing and pushing people away.”
I tried to explain it more to Sienna because I felt like she wasn’t understanding the crux of pain and terror I experience when our attachment is threatened, or rather when I perceive it to be threatened, and how it throws me back to a time when attachment was a survival issue.
I said to Sienna, struggling to explain it “ It’s just really hard to do this work – to have that missing part of you that’s… that you should have got….. to get this safe base that babies have and when you don’t get that… there’s nowhere else to get that and to do this work, I have to trust the attachment but I have seen it break down, I have experience and knowledge that this type of relationship breaks down (with my mother originally and then two terminations by two separate therapists who I’d attached to.) And it’s….”
Ugh, why could I not say what I mean? I had all these thoughts in my head but I couldn’t formulate them. My voice waivered and tears sprung up.
I said softly “ I just want to feel…. Safe. And really know that… I don’t know…” My voice trailed off and I fell silent.
Sienna talked about the neurology of attachment and my history and how it all relates. How I missed that stage of mirroring with my own mother.
“ you missed that really important stage of mirroring, it wasn’t good enough. But you can rewire. And yes, it’s a loss because maybe that early stuff wasn’t done well enough, for whatever reason. But there’s always a hope that you can feel more stable for longer….”
She kind of wasn’t getting this deep stuff I was trying to get at. I could tell. She wasn’t understanding that the core issue of this attachment trauma is what has been behind the regressed state and the self-harming for the past week or so. I mean she gets it academically, I’m sure. But she wasn’t connecting with me in that moment, seeing what I was trying to tell her.
I grew quiet.
She sort of went off topic slightly by talking about how a lot of stuff is tumbling out, lots of new parts since we put in the extra sessions and how that’s sort of destabilising things and how important it is to hold that safely. It felt like she was once again talking about scary things like holding things safely and if it isn’t what we do, watching out for whether I am losing touch with reality due to exhaustion and deep dissociation and just being very careful. Her words threatened me and I felt distanced from her. I felt angry that she questioned whether I might lose touch with reality…. This isn’t psychosis it is fucking attachment trauma. This is exactly how deep and disturbing and enduringly pervasive attachment trauma is.
I said to her “ See, this is what scares me. I have this attachment to you and it’s not safe because the reason this relationship exists is that it’s your job and you have rules and ethics. And that means you can decide that you’re not feeling safe or …. Or that you need to terminate. That is not safe to me. I have an attachment to someone that can just say one day “ oh well, I can’t do this job anymore, so, bye.” That is terrifying.”
Sienna said “ And I get a real sense that those younger ones that are coming through are almost like… they have an unrealistic expectation that the mother attachment…. They’re looking for a mother attachment. I don’t even think they see me as a therapist. They are almost replaying whatever fears… I’m not sure yet but it’s very powerful. Really powerful.”
Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Unrealistic expectation?
I got upset. “ But I don’t know how not to be attached.”
Sienna said “ I know.”
I continued in a flurry of emotion “ How do I do this work and not be attached???”
Sienna replied quickly “ you don’t. You don’t.”
“ I don’t know how!!!” tears threatened me.
Sienna said “ Right, you don’t. You don’t try to do anything, you just deal with what’s in the room. You do what you need to do. When you’re scared we work through it, when you’re attached, we work through that and see what happens. When I take time out and you’re terrified we work through that too.”
I couldn’t speak. Overcome with emotion and trying to hold it together was the best I could do. When she spoke of my attachment being something to “work through” it felt so distancing, so rejecting and so shameful. Like, something that’s just this big problem to be solved. And like this attachment I feel towards her isn’t reciprocated. It hurt. It felt like this familiar dread and deep sadness and disappointment when the inner child parts realise that someone doesn’t want to be their mother. And it’s just happened with Sienna. I felt the loss of hope moving in. The baby’s loss of hope for survival.
Sienna continued “ WE are going to be okay. Even when I take a break, I’m coming back.”
I said softly with resignation and deep sadness “ This stuff just makes me want to die.”
And I meant it. In that moment I felt in touch with the original core wound and the pain was so much that I wanted to kill myself. In that moment it felt like there was literally no other option.
Sienna said “ Listen, you are feeling so despairing that you want to die. But the flip side is that you have lots of parts who don’t want to die and are really capable and will look after you as time goes on.”
Everything she said felt hollow. I’d just lost my hope. My mother figure. My fantasy that Sienna could heal the pain of the original wound, that she could meet some of my needs in a way that would allow the original wounds to heal a bit.
Of course, the adult me understands about reality and why the fantasy can’t really happen. And the adult parts and even some of the child parts understand that she can’t be and isn’t my mother for real. But the repair work and the relationship has been good enough to start mending some of the damage, to give me some of the bits of attachment that I missed growing up and it’s given me enough hope and enough support and enough love to be able to stave off the annihilating core wound; the reality that I am an abandoned baby. Sienna has given me enough to let me keep my fantasy that she is a “kind of but not really, mother” and that has allowed me to stay just far enough away from the death that reality brings me to if I touch this core wound or get too close to it.
I tried to speak but I was overwhelmed by the power of this loss of hope and rejection and complete lack of safety I was now feeling. The hurt coursed through my entire body and I was propelled into this dissociative state. The loss…. Omg the loss was too much.
Tears blinded me. I attempted to speak, my words getting lost amongst tears. “ I feel….. there’s so much loss.”
I stared out the windows at the trees, contemplating how unsafe I feel. How untethered to anyone I am and how alone in the world I feel. The sadness and devastation and confusion about not having the mother I needed. And without that mother, without those mirroring experiences as an infant and the safety of having a mother who was/is a stable base, everything just felt futile. I was missing the mother I never had. The mother I wanted and the experiences with her that I need like oxygen to ensure my survival.
I was thinking “ Why does no one want me?”
Sienna interrupted the silence and said “ I can only do what I do and reassure you and ask you to trust, which I know you can’t at the moment. But I know that I’ll be here when I say I will be here.”
I let out a sob.
Sienna said softly “ I know…” But she didn’t know. I don’t think she could know unless she’d been through this type of attachment trauma and maternal abandonment.
I just caved in on myself, completely bereft. There was no fight left in me as I wept huge tears. I looked at Sienna and said “ I want my mum.” And that was it. With that vulnerable statement, I just dissolved into sobs.
Sienna said “ I know, I know….” And she jumped over to come sit with me.
“ And that’s the problem isn’t is? Because that person… never makes up for the person you need.” She put her arm around me and soothed me, stroking my shoulder and hair.
Honestly, listening to the audio recording of this session is so painful, it makes me cry. The level of pain in my cried is heart-rendering.
I remember sitting there clutching my chest, hands sort of over my heart, because the physical pain and level of emptiness brought on by the experience of needing a mother but not having a safe one, was threatening to burst out of my body. This never-ending expanse of grief and loss was going to destroy me, or so it felt.
I just kept saying over and over “ I want my mum, I want my mum.” Sienna would say over and over soothingly “ I know.”
I felt so alone. Bereft.
Sienna said “ that’s the pain isn’t it? No one can replace your mum.”
I cried out “ I want my mum. I just want her to come back.”
To be honest I didn’t even know what I was talking about. I wasn’t really even talking about my own real mother, I was grieving the loss of a mother I never had. And idealised mother all of my own. Not the one I have now. I can’t even think of my own mother as someone I want back, I am not missing that mother, because she was never safe. She was never my secure attachment. I don’t want that back. But what I was grieving in that moment was the loss of the dream of some beautiful warm mother who is very attuned and loving and committed and safe. I am grieving for a mother I never had and will never get. Part of me might have been grieving my own mother who occasionally did feel safe to be with and loving.
Sobbing I said “ I want my own mum.” But what I meant was “ I want a mum of my own. I don’t want to rely on a therapist, I don’t want to have to pretend she is my mother, just to fill this huge hole inside of me. I want my own mum, a mum who doesn’t leave. I don’t want to have to worry that my attachment figure is going to leave me. I’m tired, I’m tired of being so scared and I just want my own safe base.”
I continued speaking. “ Nobody can want me like a mum wants me.”
Sienna said “and the pain is that she just doesn’t know how to do it, for whatever reason. She can’t be there when you really need her.”
God the pain of this loss….I just kept clutching at my heart, because the pain coursed through my chest, I felt like I couldn’t contain it all.
“ I just want her. I don’t want to have to worry about someone leaving me, I just……”
“ I know. It’s a real sore one.”
“ It really hurts” I said bending forward, trying to soothe the heart pain.
Sienna replied “ It does really hurt. It’s the worst pain ever.”
“ Mum’s are not supposed to leave, and she left and I have nobody.”
“ Mum’s are definitely not supposed to leave.” Said Sienna.
I continued “ They’re not supposed to want to leave and the only person who wouldn’t leave me is my mum, because she’s my mum and mum’s don’t leave but mine did leave. And that means I’ve got nothing, I’ve got nobody, and I’m just empty.”
Sienna said softly “ It feels very empty.”
I continue sobbing.
Sienna said “ Even though you survived it, which you have, it leaves a really really painful, hurt feeling.”
I say desperately “ It really hurts.” I meant physically.
More heavy sobbing.
I say “ Why can’t I just have her?” I sound about 4 years old.
Sienna pulls me in closer to her, and says full of empathy and slight humour “ I know… and you just have a bossy therapist instead.”
Through tears I laugh and say “ You ARE really bossy.”
The pain courses through me, the empty blackness, the mother-shaped hole.
I repeat again “ It really hurts. It’s empty. I just want my mum. I want my mum…..”
Sienna instructs “ Just let that all out, because that is a lot of pain.”
“ It really hurts, it really hurts.” I couldn’t contain this level of grief.
“ It’s so empty, it’s so empty.. I just want to feel safe, I just want to know that someone won’t leave me!!!”
“ I just want my mum….”
Sienna let out a resigned sigh, one that said she wished things were different. “ I know. You just want your mum.”
I said “ I know that mums are supposed to be there so why is mine not?”
Sienna said maybe I’d get to ask her one day. She said “ There’s nothing like that love. But you survived it, and you’re going to keep surviving it.”
I said “ I know. But it’s hard to hold it.”
Sienna said softly “ Maybe you don’t have to hold it the way you are. Maybe you need to let this out.”
4 year old Sirena resurfaced “ but I just want her.”
Sienna said “ I know. It’s so unfair.”
I know I was repeating the same things over and over, like a child asking the same question and hoping for an answer they like better. Or a child stubbornly holding on to an idea and not being willing to budge on it.
I continued, trying to communicate this loss “ I just want to know that there’s this safe place, that no matter where I am in the world, I can go back to – always. And that no matter what I do… she would be there and it would be okay.”
Sienna said, speaking of my own mother “ And actually if the chips were down, she probably would be there.”
And that’s true. My real mother would be there the best she could. The problem is…. That isn’t my safe base, she isn’t my safe place to come back to when the real world gets too much. As much as my mother would try to help me, she isn’t capable of giving me a feeling of safety or a feeling of relaxation or of nurturance or of attunement or genuine mothering. And that is what I am grieving.
When she left me as a child, either emotionally and eventually physically abandoning me, the bond was fractured. Broken. Not severed but definitely broken. There is no bank of “nurturing memories” there is no history between us that I can use as a template of trust, I can’t know that she won’t abandon me, because she did. She continued to choose men over her children. So how can I rely on her being a safe person to me now?
I told Sienna “ When you’ve lost that innate trust you’re supposed to have with your mum, when you have to look after her….” I trailed off not finishing my thought.
Sienna agreed “ Yes, you certainly did a lot of that early on. Too much.”
I said “ I feel like I’m not tethered anywhere because she’s not tethered.”
I continued “ I should be able to say to her “ mum I feel really terrible, can you come?” “
Sienna agreed and asked if I ever tried it. I told her over the years yes, but eventually I stopped trying. She can’t see my pain, she panics and pushes away my hurt and makes me feel like I can’t talk about it. And I can’t go to her about this particular pain because she’s the one who caused it.
I said to Sienna “ I feel so rejected by the whole world. Because no one stepped in (as a mother) or help, or see me or want me. And the person who gave birth to me and is supposed to not want to be away from me, did want to be away from me. It’s really hard.”
Sienna said “ It is really hard. That’s a deep hurt. And it will ebb and flow, sometimes it will be bearable. But it’s really raw right now.”
I said desperately, feeling a maddening need for safety and not having it anywhere -“ I just want to feel safe. I just want her to be safe. When everything else is scary, when this (therapy) is scary, I can go to my mum and be safe and know that no matter what, she’s there.”
I know that if I had my mum as a safe base, then I wouldn’t have to feel this fear of Sienna leaving me, all the time. She wouldn’t matter so much to me, because I would have my mum as my most important and enduring attachment figure. People leaving me wouldn’t be so traumatic to me, because the core people in my life would still be there.
Sienna reassured me that no matter what, all the parts had me, the adult to look after them and we survived and will always survive no matter what. I told her I know I’ll always survive. Of course I will. But it’s just hard when nothing feels safe.I told her “ This isn’t about survival, it’s about loss.”
She said that the attachments I do have in my life, have to be safe enough. She said they are safe enough. And that the relationship I have in the present with her and my husband have to be “good enough” and “ secure enough” and these rest I need to grieve for.
I said to her “ but that’s loss.”
Sienna said “ It is loss. It’s a big loss.”
She continued “ I know you hate supervisors, and I haven’t been able to speak to mine this week. But she holds me, so I can hold you.” I think she was reassuring me that she was able to stay steady in the relationship because she has good support and therefore the relationship and her, weren’t going anywhere.
I said to Sienna “ What happens if you go away forever?”
Sienna reply “ I’m not intending on going anywhere.”
I was calmer now, the crying had stopped and we were well over time.
I said to Sienna “ thank you for everything you do for me.”
Sienna smiled and said “ you’re welcome. You’re worth it. Because you are important. And I care. I really care.”
I said surprised “ do you?”
Sienna said “ Yes I do. I really care. And you’re not just… a client. You are a person, a human-being , you’re Sirena, we’ve got a realllly important relationship.”
I let it sink in. It felt nice to hear. It felt reassuring that she thinks our relationship is important too.
She added with a lot of humour “ Do you think I’d give up my tv shows to come in here tonight for just anyone???”
I laughed. We sort of chatted briefly about tv programmes as the session ended and I got ready to leave.
I know Sienna had mentioned before that Thursday’s were technically her day off but I also know she works some of them every second week or something. But it really touched me that she is so committed to me that she gives up some of her free time so that I can have me 2nd very needed session of the week and yes I guess it makes me feel special. And it reassures me once again of her ongoing commitment to me.
This was a seriously heavy session.