“The Boy Who Lived”:
Reflections of An
Attachment-based Therapist

Oliver J Morgan


“It all sounds great when you say it like that.
The truth is, I didn’t know what I was doing half the time.
I nearly always had help.”

– Harry Potter, Order of the Phoenix

 

If the truth be told, I still wince when I recall the narratives recorded below. I still feel the guardrails of family loyalty that try to keep me quiet, that remind me these are “dark secrets,” not to be shared with outsiders. So, why return to them? And, why revisit them in the light?

It took me a long time to even acknowledge that I had a “trauma-history.” Writing a book on attachment, trauma, and the pathways into addiction laid the groundwork. Once I started, the stories became insistent. I was asked recently if there were “hidden engines” in my own biography to explain my personal addiction that I have recounted so clearly in other places. I drafted a chapter on that history for the book, along with the narratives of trauma, but cut it out at the last minute. Now seems to be the right time.

The narratives below might seem like unfair revelations about family members who are long dead. They cannot tell their own version of what I record here. Rather than blaming, these are my recollections and descriptions of real family dynamics that may provide context and exoneration about beloved characters. I am hesitantly delighted to share them below.

Writing the book and this ancillary chapter has been my way of telling a new story, of re-writing my own attachment narrative, of claiming an “earned secure attachment” as Mary Main and Dan Siegel might say. Revised narratives can open new possibilities for caregivers (parents) and care providers (clinicians).

If my family had been a primitive tribe, we would have gathered around the campfire and told stories about our ancestors. These narratives would have grounded us and bound us together. They would have provided a sense of shared history and models for good (and bad) behavior, acts to emulate or avoid, feelings to express or moderate. They would have supported our caring for, and attachment to, each other. The stories would have forged a common identity, a sense of “us,” and consequently a sense of “me” and my place among beloved others.

In the same way, collective family stories about you, and me, and other family members easily become part of our own personal life narratives (James, 2006). They are our foundation tales, our own origin stories. They help to give us a sense of belonging, of legacy, of purpose and they orient us in a world of relationships. Both our individualized and familial narratives provide a sense of coherence and meaning to our lives; they help us to understand who we are, whose we are, what might be expected of us, and what we are about. They are essential to a sense of identity (Cozolino, 2016; Dallos, 2004). Family stories and individual life-narratives, often richly imbued with implicit and explicit memories, converge to give us our sense of self.

Coping with life’s situations, dealing with stresses, learning to regulate inner experiences and emotions, and self-awareness are related to autobiographical and intergenerational memory both for the individual and for the group. Between bonded persons, there is a mutual shaping of memory (Cozolino, 2010).

… we co-create narratives that support neural and psychic integration while creating a template to guide experience into the future. Through the co-construction of coherent self-stories, we are able to enhance our self-reflective capacity, creativity and maturation. It is especially valuable in coming to understand our past, for the consolidation of identity, and to heal from trauma (Cozolino, 2016, p. 18).
For an interpersonal neurobiologist the stories of our lives hold a wealth of information. The depth and coherence of the stories we tell convey the quality of relationships that knitted us together. Those attachment relationships are the scaffolding of our lives. How we piece together and understand our living history reveals the strengths and deficits we bring to living.

Below I have attempted a therapeutic recollection of my own narrative. In unfolds in three chapters.

 

Chapter 1:
“Difficult Infant”

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Growing up, my family did not gather around a campfire, but we did gather at family events (baptisms, weddings, summer picnics), always lubricated with alcohol. I don’t remember a family event where alcohol wasn’t freely available and consumed. As family psychiatrist, Peter Steinglass, and others have pointed out, in families where alcohol and other drugs are a “central organizing principle,” the rituals and other orienting events are transformed and in many cases life-altering. In my family the organizing principles were alcohol and (the Irish) family stories (Steinglass et al., 1987).

Family stories, however, often come to us without the full context, at least initially. Let me explain with an example. As I entered adolescence, I was told several times that I had been a “difficult” infant. At first, I did not know what that meant. Laughter often followed this collective remembering. Over time, as more details were added, the picture slowly came into focus.

Apparently, I was born with the umbilical cord looping around my neck for the third time. Whenever this tale was related, it was always with a sense that “Boy, were you lucky. Birthed just in the nick of time.” This is the initial starting point. It was usually quickly followed by another story fragment: My mother said that she and my father were unable to sleep for the first 11 months of my life. I cried all night, every night and nothing seemed to help. It was not a physical or medical problem; they thought it might be my temperament, that I was just “colicky in the extreme” and there was a hint in the narrative that, even then, I might be “attention seeking.” In an attempt to allow my brother and sisters as well as my parents to sleep, I was shifted to a downstairs room. It didn’t help. Nothing did. Finally—as the story-telling unfolded—in desperation, standing over the crib, my mother said out loud, “if he does not sleep tonight, we will have to begin putting him in the basement.” As the story goes, I slept through that night and every night thereafter.

An intriguing vignette, but just a humorous and provocative tidbit without further context until… my mother died. After that, her older sister, Aunt Grayce, slowly filled in more details. Mom’s discovery of her pregnancy with me­—an unexpected event; my closest sibling was already eight years old—forestalled a decision to leave my father, Grayce said. The reasons were murky, but Mom decided to stay; it was after all 1949.

I had joked as I got older that I was “born to be a family therapist.” I didn’t know how right I was. And then, another piece was added when my sister told me that Mom had sunk into a deep depression after I was born, and Dad had to call her mother, Nana, to come live with the family for a while and help with the children. This alteration in family structure came during my first year of life, the same time-period as my “difficult infant” interval. Mom took to her bed and Nana came to the rescue. This significant fact was never discussed, at least not with me, in all the telling of tales in my family. Until my sister brought it up, I was in the dark.

And so, contextually, as often happens, there were stories behind the story. This is not an uncommon experience in many families where previous lives have an impact on our own life. The price other people pay—the cost of events in our lives—goes unacknowledged. The choices, sacrifices, untimely events, generosity, costly mistakes, and heroism of ancestors reverberate in our family histories, but often remain hidden. More is often passed on in families than wealth or memorabilia. Relationship patterns and family scripts, legacies of “the way things are done” and “what is expected,” the consequences of unwanted or unexpected experiences and choices, and invisible loyalties also come down to us through the generations (Boszormenyi-Nagy & Spark, 1984; Byng-Hall, 1988, 1990). Stories of how one was “seen” and treated in childhood are always played out against the backdrop of others’ life stories. Their experiences and the meanings attached to them form the background for our experiences (James, 2006). “All families are haunted,” I tell my students. The choices and actions, the strengths and deficits of others who have gone before are still alive and active. Sometimes it can be hard to decide if a celebration or exorcism is needed.

Attachment Theory (AT) understands this. The attachment styles of parents—how they interact and react with their own children—inform the caregiving they provide, and those styles can be predicted by their own early experiences. In addition, their caregiving informs the attachment styles and later caregiving of their own children. One generation influences the next. These can be important clues for understanding the evolution of addiction.

Intergenerational (Bowen, Framo) and contextual (Boszormenyi-Nagy) family therapy are also rooted in this insight. Patterned interactions, such as how families grieve or celebrate, or how they relate to one another and the roles they adopt, can be patterned contextual forces. They can establish relational styles and social expectations (family scripts). One particularly intriguing influence involves learned representations for how to interpret, understand and cope with stress. Family members observe each other and how they adapt; modelling of attitudes and behavior can be learned quickly, almost by osmosis.  Contextual therapy, for example, understands addiction as embedded in the social context of “deprivation of parenting, which creates a fixed expectation of unfairness in the world” (Cotroneo and Krasner, 1976, p. 520). Addiction becomes a substitute for missing “parental nourishment” (Bernal et al., 1990, p.1).

 

Conflicted Caregiving

Whether or not each particular detail of my “difficult infant” attachment story is historically accurate, the emotional tapestry woven by it fits together in a pattern that feels “right” to me. While I have no doubt that I was welcomed as an infant and loved from the beginning, I also know that I became “insecurely attached.” My primary caregiver (Mom) slipped into a “childbearing depression” (formerly called “post-partum depression”) and was unavailable for consistent, accessible childcare (Whiffen & Johnson, 2006). I experienced some “deprivation of parenting.” When Mom was accessible, she was likely emotionally unavailable, “preoccupied” with conflicts and unmet attachment needs from her own childhood, as well as with her husband.

In my family of origin my mother’s side was almost entirely Irish and Catholic, my father’s side was Welsh and Protestant. The Irish stories dominated our family culture until I was a midlife adult. With my mother’s death the flood gates opened. My siblings and I learned a great deal more about the repressed (translate: unacceptable, shameful) stories on the Irish side and came into a treasure trove of information when the Welsh relatives contacted my father and visiting across the Atlantic became available.

Mom grew up as the third of four children in an alcoholic family, was prone to depression, and later diagnosed with paranoid personality. She also had a challenging marriage with my father. Was my mother in fact depressed during her pregnancy with me, feeling trapped and unable to extricate herself from a difficult marriage and unexpected pregnancy? What impact might her emotional state have had on my prenatal development? Was my nocturnal crying post-partum a sad and angry protest at the inaccessibility of consistent maternal care and lack of attunement, a kind of mammalian separation distress call, or perhaps even a sharing in, a sympathetic resonance with, her distress?

While I know that I was more than adequately cared for as a child and that my mother loved me, how else could an infant have experienced her emotional absence or detachment as anything other than maternal neglect or rejection, or in the best-case scenario, ambivalence? Were these events an unavoidable “attachment injury” or experience of less-than-optimal, disrupted caregiving? What consequences might these events have had on my neural development and scaffolding, on the construction of self-regulatory mechanisms? What was the internal working model or unconscious relational picture encoded in my memory? Did I come to accept a version of reality in which I was responsible for taking care of myself, a consequence of “unfairness in the world”? Did I inherit a sense that love and caregiving are contingent? This was one of the central challenges I had to face in therapy as a midlife adult.

Interestingly, my mother had a certain “look”—blank expression, rigid features, frightened eyes—that I saw only a few times as an adolescent and adult, and always when she was emotionally disturbed (e.g. depressed or paranoid). Even now, recalling this face can make me quite agitated, distracted, and profoundly sad. It is a deep-down visceral memory. Was this the face I saw as an infant?

 

Troubled Face

Such a memory, of course, would be implicit, a pre-verbal internal working model. French psychoanalyst André Green wrote about a similar phenomenon in a very intriguing way, describing it as the “dead mother complex” (Green, 1993; Kohon, 2005). In Green’s view, although the actual caregiving mother is not physically dead or absent, experiencing the primary caregiver’s depression or emotional unavailability can transform the living object into “a distant figure, toneless, practically inanimate… psychically dead in the eye of the young child.” The infant experiences mother as physically present but not psychically available; she is there but “her heart was not in it” (Green, 1986, p. 151). The child experiences the caregiving dyad as “in the presence of an absence.” Again, this feels emotionally correct to me.

This is an unconscious maneuver and the child becomes essentially “a captive in mourning.” How might a vulnerable infant cope with such an experience? For self-protection the growing person might engage in “an unrelenting search for pleasure or through searching for meaning,” Green says (1986). For me, might this have been the seedbed experience out of which my own need for synthetic reward and protection from pain emerged? Was this the deep-seated hunger that drove the substitute relationship of addiction for genuine attachment? Was addiction my adaptation to early adversity? Did it also ground the need to ally with a larger sense of purpose in career and life choices? My earliest career and vocational choice was to become a Catholic priest, aligning myself with God’s purpose and mission. Interestingly, one of my touchstone theological beliefs about God was a characterization of God’s relationship with humanity as “the presence of absence.”

As an aside, let me remind us of a corollary to attachment theory. Temperament, an infant’s “way of engaging with the world” (Hart, 2011, p. 11) is a kind of inborn style and refers to characteristics such as activity level, alertness or sluggishness, irritability, emotionality, and so forth. It is often (mis-) understood as something that is innate to the child. It is thought of as what the child is born with, one of the “facts of life.” This, however, is too simple an attribution. The child’s style or temperament interacts with caregivers’ qualities and modulates their interactions from the get-go. Temperament can alter the template for how infants and caregivers interpret one another and often has an effect on mutual expectations, subsequent interactions, and relational templates. If caregivers experience the infant as “difficult,” or “hard to satisfy,” or “too fussy to soothe,” this will have an effect on how those caregivers interact with the child over time. Indeed, they will bring their own temperaments, experiences, and responses into the interactions as well. Caregivers’ own attachment styles, learned in interactions with their parents, are engaged. These in turn will affect the infant’s style in the exchange and the ongoing development of temperament and personality. These interactions will also shape the infant’s perceptions and expectations of the world, and will likely affect the perceptions and transactions among family members and form the basis for assignment of family roles and expectations of one another (James, 2006). This understanding is much closer to the view of many family therapists and developmental psychologists. Intergenerational transmission of attachment styles is generated here.

Interestingly, a 2006 study of colicky infants suggests that infant colic might be associated with post-partum maternal depression and an insecure attachment style in their mothers (Akman et al., 2006). In this study 62.5% of infants with colic had mothers with insecure attachment and those infants had a higher proportion of mothers with post-partum depression than the control group (Akman et al., 2006). The authors conclude:

“Unrecognized and untreated depressive symptoms may result in significant psychological disability for mothers, and may place their children at risk for developing serious developmental, behavioural [sic], and emotional problems… Depressed mothers were found to have a lower level of interaction with their infants. Infants may respond by crying to signal unmet needs or distress which may cause a vicious cycle…. Mothers of excessively crying infants have been found to have psychological conflicts regarding the maternal role, and inconsistent style in interactions with the baby. Difficulties in interactions of mothers and infants increase the risk of insecure attachment” (p. 418).

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