Wired to Connect: Addiction as an Attachment Disorder

Oliver Morgan

“. . . we are born into relationships and come to our own individual identity while resting upon social connectivity.” —Louis Cozolino

“A person is a person because of other people.” —Zulu folk saying

I tell my youngest son, Rusty, that I first met him on “the toaster.” Having heard the story many times before, he smiles and pats my hand patronizingly (he’s 14 years old), then he moves on to his next project. For me, however, that moment of meeting is indelibly etched in my memory.

After 23 hours of labor, my wife was exhausted, and we were worried. Nothing was happening. The doctors finally decided on a caesarean procedure and rushed us through the preparations. Within a short time our Rusty was born. He had to be unraveled from the umbilical cord that kept him trapped and immobile. His head never engaged the birth canal. Now, however, we were finally able to relax. The nurses cleaned him up and placed him in a small bed under a heat lamp (“the toaster”) to keep him warm. It was quiet.

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When invited, I approached the bed and the space between newborn Rusty and me seemed filled with keen anticipation and even a sense of magic. Unprepared for what might happen, I gently said, “Hello, Rusty Oliver.” Immediately, his head snapped around to the direction of my voice and his whole body seemed to reach for me. Minutes old, his eyes still glued shut with medication, his body seemed eager for connection.

For me, this first encounter with Rusty is a metaphor for the reality of attachment. I can still feel its power. It doesn’t lessen the wonder or sacredness I experience to know that critical chemical and biological processes helped to mediate this moment. In fact, I stand in awe of the complexity—multifaceted, multilayered processes between us and inside each of us— that was involved in that first meeting. I tasted the truth that nature prepares newborns for social engagement and connection. Nature also provides caregivers with inborn capacities to respond.

Susan Hart, in her book The Impact of Attachment (2011), explains the dynamics of these early moments with Rusty and the critical importance of attachment in the early months of life. As she describes, an “innate readiness” motivates the infant from the beginning to be available for connection and to engage in a synchronized dance with the caregiver. Caregivers also are available for this dance which is mediated by “tend and befriend” neurochemicals (vasopressin and oxytocin) in the caregivers’ brains as well as reward chemicals (such as dopamine and natural opiates) in a variety of neural structures in the brains of both infants and caregivers. Attachment choreography shapes the architecture of our developing brains and psycho-emotional systems. Personal transactions build neural and social connections and are essential for healthy human development. Our neural machinery anticipates, indeed expects, these interactions; without them, there is over time an experience of pain and loss. The absence of attuned connection betrays an existential promise woven into our human fabric. As we have seen, without these interactions—or with abusive, traumatic, or neglectful interactions—a troubled future becomes more likely.

Hart goes on to say:

One purpose of the child’s innate signals is to facilitate attachments with adults and trigger caregiving behavior. All the infant’s communication systems are open to beings that resemble humans and to events that resemble human behavior. Immediately after birth, babies explore their environment and attempt to make sense of what they are seeing, hearing, and feeling. The ability to reach out, respond to, and organize in relation to the environment is strong from the first moments of life (2011, p. 9).

This is an excerpt from Addiction, Attachment, Trauma, and Recovery: The Power of Connection, © 2019 Oliver J. Morgan. Used with with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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