The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder

How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all

Brousblog1a Perry brains X-secAre parts of your brain dark?  Silly, you say.  Well, did you ever have a broken heart?  Closer to home?  Hey, I had such a successful global career that I didn’t know it for decades, but parts of my brain were dark, and my heart was ‘way far broken.  [3-Year-Old Child, Left: Normal; Right: attachment disorder [FN1]]

So goes attachment disorder – and it turns out maybe 50% or more of Americans have some brand of it.  No wonder we’ve got a 52% divorce rate and a government that can’t seem to function (not to mention the ratty odds in internet dating). [FN2]

Science has only recently demonstrated that unless kids (and other mammals) are given deep emotional connection (“attachment”) from birth by parents or others, infant neurological systems just don’t develop well.  The infant brain literally requires programming by an adult’s eyes and facial expressions to begin to program its own neurons.

When a mother doesn’t respond to her baby with strong positive emotions (she’s being battered, has stress at work, is unable to attune to others), the infant’s instincts read that as a survival threat.  This floods its bloodstream with fight/flight stress chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol.  But a baby is helpless to use these to act in self defense.  If some adult doesn’t make the baby feel safe, stress chemicals overwhelm its brain and within 45 minutes the baby goes into clinical shock (dissociation). [FN3]

What began as emotional stress ends in physical brain damage.  We can now do brain scans showing that whole chunks of neurons in some brain regions don’t fire.  I felt this as “parts of my brain are dark.”  There is literally a “hole in me.”  You can see the black holes in the brain scans above.

The resulting attachment disorder causes intense emotional pain to be transmitted by the brain stem to the neurons around the heart and other viscera, producing, literally, a broken heart – and it hurts, big time.

This means a lot more of us do need to have our heads examined; we need help!  Yet, it is definitely not “all in our heads.”  Attachment disorder is a medical condition at the interface between the emotions and the body.

I performed with apparent success as an international business gal and opera singer (in several languages) for decades, without the faintest notion I might be shrink fodder.  Suddenly in 2007 I was in divorce from a 27-year marriage to my college sweetheart which left me bankrupt. I ran like hell, 3,000 miles from back east to California.  Then both my parents died and I had two bad rebound affairs – five life disasters in 18 months.

It felt like being hit by two cars, two trucks, and a jet airplane. I came to where my father died in 2008, and I couldn’t cry.

“You need to have your head examined,” me, myself, and I decided. I saw one therapist who listened helplessly, a second who said “grow up,” and then I read enough studies on the incompetence of psychotherapy to barf.

So I quit therapy in 2009 and opted for do-it-yourself.

Brousblog1b Flatten MeA friend gave me a book on grief and, heeding the ancient wisdom that forgiveness clears heart and mind, I began to write Grief Forgiveness letters to my ex, mom, and dad [FN4].  I drew myself a cartoon, “This is going to flatten you for a few days (to face all this pain),”  but then  I’ll be ready to re-marry.  No need to jump off my second floor balcony.

Grief, however, doesn’t do take-out orders.  I sobbed over my feelings towards my ex for 18 months, even held a funeral for my lost marriage. Yet after a week’s relief, intense “break-through” grief about my dad suddenly surfaced. Taking a breath, I had at it again, but the more grief I addressed, the more and deeper layers of emotional pain surfaced.

The feelings coming up, I gradually saw, were those of a younger and younger me. As I wrote forgiveness letters to my ex, I felt feelings from my twenties. As I wrote letters to my dad, I felt feelings from grade school; the voice of a five-year-old girl literally popped up speaking in my head at times.  (I’d sung Joan in Verdi’s opera “Joan of Arc” in 1996 but this was a stretch.)

Then as I wrote letters to my mom, I went back, and back, and back – but where was the bottom, with a mom?

Drilling the Grand Canyon

Drilling the Grand Canyon

There were so many deep layers, it felt like falling through miles of rock layers as deep as the endless striated walls of the Grand Canyon.  Some days I made jokes and friends took pix of me moving striped mountains.

Some days I began to feel emotional pain, with physical chest and gut pain, of an intensity resembling nothing so much as a 24 x 7 bone marrow transplant, no anesthesia, which went on for about three years.

It was all an accident. I didn’t mean to do it, a point I never tired of making later to astonished doctors and in prayer (God took it in stride).

But once I was falling through the layers of the Grand Canyon, there was no way to stop – short of alcohol or the like, which disgusted me – or suicide.

Jumping off my balcony often did seem quite attractive, it turned out.  Imagine my annoyance when I had to give up even that, after seeing suicide’s nasty effects on a friend whose spouse took that route.

I literally had No Exit and it stank – so down and down I went, down through the layers of flash-backs and pain until one 2011 morning at 2 am I found myself on the bedroom floor in a fetal position, clutching a large stuffed dog, and eyeing a soggy toothbrush with which I had not even been able to brush my teeth before crumpling.

The phrase “She’s not old enough to be dropped off at school” kept repeating in my skull. I crawled to the sink, but had to hang on to the stuffed animal to stand up and brush.

Somewhere in a textbook I had read about regression, the devolution of the mind back through childhood development stages.

With my extensive notes of the last few years, I staggered into yet a third therapist’s office a week later, presented the goods, and asked, “Do you think I’ve just accidentally regressed myself back to infancy?”  Upon examination, he leaned forward, eyes wide, and nodded solemnly, “Yes. Aren’t you scared?”

You said it, brother, but not nearly as scared as I was gonna be. Since the sperm hit the egg, I’d had traumatic attachment disorder, and bad.

——————————
This is from Kathy’s forthcoming book DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment DisorderHow I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.  Watch for her book as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about attachment disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.

Note I’m against false use of the terms “attachment disorder” or “attachment therapy” to excuse abuse of clients, as exposed here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_therapy.  But it’s also a problem that the psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) only recognizes Radical Attachment Disorder (RAD).  RAD only affects a tiny percent of the population. But I believe other legitimate forms of attachment disorder affect 50% of Americans. I wasn’t RAD, but I had a bad case of legitimate attachment disorder. Since I wasn’t RAD, the DSM didn’t recognize my illness, so I got no treatment until I collapsed after age 50. That can’t be right.  “Attachment problems extending beyond RAD, are a real and appropriate concern for professionals,” concludes the 2006 Report on Attachment Therapy by the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC) which convened to study this problem.
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Footnotes
FN1 
Perry, Bruce, MD, “Overview of Neuro-sequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT),” www.childtrauma.org, 2010.  See also FN5
FN2  Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, MD, has said that the US Congress is “dissociated,” or they’d feel the simple human compassion to know that sending youth to war brings back a flood of PTSD suicides.  (That means 50% of Congress has attachment problems, which is why they made a career of trying to control others. ) See van der Kolk, Bessel, MD, “What Neuroscience Teaches Us About the Treatment of Trauma,” June 6, 2012 webcast, National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM), footnote 9 in http://attachmentdisorderhealing.com/developmental-trauma/
FN3  Herman, Judith, “Trauma and Recovery,” Basic Books, New York, 1992
FN4   James, John W., Friedman, Russell, “The Grief Recovery Handbook,” Harper Collins, New York, 2009 (original 1998)
FN5  Brain scan source: Perry, BD and Pollard, D., “Altered brain development following global neglect in early childhood,” Society For Neuroscience: Proceedings from Annual Meeting,New Orleans, 1997  at https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/earlybrain.pdf . The PDF says: “These images illustrate the negative impact of neglect on the developing brain. In the CT scan on the left is an image from a healthy three year old with an average head size. The image on the right is from a three year old child suffering from severe sensory-deprivation neglect. This child’s brain is significantly smaller than average and has abnormal development of cortex. These images are from studies conducted by a team of researchers from the Child Trauma Academy (www.ChildTrauma.org) led by Bruce D. Perry, M.D., PhD. ”   This article also cites Perry, B.D., Pollard, R., Blakely, T., Baker, W. & Vigilante, D. (1995), “Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of adaptation and ‘use-dependent’ development of the brain: How states become traits,” http://www.childtrauma.org/ctamaterials/states_traits.asp Also in Infant Mental Health Journal, 16 (4), 271-291, 1995.

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26 responses to “The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder

  1. Hi Kathy, I stumbled upon your blog while searching “attachment styles”. I’m working on healing, breaking patterns. (I’m sometimes anxious; find myself very attracted to avoidants. It’s getting old; frustrating! I’m 47 and have been examining this/ working to heal this since my 20’s.) I’m fascinated by psychology; curious about different aspects involved that influence thoughts; behavior (schemas, attachments styles; human, physical responses: being drawn to/VERY attracted to the familiar, even if it’s TERRIBLE for me!) The good news is that I have been making progress. Enjoying solitude; caring for myself; my well-being has set the standard. (I definitely know when my schemas are triggered and to proceed with caution!) I’m learning to recognize the red flags earlier; to not engage/have intimate relationships with people who will reopen wounds. I sometimes long for exes who I know are not good for me. Any suggestions that worked for you? I love your blog; look forward to reading more!

    • Heart-breaking attachment patterns are incredibly painful. I had to go cold-turkey on men and bond to my therapist. Banks assign teller trainees to handle a lot of good money, so if they’re handed counterfeit bills they feel something wrong, says Dr. John Townsend. It hits them with no thought: “That’s counterfeit.” But if we didn’t feel safe love as kids, we’re used to counterfeit, so we gravitate to those who “feel counterfeit” and have no love to give. If so, stop dating, says John, and go experience “rivers” of safe platonic love to learn how real love feels. A therapist, support groups, female friends, pastors, teachers, anyone who commits to a purely platonic relationship where they hear your hurts compassionately but never judge you. Only after years of that can we can distinguish love from come-ons. More: http://attachmentdisorderhealing.com/featured-topics/dating/

      • Thank you for the response and great suggestions Kathy!
        That counterfeit money analogy is so true. (I’m getting better at spotting counterfeits, but would like my body, mind and heart to catch up and be on the same page with the rational/spiritual/adult me, as I work toward a more secure attachment style.) I would rather be alone, then engage in something empty or “counterfeit”, which doesn’t feel good.
        Thanks again, and be well!

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  3. I have been searching for answers for years ..why was I sabotaging my relationships constantly ..? through self analyse, reflecting in my childhood , it was constantly leading me back ..with flash backs ..to negative interactions with my parents …..feeling rejected, misunderstood unwanted , unloved ..I felt invisible …unworthy ..Now I finally understand the why ! I am past 60 !!!! lol ..Life is unfair …….but I am resolute to use this knowledge positively with my G-children …thank you .

  4. Pretty sure this is garbled; I care because it is a worthy article. “We can now do brain scans showing that whole chunks of neurons in some brain regions don’t fire.” I think you meant chunks of regions in the brain…it seems unlikely you meant chunks of neurons.

    • “Neurons that fire together, wire together,” says brain science. In fact, the reverse is also true, and neurons that were never activated, get pruned and stop firing. And also as you said, regions may not have developed properly and so they’re not firing. Both ways of looking at it can be correct.

  5. Thank you for your website, your transparency, your ongoing enthusiasm. It is hard, hard work. Midway through life’s journey I found myself lost in a dark wood (dante)…and discovered the dark night of the soul (st john of the cross). I’ve been at it for 8 years… what a ride. And it aint over yet. But just knowing that the shifting is possible keeps me hewing away, empathising away, regressing away… Charlotte Selver’s sensory awareness (a sort of attention training) helps me tremendously along with many of the other mind-body approaches mentioned by you and others here. That and managing to steer clear of psychotherapists who are buckling under psychology degrees and certified but who have not done any of the work themselves. And have no idea what they are on about. What ever happened to initiate voyaging? From Shamanic tradition to psychoanalytic tradition there was once that expectation: go there, to the depths, and through the looking glass oneself.

  6. I’ve just learned I have adult ADD. 6 months ago I was practicing self-hypnosis as taught me by my therapist and in the middle of trance I say, “I need to get into the cold plunge!” I’d been using cold plunge at my spa to reduce wrist inflammation. But I’d never been able to immerse my whole body more than 30 seconds. I got into the water with forceful breath of fire the first 20 seconds, then a deep sigh and relaxed into the shock. “I’m totally in a trance!” I thought and restfully and blissfully stayed in 30 minutes! It was so invigorating I’ve been ice bathing twice a week for 6 months. I felt enormous well being during and after. Research shows cold shock ignites the brain to produce norepinephrine and dopamine. Now I’m healthy enough to handle the news about ADD and attachment disorder, tho it is still a shock. This led me to Dr. Gabor Mate and now your site! I’m glad to check into to Polyvagel theory, Levine’s Somatic experiencing and your book Don’t Try this at home.

  7. Me too! I’m in my 50s and realized how my mother’s neglect and abuse from infancy gave me fearful attachment. My ex had severe PTSD in the form of borderline PD. I had trauma relationships with the last two men who were sociopaths. Most single men my age have insecure attachment like me. I know meeting someone with a secure attachment will help me more than anything.
    How can I change my brain? I am in so much pain. Cognitive therapy is not working. I have spent 1 1/2 since a breakup of a 6 yr r/s working, grieving and dealing with my messed up brain. I feel ready to move on, but where are the securely attached men who aren’t married? I believe, like you, I can do this on my own. Have you found another r/s? Or are you resigned to be single?

  8. soren majgaard

    My interest in Dr. Porges’ Polyvagal Theory stems from my life as a chiropractor. D.D. Palmer, a magnetic healer, found a ‘bump’ in a patient’s back. He pushed at it, got a cracking sound and reduced the pain. Following treatments revealed his patient came to hear much better. Medical society couldn’t explain it. They prosecuted him and had him sent to prison. Prof. Paul Bechgaard MD internal medicine used chiropractic as a diagnostic tool; he found 80% of patients referred to him were somatic. He had the same experience as Palmer, and better ways to track findings with colleagues like Dr. Bentzen MD, head of audiology at his hospital. So with Polyvagal theory I have hit home. Porges said medical doctors are at the wrong end of the chain, managing organs by cutting and medicating them. It’s better that we can influence the Polyvagal neural complex. We treat vertebral subluxations which lead to neural deficits and muscular cramps, muscle acidity and pain, when pH reaches 5 or lower. It may change the visual expression and other supra-diaphramatic tissues, for ex., lungs. The Vagus and facial nerves control hearing, too.

  9. I have just been through seven years of this, discovering in 2010 I had severe attachment trauma from infancy and the developmental trauma that ensued. Like you I am learning from the best, the Bessels, the Dan Siegels, the NICABM seminars. I also have a superb therapist who stuck with me for six years but is retiring (arghhhh) so I have a year to get myself in enough shape to not take that as abandonment. I am so glad you are coming through. I am also coming through but I still have some bad times when triggered.

  10. Me too. last October I started feeling happy for the first time in 25 years I’ve lost everything, my house, my husband, my cat, all my money and I’m happier than ever. In 2013 I discovered my mother was a narcissist… never wanted to be with my parents. Bullied at school age 10, attacked in a taxi caused agoraphobia age 26 to 38. Cured with TFT thank you Roger Callaghan for discovering Tapping. Very grateful trauma info is getting mainstream. Thanks to Peter Levine, Bessel van der Kolk, Stephen Porges, David Bercelli et al. I did Levine’s Somatic Experiencing in 2013 and that’s when things really started to shift. All these years I’d been stuck in freeze. But I was still depressed. So last summer I began a daily yoga practice (Sadhguru Inner Engineering but I suspect any regular daily practice would work) and breathwork (check Buteyko is) with abdominal qi gung healing (Chi Nei Tsang) and suddenly my life came back. It’s astonishing to wake up happy every morning. Birth trauma is the root of all evils and disease. Those born in 1940s-60s suffered from hospitals separating mother and child at birth. Kept in a nursery and fed on a schedule… The wounds of that set us up for a lifetime of pain. The good news is there is a way through! It may be the way Kathy did, or the way I did: but it’s faith, research and diligent practice. Reading doesn’t work! We need to DO it, regular daily practice of whatever works. You CAN come out stronger, wiser and happier.

    • Thanks for your courage and new ideas! Somatic Experiencing and Tapping literally saved my life, I’m glad they worked for you. I’m not familiar with many other things you mention but if I ever get my book done I’m going to check out Buteyko and abdominal qi gung healing (Chi Nei Tsang). I wish I were doing more daily yoga (I only manage 20 minutes) and meditation (ditto).

  11. Hello Kathy. So lovely to find this site. So on target with my work as a counselor and dance therapist. Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory pulled everything together for me. I sing praises to the discovery of that. I “accidentally regressed” over romantic horrors in my attempts at online dating. This resulted in my workbook for online daters: how to use online dating to stir up your childhood attachment trauma which helps folks find and care for their inner kid. I will pass on info about your book and journey as well.

    • Online dating nearly killed me. It stirred up so much attachment horror that I was asking men to abuse me the way mom did. We with infant trauma need to stay away from dating until we heal. Hope your workbook helps people whose damage didn’t start so early.

  12. I’ve just found your site – I’m speechless. I’ve just gone through this healing process – year 5 – the sticky web of a severe attachment disorder, narcissistic family-dynamic , my own alcohol abuse and the destructive relational and behavioural patterns that followed. I too had a collapse, an adrenal crisis that led to my own ‘rabbit hole’ – at 55 and these years of healing mind, body and soul – with a fantastic therapist, Peter Levine and many other’s work, Yoga and meditation and nature …. I’m now ‘broke but not broken’. I continue to heal and am starting all over in life, have separated from my family of origin and am starting over financially – still I’m more at peace, have more joy, and compassion for myself and others than I ever have. Thank you so much for your work!

    • Isn’t is amazing how confronting the deepest trauma, feeling the most horrible pain, walking through it and releasing it, can lead to feeling absolutely wonderful? More peace, more joy, more compassion just as you said. Thank you for doing the hard work!

  13. Yep, you nailed my story. At 50 after a series of similar events had a breakdown. Spent three years isolated and mourning a lifetime of suppressed pain and emotion, two more shaken, and working with a good therapist the whole time. Various diagnoses, but ultimately what lies at the core is attachment trauma. The work is ongoing, but to a large extent there is an end, a place of peace.

  14. Have you ever been checked for a paraganglioma sitting on the vagal nerve, possibly near the glomus? This might explain your symptoms. Rare but guessing as I have had these symptoms, then was diagnosed with it in 1997. Opted for radiation.

    • My Dr. checked, found nothing. Yes, Steven Porges’ Polyvagal Theory and Peter Levine’s work on trauma show that with developmental trauma, our vagus nerve puts many body parts into “freeze” ie dissociation, for me maybe as soon as I was born. I only recently unfroze what my vagus was doing to my body in 2012 using Levine’s exercises–with my therapist. “Don’t Try This at Home.” So yes it’s possible that in developmental trauma the vagus nerve may be harmed. But even if we treat it medically, we still need psychological healing also.

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