How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all
Are 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 50% 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.
A 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?
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.
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Note: I’m against false use of the terms “attachment disorder” or “attachment therapy” to excuse abuse, 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), which only affects a tiny percent of the population. I believe other legitimate forms of attachment disorder affect 50% of Americans. I wasn’t RAD, so the DSM didn’t recognize my illness, and 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.
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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