The Myth Atlas: a story of disorganised attachment

I strongly identify with the myth of Atlas: it captures the felt experience of being insecurely attached. Right at the beginning of therapy, maybe three years in, my therapist said something I barely understood but it hit a nerve and I knew it was true. ‘Maybe you both seduce and push people away. Simultaneously.’ Now that I know a little more, I understand that was an interpretation straight out of an attachment theory textbook. He was telling me I was insecurely attached and furthermore, I was fearful-avoidant or disorganised. The sort of attachment style that correlates closely with developing schizophrenia and addiction, the attachment style that is usually the product of abuse and neglect. It means my attachment system, which all mammals have, is scrambled and I had no coherent strategy for keeping my carer close. This attachment dynamic is often explained in terms of a double bind: the very caretaker the infant seeks to soothe them is the very person who terrifies them. It is hard to imagine that sort of despair. As an adult it feels like desperately craving intimacy and being utterly terrified of getting close to someone. It feels like being anxiously attached with all the vigilance and attachment system in overdrive, and it also feels like being avoidantly attached, having no access to an internal emotional life and the whole bag of distancing gimmicks and attachment suppressants. It is a headfuck. I didn’t know all of that at the time, but what I did know was his comments felt true. I went home and drew a self-portrait of me as Atlas, regulating distance between the planets, pushing and pulling the cosmos, pushing everyone outside and trying to pull them in. Simultaneously. Holding the cosmos up, shouldering the weight of the world, alone on top of a mountain. This kind of relating literally drives those of us unlucky enough to function by its logic, crazy.

Omnipotence, Winnicott theorises, is a normal developmental stage. When psychologists talk about children being ‘ego centric’ they are talking about this notion. But you’re supposed to leave it behind at some point. If the infant or the toddler is loved well enough then they trust their environment, they have the luxury of moving freely through the world without having to wring love out of people or sneak away to create space for themselves. They trust good things will come to them, love and friendship and intimacy and they don’t have to work hard to find these things, nor do they need to spend much time and energy fretting about boundaries and losing themselves in relationship. Being securely attached is a golden ticket into relatively effortless connection.

Maybe I have ‘earned security’ now, I can pretty much count on the world being a beautiful place to play and find connection in and I know I love and am loved, but I’m still prone to delusions of omnipotence. There are certain tropes I recognise in myself now that therapy has made this dynamic conscious. When I feel guilty for not liking someone, as if they need my approval, as if their self esteem depends SOLEY ON ME. When I feel worried that a friend hasn’t called in a while, immediately assuming I’ve done something to offend them, rather than they have their own busy life which has nothing to do with me. When my therapist goes on holiday and I feel shame that I’m not interesting/funny/wonderful enough that he wants to hang out with me 24/7. When I delude myself into thinking I’m the one who keeps the relationship alive, I should call them or initiate because I’m the keeper of the flame which would otherwise die without my vigilance, rather than cultivating faith that they perhaps might come towards me of their own accord, in their own time without my exerting gravitational pull. That I shouldn’t break up with him because he needs me. That I must drag my ill body into work because they’re counting on me, and the whole school will fall apart without me there. That my son won’t be able to cope without me for three nights while I get a break. That my mother will be destroyed if I tell her I only have a little bit of time I can spend with her when she is here. That everyone at work hates me for that stupid scheduling mistake I made last week. That I don’t want to tell my husband about the pre eclampsia scare when I’m heavily pregnant and have to spend the afternoon in the hospital because I don’t want to worry him. All of these scenarios just perpetuate the nightmare that I’m strong, everyone else is fragile. That I am alone in the universe, and everyone is demanding too much of me and I must hold them at bay, or else they are speeding away from me and the only way to keep their love is to seduce them back into orbit. ‘Oh, you are gravity’, said my therapist when he saw my drawing. ‘It’s terrifying.’

The moment I hear the first familiar notes of violin music, the opening to this particular tragedy, I know I need to surrender. This is a useful word I have just acquired from reading Karin Carlson’s gorgeous guts n soul of yoga blog. Now, when I find myself ascending to hold up the cosmos, I know I can take my emotional funk to my mat and I think about surrender, and I allow myself to sink into positions I am not strong enough to rigidly hold myself in. I stop bracing myself and allow my muscles to let go. I breathe. That is one way to come down from the mountain. The other path down the mountain is risking connection.

Connection is a sacred daily practice of communicating preferences and desires and boundaries and needs to myself and those I am emotionally intimate with. Surrender is bloody fucking excruciating if you’re insecurely attached. It is vulnerably reaching out.

Sometimes this reaching out is to my husband for a conversation when I feel lonely and knowing he might not have capacity for a deep and meaningful now or reaching out to invite friends in, a quick, ‘Hey I’d love to hang out soon,’ text or email, rather than a self absorbed tight lipped self pitying silence assuming the worst. At least that way I don’t have to face the shame of potential rejection. Or when I’m feeling avoidant, catching myself mid fantasy and testing reality: is this person actually as clingy and weak as I’m fearing them to be? Chances are, it’s all in my head and Im unconsciously trying to find a way to confirm my status as gravity. Fantasies of omnipotence are exhausting and lonely, but they’re very good defences against the pathogenic belief that I’m essentially unloveable.

If grasping or shoving are two responses to the fear of loss of love, the opposite is an open handed gesture of invitation. Come, be in relationship with me? It’s vulnerable and risky and makes room for the other person, for connection and mutuality. It allows for their agency, for the other to say no or yes please or not this week but soon.

The worst part of being insecurely attached is the fantasy obliterates the other. It erases relationship between us, it does not allow for mutuality. It is a closed, airless system.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

Karin Carlson’s soul-food yoga blog

For more about attachment theory Dan Siegel has some excellent videos on YouTube

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