Getting my own attenton

Its been an interesting experience getting one of those flu-colds, with a bronchial focus and terrible body aches, that almost floor me, on top of my pre-existing chronic pain status, for the third time this year. Prior to that, I had not had a “common cold” for years, which is the reason why it interests me. It tells me that what my body had been holding at bay, or bottling up, over all those years, because it feared I could not cope with it, is now being let though and “out” like for any other person. Yes, bizarrely, this run of bad colds tells me I am really healing now; my body is no longer afraid to deal with what is ailing it, which is a very-necessary healing protocol when we come into contact with everyday pathogens (it’s also a sign I’m getting out more).

Something else was even more interesting to notice, beyond the awful timing of this…which couldn’t have been much worse, in lots of ways. One is that, on the back of a recent burst of energy and robustness, which had me almost feeling like it was “the old days…old me…normality” before I got unwell, I had drummed up a lot of work-related activities over the last few weeks and I now needed to fulfil what I had committed to. Yet, over and above this, I couldn’t help smiling at the very fact I had got myself into this pickle was also very new; in other words, that I had allowed myself to step forwards with projects, not (as I usually do) stopping myself from making commitments in case I wasn’t well enough to deal with the consequences.

But the most interesting thing is how I am dealing with the fact my husband is about to go to a conference for the rest of the week, leaving me at home with the dog while convalescing. Pretty quickly, I noticed how a not so small part of me seemed to want to ham up how I was feeling, or at least “bring it on” while he was still here, so he saw the worst of how this illness was playing out and might, I suppose, at least consider stopping home to take care of me. Bizarre…as I didn’t really want this to happen (I don’t really do that well with being coddled or fussed-over) but a plaintive cry of “rescue me” seemed to be coming out of an unchecked part of me that coughed more when he was around or felt worse when he was home. What was this? I didn’t do this by design, it just sort of happened but made me aware of how the body wheels out all the worst case scenarios when there is this part of you, however small and subconscious, that wants to be taken note of and swept up into someone else’s protective arms. Yes, like a newborn.

I’ve long been aware of quite a strong thread of trauma in me around my babyhood, which first came up during some hypnosis sessions over a decade ago. My earliest impressions of life, it seems, were all about being abandoned, unheard and left to cry it out. As the fourth “accidental” child that didn’t fit in to the plan with my much older siblings, I think I really was left to my own devices quite a lot, my earliest memories being of screaming for attention in a pram left in the kitchen and even in our garage with its fumey smells; places where I had been left to “sleep” only, some of the time, I was really crying blue murder for some attention. Or, perhaps with time, I became conditioned to become very mutely quiet, however much discomfort I was feeling, in the hope that being really “good” and easy to look after would mean they would let me into their noisy family circle (this propensity to bottle feelings up has also become a life-long trait). My other earliest memory is holding my own bottle of milk, facing the back of a chair. My twelve-year-old sister was, more often than not, told to take me for long walks in my pram or to the clinic (I can still sense her panic at the huge responsibility …), to change and cradle me, even when I was having night terrors, but how much did I really crave that parental attention…the arms of my mother?

Years later, it struck me how all of my early childhood “happy times”, in association with my mother, involved recuperations, when I had all her attention…such as when I had the measles or a very bad cold, or that time I got concussed and sprained my arm falling off my bike. Those were the bonding times I craved; otherwise, her attention was spartan until the other three left the nest. I don’t blame her for it (we later had the best of relationships), but I see…and feel… it all in hindsight. It wasn’t that I was treated badly but there was a “preoccupation” theme running through my early childhood due to the fact my mother already had far too much on her hands, combined with a tendency to dismiss shows of affection as unnecessary or time-wasting (though, often, a simple touch gesture would have done). My mother’s affection was, in her view, amply demonstrated through her baking and knitting, by the fact all my clothes were always neatly turned out and that, like a lioness, she demanded antibiotics from the doctor for almost every ailment.  If only her generation had understood more about the importance of simple touch but there was a whole new advisory around baby care and formula milk over breast at that time which, combined with certain attitudes about parenting that harked from an even tougher era (being at least a decade-older than my friends’ swinging-sixties parents, my mother had been raised during the wartime austerity), made for an unfortunate lack of affectionate demonstration from all sides. Teaching model self-sufficency was the highest form of parenting, to them.

Then the delegation of so much of my early care to an older sister, still a child herself, left my infant self confused as to who I was meant to be attached to. “The most important tenet of attachment theory is an infant needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for the child’s successful social and emotional development, and in particular for learning how to regulate their feelings. Any caregiver is likely to become the principal attachment figure if they provide most of the child care and related social interaction. In the presence of a sensitive and responsive caregiver, the infant will use the caregiver as a “safe base” from which to explore.” (Attachment) My way of coping, especially once my sister left home when I was 6, was to withdraw into my own little world and become painfully self-sufficient’ except, ironically, in this emotional way where I feel almost desperate for affectionate support from at least one other.

A consideration that has become a main focus of the field of psychoimmunology is that the attachment between mother and child sets up a life-long trait affecting immune responses and health patterns and I see that so clearly now. Attachment is defined as the affectional tie between two people and begins with the bond between infant and mother. In 1975, John Bowlby wrote “the initial relationship between self and others serves as blueprints for all future relationships.” Reading this, it then took only a small leap  for me to draw the conclusion that attachment issues in early life could increase vulnerability to chronic pain syndromes and, yes, studies are now suggesting this to be the case. According to a study conducted in 2009 (full title below) “Individuals with “insecure” adult attachment styles have been shown to experience more pain than people with secure attachment”; also, attachment issues are not ony useful to help identify those at more risk of developing chronic pain (from an acute episode) but those having issues coping with that pain, those we are most likely to have issues expressing that pain or challenges when it comes to seeking out professional and other help. Yes, on that latter point, I am notoriously bad at that, going to pieces at the very thought of it.

There are real biological processes at stake when attachment issues start to tweak the way an infant’s immune system is developing. “Abnormalities in hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis function have also been implicated as potential biological mechanisms mediating the association between attachment and the development of CWP (Chronic Widespread Pain)” (again, see study below). As chance would have it, I am currently reading all about how important that HPA function is, going to “the core of cellular activity”, and how anomalies cascade into all sorts of long-term issues, in “Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion” by Michael A Jawer who goes on:

“Recent findings…constitute…an overwhelming body of evidence that early life experiences – especially maternal care – can alter the set point of the HPA stress axis. In other words, the individual’s inclination towards shyness, environmental sensitivity, jumpiness and an exaggerated stress reaction will have been programmed for life”.

He goes on to discuss a study carried out by anthropologist Ashley Montagu (author of “Touching) in which the conclusion drawn was that “relative immunity to the consequences of stress exhibited by gentled animals (meaning they received hands on maternal affection) might be due to a less active HPA”. This with a more active HPA (thus lower HPA stress reaction point) typically seem to have what could be termed a fearful disposition. They seem to relive their traumas as if they are happening now, those memories held differently than by others as a “self-contained ‘stone’ that is occasionally thrown up into the consciousness by the currents and eddies of the bodymind” (Jawer). They also seem to be on high-alert to the degree that they are far more responsive to environmental cues and other anomalous experiences that other people fail to be aware of. This includes being prone to experiencing a range of strange phenomena in their environment, including  subtle radiation variances and experiencing electric crackles and other bizarre sensations synchronistic with the aurora borealis (both of which I experience myself). They even stop machinery working and “blow up” computers from time to time (yes, I also have this habit at times when I am most symptomatic). He approaches the topic of poltergeist from this angle of “neurobiological disposition”, such as exploring the all-important HPA and the phenomenon of undealt-with emotions held in the body as energy.

Just how effectively these patterns get ingrained into our cells is something I have been able to distinctly recognise in myself, just as I as I have remained distinctly baffled as to how to undo this hard-wiring in my psyche. It’s a tremendously important thing to me that I am so attached to my husband, and he to me; to the point I hardly know how I would carry on without that bonding just beneath the surface of everything I do, like a rock-bed of wellbeing that keeps me going. It wasn’t always that way; my first marriage was a very different story and I did anything but thrive in that one; almost as though I made that relationship choice in order to continue this theme or working with someone hardwired for avoiding attachment, as he was. However hard I tried to warm that first partner to my affections and tender loving care, he remained ambivalent or rejecting of all my efforts and I received nothing in return. It took the birth of my daughter to wake me up to how thankless this task had become and to redirect all my efforts at her, until my second husband came along. I used what I recalled from my own lack of contact parenting to give her the very opposite and we remain very tactile and expressive to this day.

It took a few more years yet to realise that wanting another to “hear me”, to be attentive, to come rushing to my aid in a crisis, is high on my list of fundamentals. Because I simply didn’t have it for so many years and, I guess, felt I missed it in the very beginning, though I had so much else in my childhood that it took years to even notice the lack. Really, we were the very picture of a happy-go-lucky family when I was growing up and there were a lot of loving and encouraging actions doled out and amidst the constant busyness but there was still something missing. It was my mother’s tender embrace or her hand slipped over mine, her time to really listen to me or play at my level, plus all the associated intimacy and physical contact that would have come with that, plus that unconditional nook of her arm into which I should have liked to be able to retreat as needed (I was really in too much awe of her), as is just so important to a young child. Observing friends go through the joy of their firstborn right now, I’m startled at the difference as the couple take time off from everything to just cosy down with their baby for a few weeks, learning their new routine and getting to know each other without any outside distractions. Compared to that, I felt like I had landed in a maelstrom when I was born, conceived as an inconvenient afterthought.

So here I am, feeling sorry for myself with this worse-before-it-gets-better cold, even as my husband packs his bag and cuddles me goodbye…and I witness those same old reactions coming up in me, just beneath the surface. I also know they will do me no favours in terms of my immunity to get over this thing quickly; these feelings run in the very opposite direction from recovery since they have learned that to be sickly is to be noticed and “heard”. Just as I know to take vitamin C and eat nutritious food through this cold, I would do far better to focus on getting well, without this ingrained subplot from babyhood. I also dislike the feeling of being somehow dependent on external succour for my own wellbeing. Much as I am so eternally grateful for all the loving-support I have in my marriage, hoping also that I have it with me all my days, I feel disempowered by being so dependent, almost subserved, to the desperate need to be taken care of by another. In all other respects, I am the independent type, the stubborn mule when it comes to protecting my solitary time and the need to have my own space…until this, when I feel physically vulnerable. Its time to look into this corner and see what is hiding there.

So I took my thoughts past the instinctual cry for help into the scenario where he cancelled his trip and we sat around frustrated in the knowledge he was meant to be elsewhere. What did that gain me? Nothing that I couldn’t get from the sound of his voice down a telephone line and his text check-ins; I might even get a better night’s sleep with the bed to myself. When it comes to health protocols, I’m the white witch of the household and he doesn’t have a clue so I have that more than covered. My gentle walk out with my dog will probably do me good, if a little slower than normal, and its really quite nice to have nothing else to structure my day, having put my work on hold. I will probably have a better time recuperating if I am able to play my own music, watch videos outloud and go with my own erratic flow around meals until I’m feeling better. In other words, I can more-than take good care of myself, knowing also that I am cared for regardless (a skill set I lacked, unsurprisingly, as a baby). In other words, I see an evolution in this. I can step up to my own parental role; the parenting of me by myself.

More than that, there’s something quite profound and beautiful about taking care of oneself, performing little rituals of attentiveness that only you could get “just right”. When we return to this knowing, we can suddenly realise that we’ve spent years under a misapprehension that we are doing this when we engage in retail therapy or take ourselves off on a “nice holiday”, none of which got even close. Such distractions are neither deep nor raw enough to demonstrate the depth of self-love that resides in the quiet spaces that we spend with ourselves, not least in times of vulnerability; not by turning away but going in deeper still through the portal of our wounds. It can be as simplistic as taking the time to breathe deeply, to bathe slowly, in fact to slow everything down or stop, to allow doubt or fear to surface and be seen, to touch your own flesh and really feel what is going on there. These tender tasks are what I offer myself today.


Insecure attachment style is associated with chronic widespread pain – K.A. Davies, G.J. Macfarlane, J. McBeth, R. Morriss and C. Dickens

Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion: How Feelings Link the Brain, the Body, and the Sixth Sense – Michael A Jawer

If you enjoyed this, PLEASE READ follow-up article Held.

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