I’m pretty sure a combination of my mother’s high levels of stress hormones and unaddressed grief, together with the toxins in the alcohol and tobacco she used daily, worked to interrupt the easy flow of the bonding hormones between us during gestation and after birth. With dire relationship consequences.
I was in the fourth grade. It was Parent’s Day at Katherine Brennan Elementary School and I can still remember David Coe cooing “Isn’t my mother … beautiful?” There was total rapture in his voice. In response to him, my thought was, “Why don’t I love my mother like that?”
Love Me – Make It Safe
One simple answer is that love seems to require safety, openness, softness – undefendedness. For many who were born in the aftermath of a World War, there wasn’t a lot of that available. Even less when you then grow up in a local war zone yourself. Experiencing those love-requisite conditions also seems to require something that attachment researchers have identified as … irrational commitment. If we haven’t experienced it directly, many of us only know what irrational commitment looks like and feels like because we’ve seen it on TV or in the movies. Our great, yearning need for it is an underlying theme in many of our most popular films – someone who will be there for us come hell, high water or recurring psychosis requiring Mad Maps.
One component of irrational commitment that makes it work is that it needs to come from a competent protector. As a kid I remember Cassie Mae Purvis tearing the screen door blocking her way to Ben Meesaw, off its hinges – after which she proceeded to beat Ben bloody. His grown-man violation: he slapped Cassie Mae’s youngest daughter, Betty-Ann. The predominant desire I was left with after witnessing this drama was, “I wish my mother could do something like that.” There was no father to do it for her or me. But children need protection. They need an undeniable answer “Yes” to the Big Brain Question.
When we grow up without a securely bonded early attachment and the irrational commitment of a competent protector, we need to find it elsewhere as adults. Many of us missing that early experience turn to psychotherapists.
Commitment Yearns to Be Free
In graduate school, a clinical professor of mine – Kathy Speeth – once proclaimed: “If you want to avoid the inherent conflict of interest in being a psychotherapist, find some other way to make money and do the therapy for free.” This proclamation resonated deeply in me, even though I hated hearing it at the time. And while she didn’t couch it in early developmental terms, what Kathy was essentially pointing to is that you don’t get secure attachment, deeply-connected bonding and irrational commitment by paying for it. Nobody gave Cassie Mae a dime to go over and make it clear to Ben Meesaw that he needed to keep his hands off her children.
The money gets seriously in the way (even if it’s only $25 a week for something called “Message Therapy“). It tends to distort and disorganize relationships. It’s No. 2 on the top ten Relationship Hit List. Why? Because in our blood and bones (and in the implicit memory structures in our brain) we know that if we stop paying a psychotherapist, then whatever irrational commitment or bonding we may feel as a consequence of the relationship will invariably go away. And the “Yes” answer to the Big Brain Question becomes a resounding “No” with seriously re-disorganizing neural implications. Loss and trauma get piled upon loss and trauma.
The Way Out is Through
So, what’s someone who loves helping people heal and grow to do? Well, Kathy Speeth provided one possibility: like many great artists have done so as not to compromise their art, find a way to do the work for free. Make the hard changes you’re challenging others to make, yourself. Become a priest or a spiritual director. Start a farm and make your psychotherapy “office” the fields where you plant and weed. Join a walking club and invite folks for Walks’n’talks. Start a widget-manufacturing company that doubles as a healing center. Become a friend.
For me, the decision NOT to become a fee-receiving psychotherapist after spending 1000s of hours and tens of thousands of dollars on my training and education was not an easy choice to make. Because most of us tend to be loss-averse, Sunk Costs have strong ties that bind. But once I recognized that the memories I was attempting to surface and the wounds I was attempting to heal wasn’t happening, the creative possibilities for finding ways to work with them that didn’t involve transaction or commerce have become only as limited as my creative imagination.