It’s around 8 or 9 on a Saturday night and I’m on a 3-hour drive home. I’m returning from the field research I do every weekend in California’s Central Valley as part of my graduate studies. I’m feeling horrible, but not because of any particular event or problem. The feeling might best be described as an overwhelming mix of self-loathing and despair. And it is quite familiar — I have felt this way most of my life.
I’m listening to talk radio as I often do on these drives. In this case, I have caught part of one of those psychologist radio shows where folks call-in and discuss their issues. She’s talking about some new research that is just coming out about how important the first 2 years of life are in shaping the rest of our lives. It’s when our core sense of self is formed, and how to operate in the world. The bonding and nurturing humans get within the first two years of life are essential to developing a sense that the world and people around us are safe and that we are, fundamentally, “ok”. If we don’t get that – and especially if we get the opposite – it has life-long impacts that are difficult to repair.
I have never heard these words before. They are literally stunning and revolutionary for me. I was in my early 30’s and at that time my life was defined by a deep-seated belief that I am flawed and bad, coupled with a desperate effort to prove otherwise – to myself and to everyone around me. From my earliest memories, I had felt bad. But in hearing the words of this talk-radio host I entertained, for the very first time, the notion that maybe all of this was not really my fault. Maybe I wasn’t born flawed, but rather something had happened to me to make me feel, and sometimes appear, so?
As a matter of fact, I knew from family history that the first two years of my life were, by any definition, a train wreck. My parents had been fighting while my mother was pregnant with me, during which she suffered some degree of physical abuse. Four months after I was born she fled my father and, with myself and my three older brothers, moved to live near her own mother. Then, when I was a year and a half old, she had a mental breakdown that led to her being hospitalized. My brothers and I were separated and placed in institutional children’s homes for four months. Surely this was enough to have had the kind of impact this radio psychologist was speaking of?
This was the very beginning of a journey of healing that has taken decades. I am now in my early 60’s and can now honestly speak of healing. I spend most of my days feeling at least “ok”, and sometimes even “good”. And though it may sound like a small thing, simply feeling “ok” is truly a blessed feeling. What I was struggling with, and am finally healing from, is what is now known as Attachment Trauma.
Attachment Trauma is the severe disruption or dysfunction of the infant-maternal bond. This can result from stress and dysfunction in the family, mental health problems in the mother, and/or extended separation from the mother. (I am referring to a “mother” here, but the same applies to whoever is serving the role of primary caregiver). These are traumatic experiences regardless of when they occur during childhood. However, when they occur during the first 2 years of life they have a uniquely damaging impact, leading to Attachment Trauma. The analogy I like to use is that of a house. When we experience trauma later in childhood or adolescence our house is damaged, sometimes severely, and it can be very hard to repair it. When we experience trauma during infancy the foundation itself is damaged, or simply not there. Without a solid foundation, even building a house is challenging, and whatever has been built is unstable and easily damaged. Also like a house’s foundation, the damage is invisible because it occurs at a time we are unable to remember and during a period of life whose significance tends to be underestimated.
The key to understanding Attachment Trauma is to consider how and why we develop the foundational attributes and skills that make us healthy, functioning adults: the ability to manage our emotions, the ability to recognize and respond appropriately to social cues, a fundamental belief in one’s worth and belonging, and a presumption that other people and the world itself is essentially safe.
These are all attributes and skills that most take for granted, but we are not born with them. Nor do they develop automatically according to some pre-programmed developmental process encoded in our DNA. Instead, these skills and attributes are learned through the experience of interacting with a reliable and responsive caregiver during the first 2 years of life. When the infant-maternal bond is dysfunctional or disrupted we enter childhood and grow into adults without the foundational skills and attributes that make possible all the rest of the learning and loving and resiliency essential for a happy and healthy life.
Attachment Trauma is not a stand-alone condition or diagnosis per se, but rather it is a core component of the most severe impacts of repeated traumatic experiences in childhood. The symptoms described below will be familiar to those struggling with CPTSD; however, these symptoms are likely to be most severe when the trauma includes attachment disruption and dysfunction during infancy. Developmental Trauma Disorder, which is closely related to CPTSD, includes early attachment disruption as one of its key criteria. Attachment Trauma is also at the core of the most serious mental health conditions associated with childhood trauma, including Borderline Personality Disorder, for which research has established a strong correlation with early attachment disruption; and Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly called “multiple personality disorder”) which results from the most extreme cases of Attachment Trauma and subsequent abuse.
When a traumatic childhood includes Attachment Trauma it leads to a consistent & recognizable constellation of challenges and symptoms later in life. I am going to describe them from the perspective of how I experienced them, but the precise way in which they show up is as variable as our individual childhood experiences. These symptoms include:
A deep-seated, pervasive belief that you are deeply and irredeemably flawed and unworthy. Life events and the behavior of others are interpreted through this lens, constantly reinforcing this sense of shame. The internal narrative is not that “I’ve done something bad”, it’s that “I am bad”. The experience of intense shame is incredibly painful, like a gut punch, and we will go to great lengths to avoid it. For me, that translated into fear of doing or saying anything with which anyone could find fault; resulting in second-guessing every word or action, or taking no action whatsoever. Shame is difficult to regulate because it is difficult to recognize and name. I spent decades operating from this internal sense of shame without knowing what it was because the underlying premise that “I am bad” was unrecognized and unquestioned.
Intense, often overwhelming, emotional reactions to simple everyday events — or sometimes seemingly coming out-of-the-blue for no apparent reason. These emotions can be intense sadness, or anger, or fear and anxiety. These intense emotions often lead to behaviors that are harmful to personal and professional goals and relationships.
Chronic Dysphoria & Depression
Underneath the shame and chaotic emotions lies a chronic, distressing mix of anxiousness and sadness called dysphoria. It is a persistent sense that something is very wrong, without being able to identify exactly what that “something” is. Frequently the dysphoria morphs into profound and relentless emotional pain; something I would describe as “a giant stone of grief sitting on my chest”. The pain can be crushing and debilitating, and I have known it to last for days and weeks on end.
Unstable Self-Image & Goals
In the face of the intense shame and distressing emotions described above, having a clear and stable sense of ones values and goals is challenging at best. Decision-making tends to be guided by relieving the emotional distress, rather than by an internal compass. And when everything persistently feels “wrong” then no decision feels “right”, leading to frequent, seemingly illogical, changes in jobs, career paths, and relationships. Additionally, the very effort of managing these intense emotions exacts a huge cognitive toll, making it hard to make good decisions and remain goal-oriented.
Because we didn’t experience a secure and healthy connection with our first caregiver, those with Attachment Trauma have difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships in adulthood. The cause of these difficulties can be insecurity and over-dependence on others, or it can be fear and aversion towards others. For many, it is a conflicting mixture of both, as it was for me. The insecurity and over-dependence led to a desperate, sometimes inappropriate, longing to connect with others. The fear and aversion led to social anxiety and discomfort, making it hard to even initiate relationships; upon forming relationships, it sometimes led to my pushing these friends and partners away. While I did establish a few close friendships, most of my early adulthood was spent in a recurring pattern of unrealistic attachments and unstable relationships against a backdrop of painful efforts to be “social”.
An experience of being “disconnected from one’s own self” that manifests in varying ways, both chronic and recurrent. When one’s core is filled with shame, dysphoria, and chaotic emotions it is neither possible nor practical to “show up in the world” as your authentic emotional self. Instead, a separate self is created through which we operate in the world, while the turmoil continues underneath at the same time. For me, this separate-self served as a mask that hid my true self from those around me; I can recall many instances in which I was making jokes and laughing with others while at the same time, underneath, I was in profound pain. This is a chronic state of dissociation.
There are also recurring episodes of dissociation such as feeling cut-off from your emotions — apathetic or numb — or feeling like you are on autopilot and simply an observer of your actions. These episodes are a psychological defense mechanism that often occurs in response to intense emotion or to external stressors. Because interacting with others was inherently stressful for me, I frequently experienced dissociation in social gatherings and intimate interactions. This short-circuited the open and healthy communication needed to establish and navigate close relationships.
Substance Abuse & Self-harm
With the relentless emotional pain described earlier comes to a desperate urge to “make it stop”. This can lead to many types of self-destructive behavior when the need to relieve the pain overrides healthy decision-making. For me, this took the form of secret binge drinking, but it can also show up as alcohol and drug addiction or other addictive behaviors. For some, it leads to “cutting”, in an effort to replace the emotional pain with something else, anything else. Sometimes this desperation to relieve the emotional pain can lead to the one thing that is guaranteed to “make it stop”: taking one’s own life.
You may recognize yourself in the portrait of Attachment Trauma I have painted above. Like I did, you have likely blamed yourself and believed these symptoms reflect some flaw at your core. The first and most important thing to realize is that it is absolutely and emphatically not your fault. You were conceived with the same innate potential for love, joy, and connection as are all humans. But we are all shaped by the forces of biology and nurture, and your brain has developed in the only way it could given the trauma you experienced in infancy. I know from personal experience that the impact of Attachment Trauma is profound. I experienced, in varying degrees, all the symptoms described above for many years; they colored every aspect of my life and shaped every path. However, I also know that recovery and eventual healing is possible. Hopefully, understanding how and why your earliest experiences led to the challenges you face now will help you understand yourself better and facilitate your journey towards healing.