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Isolation and Pseudo-Intimacy




Excerpted from
When Misery Is Company; Ending Self-Sabotage and Misery Addiction
By Anne Katherine, M.A., C.M.H.C., C.E.D.T.

The little curly-headed child stayed in my mind. I replayed the look on her face when she saw her father. She didn't smile-a natural response in a toddler seeing a loving parent after a separation. She held that toy out, as if she was used to this man taking things from her and she was going to give it up quickly. She wasn't more than three years old and had already learned to fear him.

He barked at her. Her effort to protect herself-by giving up the toy-failed.

If events continue in this sequence, this child will learn that she can't influence, can't predict, and can't stop negative responses from this man. If her mother also fears him and doesn't stop him, the child will generalize and anticipate this experience in intimate relationships.

It is unlikely that these events would be stored in explicit memory. Her brain was too young to record this incident as factual. The whole of the experience would be stored in implicit memory, influencing her view of intimacy, yet she would not be able to recall it.

The experiences we can't recall aren't real to us. We can't use them to explain attitudes or fears or persistent reactions that cause us unhappiness-yet they permeate our perceptions and create our biases.

They influence us powerfully, but, because we can't recall them, we can't talk about them. And, since we can't talk about them, we can't defuse them the way we can soothe traumatic events that we remember.

Thus our repertoire for intimacy is set by a host of experiences we can't remember.

Yet we need intimacy. We need close connection with others. Failing that, we have to connect to something.

Any aspects of our environment that we associate in our implicit memory with connection will give us the experience of connection in adulthood.

For example, I love to do laundry. I feel safe and joyful when I hang laundry on a line. For years I didn't question this. Recently, though, I recalled mornings spent with my beloved grandmother while she hung laundry on a line. The smell of freshly washed sheets, the sound of them flapping in a breeze, the sight of sheets strung in a row-all this gives me comfort. It is associated with my connection with my dear grandmother. Conversely, things we associate with pain and disconnection will give us unpleasant feelings in adulthood.

When she grows up, the little curly-headed girl might associate fear and rejection with toys, yards, grass, spring, men, giving, or seeing someone unexpectedly. Who knows what aspect of that harsh encounter will stay embedded in her for a lifetime, creating an unexplainable aversion.

Last November, Bridie joined a women's exercise club in which the machines were set in a circle. Women joined the circuit at any point and shifted to the next station every half minute in response to recorded instructions. It was the first program she'd ever been able to stay with. She raved about it to Dara, her sister, who then joined the same program in another city.

Each night, faithfully, Bridie stopped at the club on the way home from work. Then in April, a weird thing happened. Moments after she leaned back into a certain machine, her heart began pounding and her eyes blurred. She fainted. The club staff called an ambulance and monitored her, fearing a heart attack.

At the hospital, the symptoms went away, and she was released without need of further treatment.

The next day, as she opened the door of the club, a great fear seized her and she couldn't go in.

Soon after, Dara came to visit. She wanted to go to the club and was surprised that Bridie didn't want to go with her. Bridie said, "I can't. I can't even walk in there anymore." She explained about her attack.

Mystified, Dara went into the club. She did the circuit and then one of the machines caused her to lean back putting the skylight in her view; beneath the skylight rotated a ceiling fan. In a flash of insight she had the answer.

When Bridie was almost four years old and Dara was eight, they lived in an isolated part of Canada. One day their mother collapsed. The whole family and most of the neighborhood stood outside on a summer afternoon when a helicopter came and took her away. She died; they never saw her again.

It was devastating for Dara, but the whole family figured that Bridie wasn't much affected, being too young to remember.

Throughout the darkness of winter, no light shone through that skylight when Bridie stopped after work. In April, though, after daylight saving time began, Bridie saw a blade beating in a circle against a bright sky, just like the helicopter that stole her mother.

Implicit memory creates associations that then influence our feelings, thoughts, and actions.

When Kali Rose was a little girl, her father came back from the Korean War. He came back angry. Kali Rose was abandoned instantly as her mother focused all of her attention and energy on him. From then on Kali Rose was a lonely child floating in a household with a perpetually angry and dissatisfied man and a scared, dependent mother. Two years old is way too early to lose a mother, even if she stays in the house. Plus, her mother was the only person Kali Rose had bonded to. When her mother dropped her end of the relationship, it spelled catastrophe for Kali Rose.

When Kali Rose was forced toward her father, with his red face and his furious energy, she'd push away. This made him angrier. He was not going to let a two-year-old tell him what to do, so he would then force closeness.

Powerful associations were captured in Kali Rose's implicit memory, yet she cannot recall any of it. She doesn't understand herself when she is completely uninterested in people who pursue her but falls deeply in love with people who can't offer her connection.

Kali Rose has experienced a certain excruciating vignette over and over. Here is one example. She was producing an art show and had invited her friends to come see it. She wanted them to see something she was good at; she wanted to share the achievement. One friend, Jhone, came, loved the show, and said so. Jhone then got lost in the paintings and, in a haze of art bliss, left.

Kali Rose, penetratingly perceptive (as most misery addicts are), felt the shift of energy in the room as soon as Jhone was gone. She was inconsolable at first. Then she became furious. Later they talked, and no matter what Jhone said. Kali Rose could not let go of one point: "How could you leave without telling me good-bye?"

It took months for Kali Rose to get over this. It was impossible for her to make room in herself for her friend's reality-which was that the show was so powerful that Jhone floated to the ozone and lost contact with the earth.

Kali Rose could have gotten a positive message from this, which was that her work was stunning, mind-blowing. But Kali Rose could focus on only one thing-that she was abruptly abandoned.

We can see clearly the connection between Kali Rose's reaction to Jhone and her experience of her mother's abrupt emotional departure-"without even saying good-bye"-translated as leaving without warning, leaving without preparation.

Kali Rose aches when someone turns her back, when someone she cares about puts all her attention on someone else. First she hurts, and then she gets furious.

Anything that looks like abrupt abandonment, however innocent or unintentional on the other's part, sends this sequence of hurt and outrage coursing through her.

Jhone, caring deeply about Kali Rose, decided to become intentional whenever departing from her. (Sometimes friends will make such an accommodation out of love and an acceptance of their friends' issues.)

However, if Kali Rose persists in being able to hold only her own reality when conflicts happen and is unable to see that a friend's actions can be innocent, she will lose friends and intimates.

And this will replay her childhood experience.

This is the devastating cycle for misery addicts. They long for connection. They yearn for intimacy. But as someone gets closer, he eventually, unknowingly, triggers an association embedded so deeply in their hearts that they don't even know where it comes from.

Then they have what looks like an extreme reaction. (It is extreme for the current situation but probably fits the unrecalled childhood situation.) Thus they appear to be shooting themselves in the foot because the potential intimate starts backing off.

And then they're alone again.

One way misery addicts resolve this paradox is by being attracted to people who can't offer intimacy. Another is by connecting with activities or situations that feel like family.

A service provided by addiction is that it gives us connection. We feel connected to the bottle or the food, to the gym or the casino. Like-minded people in those places can become pseudo-family, "where everybody knows your name." The pseudo-family members won't turn controlling because they aren't that invested in us. Yet we feel like we belong because, as that situation becomes more and more familiar, we learn how to operate well within it.

Addiction and pseudo-intimacies are ways out of isolation.



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