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Attachment; a very personal perspective

By Gill McKnight;

The Missing Peace Ltd

My introduction to the theories around attachment came via a phone call from my sister Sue (OM’s Sue Miller). I was in my late 30s and Sue was attending a training course; the call went something like this “Hi Gill, I’m on a training course, it’s amazing, it’s all about you.’ The course was about attachment theory and Sue was referring to my endless childhood (and early adulthood) issues. The phone call was life changing for me, I was finally able to understand why I suffered so much throughout my childhood. I had an insecure attachment.

I was a school refuser, never had a sleepover in my life, had to be ‘rescued’ from extended family if my parents risked leaving me for any period of time, struggled with morbid fears, OCD and genuinely believed I was not part of the same species as the rest of my family; the total opposite of my 4 siblings!

With the benefit of hindsight, I think it may have all stemmed from when I was hospitalised at 6 months old and again at 15 months with pneumonia and whooping cough and was very sick. In those days, parental visiting rules were strict and so I was separated from my parents for a significant period and from that time on my life changed forever. The greatest tragedy for me (and doubtless many others) was that there was so little understanding of attachment, even though significant research had already been done by John Bowlby and others. My parents and teachers were innocently ignorant. I continued to breakdown every morning at the prospect of a day at school whilst my parents and teachers desperately searched for a reason why! I was labelled a cry baby by my grandmother, was teased by other children and became generally high maintenance for my increasingly frustrated mother. It didn’t help that I attended 4 different primary schools by the time I was 9, we moved a lot and my parents were oblivious to the additional damage this would do to a child with insecure attachment.

My biggest sorrow and greatest hope stems around the question that parents and/or teachers didn’t ask, ‘What has happened to this child’ rather than ‘what’s the matter with this child’. Everyone assumed I didn’t like school and thought someone was bullying me. I was academically smart and progressed quite well through primary school in spite of my erratic attendance and torturous levels of anxiety. It wasn’t about school it was about leaving my mum! Every school day was like Groundhog Day, wake up with fear, terror, panic and dread. The sobbing would begin and the daily battle would commence with my mother, begging her to let me stay at home. This daily battle continued right the way through into my early adulthood.

As is often the case with any type of ‘mental disorder’, if I had a physical disability or medical illness I would have no doubt had the appropriate treatment and emotional support. It was nobody’s fault but living through undiagnosed attachment disorder inflicted significant long-term damage.

The theory implies that you never fully recover from insecure attachment as it continues to impact on emotional maturity, relationship health and decision making in adult life. This is both a victim and survivor story. I was a victim of ignorance not intention but, from the moment I got that call from Sue I began reading and researching everything I could on attachment; I started to realise I was not weak and pathetic (a label I was once given).

I began a 3-year emotional journey with a psychotherapist, I went through a process of understanding, grief, anger and finally forgiveness, for my parents, other significant adults in my life and most importantly myself. I realised that despite my insecure attachment I had become a strong, resilient, determined, tenacious and compassionate women. I am indebted to that little girl who battled hard every day just to survive. She was no cry baby, she was an amazingly heroic warrior. If you are a parent, teacher or other significant adult that recognises these symptoms in a child, please consider ‘What has happened to this child, rather than labelling them as difficult’. Don’t be afraid to ask the question ‘Do you not want to come into school or is to because you don’t want to leave home?’

Early intervention such as seeking appropriate support can be life changing. I am so grateful to my big sister Sue, for not only ‘discovering’ my attachment disorder but for the support she has given me on my journey to free myself from the shackles of insecurity. I am also indebted to my psychotherapist for her expertise and compassion and my partner who has helped me to enjoy the freedom of a loving relationship no longer fraught with insecurity.

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