Therapeutic What??? ET, Attachment Trauma, Care


By: Ruth Cohn, MFT, CST

What a strange and wacky concept, finding and hiring a stranger with certain credentials, telling them everything about myself, paying them huge amounts of money to sit and listen to me, and the icing: calling it a relationship? Oy vey. To an extra-terrestrial, and a lot of other beings, really, it would sound insane. When I first started therapy back in the stone age (when I was so traumatized as to be considered something of a Neanderthal,) a well-meaning friend who could see I seriously needed something recommended that I try seeing her person. I was 23.     

After several years of sessions, the blur in the distant chair in the corner of the office coagulated into a person. I have no visual memory of her other than a blob of color. I was so convinced that she would forget about me completely when I was out of her sight that I did not exist outside of those hours. I tried giving her things so evidence of me might remain to jog her memory. And she encouraged me to come several times a week, a good idea because every single session, for a long time, was for me, starting all over from scratch. It rather astonished me when she remembered the things that I had told her.      

What kept me going back, day after day, week after week – who can say? All of my money went straight to her, and I did pretty well as a waitress back in the day when tips were not taxed. But I had “nothing” to show for it until years later, after I realized that all that money had been a bonanza-like investment in myself. All those years of my unthinking feet simply walking the half mile to that little building on Berkeley Way simply felt like do or die. There was nothing to decide. I remember when she relocated to a “nicer” office up the hill. I was afraid she was moving up in the world and would leave me behind. Now that I think about it, I wonder how she got through those hours with me. I imagine it was like sitting with someone who was under water with a mouthful of marbles. I have no idea what I talked about; I had even less idea of what was wrong with me.     

Many years later, when I had become a therapist, I had a client with a devastating trauma and neglect history. I recall her saying, “I don’t remember anything about my childhood really – just bushes. Bushes and the dog.” Perhaps I was like that? Our dad had a drastic and graphic story. I did know some of that. In those days, we mostly had “the talking cure.”  I do remember some talking to empty chairs, but I have no memory about what. And my therapist, always ahead of her time, got me to some adjunctive body-oriented work as soon as she could. Eating disordered and driven by numerous compulsions, I was a candidate.     

I voraciously read self-help books, and when I got into alcohol recovery, 12-Step books. However, I continued thinking “Self-love is a crock of …”  Only years later did I learn from my therapist that one becomes able to love through the experience of feeling loved. Before that, it was the stuff of fiction and dreams. What I knew best was self-hatred, never being good enough, categorically un-likable. Those beliefs were the very air I breathed and an unconscious default. Default. Little did I know then that that was the word.

Attachment Trauma

The first thing I successfully read after one magical session with Peter Levine transformed my brain was Allan Schore’s monumental Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self. It is a dense read (and similar themes are somewhat more accessible in Daniel Siegel’s The Developing Mind, which appeared close to the same time.) Both transformed my thinking even further. The essence of these books is that the infant’s brain develops in resonance with the mother’s brain. We might say primary caregiver, but given that the mother houses and often nourishes an infant with her own body, she is primary. 

The ”resonance,” a fluid dance between them, is through the gaze, right hemisphere to right hemisphere. Ideally, that gaze helps the mother see the child and learn to discern the spectrum of signals, many of which are needs or distress of course. She learns how to recognize which come from hunger, cold, thirst, fear, pain, the need to be held, the need to be left alone, and of course joy and pleasure. Learning to differentiate the different cries, attending to them, and responding with the appropriate “supplies,” the infant is soothed and comforted; regulated. The child will feel safe. Ultimately, through the mother’s “good enough” regulation, the child, in time, learns self-regulation and learns to calm themselves down when distressed. And this experience contributes to a baseline sense not only of safety but of value. The child learns from experience, “my feelings matter.” This feeling matures to become the experience that I matter. And as we know, the most persistent and devastating refrain for the child of neglect is “I don’t matter! I am worthless.” So this is where that comes from.

Only in recent years, mostly from some of the luminaries in the Neurofeedback world, have I begun to learn about the Default Mode Network of the brain, residing deep in the brainstem, the most primitive part of our brains. That is where the sense of self resides, primarily. That is where this early imprinting does and does not occur. We can affect it with neurofeedback, which is wonderful. I wish I had known neurofeedback sooner – it really might have sped things up.


     So, what does any of this have to do with that bizarre arrangement between client and therapist? Well, it took me years to understand that it is a relationship, a belated yet powerful re-wiring, designed to replicate that resonance that never occurred, so hopefully, it can begin to occur. Feeling seen and understood, our signals being read accurately, and at least some of the time, responded to with a sense of value, then a sense of self can begin to emerge and grow. It took many years before I could call that interchange a relationship, after all without the money there was no “relationship,” right? It is hard to make sense of it, but all I can say is that the first experience (when after years, I could finally believe it…) of feeling truly cared for both in the sense of how she felt about me and how she communicated that, my sense of myself slowly began to change. I will have much more to say about the essential healing repair in the therapeutic relationship, especially for the child of neglect, with all of their particular relationship challenges. For now, I will simply say it is a game-changer. I always said to my therapist, “I am going to keep coming here until you shut the door.” I did, and she was 90.     

About 20 years ago, I read the wonderful autobiography of Harry Belafonte, My Song. I always loved Harry. A most precious bequest from Mom is the memory from when we were really young, living in New York. She had three record albums: Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, and Harry Belafonte. I loved Harry the most because I loved the rhythm. As is often the case, I remember next to nothing about the book except that it was wonderful. 

I remember that as a young adult, Harry was so poor that he and his bud Sidney Poitier used to share a theater ticket. One of them would attend the first half of the play then at intermission, they would switch. The other factoid that stuck with me when reading the book was that Harry was in therapy with a Jewish guy in New York for four decades, if I remember correctly. I tried to find the quote, but it has eluded me, for now… How he grieved when the old man died. And how remarkable for a young Caribbean man in his 50’s. What is that? A healing relationship?

I used to think blogging was a crock too. Grand stories about how many miles covered on the bike, the weight of the latest cheese? Sights and sounds of Timbuktu? Who the hell wants to hear it? And look at me now, cranking out these blogs every week. Do they serve as a way of “having someone to talk to?” Perhaps it is different now. Of course, I have no reason to believe anyone is reading them except a couple of people I know well, who somewhat routinely offer feedback. But hey, I guess there is YOU! Thanks for being there!

Photo Credit: Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

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