[Content note: mental illness, suicide, self-harm, ED, sexual assault, bullying, emotional abuse]
In attachment theory, “earned secure attachment” is when people who experienced dysfunctional parenting and developed maladaptive attachment patterns in early childhood are able to heal and become securely attached as adults.
I always liked the sound of that. Secure attachment: they’ve earned it.
For me, it happened the other way around.
When I was younger, I struggled intensely with insecure/anxious attachment. I scrutinized my friends and partners’ behavior for signs that they secretly looked down on or disliked me, desperately tried to make myself useful to people so they’d keep me around, and at times harmed my body in pretty significant ways in the hopes that it would make me less disposable.
As humiliating as this is to recall, let alone type out, I remember once sitting with my boyfriend on the band bus after a marching band competition in high school and crying for no apparent reason. When he asked me what was wrong, I said, “I don’t see how I’m supposed to be happy when I hate myself this much.” I also definitely remember speaking the sentence “Do you even care about me?” more than once to partners I dated in high school.
Yikes, teenage Miri.
Anyway, I eventually put all of this type of messy shit behind me through a combination of my own effort and being lucky to meet kind people who made me feel valued and valid. (Healing is relational, y’all.) Ironically given my current occupation, therapy did not play a significant role here; I was never able to find a therapist that I clicked with until last year, and that was only through the cancer hospital and only after my oncologist recommended her. Hell of a consolation prize, but I’ll take it.
Like many people, though, I slide back into some version of my past attachment styles when under severe stress. The 2016 election, followed by my own cancer in 2017-2018, followed by my mom’s cancer in 2019, followed by this pandemic in 2020, were all, to put it mildly, severely stressful.
So for the past two weeks I’ve been going through what’s basically a nonstop flashback because my lovely fiance has started dating a friend of his, and even though I’ve been poly and (mostly) lovin’ it for almost nine years now, some very deep and instinctual part of my brain has decided that I AM UNSAFE. Like, I feel it in my body. In my very bones. In my chest cavity. I’m too stupid boring busy old broken neurodivergent depressed foreign fat ugly etc. And thanks to cancer, my mind has some new issues to add to that list—I have fake tits that don’t feel anything, and I’m menopausal, with…you know, all the attendant implications when it comes to physical changes and sexuality. (I don’t particularly feel the need to go into the details here, but: if you know, you know.)
In between crying for hours every day (impressive considering I also work about 11 hours per day, work out most days, and sleep 7-8 hours—maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s menopause), I’ve started reading a new book by therapist Jessica Fern called Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma, and Consensual Nonmonogamy. Never has there been a better-timed book release when it comes to my mental health.
As a therapist, I’m pretty familiar with attachment theory. (Here’s a good article about it if you aren’t.) But honestly, I always struggled to find myself in it. Insecure attachment styles are generally attributed to dismissive, harsh, neglectful, inconsistent, overbearing, emotionally abusive, and/or violent primary caregivers—so, in most cases, parents. And that’s just not my experience.
My parents and I had our issues as any family does, and the first-generation immigrant experience certainly compounded and complicated some of those issues. But for all the drama and arguing that there sometimes was, I never had any doubt whatsoever that my parents love me unconditionally. My parents were always responsive to my needs. They came when I cried. When they could, they stood up for me, and when they couldn’t, they comforted me.
I always felt safe and comfortable at home, and thanks to the many sacrifices my parents made to give me and my siblings a better life than they had, I always had food, stable housing, clothing (even when it was hand-me-downs—that was normal for us), access to learning opportunities, and presents for Hanukkah, New Year’s Eve, and my birthday. Although we were separated from most of our extended family by distance, my maternal grandparents, who helped raise me until we left Israel, were also warm and loving, and my older brother, despite the occasional sibling squabble, was a protective and somewhat-parental figure who is still a consistent and important presence in my life despite the fact that we’re separated by nine years and now an entire ocean.
So how does someone so fortunate with their early attachments grow into a teenager and then an adult who has the kinds of attachment issues that I have?
For a long time I felt like I must’ve seriously fucked up somewhere along the road. Many people struggle with insecure attachment, but also, many people experience physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse during childhood, sometimes for many years. I’ve had the privilege of working with many of them as a therapist. I feel like I shouldn’t relate to them as much as I apparently do.
Up until Polysecure came out, there was only one other resource that spoke to my experience with non-monogamy: the zine Love Without Emergency: Writing on Trauma, Attachment, and Polyamory by Clementine Morrigan. Many of the pieces in the zine were originally available as blog posts, which I and my queer femme friends drank in like water in the desert and shared and quoted from. A while back I tried to find one of the pieces to show a partner and couldn’t, because Morrigan had taken them down and created this zine instead. I didn’t need convincing to pay them for their incredible work, and ordered the zine.
As validating and refreshing as this writing is, though, Morrigan speaks from their experience as a survivor of multiple traumas, including child sexual abuse. So whenever I reread the zine, there’s a voice in the back of my head that’s like, “Ok, but this isn’t you though.”
Given that Polysecure has a broader scope, I started reading it hoping that it would shed some light on this for me. Just a few pages into the book, I read a list of caregiver behaviors that can lead to attachment styles like mine. It’s the usual stuff: unreliable, unpredictable, punishing, overtly critical, and so on. Then, at the end, almost as an afterthought, I see this:
“Experiences of abuse or traumas that occur when the child is separated from their primary attachment figure, which can reinforce the notion that it’s dangerous to be apart from them.”
When I read this I literally had to stop and put the book down. In that moment, it felt like the tapestry of my life had suddenly unravelled and then rewoven itself—and now, instead of random designs, it revealed an actual pattern.
I was born in Israel in the early 90s to parents who had just left the Soviet Union as part of a massive wave of emigration. The Russian communities in most Israeli cities were tight-knit enough to be almost entirely self-contained, and Russian was the language we spoke at home. I was a physically and emotionally sensitive child, flinching away from touch and hiding under the bed whenever non-Russian speakers came to our apartment. The language issue would become a pretty central theme. In fact, until I eventually became fluent in English, which probably happened when I was around 9 years old, I would never be able to comfortably speak the local language where my family was living. So, my entire early developmental period and then some.
Just to be totally clear about what I’m saying: until I was 9 years old, I literally could not trust that anyone other than my family and their friends would understand me, would be able to help me if I needed it, would have my back, would give a fuck. One recurring theme you’ll notice is that not a single non-Russian speaker I ever encountered during that entire fucking time ever considered it their responsibility to figure out how to communicate clearly and safely with a fucking child who couldn’t speak their language. It was only ever my job to quickly grasp each new language that was thrown at me–Hebrew, German, and finally English.
When I was 4, my family moved to Cologne, Germany for about nine months for my dad’s work, and that’s where things really went to shit. I was already terrified of being spoken to and not understanding, and now another language and a completely different culture got thrown into the mix. At the preschool where my parents enrolled me, there were four teachers. Two of them were Russian-speaking. Although they obviously spoke German to the class, my parents requested that I be put into one of those two classes so that the teachers could help me understand what was going on.
The school refused. “She needs to learn German,” they said. My parents protested that we were only there temporarily and that besides, having a Russian-speaking teacher would help me acclimate; the school didn’t care. (Ask me sometime about how much that country has really reevaluated its national culture since World War II.) Anyway, I got put in one of the non-Russian speaking teachers’ classes, on purpose. It was disorienting and terrifying, and it sucked even more knowing that it was all, as my parents said, na zlo—out of spite.
Luckily for me, though, there were two Russian kids in that class—the only voices I could understand. Sometimes they translated for me. Other times they taunted me over and over, telling me that my parents had forgotten about me and would never come back for me until I believed them and bawled hysterically.
My parents half-joke that I probably missed more days of preschool than I attended, because that was when I started getting sick. Like, constantly. I have even more memories of being sick in Germany than I have of the horrible preschool. I had pneumonia multiple times (something I believe affects my lung function to this day, a theory that was recently confirmed when I was finally diagnosed with asthma in the midst of this pandemic). I remember throwing up, taking liquid antibiotics, getting chest x-rays more than once. To this day, I don’t think anyone has told me, or perhaps even knows, what exactly was going on with all that.
At the end of those nine months, we moved back to Israel. But a year later, the Israeli economy tanked, my parents both lost their jobs, the university that had offered my dad a new job went on a hiring freeze, and, like so many families the world over, we ended up immigrating to the United States.
We arrived in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois in March. There was snow on the ground, something I’d encountered a few times in Germany but was still unfamiliar with. My parents put me in kindergarten since I had just turned 6, but there were just a few months left until summer. Thanks to the university, the city and the school I went to were both very diverse, which I think was a protective factor of some sort. But only in a limited way.
The memory that stands out to me the most from that time happened later that spring, I think. I could still barely understand this new language—the fourth I had encountered and been expected to adapt to in my life thus far. One day after school, I went out to where my dad always picked me up. Only he wasn’t there. I stood there, unsure what to do, and started to panic. Eventually, a teacher came and gestured for me to follow her back into the school. I did, and I was led to an unfamiliar room with another, unfamiliar teacher. The door closed behind me. There was only one other student there, an older Black girl who was writing something on the chalkboard. I couldn’t really read yet, but it looked like she was writing the same sentence over and over. (As an adult I would think, wow, even here there was evidence of how Black students are disproportionately disciplined in schools, huh?)
I was, I think, hysterical at this point. Despite the fact that there were older Russian-speaking students at the school who could’ve helped, not to mention a Russian teacher who worked there part-time to teach us how to read and write in Russian (a very cool thing for which I’ll be forever thankful), nobody had bothered to find a way to explain anything to me. I cried for a while, and eventually tried to put my head down on the desk. The teacher in the room said something harshly to me and motioned for me to sit upright. So I did.
After some amount of time I was finally led outside, where my dad was waiting for me. He explained everything. I had been in detention. It was the school’s policy when students are late more than once in a week. He had been late getting me to school that morning for the second time that week. The school had called and told him to come an hour later. It didn’t seem important, I guess, to tell me this earlier in the day, to put me on the phone with him so he could explain and reassure me, or, lord forbid, just do the fucking detention on a different day after discussing it with me and my family. I was six years old, my parents had arrived in this country just a few months ago, and rules are rules, I guess.
It wasn’t all awful, obviously. There were lots of Russian families and I had a few friends I could actually talk to. Eventually I started taking ballet classes and made another friend, an American girl named Jessie who was homeschooled and seemed to struggle with writing just like I did.
But that was neither here nor there. I’ll never forget the first time her family had me over for dinner. I was about to start eating when I realized that nobody else at the table was making any moves to serve themselves. They had bowed their heads and Jessie’s dad started saying, “We thank you, god, for this food—“ I forget the rest. I just sat there awkwardly. Apparently it wasn’t necessary to explain to me what the fuck this was or tell me my options for participating or not. I was quickly learning that theirs was the default way, the normal way. I’d have to learn as I went along.
(I was shocked when just a few months ago, my parents and I got on the subject of Jessie. It turns out that even after we moved away, Jessie and her parents, unlike my Russian friends, actually tried to stay in touch and even visited us once while on vacation nearby. But according to my parents, their behavior was becoming increasingly erratic and red-flaggy. Even when my parents explained that one of their proposed visits was too last-minute and we had other plans, they insisted forcefully and in a very non-midwestern way that Jessie and I needed to see each other. At that point, my parents reflected on some things I had told them about the time I’d spent with the family and finally realized that they were 100% trying to convert me to their very weird sect of Christianity. Oh, joy. They cut Jessie’s parents off and never let them see me again, for which I’m now extremely grateful.)
We lived in Champaign-Urbana for only about two years. After that, my dad’s contract ended and (I later found out) we almost had to haul ass back to Israel because we were there on his work visa. But instead, he got a job at the Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio, and we moved to a new city for the fourth time in my life.
The suburb of Dayton where we settled was considerably less diverse than Champaign-Urbana had been, and it showed. For the first time, I was the only Jewish student and the only Russian speaker in my school. That became apparent to my classmates right away. By the end of my first year there, some pasty fucking white kid named Jacob had already started following me around and muttering “stupid Jew” as if he actually knew what a Jew was.
From then on it was years of ignorant comments, intentional mispronouncing of my foreign-sounding name, attempts to convert me to Christianity or make me personally answer for the crimes of the Jews against Jesus, and so on. “Do you like bagels? Do you like money? Why didn’t the Jews accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior? Do they even have cars in Israel? Which church do you go to? Why don’t you go to church? Are your parents in the mafia? Do your parents have nukes in the basement? ” Friends would (half-?) jokingly say that they were scared of my parents, or scared of going to my house. That I sounded “angry” when I spoke Russian to my family. Sometimes friends’ parents would be weird about letting them come over or sleep over. I didn’t know why, still don’t really know. Maybe that was all normal. Who knows.
(Once, in high school history class, I heard a classmate yell “Hey, Commu-Jew!” from behind me. Without thinking, I turned around and responded, “What?” I mean, who else could he have been referring to, right?)
(Some of it is laughable, isn’t it? I kinda laughed. Is it actually funny? I don’t really know.)
In fifth grade I had my first experience of being bullied by a teacher. She was pretty merciless. I remember asking her if she had any different colors of construction paper available; she whirled around and snapped, “You’re just trying to make my life difficult, aren’t you?”
Our class had a subscription to a magazine called TIME for Kids, and each week we all got a copy to read. After 9/11, which happened that year, the next edition of TIME for Kids came stapled shut to a letter we were supposed to take home to our parents so that they could decide whether or not to let us read the magazine. When I thought the teacher wasn’t looking, I ripped open the magazine and read it anyway. I already knew my parents wouldn’t care, would find the whole idea of insulating children from a magazine for children to be completely ridiculous.
We didn’t have the luxury of that kind of shit. I already knew about the Holocaust, knew that Israelis and Palestinians alike regularly died violently in my home country, knew why we weren’t supposed to take the bus in Israel, remembered how they check your bags and clothing for bombs and other weapons every time you enter any building larger than a grocery store in Israel. To be honest, I didn’t feel much of anything in response to 9/11 at the time at all, because I think I was already numb to the concept of violence committed against masses of people. (Later, we had to write some sort of reflection about 9/11 for a class assignment and I wrote that it didn’t really affect me. My parents told me I couldn’t write that and turn it in, so I changed it. Smart parents.)
Anyway, the teacher caught me and berated me in front of the class for my curiosity. She took the magazine away, re-stapled it, and—I think—gave it directly to my parents, who laughed and rolled their eyes, un-stapled the magazine, and gave it to me.
That same year, my fear of other people and “dangerous” situations like plane/car crashes seemed to metastasize into a fear of…just stuff. I developed some bizarre OCD-like fixations. I was obsessed with the thought that something I might come into contact with might harm me or someone else. I refused to use rubber cement for projects in school because I thought it could kill me. Once I accidentally ate a piece of eggshell along with my hard-boiled egg and called my mom at work, sobbing, until she reassured me that there’s nothing harmful about that. I hated helping my parents with kitchen chores because I was terrified that if I didn’t make sure to wipe all the surface cleaner perfectly off of the counter, someone might set a piece of fruit or whatever down on that surface and then eat it and consume some amount of the molecules from the cleaner and get poisoned. I scrutinized labels. I had special little rituals I had to do or things I had to count. Unfortunately, seeking reassurance from my parents became a compulsion and it lasted well into my pre-teen years. And why wouldn’t it? Nobody else cared about my safety.
In elementary school I started to have consistent friends for the first time in my life thus far. I was fluent in English by then; I remember reading The Hobbit in third grade. (I doubt I understood that much, but I did read it.) My friends weren’t always nice to me, but they weren’t awful either, and some of them stayed my friends for years.
But middle school was much worse–pretty much nonstop bullying by classmates and teachers. I was also getting more involved in my ballet school at that point, and although I loved dancing and have a lot of positive memories of performing in professional ballets, there was also frankly a lot that went on there that was extremely fucked up in a way I probably haven’t fully unpacked. Again, bullying by both students and teachers, but this time along with shitty comments about people’s bodies, weird favoritism and mind games from the teachers, and just about exactly what you’d expect. I never seemed to have the exact right leotard style or color (we were required to wear a specific color based on our level; although my parents never said anything about it, I don’t think it was easy for them to afford that many fucking leotards). My long, frizzy, curly hair often fell out of its bun during class, which was again humiliating.
This one time, as we stretched on our own during a break in the middle of class, I asked the teacher for permission to go use the restroom. (Leaving the room for any reason, even during the stretch break, was forbidden.)
I’ll never forget her reaction. She paused for several moments too long and stared me down. Then she inclined her head towards the door and hissed, “Never. Again.“
(Later on I would have a lot of thoughts about using that phrase that way with a Jewish student. Needless to say, our people have some pretty different associations with that phrase than going to take a piss in the middle of a ballet class.)
So anyway, it’s a cliche that middle school sucks, but for me it sucked in some pretty special ways. I remember: getting humiliated in front of my seventh grade English class numerous times for asking a “stupid” question; getting humiliated in front of my eighth grade English class for having my entire vocabulary workbook completed rather than completing each chapter the week of the quiz (“But I get 100s on all the quizzes,” I replied, and the teacher left me alone); getting humiliated by a teacher for not realizing that the zipper on my jeans was down; having horrible stomach aches that would last for hours; crying every Sunday night and telling my mom I didn’t want to go to school; barely having time to eat between school and ballet class; getting a C on a test in the aforementioned 7th grade English class and my mom threatening to pull me out of the ballet I was in that season; getting bullied because I wore the same pair of jeans two days in a row; getting bullied because someone noticed that I wore the exact same outfit that day as I had on the same day of the previous week; everyone in gym class moving away from me whenever I got near them because they thought that since I wore the same jeans two days in a row, that must mean I don’t wash my clothes and they’re dirty; suddenly bursting into tears during a piano lesson because my teacher, a kindly older white man named Bob who had once been a jazz pianist, gently pointed out that it seemed that I hadn’t practiced the piece much; telling my parents about this incident and that I needed therapy and being told no. (As I said: they weren’t perfect. But at least they fucking gave a shit, unlike literally anyone else in my life except perhaps for Bob.)
Things started to get better in high school. I learned how to blend in better. I ditched my tomboy-ish ways and started doing my hair and makeup, and making sure that I never wore the same jeans two days in a row. (Still didn’t wash them every time I wore them, though. Y’all US-ians need to stop this wasteful nonsense and consider what it’s like for people who don’t have seemingly endless reserves of clean water with which to launder pants that have been worn for eight hours while sitting at a desk.)
In high school I joined the marching band and made some friends that I fit in better with. They were pretty good friends, especially when compared to some of my previous experiences. Or they tried to be, anyway. I don’t think any of them were prepared whatsoever to deal with someone like me and I can’t fault them for that.
High school was mostly the end of the constant bullying I’d experienced for years. Some weird memories stand out. Sitting in the cafeteria with my friends, suddenly noticing male voices laughing behind me and hearing some coins clattering on the floor. Then an older girl tapped me on the shoulder and warned me that the upperclassmen behind me were trying to throw coins down the back of my jeans.
(Even now, I obsessively fidget with my top whenever I’m wearing pants, tugging it down. I prefer to wear a cardigan or another longer layer if I’m going to sit down while wearing pants. But mostly I stick to skirts, dresses, or outfits where I can tuck my shirt in.)
My ass must’ve been my most noticeable feature because I also remember my guy friends walking a few yards behind me in the hallway, talking about how big it is, making sure their voices carried far enough.
I found out that a girl I’d considered a casual friend, someone I did ballet with and even carpooled to classes and rehearsals with for many years, told her best friend this about me: “I don’t understand why people think she’s pretty. She looks like a horse.” Anti-Semitic or just shitty? Who knows!
I started dating, which in retrospect was a mistake. I asked a guy I liked out to Homecoming freshman year, because I didn’t understand that girls weren’t supposed to do that. Unfortunately, he said yes, and then proceeded to ignore and avoid me the entire night while hanging out with his friends, which was as you’d imagine pretty humiliating. Somehow he and his friends become my aforementioned friend group, although it took quite a while for them to stop making fun of me for asking a guy out and getting tricked, I guess.
My first kiss and subsequent sexual experiences were, I would later realize, sexual assault. (That boyfriend, years later, would express surprise when I told him that I was in a healthy sexual relationship. “You always trembled like a scared bunny whenever I touched you,” was what he said.)
One time he and I and our friends hung around after school before the band concert, and he led me off to some corner as usual to “do stuff,” as we probably called it. Apparently, some fucking janitor saw us and decided to tell my friends about it when she saw them, asking them to tell us to stop doing it. Thanks to that I essentially became the slut of my friend group, which was also great. As for the guy, he suddenly became cold and harsh to me a few weeks later, telling my friends behind my back, “What’s she gonna do, break up with me?” I did.
Other guys would ask me out but then refuse to ever even kiss me, only grudgingly held my hand when we walked down the hall. Aside from Sexual Assault Boy, I didn’t kiss anyone until nearly the end of my junior year.
Otherwise, my high school boyfriends were about what you’d expect. They would inevitably start ignoring me after a few months and then deny that anything was wrong when I asked what was wrong. Eventually they would admit that “I just don’t really feel close to you anymore,” at which point I’d break up with them to put them out of their misery. A few weeks later they would usually start dating one of my thinner, lighter-haired friends.
(Around this time all of that bullshit started–exercising obsessively when I could, restricting myself to only apples and almonds all day, taking poor care of myself during colds and flus so that the illness and therefore the loss of appetite would last longer, and so on and so forth. This type of shit would continue on through college. No, I never really lost any weight with it anyway, so I guess nobody ever noticed or thought it was a problem. Years later, noting that my bone density scans showed significant osteopenia in my spine even before going into medically-induced menopause, my oncologist suggested that extreme dieting is a common cause of bone density loss in young women.)
Anyway, one of those guys, I dated for almost a year. It was a rewarding relationship in some ways, and certainly the first where I felt a real physical connection with someone. Of course, we didn’t do anything past fingering each other; like everyone I dated in high school, he was quite deeply religious and opposed to premarital sex. He also thought that oral sex was disgusting and wrong, apparently, a belief I mostly (but not entirely) managed to avoid absorbing from him.
He also sometimes panicked and cried about his fear that he was actually gay, which was about when I decided that I definitely wasn’t fucking coming out to anyone in high school. He also once nearly dumped me because, he said, “I just can’t see myself with someone who doesn’t believe in anything.” I said some bullshit that I half-felt about how I do believe in some sort of higher power or some shit like that, which reassured him for some time.
Spring of our senior year, I had a major dental issue that was terrifying and plunged me into a depression. This immediately turned him off, I guess, and he proceeded to be cold and distant for a few weeks until I confronted him. You guessed it: “I just don’t really feel close to you anymore.” I broke up with him. Just a few weeks later, he took one of my best friends to senior prom.
So that was that, and after that summer I cheerfully went off to college at Northwestern, thinking that surely I was about to find my people. Haha! College was somehow even worse. By then I’d started a previous version of this blog, so this part I’ve actually written about quite a bit. But holy shit was it just awful. Being away from home was terrible. I had few friends and no sense of community until senior year. I also quickly discovered with this “casual sex” ish means, which in my case mainly meant getting sexually assaulted multiple times and hooking up with men I thought were my friends only to have them literally disappear after getting what they wanted.
My first year in college, I was a journalism major at the Medill School of Journalism, generally considered the top undergraduate journalism program in the country. I won’t belabor the point here, but it was so stressful, the professors were (with a few exceptions) so demanding and utterly unconcerned with students’ mental health, and the students themselves were so nasty and back-stabby to each other that by the end of the year, I was suicidal, diagnosed with major depression, and on antidepressants for the first time. I switched majors, of course, to psychology.
But I kept writing, both on my blog and in campus publications. As my writing ramped up, I also started experiencing the ever-present rape and death threats from strangers on the internet that would be a mainstay of my experience for years. And even on campus, men would corner me in hallways to tell me how much they hated what I’d written in the school newspaper.
I was an RA my sophomore year and was unfortunately forced to write some residents up for very obviously smoking weed while a more experienced RA was with me on rounds, so I couldn’t ignore it like the cool lax chill RA I was trying to be in order to prevent exactly what ended up happening. Unfortunately, the residents in question were in a frat. That earned me countless threats, absolutely vile anonymous RA evaluations that accused me of dressing inappropriately and all kinds of other fucked up shit, and (this one feels irrelevant by comparison) the silent treatment from like half the fucking res hall. For a while that year, I hooked up with a guy who happened to belong to that frat; he never let me visit him at that house, and he wouldn’t be seen with me in public.
All that so I could keep a job that made college just slightly more affordable for my family, which was considerably lower-income than the families of the grown ass adult men who taunted me in narrow hallways. I did not reapply to be an RA my junior year, and moved off campus as soon as I could.
(Three years later, as I was graduating, I commented on a post in Northwestern’s SSDP [Students for Sensible Drug Policy] Facebook group. Although my comment was, obviously, in support of marijuana legalization, some dude from that fucking frat—I shit you not—replied with some petty shit about how “interesting” it is that I would say this given that I had once indeed written up some fucking freshmen for smoking pot.)
(By the way, the frat was Fiji, a.k.a. Phi Gamma Delta. Literally come at me, bros. Come fucking at me. What are you gonna do to me now? Email me a rape threat? I ate that shit for breakfast back when I was starving myself.)
(To this day, my relationship with marijuana and with people [especially men] who make it a significant part of their lives is a difficult one. Still support legalization, obviously. Yet forever suspicious of people who are preoccupied with obtaining it and using it.)
There’s a lot more that I could add here, honestly, about college and about the rest of it. I haven’t even gotten into all the “casual” sexism, homo-/bi-phobia, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and ableism that I’ve experienced in college and beyond. What would be the point? It sucked, but by then I already believed what I believed about the world and my place in it.
Writing all of this out is excruciating, though not in the way you probably think. I kind of hate even mentioning all of it, because it all sounds so…pathetic and petty. What kind of person still carries around trauma from the fact that some kids in preschool told them their parents were never coming back for them, or from getting put in detention in kindergarten, or getting called “stupid Jew” a few times in grade school, or from the fact that their high school boyfriends were by all accounts totally typical teenage boys who didn’t know how to use words and also enjoyed serial monogamy?
But what I’m coming to realize is that it’s not about the objective severity of any one specific incident. Yeah, I didn’t have a singular traumatic event that happened when I was away from my parents that taught me that being away from my parents was unsafe. I didn’t have to. All that had to happen was that I had a safe and loving home environment, but whenever I ventured outside of it, people were /at best/ inconsistent, undependable, and kinda careless, and at worst they were mean, heartless, ignorant, bigoted, discriminatory, or even, in a few cases, violent and cruel.
And they were that way in ways that were often either explicitly or implicitly connected to my religious background, ethnicity, perceived racialized traits, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, neurodivergence, or other factors that I had no control over.
So there didn’t need to be One Big Trauma™ or even Several Big Traumas™. Rather, it was the fucking relentlessness of it. The way it followed me to new schools and across state and national borders, across a sea and an ocean. The fact that it was my peers and it was adults, friends and strangers, teachers and sexual partners, school administrators and ballet instructors, offline and online, in school and outside of it.
The only common factor was me. And the only place it couldn’t follow me was into my parents’ house.
(Oddly enough, I also have no memories of relational trauma or bullying as far as I can tell that took place in Israel. No surprise then that I was always so drawn to return to it, although my lack of fluent Hebrew always kept me from being able to relax there.)
I don’t think about most of these things very much anymore. I used to think about them more when I was younger, so it’s not that I’ve repressed them. I just strongly prefer to believe that none of this has anything in particular to say about who I am now. I have social skills, I know how to fit in, I can do my makeup, I know my worth, I choose good people as my friends and partners, I block shitty people on the internet. I’m not defined by those things, I’m Not A Victim™, hahaha I mean who amongst us didn’t have a shitty adolescence, etc. All of that stuff honestly just feels extremely cringy and also irrelevant.
Oh, but it isn’t.
I can tell myself all I want that I’ve escaped whatever circumstances caused me to be repeatedly treated like garbage in all contexts and in every type of relationship (stranger, classmate, acquaintance, friend, partner, teacher, etc) I could conceivably have, from my earliest memories at 4 years old up until my mid-20s. But the body, as they say, keeps the score. It remembers.
And now, when a male partner tells me he has a crush on a friend, my entire body screams at me that I’m going to be abandoned and alone. Sure, I don’t do what I used to do. I don’t beg, I don’t plead for reassurance, I don’t accuse, I don’t starve myself. I just quietly shut down and try to disappear because I’ve learned not to fight it.
When a friend is upset because I’ve made a mistake, my body knows (thinks it knows) that I’m useless to them now. When I see an email in my inbox about something I wrote, my body expects torrents of abuse, and then I feel shame when I instead read a heartfelt compliment or a valid, good-faith critique.
And in all of these moments, I’m realizing, my first thoughts often have nothing to do with that person or relationship. Instead, they remind me of the only reliable way I have ever known to find safety:
“I wish I could be with my parents right now. I just want to be with my parents. I want my parents. I want my parents.”
With my parents and the rest of my family, I have the only truly secure attachment I’ve ever experienced. I’m able to tolerate our emotional ups and downs. My parents can disappoint or unintentionally hurt me, and while that sucks, it in no way causes me to doubt that they love and care about me. My parents can be human—they can exhibit biases and bigotries, they can say crappy Russian-parent kinds of things about my weight or relationship choices, and I still feel safe with them. When I’m upset at them, I communicate that clearly and immediately without any fear that they will abandon me for speaking up. And if they don’t understand or apologize right away, I keep making my case because I trust that they will eventually acknowledge that they hurt me even if they can’t really understand it—and they do.
But I also have to admit that part of this is cultural. We don’t do Midwestern Nice. My parents rarely act passive-aggressively. They don’t give the silent treatment. If they feel I’ve accused them wrongly or unfairly, they don’t stomp around the house and slam doors until I apologize for daring to have a feeling; they argue back, and I argue back, until we reach a consensus or at least a stalemate. (Okay, my dad does get silent and stomps sometimes, but my mom always helps us actually communicate.) I never have to worry that if I call my parents out on something, they will suddenly lash out with a nasty remark about something I did months or years ago that I had no idea hurt them; if I hurt them, they let me know. Now, not years fucking later when it’s a convenient counterattack. They don’t smile and say things are fine when they’re not. They don’t keep people in their life while silently resenting them or trash-talking them to others. My parents cut people off when they need to. I’ve seen them do it, and from them I’ve learned how.
Secure attachment doesn’t just require a trauma-free childhood or progress with trauma recovery. It also requires an attachment partner who is able to show up in relationship with others in a safe way.
When my mom was going through cancer treatment and I was falling apart, she beseeched me to try to find a way to expand my definition of family. She told me that I have to try to find a way to see my fiance as family, to open up to my friends more and let them support me the way I need. She told me about how during my own cancer treatment, she would call her friend in Chicago and talk to her, sometimes for hours at a time.
“You have so many friends,” she said. “Don’t you have anyone you could call and talk to?”
I don’t, not really. Not in that way. My mom is the person I call. My family are the only people I have ever felt truly safe with. Right now, at this early stage of understanding and healing, I absolutely can’t imagine feeling that sort of safety in my body with anyone else.
Now I think I finally understand why that is, and why I still, to this day, often feel severe emotional drops (sometimes even crying) when separating from my parents after visiting them or after they visit me.
And that’s just my lifetime. That doesn’t even get into the epigenetic legacy I’m carrying, which I’m sure bears the weight of midnight arrests, beatings, torture, forced confessions, decade-long prison camp sentences, pogroms, medical abuse, all of it. When my grandfather got cancer from working in a Soviet chemical plant, they opened him up, took one look at the inflamed lymph nodes they assumed were tumors, stitched him back up, and fucking sent him home to die of a curable lymphoma. He survived to make it to Israel, get chemo, and help raise me—but only because, and this is the literal fucking truth, he used his knowledge of biochemistry to create his own cancer drug and my grandmother convinced a lab to manufacture it.
Where is all of that living in my body now, and how does it show up when I’m afraid of losing the people I love most?
I have to find a way to forgive my body for this. My body, that has only ever tried to protect me; that carried a potentially-fatal genetic mutation but survived the cancer it spawned; that tightens and contracts and spills tears and now flashes hot to warn me of the next potential threat.
Just get through this now, she says, then find your way back home to those who have always kept you safe.
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