Clinging to an idea of a person…

An hour alone in my room, just kind of staring at my bookshelves, brought something into focus for me: I’m sometimes clingy, and can develop strong emotional attachments, but not to real people. I think that I tend to cling to my conception of people, to my symbol of them.

I’m fairly sure this is a reaction to not getting enough attachment as a kid. (I agree with attachment theory, as applied to interpersonal relationships.)

As I’ve grown older, I’ve found that my strongest emotional attachments seem to be to women with whom I’ve grown close or have bonded as friends. By this, I mean feeling deep empathy for a sister, a cousin, or a close friend, such that you experience that rush of oxytocin-fueled trust and closeness, and the dopamine shot of joy and fulfillment that comes from feeling close to someone and from believing that you are special to them. I can feel close and bonded to male friends, but it always feels lighter, less intimate, and less powerful. That’s my deal. Draw whatever you want from that.

Add to that the idea that if my woman friend shares some story of a personal struggle with me, or seems to be caught in some kind of dilemma, then my “big brother” reaction kicks in hard. In that moment, giving advice or sharing some relevant personal story feels like the role I was meant to play. The more fucked-up the person’s situation is, the more I feel that I have the right answer for them, and want to give it. My wife says that I seem to be drawn to troubled women who have issues. It was hard to hear when she first said it, but honestly, nobody else knows me better, so I accept her assessment as axiomatic of my character.

I’m not playing defense here, but I do believe in cause and effect, so I’m going to say that I think my behaviour stems from not having had any kind of an adequate bond with the one woman who was supposed to be my life’s major female archetype: my mother, Angela. For all intents and purposes, my Mum’s mental illness and alcoholism kept me and my sister from ever having a relationship with her. Since her youth, Angela had been “manic depressive” as they called bipolarism back in her day. And since her twenties, I guess, she’d self-medicated with alcohol.

When Mum was manic (only a few times that I can recall), she was unapproachable and disconnected – a bit scary to be around. When she was depressed, she slept (or maybe feigned it) in order to isolate herself mentally. Alcohol just further blurred and distorted the territory between her extremes, or accentuated her worst, most selfish tendencies. We really couldn’t get close or feel close to her. Angela was often unwell, as I remember her, and almost never reached out to me or my sister. It just wasn’t in her.

I never knew how much I missed Mum, or how much I’d missed out on motherhood, until she became institutionalized. When she was still at home with us and starting to slide into her last major depression in 1977, she just felt like the elephant in the room, but it was the same ol’ elephant we’d been used to seeing. Her depression and anti-socialism has become a normal state in our family. She was someone we were not supposed to acknowledge, or something. Maybe we were all scared to communicate.

But once Mum was no longer in our living room, I missed her presence – even her non-speaking, hair-twirling, weird compulsive-rocking presence. After she was moved into private care hospitals, and later to Riverview Psychiatric Hospital, she seemed to be just a little less real to me, even while still living. Slowly, she became more of a memory to me than a member of our family; someone to whom our Dad referred in the past tense.

She became a mystery in the neighbourhood – someone whom other people claimed to have seen once. She was out there somewhere in the world, but just not really in our lives anymore. What a loss for us, but more than that, what a terrible loss for her. We lost her, but Angela lost everything and everyone.

In Angela’s absence, as I approached my teens, I began to notice my friend’s mothers a lot more. I noticed when they showed affection to their sons, how they cooked and cared for them, how they punished, steered, or guided them, how they bribed, sweet-talked, teased, or cajoled them, and essentially, how they actively loved them.

Each mother I met was different: some were weepy and drunk, some were modern and progressive, and some were traditional and gentle. But no matter what, they were all a presence in their families and a factor in their kid’s lives. Being around other mothers and being treated nicely or fussed over by them felt like receiving a kind of richness, a lush and fulfilling sense of presence. It was like feeling the safe, cozy warmth of a thick Terry-cloth robe for the first time, or the luxurious softness of a bear skin rug when you’re used laying on bare cement. It felt like being spoiled, and I didn’t know how to react to it. Sometimes I told myself that my friends were soft and didn’t know how lucky they were. I also hated seeing kids who mouthed-off or swore at their mothers. Those kinds of kids disgusted me.

Angela was not cut out for motherhood, and she’d been such a rare commodity to us, such a non-player and a non-force in our family. She’d had no power (Dad was the boss), she’d showed no initiative, taken no responsibility, and had almost literally done nothing to bond with her kids. She just wasn’t there in any meaningful way. So after her depression and declining health had physically removed her from our house, even though it was a traumatic exit, it did not feel to me like I was losing a beloved mother or even a friend. I felt the pain of the terrible absence of a mysterious and hard to understand person, the worry over what would happen to her and to us, and the guilt of enjoying the silence left in her wake. Confusion, loss, and guilty relief. She left in the manner of a distant relative, who’d stayed over without chipping in on anything or even joining us at the dinner table.

So, over time, my mother became more like a “figure” to me, an idea, a person in the abstract, someone who’d been devolved down to a concept. She had gradually started to become an outsider, almost a stranger.

So, I read and watched and interpreted what motherhood was like from other sources, and I dealt with the awkwardness of feeling my gut twisted into knots whenever a woman cried in my presence. The old man hated weakness in others as much as he hated it in himself. He modeled that shame for me, and I still feel twinges of it in my gut every so often.

Emotional attachment had not been an area I’d ever explored in myself, and having spent most of my professional life working with male engineers, technicians, or managers, I suppose I was never really faced with it very often. I never confronted that part of myself.

Now, at almost 53, I feel like I’ve seen that part of my personality play itself out, and somewhat publicly. I’ve seen my clinginess in the light of day, and I can now own it and have a good idea what triggers it. I’ve also learned that I can remove some of the more toxic people from my life, telling myself that it’s okay to let some people go.

It’s important to recognize the people who deserve your help, and those who are just using it.

I still cling a little. I cling to whatever it is some people mean to me, and I cling to how they make me feel. It’s like clinging to a distorted reflection of oneself.

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