She notices I’m using luke warm water in the old manual washing machine to rinse the clothes. She screams. She wrenches the hose off me. She hits, my head, my shoulders. I’m wasting electricity, she tells me. Cold water only, even though it’s the middle of winter and my hands are red and numb. It’s just a trickle of warm water.

It was a long time ago, they say. Get over it.

She tells the male visitor that I am self-conscious about my flat chest. All my friends have started to develop but I am younger and smaller than my grade peers. I ask her after he leaves to please not talk about my body to others, especially men. It’s embarrassing. She snarls at me that she’s entitled to talk about whatever she likes. She tells me how rude I am, that I have no right to say this. She sends me to my room for insolence.

You’re overreacting, they say. Stop focusing on it.

I phone her to see when my nanna’s funeral will be. She died the day before and I need to request time off work to attend her farewell. I’m told she was cremated this morning. It’s done. What? I ask why wasn’t I included. It was just close family I’m told. I grew up with this woman, my mother’s mother. She lived with us for some of that time. But I can’t attend her funeral, it’s done. It was just ‘close family’.

It was years ago, they say. Move on.

It’s a week before my wedding. I notice she’s reading a letter from my aunt over my shoulder. We laugh and I move away. She leaves the room. I would share it with her once I know what’s in it. But when she comes back, she’s turned. You look disgusting, she tells me. My shoes, my coat, my hair, she’s ashamed of me. I leave. Later that day he rings, accusing me of telling her to mind her own business. I didn’t, I couldn’t, I’m too scared of her, but he calls me a liar. I watch my hand hang the phone up as though separate from the rest of me. He arrives at my house just as I’m driving away. I shake at the thought of what might have been if I’d still been there. They tell me they won’t be attending my wedding.

You should be grateful, they say. They still came in the end.

We return from our six week trip around the US. We have an album full of photos and hearts full of joy. We saw and did so much, and we want to share it with them. He flips quickly through the pages, sneering at our photos of movie star houses in Los Angeles and New York’s twin towers. Why would you go there? Smog and crowds and noise. You should see your own country first, he snaps, returning his attention to the television. He is not proud of me, instead he resents me for doing what they didn’t.

I’m sure he didn’t mean it, they say. Don’t overanalyse.

My biological father rings two days after my birthday. I think he’s ringing to wish me happy birthday. He’s not. He’s driving home from another city and he thought he’d phone me on his way back. I make small talk. What was he doing up there? I ask. He was buying a birthday present for his son, my half-brother. His birthday is next week. I don’t remind him it was my birthday two days ago. I don’t want to make him feel awkward.

You’re too sensitive, they say. Stop wallowing.

Maybe they said this to you as well. I’m here to say this:

  • It may have happened years ago but its impact lives in the body. It’s with you every day until it can be grieved, expressed, validated, completed.
  • There are some things you never get over, although the impact will be easier to manage at times.
  • You are not overreacting if you feel ‘bad’ feelings. You are not overanalysing if you focus on these feelings in order to make sense of them and integrate them into your understanding of the world.
  • You are not wallowing when someone hurts you, even if they say they didn’t mean it.  You do not have to be grateful.
  • Chances are that by talking about and expressing these feelings, moving on is exactly what you’ve been trying to do.

Attachment trauma leaves a child with deep shame and emptiness, knowing they need to meet the needs of others in order to feel safe. The antidote to this is healthy connection, but that’s the very thing a person with attachment trauma fears most, because we all assess new situations based on information from the past.

Directing our attention to corrective experiences instead of ones that confirm our fears is the beginning of healing. It does not come through minimising or dismissing the very real pain of growing up feeling unloved.

What corrective experiences can you focus on? When did you feel loved, respected, valued, even for a moment? Can you feel it somewhere in your body? Hold that felt sense for at least 30 seconds. Research shows this is how the brain rewires itself and moves past fear. Tell me what happens.

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