We went to adopt our two little dogs, Button and Angel, in 2009. I had recently begun writing my first book, so I warned my husband that I would not be much of a co-parent for a while. But it had been long enough since the second of our two beloved shelties had passed. Never one for being dog-less for long, he was willing to sign on as alpha, primary trainer, and “chief bottle washer.” He began eagerly poring over the rescue sites like I imagine many of the lonely do with dating sites. He finally landed on a couple of terrier mutts at a shelter in Sacramento. I remember years ago, a speaker at a conference said, “All terriers have ADD.” Being high enough strung and high enough energy myself, the quieter, and seemingly “monogamous” type shelties were the match for me. But being the primary caregiver licensed my husband to choose. So one wintry Sunday, we piled into his old VW MR2 and set out for Sac.
It was a sweet little shelter, and I remember cruising the various well-kept cages until we found the selected litter. There were about seven of them. Button was a tiny, mostly mushroom-brown puppy with a curly piglet-like tail and expectant, pleading eyes that seemed to say, “Pick me! Pick me!” She reminded me of myself. And although she later grew up to be a mischievous little rascal who would, as the Grateful Dead song said, “steal your face right off your head,” we did not know that then. Angel looked more like a terrier with a squarish jaw. She had serious, almost sad-looking, wise eyes and scruffy whiskers that reminded me of Einstein. I don’t remember the other sibs; I was pretty taken with Button. And I was also amazed at how these littermate sisters could look so vastly different.
Button and Angel continued to be inseparable throughout their/our life together. Roommates in the womb, they never had any intention of doing anything different, and indeed they lived up to the ADD prediction. The pups had a good long run together until deep in the pandemic when I was now locked down and home all the time. Button began to have many serious health problems requiring much medical attention, and then twice-a-day fluid infusions. My husband would do the difficult medical part at the back of her ever-skinnier little body, and I would entertain the front end with little scraps of homemade cheese. We did all we could to keep her with us, but her little legs got more and more wobbly, to the point where they would collapse under her. Her heroic and devoted dad diligently carried her up and down the stairs and outside to do her business.
Button finally succumbed in 2020. Admittedly it was somewhat of a relief, as well as being so sad. It had become pretty unbearable to watch her suffer, and for Angel as well. When she died, Angel became inconsolable. They had always been together. She could not stop crying. She reminded me of the research I heard of years ago about the “blighted twin.” When twins were initially together in the womb, and one failed to develop and ultimately dissolved away, the other went through life with a deep sense of “something” being missing. If we ever had to leave her alone, which thankfully during the lockdown year was rare, Angel wailed, like in some of the mourning rituals I remember seeing in movies at school. Always shy anyway, grief-stricken Angel cleaved to her dad, making a nest at his feet during his long hours in front of the computer.
Finally, after perhaps a year and a half, Angel is finding a regulated, calm state. And when her dad goes out, she even has the courage to come upstairs to my home office and, with consent, of course, attend a client session. I recently learned that 2015 research showed that human twins in the womb begin reaching toward each other and touching 14 weeks after gestation. The longing for contact has already begun.
I recently learned that 2015 research showed that human twins in the womb begin reaching toward each other and touching 14 weeks after gestation. The longing for contact has already begun.
Attachment is indeed our most profound and foundational survival need, which is why neglect is the most pervasive and destructive injury of all, certainly to humans. Although massively unacknowledged (and I am doing my best to change that!), it quietly wreaks its devastating damage, especially in the realm of relationships, which of course, has unspeakable ramifications in both individual and collective life. Trauma therapists are well aware that loneliness and interpersonal pain are what drive people, often with deep ambivalence, to our office doors. Most certainly, with neglect, survivors really don’t want to need us or our help. But the sense of deadness and isolation, pandemic or not, becomes unlivable.
Recently at a conference, I met a charismatic super couple, a physician and an attorney. The doctor, Laurie was her name, had recently won a national award in her country, and in the past, might have been someone who intimidated me. But she was so approachable and delightful, as was her partner of 36 years. They sat across from me at breakfast, so making conversation, I asked if they had children. Like myself, they had long ago opted against it, but somehow ended up telling me the story of when they accompanied a close friend to China to support her in adopting a baby girl.
When the three roamed the orphanage, not unlike my own experience in Sac some 13 years prior, they met up with baby “Anna” (not her real name.) For some unknown reason, and to the surprised dismay of the prospective adoptive mother, the 18-month-old orphan magnetically reached for Laurie. It was as if she had found the missing part of herself. I remember, years ago, reading about adoption, that after nine months of inhabiting the mother’s body, living with her rhythms, her voice, her chemistry, the climate of her energetic and emotional vacillations, they profoundly know her. When they are passed, even at birth, to the adoptive parent, they seem to profoundly know, “This is the ‘wrong’ one!” Well, little Anna, drawn almost as if by a vacuum aspirator to Laurie, felt as if she had found the “right one.” Now in her twenties and recently married, that never changed.
Anna’s legal mom has had to live with the primary and primal love that the child, and now the young woman has had and continues to have for Laurie, and secondarily Laurie’s wife. Laurie proudly showed me pictures from Anna’s wedding not long ago, the two beaming together. And Laurie, her wife, and Anna’s legal mom have graciously navigated this challenging configuration over now decades; it remains mysterious. This indescribable, inexplicable, and super-glue-like attachment. What is that?
Attachment is indeed our most profound and foundational survival need.
Shortly after that deeply emotional breakfast conversation, I went for a walk through the chilly, idyllic grounds of the quaint New England conference site. The beautiful trees were bare, and it was blessedly quiet. I knew there was a labyrinth on the grounds but did not think much about it, swimming in my feelings about Laurie and Anna. When I stumbled on the labyrinth, I thought perhaps I might try walking it, something I had never even thought of doing. I have always said, “You know how they say a leopard can’t change its spots? Well, I can!” I change my spots every chance I get. So I entered the maze.
It was an interesting experience; I thought it was like trauma recovery. I feel like I am going around in circles, getting nowhere, hitting dead ends… But if I “stay the course,” the path takes me out into the open again. It was remarkable, just like Laurie and Anna have circled, hit dead ends, and kept going, ultimately finding their way out into the open world, again or for the first time. Attachment is the ground upon which it is all built: connection, love, and a measure of patience. Anna’s adoptive mom heroically gave her a chance and graciously shared the road with Laurie, moving aside to allow space for extended family. What an angel. And all of them, all of us find our way to the opening and out into the world.
Today’s Song: In honor of Grateful Ed, who I think is the one who diagnosed all terriers years ago.
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.