The Lost Art of Attachment Theory

How understanding my infant years is helping me heal.

Photo by Liza Summer from Pexels

When a Korean War refugee’s sperm and small-town white girl’s eggs intermix, you get a fetus whose genes aren’t sure what kind of human being to turn into. The unlikely pair married in 1967, while cities burned from the rage and exasperation of race riots, conceived me in 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and I was born in 1969, the year Nixon came into office and unscrupulously bombed Cambodia.

My parents married two months after the Supreme court issued the Loving vs. Virginia decision, disallowing the ban on inter-racial marriages in the state of Virginia and the remaining 15 other states where whites and people of color could not legally marry. Only 3% of marriages in the U.S. in 1967 were interracial.

My parents were from two ends of the world that could not have been more different. My dad was a Korean War refugee, and my mom, an Irish-Scots girl from a small working class town outside of Boston.

When my mom gave birth to me, she was surrounded by her family and friends in her hometown in Massachusetts. Sadly, my dad, an airline pilot, got based in Chicago a couple months after I was born. He, my mom, and newborn me had to uproot and move to an apartment in the dreary suburbs near the Chicago O’Hare airport.

My mom was distraught when she had to relocate to this new life. She was left alone with an infant in the unforgiving and unfamiliar midwest winter. And that infant did not resemble her in any way.

She later told me that she’d sit in the apartment and sob. When The Mamas & The Papas’ song, “California Dreamin’” played on the radio, she’d listen to the lyrics, “All the leaves are brown/and the sky is grey/I’ve been for a walk/on a winter’s day/I’d be safe and warm/If I was in L.A./California Dreamin’/On such a winter’s day…”

She’d look outside at the gloomy Chicago sky and long to be anywhere but there. She’d cry out of loneliness as Michelle Phillips, John Phillips, and Cass Eliot crooned the soundtrack of her emotions. Unfortunately, my dad was flying much of that time, so there weren’t many other adults nearby to comfort her.

I can imagine her gazing at this very foreign-looking baby that came out of her body and wondering how she came to live in an apartment in the midwest with an almond-eyed, black haired blob of a human being.

Since my mom’s recent death, I’ve tried to understand her life more. On a recent ketamine trip, my unconscious delved into why I never felt wholly accepted by my mom.

I think that much of it had to do with the fact that I was born during a tumultuous time, both in this country and in my mom’s life. And although my mom loved me, we were diametric in a way that disallowed us to bond in the early years of my life.

I think that’s why I’ve continuously had a difficult time accepting myself. I have always felt like an outsider, not only racially, but simply in the person I am in any situation. In the mostly-white schools I attended growing up, I was the brown, wild-haired, unsociable kid. When I was in graduate school with other brown people, I saw myself as the stupidest person in my program. And even in my marriage, although my husband is very devoted to me, I constantly worry he will abandon me.

Most of these beliefs are unrealistic, or at least magnified to an extent that has caused me much inner turmoil.

To treat my depression, I have received intra-muscular ketamine injections. During some of my ketamine trips I believe I’ve connected with my lost self.

After my last experience, I wrote:

I feel like I got to the core of why I’m so hard on myself. I met with my mom. I WAS her for a little bit, having a half-Korean baby in the ‘60’s, alone, while my dad was flying planes. How I was not what she expected at all, how frightening that was to her, how she wanted to love me but I was so strange and unfamiliar to her, yet I came out of her body. I can still recall that feeling right now, how I was like a smear of dripping colorful oil paint and she and I were trying to merge, to understand each other.

How being in the world with me as her child was like oil and water being forced to coexist, trying so hard and desperately, and that whole smear moving through the world in such a difficult and complicated way.

That is why I make my life so hard. That is why I torture myself so much and my mind can and often is a living hell. It’s not her fault, but it’s what happened. She was so overwhelmed with this child from a dynamic man from another land.

She tried her best to carry me through this life but it was so, so difficult, me being me and her being her. With our egos, as is necessary in this life, it was especially complicated.

I still feel like the colorful oil floating in the water of my mom.

I have yet to fully understand why I am the tortured soul I am. Why I constantly criticize myself, why I always feel like an imposter, why I am certain everyone I love will eventually abandon me.

But I believe a lot of it dates back to my early relationship with my mom, as well as the atmosphere of the U.S. leading up to and during the time I was born.

I’ve since delved into research on attachment theory. In a nutshell, attachment styles are formed by the quality of bond your infant self experienced with your primary caregiver.

If your primary caregiver, often your mom, responded to and supported your needs as a baby, you see the world as safe (a secure attachment style). You trust other people, you’re self-confident, and you navigate relationships confidently.

Attachment theory is a basic theory in psychology. I think that when I studied it in college, I was not even aware that at the time, I suffered the consequences of anxious attachment. I clung to a verbally abusive boyfriend for years. I didn’t trust the few friends I did have. I never felt like I fit in, no matter what the situation I was in. So I glossed over this part of my education because I didn’t see it as applying to me.

But decades later, while re-visting attachment theory, I’m understanding why I have insecure attachment. When I was born, my mom was too depressed and overwhelmed to bond with me. So, even as an infant, I started to see the world as an unsafe place where I don’t belong.

This Psychology Today article explains further: “To cope with your current attachment patterns it’s essential to understand your life as a coherent narrative, which has led you from one set of experiences to another and has helped to create the person you are now.”

Through twice-weekly therapy, as well as ketamine injections for depression, I am unraveling how and why I feel so insecure in my life. And in doing so, I am taking back the fact that I actually do belong in this world.

This Gizmodo article explains how ketamine trips like the aforementioned can lead toward healing in patients:

“During ketamine-induced dissociation, patients…might have ethereal visions, feel warm and comforted, and might even claim to have seen relatives who have passed. Some doctors believe that these spiritual experiences help patients gain a new perspective…Researchers have theorized that dissociation actually improves [ketamine’s] effectiveness as an antidepressant.”

Over the past year, I have suffered greatly. I lost both parents and I was suicidally depressed. It became necessary to delve deeply into my relationship with my worst enemy: myself.

But in doing so, I met my beloved dead mother in a drug trip, I learned to understand why I often don’t feel like I belong, and, most importantly, I am learning that I do have a beautiful and meaningful place in this life.

Writer. Advocate. Truth seeker. Perpetually curious over-analyzer.

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