For the month of February, we asked different writers to expand on the theme of ‘Separation’. Here are their stories.
Separation is really just the empty space made from the loss of attachment.
Our bond to primary caregivers begins before we are even born. The brain convolutes, bones ossify, and neurobiological attachments ripen. Our pink, plump mammalian bodies are hormonally primed to fill that crucial role of an attachment figure, like quenching a thirst.
Attachment is not optional. It’s an evolutionary strategy for infants to survive. We are unable to satisfy our own needs, so our caregiver acts as our protector and symbiotic host. Infants see the caregiver’s body as an extension of their own. Fears, pleasures and experiences are shared. Through a process called fetomaternal cell transfer, mothers and infants share more than just a metaphoric body; the infant’s cells linger inside the mother’s body, sometimes for years.
If the physical connection and emotional containment of the caregiver is adequate, children will feel secure in the relationship. This boosts the child’s flow of dopamine, which encourages them to explore and directs the child to healthy individuation. The individuation creates a self-containing boundary to buffer them against losing their caregivers.
Regrettably, our world does not protect defenseless children from betrayal.
Our caregivers may not have known how to comfortably connect to us or protect us from tragic circumstance. More unfortunately, they may have abused, neglected or abandoned us entirely. These early experiences alter our ability to trust and secure ourselves in intimate relationships. Insecurely attached infants feel vulnerable to their environment, signalling to themselves that their survival is at risk, even if the risk is false. Those feelings are gathered and stored in our limbic system before we are able to describe them. Our template for attachment and separation are etched in us even before we know how to write our own names.
The infant’s brain is a busy engine.
New neural connections are bursting into life every minute, and any environmental factor is fuel for feeling. While babies lie about, limp and confused-seeming, their brains are clutching at the world around them. Emotional memories from our earliest days are laid down in our brain’s limbic centre (our “old mammalian brain”) and inform the new memories we make.
Our fully developed brain uses two main types of memory: implicit/procedural and explicit/factual.
Your implicit/procedural memory consists of automatic performance patterns, like getting dressed in the morning. It fast-tracks you through daily interactions and tasks. Our implicit memories prime us to complete tasks and relate to others – like returning the smile of a parent.
But implicit memories can also guide us in negative ways. Most adults know the feeling of reacting in an irrational way to an event that resembles a frightening, incomprehensible or otherwise traumatic experience. Maybe the real memory we’re reacting to cannot be described because it happened before our memory existed.
Around two years of age, we begin to form the explicit/factual memory. This system uses declarative (fact-knowing) memory and episodic (autobiographical) memory, allowing us to look back on events and explain our sensations.
Without language, we would be stranded in feeling and habit. And before learning language, you cannot categorize the experience into particulars of time, causation or psychological motivations.
Even after our memory faculties are fully formed, the experience of loss may trigger these very early memories of abandonment. We suffer sorrows with our infantile and adult mind, uniting the whole being at once in the feelings of loss. We may find ourselves acting out like we did as a child when we felt our attachments were endangered.
You’re experiencing a separation.
You’re capable, you bring in a paycheque, and maybe you have a family of your own now.
Arthur Schopenhauer, a nineteenth-century philosopher interested in love and separation, told us that love impels us forward, creating our “will to live.” Being loved and protected gives us the freedom to explore because we know we can return to that love and protection. When we face rejection or loss, our explicit memory desperately tries to grasp for answers. Sometimes our brain cannot give us the solace we need, because the pain we’re experiencing is not wholly limited to this time or place. The pain has grown with us our whole life.
As you feel loss now, you are joined by earlier versions of yourself lamenting alongside you, compounding aches from that earliest fear of loss, built in to help you survive.
Loss and death are more permanent than the seductive mirage of love and security, which keeps us moving forward through this life. But that mirage is our will to live. Keep loving, more and better.
It got you this far.
Nikki Musina is a biological anthology specialist with a calling to psychotherapy and humanism. Nikki is working toward promoting education and therapeutic self-awareness in children and young people.