Just before falling asleep the other night, my 8-year-old son, Matthew, wandered out of his room searching for me. When I walked him back to bed, I laid next to him and asked, “What’s up, buddy?” My son’s answer surprised me, and it broke my heart.
Matthew answered my question by saying “Mommy, something just doesn’t feel right. It feels like there is something missing right here (pointing to his chest) and I don’t understand what this feeling is, or what it is trying to tell me.”
I responded, “Oh son, I am very sorry to hear this. Does it feel like an empty or sad feeling?” He nodded his head up and down as an affirmation. Trying to understand what he was feeling, I asked if this just started, or if the “missing feeling” had been going on for a while. He replied, “I have felt this feeling ever since you and Daddy told me we were going to move to Michigan.”
This past week my husband and I moved our crew from Illinois to Michigan. This transition has been on the horizon now for over a year, and we finally relocated. For now, however, this is a temporary transition while we attempt to sell our house. Preparation for this move has not been easy for Matthew. Whenever we mentioned moving, Matthew would comment how he did NOT want to leave his friends behind.
Back to my conversation with Matthew in his bed. I responded, “You know what? I have been feeling the same way. I have noticed an empty, restless and sad feeling ever since we moved. This is the same feeling I have when I am on a trip away from you! This strange feeling is what we call attachment pain. This is the pain we feel when are missing someone we love.” I then went on to help him understand how, during moments we feel attachment pain, it helps to talk about and share these feelings, and it helps to talk with Jesus about how we feel as well. This helps us feel connected, rather than alone in our big feelings. I continued, “Sometimes, when I feel attachment pain, I will cry on Daddy’s shoulder or I will share my tears with Jesus.” His eyes were big as I shared these words. I reiterated, “All of these things help me feel better when I am missing the people I care about.”
To be honest, I am still amazed how Matthew showed such self-awareness to describe what he was feeling. His words were a textbook description of how attachment pain feels. Because the attachment center in our brain’s emotional control center is subcortical and located deep in the brain, well below our level of conscious awareness, it takes practice and effort to notice the indirect signs of attachment pain. Even for adults, we must train ourselves to recognize the signals of attachment pain, which can include an increase in cravings for sugar, chocolate, television, shopping, sex, alcohol – along with strong urges for non-relational strategies to find comfort. We may notice we are irritable and sad for no apparent reason. My friends Ed and Maritza Khouri call these things we pursue BEEPS, which stand for Behaviors, Experiences, Events, People and, Substances we turn to in order to artificially regulate our emotions. When the pain of loss screams loudly, we want to disconnect and use BEEPS for temporary relief.
While I expect Matthew to continue feeling and hitting this hidden iceberg known as attachment pain while we live away from his friends, I have noticed he has not mentioned this “emptiness” since our talk the other night. Sometimes recognizing our attachment pain and having someone share it with us is all we need to enjoy a breather. It is normal for attachment pain to come in waves over time, so we must practice sitting and sharing it while we quiet ourselves, return to relational joy as negative emotions arise, continue to remain our relational selves then create a narrative to describe our experience. This is how recovery looks for the brain’s emotional center.
Track Three of THRIVE Training spends the entire week learning these solutions for pain. You can learn more about Skill 18 in Transforming Fellowship as well as the work of Dr. Karl Lehman and the Connexus curriculum.
What is the story your cravings are trying to tell you?