Attachment theory provided the foundation for my emotional sobriety and answered the “why” behind my problematic drinking.
I am an anxious attacher. I discovered this fact about myself a few years into sobriety, and it felt like I had stumbled upon the sword in my proverbial stone.
As a sober person, even as all the noise fell away and my life began to heal itself—my bank account, my health, my relationships, my career—I still felt stuck. I was anxious, on edge, nearly always worried about the state of my (otherwise happy) relationship, plagued by obsessive thoughts. Who was this person? What happened to the confident, carefree person of my drinking yesteryears? Shouldn’t I have more confidence now that I am sober, not less?
It was through my own incessant googling of basically, “What is wrong with me?” that I stumbled upon Attachment Theory and all the light bulbs went off.
Attachment Theory is the thought that the way we interact in adult relationships is dictated largely by learned (protective) behaviors in childhood.
There are different attachment styles:
>> Anxious attachers learned (or perceived) in childhood that love and caring were inconsistent, and their learned protective behavior was to cry or act out in a desperate effort to get their needs met. As adults, they are hyperaware of any potential dis-equilibrium in their relationships and need constant reassurance that everything is okay.
>> Avoidant attachers learned that intimacy can be dangerous and people are generally unreliable—so their protective mechanism is to become entirely self-sufficient and detached from emotion. As an adult, they may shut down or become judgmental when their partner expresses a need for closeness.
>> Secure attachers are those who perceive that the world and closeness are generally safe spaces where love is given and received freely and without dire consequence. As adults they can easily co-regulate in relationships and don’t derive self-worth from the state of their relationships (insert slow clap here).
>> Anxious-Avoidant attachers—sometimes referred to as Disorganized attachers—initially act out and feel desperate for love and reassurance, but once they perceive (actual or potential) hurt, they retreat back into their shell and might “stonewall” their partner, leaving the partner confused by their actions and unsure of what they really want.
Most people are a combination of Anxious, Avoidant, and Secure, but one tendency typically takes center stage.
All attachment styles ultimately want closeness—anxious attachers are way more vocal about that, but avoidant people struggle with expressing and accepting intimacy.
When we aren’t securely attached, there is a lot more room for strife and discomfort—both of which play a big role in why people drink or use drugs.
Anxious attachers might find that substances help to numb the overwhelming panic, to quell their insecurities, and quiet the obsessive hamster wheel of doubts.
Avoidant attachers might find that a buzz helps to ease intimacy—remember, after all, that they do desire connection and closeness. Or perhaps getting intoxicated helps them to cope with or retreat further from someone who is encroaching on their space, or to cope with the loneliness and “here we go again” thoughts left behind when a partner leaves.
A secure person is probably a “normie” (moderate drinker).
Disorganized attachers might use substances for a combination of the above and/or in an effort to even out their intense, pendulous emotions.
When I was drinking, even the slightest rumblings of doubt or insecurity would send me running for the nearest box of red wine.
Any relationship anxiety: easily cured with a mutual blackout date night.
Questions about my own worthiness: silenced with two glasses of wine.
First date vulnerabilities: eased by a happy hour beforehand.
I never really had to feel into any of the doubt, anxiety, or desperation because I was always able to immediately numb it—thus developing my “carefree” persona. When the anxiety did creep in, I could at the very least blame alcohol—”I’m just hungover.” In my mind, it could never possibly just be my inherent state of being, or—even more unbelievable—alcohol itself.
Carrying on this way for years kept me so small, never truly in my own body and completely disconnected from what was really happening for me and who I really was. I had no idea what my boundaries, or deepest needs or wants, really were and so I could never speak up for them. If I was ever hurt, it was obviously 100 percent the other person’s defect. So if I wasn’t to blame and neither was alcohol, then it must be everyone else’s fault. This way of thinking led me to place responsibility for my emotions on other people, effectively giving them free reign—whether they wanted it or not.
When I stopped drinking, slowly the layers of the onion started to fall away, and I saw myself more clearly—for better or for worse.
Discovering my attachment style felt like reaching the ooey gooey liquid hot magma core of my onion. Everything before that had been the “how” of my drinking—how I had messed up this or that and was slowly correcting it—but this was my “why,” or at least a giant part of it. It was also why I still felt like a gigantic mess even after defeating my ultimate boss level nemesis—alcohol.
Without a way to numb out, I was forced to face all of the worry, the desperation, the primal fear of being abandoned, the obsessive, intrusive thoughts—all pieces of a person I had never met before, but who had clearly been living rent-free in my head for decades.
Initially, I was met with a few months of depression, hopelessness, complete overwhelm—alot like that phase between realizing we can’t/shouldn’t drink or use anymore and actually stopping.
I could not see an end in sight or how I could ever change this ingrained behavior. I realized that, although I had talked about it for a long time, I needed to actually start doing the work toward my emotional sobriety—a term I both love and hate.
I love it because it totally captures the experience: every time I “messed up” and picked a nothing-fight in an effort to get my needs met, it felt like a relapse, complete with the same old rhetoric, “Why am I like this?” “When will I learn?” “Next time will be different, I can see so clearly now what I need to do!” But I also hate the term, because unlike alcohol, we can’t abstain from emotions.
I think a better term would be “response sobriety”—immediate emotions are uncontrollable, but the ability to respond rather than react is where the real healing lies.
Here are seven ways I started to “do the work” in healing my anxious attachment:
1. Therapy. First and foremost, I got my weepy ass in to see a therapist—specifically one with experience in attachment theory—and I held nothing back. I spilled all of my most vulnerable guts and biggest fears. This helped to make sense of all the crazy thoughts swirling around in my brain. Also, one of the first steps in healing attachment issues is to cultivate a healthy, secure relationship with someone, and a therapist is a great option, as is a sponsor or other unconditionally supportive friend.
2. Life coaching. I started working with a women’s mental health coach, which worked wonders in keeping me accountable and helping me to foster an entity who I could firmly attach to and trust—myself (crucial in healing anxious attachment). She also helped me to really dive into working with my inner child, which I had tip-toed around for a while but never really stepped into.
While life coaching is not an accessible amenity to many of us, a good sponsor, therapist, or mentor could do similar work. Sometimes, it is just a matter of asking your therapist to go the extra step of giving you “homework,” talk you through embodiment practices, or refer you to someone who can.
3. Self-care. This was often guided by my inner child and tapping into what she needs at the moment. Sometimes, it’s an earthy incense and a kundalini chanting meditation. Other times, it’s epsom baths and a fancy drink, and still, other times, it’s Netflix, dogs, and comfy pants. Aside from helping me get in touch with “little Danielle,” self-care helps me be okay with being alone and getting to know myself a little better, so I actually look forward to alone time versus dreading the feelings of abandonment that used to creep in.
4. Embodiment work. Getting the hot, heavy, gnawing, painful, and sticky emotions out to help temper my response is critical, when I am ready. Sometimes, it’s dancing or yoga. Sometimes, a hot bath does the trick. Sometimes, I have to punch a pillow or scream into the abyss. Either way, this helped to take the edge off and get me re-centered. (I am still waiting for video footage to surface of me air-punching and screaming into my hands in a rest stop bathroom on a particularly trying road trip.)
5. Talking to my partner about attachment theory and my style. I have had a habit of expecting my partners to read my mind and, much to my dismay, none of them ever could. I shared a few articles on the basics of attachment theory as well as my own personal experiences, along with assurance that I was working on this part of me, but also a request for extra compassion and support from him. He asked what he could do to best support me, especially in those really tough moments, and I told him.
A part of anxious attachment is that I not only get anxious over the initial trigger, but the ensuing anxiety about my reaction and worry that he will think I am “crazy” and eventually leave. Talking to him and laying out the expectations helped calm this part of me—I could remind myself, “He knows me and has made it clear he chooses to love me through this.”
6. Journaling. I got into the habit of journaling my thought process when feeling triggered so I could “play the tape through” for each of the different reactions at my disposal (kind of a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).
7. Other resources. I found other resources to support my work. I took an online course on “Healing anxious attachment,” and I read “Insecure in Love” by Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD. I also became an avid follower of Lalah Delia, author of “Vibrate Higher Daily.” Together, these resources helped me to foster mindful awareness, self-compassion, and what Lalah calls “staying in my equanimity” and “finding my home frequency.” She also introduced me to the meaning behind Dark Nights of the Soul.
More recently, I have been slowly chugging through the book “Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents“ by Lindsay C. Gibson. I have been going at a snail’s pace because while the book is incredibly validating, it is also somewhat triggering, an insight and reaction I can recognize—and address—precisely because of all of the aforementioned self-work.
There is more that is helping me to regulate my emotions, clear old traumas, and support my nervous system: positive affirmations, meditation, yoga, and plant medicine such as teas, essential oils, and flower essences. And that’s the point: you need to have an arsenal of tools to choose from.
The idea is to get curious about yourself and your “natural” response to events—and ask yourself, “Is this serving me?” When we stop drinking, we have this amazing opportunity to see our shadows and bring them to the light—and when we do that, they cease to be our shadows anymore.
If you’d like to know more, start by taking an Attachment Style quiz. If you discover your attachment style is not “secure”—don’t be dismayed! Attachment styles can be changed with a little bit of willingness, consistent work, and self-awareness.
The absolute miracle in being sober is the ability to learn more about how we tick and how to make our tendencies work for us rather than against us. It lets us take a breath, thank ourselves for protecting us in the best way we knew how thus far, and saying, “I’ve got it from here.”