Tag Archives: attachment disorders

The Black Stallion

 

If you’ve never seen this film, do so, for it will teach you something plain about the wild or the traumatized, human or not. I saw the film when it first came out, in 1979 when I was a newly emigrated child, feeling like child actor Kelly Reno looked in this film: dumbstruck and wide-eyed, trying to adjust to a new life. It’s not clear in the story where Reno’s character, Alec, and his father are going on their story-opening sea cruise, only that the boy is lonely and quiet, the father garrulous yet preoccupied with gambling on a ship that seems less-than-family friendly. A collector, drifter (possibly a grifter), and storyteller, he gives Alec a tiny model of an exotic black horse, foreshadowing the subsequent attachment, but he is implicitly neglectful. He seems less so when a storm hits and the smallish trawler is threatened with a wreck. By this time, Alec has become enamored of the eponymous wild horse, being kept in storage on a lower deck of the ship, cruelly mistreated by its Arab owners. As the ship capsizes Alec is thrown overboard, though not before freeing the animal from its restraints. Meanwhile, his father is missing, having tried but failed to secure a lifeboat. Treading water, Alec sees the horse flailing through the waves but managing to swim, so he latches on to the severed restraint ropes and is thereafter pulled to safety.

Sometime later Alec wakes up on a deserted island beach, apparently safe but also marooned. He sees the horse at a distance, and in spurts over what may have been days, possibly weeks. The animal appears watchful but wary. If Alec approaches, the horse gallops away with impressive speed, seemingly frightened, and distrustful of humanity, naturally, if not from life experience. However, when Alec is threatened by a snake, the horse appears out of nowhere and stomps upon the serpent, killing it. Alec, determined to make a friend of the horse, persists with his approaches, offering leafy snacks and coaxing the beast towards him. Finally, in an intimate scene, the two make contact on the beach. Alec steps forward and then stops, withdraws, then approaches again. The horse, likewise coy, does the same. After a few minutes of this sequence, remarkably filmed, they inch closer and finally touch. The scene feels like an attachment drama played out. It seems fanciful to compare this dance to that which happens between me and a reluctant client, but what can I say. I am reminded.

Soon the boy is riding bare-back on the horse as it gallops across beach-kissing waves. The cinematography that captures this is iconic. Later, Alec is discovered by fisherman and ostensibly rescued, though the fishermen misunderstand about the horse. The bond between boy and animal is conveyed as the horse wades into the water, following the boat which might have left him behind, despite Alec’s beseeching protests. The scene of the horse chasing the fishing boat, determined to follow Alec, is one of the most beautiful in cinema, climaxing as it does the film’s better first half. Back home Alec is welcomed as a Robinson Crusoe-like hero (we learn his father was killed in the wreck). Black, as Alec nicknames or christens the horse, is temporarily kept near his and his mother’s rural home, but he runs away from this strange western domesticity, wild as ever. Incorrigibly so, says Henry, a retired racehorse jockey played by Mickey Rooney, who has found and caught the horse. With Henry’s help, Alec learns to tame the animal, but recalling Black’s speed on the island beach, he convinces the former jockey to train both he and Black for the racetrack. To do this, Henry and Alec must also persuade Alec’s widowed mother that their plan is worthwhile, and above all, safe. As the mother, Teri Garr plays a similar role to the one she’d played in Close Encounters two years earlier. Irritable yet sympathetic, jaded by masculine risk-taking but ultimately forced to indulge it, she is a bystander witnessing a compulsion. This comparatively predictable second half leads to a climactic match race at a professional event before thousands of spectators.

While the outcome might be foreseeable the execution of this footage is anything but. Without stirring music, and with minimal dialogue, the race finale recalls the earlier scenes on the beach while the soundtrack re-enters the silent bond between rider and horse, adding only the vivid sounds of hooves thundering against a sandy track. Black initially falters, disturbed by the racing protocols—the entrapment of the “gate”—but once in his stride, instinct and power takes over. And this is what sententious art has to say about trauma: our native selves will prevail. Over several laps Black bridges the gap between himself and his rivals. As he passes them and victoriously sprints across the line, the exultation of the crowd is finally heard, returning from a dim background. It is as if the director were finally letting them, and the viewer, share in this moment.

Check out The Black Stallion. Be reminded of something.

 

 

 

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The Reading

I was ready for my reading. The first of its kind was to take place before a private little gathering in a semi-lit room, with an overhead projector not working because my friend, a confirmed techno-specialist, didn’t have the right cord to fit my computer, my less-than-a-year old computer. We could head down to the Radio Shack to get the VRG-DHR cord (I don’t know—I can’t remember its actual name) cord that we needed, he offered with enthusiasm.

“Forget it,” I said with mine draining from me.

Whenever I invite friends or family to show up for me, whether it’s for a public event or not, I find that I have to fight impulses towards the negative: a sour, ill-humored cloud that creeps over me, threatening to douse energy and kill joy at the first sign of a setback. It wasn’t so much that I needed the damn laptop presentation anyway. It was leftover from the workshop I’d given six months ago, and was a supplement to a reading of about half a dozen passages from my non-fiction, Working Through Rehab, which I am occasionally hawking to would-be readers through…anyway, I didn’t need the laptop. That was the point. So I had to coach myself to breathe, or more specifically, to issue forth a gust of breath that would dislodge the wad of resistance that would soon form a mass and block my voice. I had to, as they say, get over it. “Whatever,” I said aloud to no one, dismissing early interpretations: that this was a harbinger; a symbolic alert, signaling me to stop what I was doing, sneak out the back door, leaving a note with apologies for everyone’s inconvenience. For the next few minutes, the lull prior to my beginning, I fought gravity’s tug upon my lips, that smile that was turning upside down. People started to arrive, greeting me with pleasure, eager to support this writing thing I did on the side.

“How’re you doin’?” asked my best friend, seeing a cloud over my face.

“Nervous,” I said.

“Drink water,” he advised.

I did. Throughout the talk, whenever I paused to field a question or a comment, I stole a sip from my bottle, and felt buoyant, if nearly drowned after an hour. There weren’t many there—maybe a dozen people, total. But it wasn’t so much how many were there, or even the fact that I was speaking before an audience, sharing passages from my book, and breaking to make comments in between. It was the who that mattered. Speaking to family, friends, plus a crossover of collegial knowing, I imagined deeper judgments, more fraught investment, and a more rigorous, concerned critique: speak louder, someone whispered ironically after five minutes. “You should look at your audience more”, someone else remarked afterwards. I nodded politely and took it in. How do I do that and read? I thought churlishly. The positives made it through the blockade, however. Gathered around me in a circle, the assembled uttered their “good job” pronouncements, their gentle congratulations and other good wishes. One person left early, without comment, which nagged at me for the rest of the evening. “Sorry I had to go,” he texted later. “Had to pick up my kid. Good job.”

You’d think the event was about me, and it was. The book is about drugs, adolescents, their parents, and the people who work with those suffering from drug abuse and addiction. If you check out the image which is the cover of the book, take note of its artful rendition of drug treatment, milieu therapy, and community mental health. Up front there’s me, the author, sat on a time-out device, having left the field, but now raising a thumb in accordance with an old protocol of rehab expression, indicating that I have something to say. To my left is a doctor, or psychiatrist, holding a clipboard, observing from an aloof position the goings on, wondering what prescription(s) may be best. Over my right shoulder, there’s an officious-looking floor counselor, a fledgling member of the mental health army, not yet working with kids in the manner of his/her choosing, monitoring an affectless, acting out, poorly attached and difficult young person who will nonetheless touch hearts. With his back to all of this is a man busy at a console, producing a report, maybe of numbers. But he’s not an accountant. He’s a therapist, or a case manager, as they are euphemistically called in such places. Tellingly, his back is to the scene, thought it’s not by choice. It’s by necessity. This is the business of mental health that I’m talking about, and writing about, and reading aloud. In public.

Meanwhile, that review came, the one I moaned about in my last entry: it arrived finally, and it was pretty good, sort of. The reviewer read between the lines, observed the melancholy, and something of the humor. He or she (it’s not clear) wrote that I was cynical and bitter, though the comment was not a complaint necessarily. This reminds me of something I heard recently and have recycled for patients: if you don’t complain how do you know there’s pain? I don’t mean it to sound like a rap, but there is pain. That’s the melancholy truth of Working Through Rehab. From my point of view and that of other veterans of drug treatment, there isn’t a happy plan in place for the consumer; no all-conquering model for the professional to embrace. Once, there was a working idea: treat the adolescent more or less as an adult, and certainly as an addict. Operate as if a compulsive pattern has gained a foothold, and that strategies for using other human beings in a human way were profoundly offline. Those who thought this weren’t wrong, and most agree the attachment disorders of those in treatment seem pervasive. But disagreements abound as to solutions. Containing the drug user’s behavior is one thing; aiming for motivation, and assessing capacities are the other great tasks, and this is where drug treatment with adolescents–with everyone, frankly–has gotten tricky.

Why? Because increasingly, kids, old and young, think that using drugs, sex, video games, and cell phones are acceptable tools for soothing the attachment disorders which they may agree are present and ongoing. Don’t see this? At least as far as drugs are concerned, read the latest statistics released by The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) about the opinions of high school seniors. Only 16% consider that use of drugs constitutes an unhealthy risk, compared to 27% who thought this just five years ago. Wake up: self medication is being normalized. This is why treatment centers like Thunder Road are at risk of being closed down; it’s why places like it have already closed down, and why public officials are reaching out to the media, bemoaning the impending lack of options for at risk youth. It’s why drug treatment as it once was may be a thing of the past, except for the wealthy. It’s one of the reasons my book is a little melancholy, and just one of the reasons my reading of it might stir the nerves.

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Everything we love vanishes

A quote from W.B Yeats. In The Silent Past and the Invisible Present, Paul Renn writes about the traumatized, the pathological mourning of those whose ambivalent yearning for and anger with attachment figures becomes dissociated; split off and embedded into personality. Through Renn’s case examples, the reader learns that those with attachment difficulties, personality problems, are beset with distorted representations of self and others, and that time is lost; meaning, past and present become conflated experiences: the past denied, but acted out in the present. In Crystal From The Hills, protagonist Chris Leavitt (nicknamed Crystal) is an itinerant trauma victim, suffering from (among other things) post-acute withdrawal resulting from (you guessed it!) methamphetamine use. He is unconsciously playing out a conflicted identification with absent caregivers: a distant, self-absorbed father, and a protective yet similarly detached and secretive mother. The backstory has yielded his character and thus the first two-thirds of the novel, his “acting out”. Chris tries to be “nice” in life, but as often as not his attempts are disengenuous, especially when dealing with authority. His mentor, Aunt Jenny, advises, “there’s nothing nice about being nice”, articulating the demand that he be real. And he has acted out upon anger: Chris’ problems at work–his “suspension” for insubordination–reveals his impulses, his sporadic rebellion against authority figures and systems. More sinisterly, his present-day drama contains a mystery: the disappearance of his friend, the malevolently reptilian Weed. Chris is noticeably evasive. If attentive, the reader must consider some dark possibilities as the mystery unfolds: is Chris psychotic? a killer? a rapist, even? Meanwhile, ambivalence thwarts Chris’ other ambitions: sleep disturbed, his dreams are interrupted, and his perceptions are marred by visions, his so-called “shadows”. His ideas, such as his strange and somewhat silly diaper invention (an indicator that his dreams entail regression) are tentatively delivered, but easily withdrawn or dismissed with self effacing humor. Back in the day, he once tried to be an actor, and still does affect the odd scene here and there (incongruous quotes from film or literature), but surely the best actors must first be grounded in reality, and reality, through no fault of his own, actually, has also been elusive.

Above all, Chris has failed at love, just as his father had. That is, Chris has tried to sustain love and relationships, but the truth is that parents, friends, women, have all left. And so the story begins upon a two-fold leaving: the disappearance of his doppelganger, Weed, followed by Chris’ disappearance into the anonymous milieu of Oakland.

 

 

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