Losing Insecure Attachment With Jillian (Part 1)

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It’s official: for the 2010 summer TV season, Jillian Michaels—personal trainer extraordinaire—has left The Biggest Loser ranch to go out and about making house calls in a spin-off show Losing It With Jillian. I have watched the first few episodes and I’m hooked, but not for the reason you might think. Sure, there’s great “personal trainer” and “cooking healthy” stuff to watch, but I’m watching mainly for the (what I consider to be) great psychology. In specific, I’m watching for all the great stuff on attachment behavior, attachment functioning, and, yes, if you do a bit of translating, attachment theory. Sure, you can find attachment themes in any number of movies—Lars and the Real Girl readily comes to mind—but it’s not as easy to find such themes clearly depicted in TV programs (2008’s summer TV season program Baby Borrowers may be an exception). If you’re a fan of using movies to help facilitate the therapeutic process, then check out Bowlby Goes to the Movies.

As I watch Losing it With Jillian, I’m struck by how much loss is associated with issues centered on weight—weight gain, weight loss, obesity issues, etc.—and hording. Yes, hording. In one episode there’s so much junk in the house that Jillian can’t access the guestroom and is forced to spend a night at a local hotel. And loss takes many forms: loss of a spouse through divorce, loss of a spouse through death, loss of an infant through death, loss of economic stability through job loss, and on the list goes. John Bowlby would have felt right at home.

In this two-part post, allow me to focus in on the pilot episode, which profiles the Mastropietro family. Early on we learn that the father, Jim, goes through a gastric bypass but it doesn’t work (he’s still pushing 300 lbs.). We next learn that the daughter, Michelle, also has had a gastric bypass—at age 21! According to the doctor who consulted with the family before they started their workout program, Michelle weighed close to 260 lbs. before her gastric bypass. The bypass definitely worked for Michelle, who, in my opinion, actually looked too thin, a bit gaunt and drawn. Michelle tells Jillian, “I’m still not happy [after the bypass] … I still have a ‘fat mentality’ [using air quotes] where I look in the mirror and see that fat person.” Mental health therapists who work with persons with body image issues will often have a client lay on the floor and then do a body outline in chalk (like we see so often depicted in all of the CSI (crime scene investigator) shows populating TV and cable channels these days). This is done to give the client tangible proof that they are not fat as a way of (hopefully) counteracting the fat person image or model in their heads, the same one they see in the mirror (like Michelle). There’s the “body reality” and then there’s the “body image,” and the two often conflict.

The mother, Agnes, tells Jillian, “I have gained and lost over a 100 pounds seven times.” She continues, “I can’t keep going through life like this.” The son, Michael, weighs close to 240 lbs. Jillian simply states, “I’m dealing with decades of neglect here.” Back at the home, Jillian watches as the daughter, Michelle, prepares dinner. Dinner consists of greasy fried foods. Jillian asks if there’s anything green in the house and the father quips, “Only if it’s mold.” Jillian asks Michelle why she cooks such unhealthy meals for the family each night. Michelle wistfully whispers, “Yeah, I’m the enabler.” The father pops in and tells Jillian that he’s the one who tells Michelle what to cook … and lots of it too. Jillian asks the father, “Are you ever satisfied?” The mother pops in and tells us, “Yeah, when he finally goes to sleep.” In a state of disbelief, Jillian turns to Jim and says, “When you’re unconscious you stop eating.” The father nods “yes.” Jillian now nails the core issue by telling Jimbo (which is what the family calls him) that he’s got the family waiting on him “hand and foot like he’s made of glass.” Michelle, the daughter, chimes in and reveals, “I don’t want my dad to have to come home and worry about dinner not being on the table. So I do it. It’s always been that way ….” In the therapy world, we call this pattern “parentification” or “role reversal” (where the roles of parent and child are reversed). Sounding like a seasoned family therapist, Jillian tells the family, “If you cannot open up the lines of communication, this is only going to get worse.”

During an early morning stroll with Agnes, the mother, Jillian asks her point blank, “When does it start to come on [her seesaw problems with weight]?” What the mother says next would move even the most hardened misanthrope. Allow me to quote at length:

I had a son who passed away. He was on a respirator. He lived a month and a day. Words can’t even explain the pain I have. I didn’t even put a stone on his grave. Another thing that really bothered me … my husband can’t talk about my son. He’s never really talked about my son. He’s never really talked about it. The first funeral he ever went to was our son’s. And after that day he never spoke another word. And if I tried to bring it up with him, he says, “Hon, I can’t do it.” And I just feel alone. I feel like I was in it alone.

This was a very powerful scene, one that was dripping in attachment implications. I wish I had the time to explain them all. If this narrative was encountered during what is known as an Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), the person coding or rating the interview might use a code designating “disorganized attachment with respect to a traumatic loss.” What we are looking at here is probably what attachment therapists call “locked mourning”—a mourning process that has never taken place. As Jillian correctly points out, a locked mourning process has the potential to tear a family apart. Here’s how Jillian puts it, again, quoting at length:

A lot of times a tragedy will come along in life that a person isn’t equipped to deal with, they don’t have the tools to rebound. There’s this unspoken agreement in this family—lets never talk about it again—and yet they just keep getting bigger, and sicker, and more unhappy. They just don’t know how to be there for each other in a constructive way.

Jillian nails it. Locked mourning can take on a life of its own. It can eat you alive psychologically. As a result, you end up eating yourself to death physically. You gorge and you horde, anything to keep that mourning process locked up. In my opinion, at the center of locked mourning is a desire to not set off a cascade in which loss is experienced as all encompassing, all consuming, a wholesale loss of everything and everyone. Loss that goes beyond the human pale—such as the loss of a month-old infant—tends to be the type of loss that has an all-consuming quality to it. As the mother, Agnes, tells us, “[Jillian] showed me that Jimbo will love me no matter what. And I didn’t believe that before.” We build walls around loss that has the potential to be all consuming because we simply do not want to risk losing everything. It’s actually not a bad strategy, but, unfortunately, it can bring on a rather pernicious side effect—self-defeating strategies. In part two of this post we’ll look at how Jillian goes about unlocking the mourning process that seems to be eating this family alive as they in turn eat themselves toward a possible early death.