Vagus, Baby

A woman contacted me after reading my book to tell me that for a year and a half after she adopted her daughter in China, the little girl was given Milk of Magnesia daily on the recommendation of her doctor who told the mother stomach upset was typical after such a radical change in cultures and food. The doctor never once talked about the physical and mental effects of adoption and abandonment. Ten years later, the girl still has stomach issues. She doesn't poop until she absolutely has to, and then it's a painful ordeal.

Growing up, I thought part of existing was living with a stomach that hurt. As with morning sickness, my stomach wouldn’t hurt while I ate. So I ate a lot. My mother used to joke that as a baby people on the streets of New York would stop her to tell her I should be in baby food commercials. Meals for me have always been more about quantity than quality. But did I ever link that to adoption? No! That would have seemed ridiculous. It would have seemed I was blaming hog-like tendencies on something that had happened before I could even talk.

I had a neighbor once who had adopted her daughter as a young, starving child who had been living on the streets in Africa, and they now “had” to put a lock on their refrigerator and cabinets because the girl hoarded food. At school, the girl stole the lunches of other children and was becoming ostracized for her behavior. I only lived there for a short time, but I wondered what would have happened if they’d just let the girl hoard as much food as she wanted. Somehow locks just don’t seem like the answer to me. I don’t know.

I remember once as a teenager driving past a man who was out raking his lawn. He looked content, at peace, and I wondered how he could do something like that, just be outside raking his lawn, without rushing, wanting to head back inside for whatever he was going to eat next. There was time I was eating and then there was time I was waiting to eat, thinking about what I would eat next. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like just to rake the lawn and not feel a terrible emptiness.

It wasn’t until I was fifty years old and learned about the vagus nerve and did some reading that I started asking adoptees about the state of their stomachs. More often than not, I heard about distress. Many talked about having problems with stomach pain when they were young, and many talked about continued distress to the present day: colitis, heartburn, IBD, IBS, GERD, constipation, and the opposite of constipation, which, if you read my book, you’ll find is a real drag and a social embarrassment.  

Wouldn’t your stomach hurt if your mom put you in a basket and left you by the side of the road? Wouldn’t your stomach continue to hurt if, say, the loss of your birth mother had happened even before your brain could form the words to talk about what had happened, and so for the rest of your life, your brain spun like a needle on an ungrooved record, looking to make sense of the messages your limbic brain and your rattled intestines are sending back and forth to each other: Something is wrong! I can’t tell you what kind of trouble you are in, exactly, but I can tell you it is bad!

(To read more on stress and the gut check out:

I want to go to every doctor’s office in the world and leave a note that says: Adoption may cause abdominal pain. Please ask questions. Milk of Magnesia is not the answer. Love, Anne