I realized the other day I look to my phone for love. Constantly. Sometimes I even wake up in the middle of the night to check Facebook, Instagram, and my Amazon sales reports. Each like or increase is a drip into the mainline of you are loved you are loved you are loved.
But it’s never enough. I don’t need a drip; I need an ocean to fill the need in me, and there is no website, no relationship, no sales at Nordstrom great enough to calm the agitation in my soul. I am looking in all the wrong places for an explosion of acceptance that will quiet the chatter that twists in my guts.
I don’t know when, clinically, negative self-talk starts for many adoptees, but in my imagination, for me, it started in utero as a body that didn’t want me created my body. It’s possible, if I am brave enough to be honest, that my brain was created to hate itself. I have a knee-jerk reaction when things go poorly for me—when I have displeased someone or when I am worried about failing at a job or I have gotten into trouble—that I wish I could, not kill myself, but not exist anymore. I have a sneaking suspicion that I am craving to complete that moment when the nonverbal part of my brain recognized it had been split from the birth mother. For, because the newborn does not recognize it is separate from the birth mother—does not recognize this, in fact, for months—the infant, partly, does cease to exist when it loses the birth mother. And yet it lives. And this, I think, is from where the bubbling spring of negative self-talk may spring for adoptees. You should not be alive. There is something terribly wrong with you. You are in trouble…
Not long ago I started a private Facebook page for adoptees, and I wrote I’m writing a blog post about the negative self-talk adoptees can carry in their mind and body, often subconsciously. If you feel like it, can you send me a list I can use?
This is what I heard back: This is good to know. I thought I was just crazy…
I’m crazy…I don’t think like “normal" people do…can’t socialize like “normal” people. I’m always left out/feel life out…my brain doesn’t work right…my memory isn’t good enough…basically I’m not good enough…not smart enough…X is friendly now but he will split eventually because pretty much everyone eventually does…in the end you are going to leave this world the same way you came into it: alone.
What was interesting to me was how many of the people responded that they, in fact, did struggle with negative self-talk they associated with being adopted, but they were either unable or unwilling to be specific. The shame is heavy. It’s one thing to admit to having negative self-talk; it’s something else entirely to let others know what you are saying to yourself. It’s even harder to admit to yourself the things that you say.
I think if I had to summarize the self-talk that goes on in my mind it comes down to you are not safe you are not safe you are not safe things are not as they appear things are not as they appear things are not as they appear you are wrong you are wrong you are wrong. Living with the brain of an adoptee is like being in a boxing ring with yourself pretty much all the time. It’s exhausting, but everyone thinks you are just living your life when really you are defending it almost 24/7. For every good thing that happens, for every piece of praise you earn or give yourself, your brain comes back with a whacker because it wants to take you down. It wants to remind you of your torn roots, that were ripped out long ago.
In my early twenties I became addicted to driving across country. The long stretch of road combined with music, cigarettes, Diet Coke and fast food overruled the negative music I carried within and it was wonderful. I was possibility when I was in between coasts, in between homes. I was free to dream because the tight lid on my brain was unscrewed by the meditative state miles of road opened up for me. I could be and do anything when I wasn’t moored to place. I don’t think it was a coincidence I started running when I was 13. There’s something about forward movement that helps outstep the sound of you are worthless. It’s just hard to hold down a job or a relationship if you need to keep moving.
I heard someone say negative self-talk is like an acid bath for our bodies and minds, and I can feel it. It hurts in my body to believe I was an unwanted mistake. We are the same material as stars after all, isn’t that right? So somewhere in us we know this negative business is a giant misunderstanding and that we are poisoning the thing most dear and crucial to us: our own heart.
This morning I listened to Terry Gross interview Casey Affleck about his role in the film “Manchester by the Sea”. Terry Gross asked Affleck how he played a character who was so emotionally shut down, who didn’t allow himself to feel, and Affleck told her it wasn’t that his character didn’t feel; it was that he felt too much and so had to keep a tight lid on himself.
I think this same phenomenon may be a reason why the general public has so little knowledge about what goes on in an adoptee’s head, because the adoptee learns early on that any talk of physical and mental discomfort will not be received well, won’t be understood, and so they keep it inside.
Once, when I was a teenager, I went downstairs in tears after trying the antiseptic Seabreeze on my face and stood at the entrance of the living room where my parents were watching TV. “It hurts,” I cried, but the level of my emotion was confusing to them because I was sobbing over just having something sting my face, and I was quickly inconsolable. My parents looked at me, confused and maybe a little afraid, and I felt so alone. I didn’t know adoption was an issue for me. It wasn’t something we talked about—I had never heard that adoption was considered traumatic and that the side effects often started bubbling up during teenage years. All I knew was that nothing was quite right, and so when my face stung, it was like the world was falling apart, and when I went to my parents and they did not have the tools to deal with a distraught girl for whom life should be going more smoothly, my worst fears were confirmed: you are in so much trouble. And the negative self-talk increased: There is something wrong with you; you are causing your parents pain—their lives would be better if they hadn’t adopted you. You need to disappear….
I cried as I read what the other adoptees said they think of themselves because I see their preciousness: I see the damage; and I see there is nothing I can do for them. It doesn't matter how much I praise them or sing their glory. Self-talk comes from the inside.
One of the woman on my Facebook page wrote that her negative self-talk had started to decrease when she was nearly fifty and happy in her job and because se was also writing and talking more about adoption. She was less concerned with what other people thought. She was more herself. This is also what I have found. As soon as I started openly talking about adoption and writing about it, positive thoughts started to replace negative. But, holy cow, it’s work.
One of the most helpful things in lessening my negative self-talk was that I made a close friend who not only was willing to listen to me talk about adoption as much as I wanted, he went out of his way to encourage me to both write and talk about it. I felt validated in a way I never had before. Most non-adopted people have about a two-minute window of tolerance for hearing about adoption until their eyes start to droop under the frustration of Good lord, is this person really going on and on about something that happened when she was a child? A baby? Can’t we talk about my kitchen remodel or something relevant? I mean, she can’t even remember being adopted. I gotta get out of here. Victim talk really gets me down.
Writing that last part made me feel good. Strong. It’s a solid move for adoptees to assert their needs after a lifetime of trying to fit in and not make waves. It’s a little scary, but it works.