How Can I Talk to You about Adoption?
For those of you who have read my book, you know a little about HBL. For those of you who haven’t read it, I’d love it if you did because I want to teach writing at NYU for the rest of my adult life and I need to make myself more marketable. Making myself more likeable might also be a worthy endeavor, but a woman can only do so much with one lifetime.
HBL was the first person in my life to whom I could talk about adoption as much as I wanted and he never 1. fell asleep when I was talking 2. asked me when I was going to get over it. What he did do was listen and ask questions about how being adopted affected my brain, my body, and my relationship with the world. He was the one who got me to locate the voice for my book when I was at the writer’s retreat at Martha’s Vineyard and despairing that this book I wanted to write wasn’t even in me.
This is part of what I wrote:
It was day 35 of Write or Die. I couldn’t stop saying fuck. I’d left New York for the two-week residency on Martha’s Vineyard, and I had walked in the April snow to the one open coffee shop in Edgartown.
What are you afraid of? HBL texted after I sent him the page I’d written that morning with a message bemoaning my ability to find a way into my story.
I wrote back I am afraid that, in the end, I have no story to tell. That the lack of concrete beginning undermines the whole thing and that the project sags under why bother.
I am afraid that I am making excuses and that instead of taking control of my life and taking care of myself financially, I’m blaming my juvenile behavior on adoption. I am afraid of looking at how inconsequential my feelings were when I was growing up. I am afraid of looking at how easily I was given away. I am afraid of how numb I am because underneath is a lot of pain and anger. I am afraid of acknowledging the fact that I think I am valuable. I have to go now, I wrote to him. That last one made me cry.
That’s it, HBL wrote back. That’s your voice. Keep going.
And so I kept going, shocked that the whiny, scared, vulnerable voice I’d spent a lifetime of song and dance trying to cover up was the very thing that was going to bring me to story. I went at it hard, and two months later I had a finished manuscript, and the start of a true romance with myself, a relationship deeply damaged by closed adoption and a lifetime of feeling unknowable and therefore unlovable by both myself and everyone else.
I also wrote this in You Don’t Look Adopted:
When I wrote once to HBL from New York after a long day of feeling I was saying nothing that mattered, nothing that was worth giving up everything to create he responded You've said to me that I've changed your life but I've never really said that to you. That's because until the other night when Paul asked about his birthmother, I didn't realize how much you've changed my life. You have made me see the vital importance of allowing my kids to talk about their adoption, good or bad. You've made me open my eyes to the possibility that Danny’s withdrawal could have something to do with active or latent feelings of abandonment he may have. What if I'd never met you? I would have been blind to that and let my kids flounder. This is why your book is important. This is why your story is important. This is why you are so damn valuable. Well, there are many, many reasons for that. But this is your work, your story, and it's infinitely more important than most.
I probably should have written most of that in caps.
So here’s what I want to tell you: HBL really wants to talk to his kids about adoption but he is afraid of what might result from opening what feels to him like a Pandora’s box. What if, he worries, he makes the issues worse? What if the boys’ struggles have nothing to do with adoption and by bringing up the topic, HBL just adds to his sons’ worries? He told me that he imagines sitting on the edge of his older son’s bed and talking about adoption only to see his fifteen-year-old son’s head spin on its axis and green stuff come pouring out of his mouth.
HBL is really smart. Talking with him is like playing the best tennis of my life, and yet when he thinks about asking his boys what they feel about being adopted, he is reduced to images of horror movies: black widows pouring out of freshly exposed wounds and mouths open wide shooting green liquid all over the walls.
Before he’d met me, he’d thought he and his wife had done everything right when it came to the boys’ adoptions. They’d been in the room when the birth happened; they’d cut the cords; they had books with the birthparents’ pictures in them for each boy. They’d covered the topic and then clapped their hands clean, onward and upward.
The fact that the boys have skin conditions, learning disabilities, and depression issues was not something HBL, his wife, or anyone in the boys’ schools had connected as possibly being connected to the trauma of adoption; the parents had, after all, been open about the adoptions. What else were they supposed to do?
And this is what I want to know. What else are they supposed to do as parents of 11- and 14-year-old adopted boys? I don’t know because I had no specialized treatment, ever, that addressed the trauma associated with my adoption. I didn’t even KNOW adoption was considered traumatic until last year when I finally, for the first time, googled “adoption”. The therapists I went to had gone to the school of all adoptees are lucky because they went to good parents and so, at 52, I still struggle with the ability to attach and feel real in the world, among other things. It’s hard for me to focus. Hard for me to believe anyone would want to hire me. I feel like throwing up even writing these things. People cover wounds for a reason: they feel the wounds are ugly and they are afraid someone might stick a finger into the damage and make it worse.
So, without slamming parents who adopt, can I get some ideas for how to broach the topic of adoption with teenagers or nearly teenagers when it is a subject you basically swept under the carpet? I can’t tell you how healing it has been to have HBL in my life. I can say to him, I have a funny feeling the trauma of adoption is at the root cause for the eye condition for which my friend (who was adopted) has gone to over 22 doctors and has yet to find a cure, and HBL doesn’t scoff. He thinks about the infant being separated from the mother and how this might affect the brain and the nerves to the eye. He is an engineer. He reasons. And he lets me talk.
I want to help him with his boys. I want to help him be as present with them in their feelings about being adopted as he is with me. The thing is, when I was a teenager, I don’t know that I could have talked about adoption. I felt so fundamentally, sickeningly awful about myself that talking about feelings would have felt like a death threat.
What do you think? What should he say when he sits on the edge of his sons’ beds and wants to hear their hearts? How do you talk to people who don’t even know what they are feeling?
I love you. I know that’s always a good start. I just don’t know what comes next.