Etch-a-Sketching the Self
When I sit with someone, I do this thing: I clear myself. It’s like wiping clean an Etch-a-Sketch—I quickly swipe an eraser over the stories of myself, over my opinions, over my needs, over my habits—so I can mirror the other person and become whom he or she needs.
I’ve become really good at asking questions. Having dinner or coffee with me is like being on the Today Show. I’m going to throw questions at you until the curtain goes down. I found years ago that if I get people to talk about themselves, I can relax behind the screen of their words. Inevitably, however, there comes the point where I feel like a container that has been overfilled, and suddenly I become unspeakably angry.
My face gets hard and full of hate. Don’t these people know I also have things to say? Am I invisible? What makes them think it is okay to do all the talking? I have broken up with more than one boyfriend because of this. I have cried in bars, at restaurants, in cars, on the phone, when I feel so overfilled with someone’s words I think I might explode and die. And the poor person just sits there like I hit him on the head with a shovel. Two seconds ago I was Jane Pauley and suddenly I’m not cheerfully full of questions and smiles. Suddenly I’m tearful and accusatory.
The thing is, I don’t want to talk. Existing has a high price when you are adopted. Generally, part of the deal of being loved and supported by the parents who adopted you is agreeing that, yes, the name you were born with is gone. Yes, the mother and father who created you are irrelevant and as good as dead and definitely not worth any conversation. Yes, your feelings of loss and sadness and confusion are not worthy of discussion. Yes, you will live as if they are your “real” parents and you are their “real” child (the word choice of "real" was made by others, not by you). Yes, you’ll always try to be good because you know they chose you and that you were lucky to have good parents.
So how can a person who has made this kind of deal supposed to know how to talk? Where do I even start? “I” isn’t solid, and talking without “I” is like skating with no ice. It’s better to stay quiet. For as long as you can. Until you (I) think you (I) will lose your (my) mind.
The other thing is, I want to talk; I just don’t know how to do it without feeling I am taking up too much space or too much oxygen or asking someone to pay attention to someone who inherently has nothing of interest or worth to say. And this is a hard hurdle to clear. When faced with a person sitting across the table from me, I often feel like Lamb Chop without Shari Lewis or Charlie McCarthy without Edgar Bergen. A mouth without words. If you grow up feeling the way so many adoptees do: unreal, untethered, unwanted and if you have the same sort of brain that spins with the anxiety of where is she, who am I, what really happened, it’s hard to make small talk, never mind big talk. It’s hard to have opinions, needs, desires. Ask an adoptee where he wants to eat, and chances are good he’ll say, “I don’t know. Where do you want to eat?”
Why? Because he doesn’t know who he is, and if you don’t know who you are, how do you know what you want to eat. Capisce?
The most terrible thing about teaching for me was the walk from my classroom to the car. I would tear myself apart, feeling sick and narcissistic and wrong for having talked so much, for having said so many stupid things, for having demanded so much of the spotlight. I was an attention hog and that was why I’d chosen to be a teacher. The poor kids were trapped in the classroom with me: they had no choice but to listen if they wanted a decent grade.
I can’t imagine what it would feel like to teach and not hate myself afterwards. It would be so gentle, so easy. So fun. What would it be like to live like that?
I’m determined to find out.
This problem resides in the core of my being. It’s like my batteries are rotted and so when I go deep within in order to find greater self-understanding and acceptance, what I find is disease. Dis-ease. But how can I even talk about this stuff when no one wants to hear that a beautiful, articulate person has to battle herself like crazy in order not to believe she is a complete waste of breath? No one wants to take on stories that don’t have the hope of ending happily ever after.
Normally I would not tell you these things, but I was up much of the night reading from the blog Confessions of an Adoptee (http://confessions-of-an-adoptee.tumblr.com) and the news is not good. Adoptees are hurting, and the thing that they need most, I think, is to be heard. But people, especially parents who adopt, have a hard time with the listening part because this involves hearing about pain without reaching for solutions. And YOU CAN NOT REPAIR AN ADOPTEE’S WOUND. The irony is, I don’t think most adoptees even want you to—the pain is the one thing that is for sure theirs, the one thing from their birth they can still claim.
So here’s the good news: all you have to do is listen. Let them have their say. Cry with them. Feel. It’s okay.
I’m learning that living with a wound is, amazingly enough, awesome. It means I am often so full of feeling I think I may die, so I am learning to feel more. I am learning to handle more sensation than I could last year, yesterday. Because of my wound, and my acceptance of it, my love of it, I am more alive.