When I was little, my mother used to warn me when I was hyper with happiness, “Calm down or else you’ll be crying soon.” I thought about this because the other day, I was bright with joy. I was writing snappy texts to my friend. I wrote “I am so full of myself today; you better watch out!” And I was so full of myself. I could feel my body in my body, and I loved the world. I loved that I could sit and watch a movie if I wanted or go for a swim or see someone I knew on the street and say hi. It was all so fun and exciting.
But the next day I woke up deep in the doldrums, my brain telling me you’re in trouble, you’re in trouble. The rest of the day continued in emotionally rocky territory. I wanted to cry, I just didn’t know why or have a definite enough reason to make the tears come. So they just kind of leaked out as the day went on. I hurt.
Before, when I didn’t let myself think much about adoption and I started feeling sad out of nowhere, I would have just said, “I don’t know,” when my friends asked what was wrong with me, but now I have a different idea. I think the trauma I felt as an infant was still trying to make its way out of my body.
Being adopted can make you feel insane. I have a friend who is adopted who spent some time, as she says, in the mental hospital. She went there because the anti-depressants her doctor had put her on had backfired and had made her suicidal. But because doctors in general are ill-informed about the lingering effects of adoption, no one talked to my friend about what was REALLY making her depressed—not, I would argue, the chemicals in her brain, but the dagger-in-the-heart question Why did my mother give me away? that, unaddressed, can eat at one’s ability to fully function in the world—and in, what I see as a wild misdiagnosis, the doctors almost killed her.
Once, when my daughter was four, during her birthday party I lost her in The Jungle, one of those huge places kids play in tunnels. The moment I realized she was gone, my internal body collapsed in terror. I tried to focus, tried to think of what to do first. I grabbed my husband and asked him to search the men’s room. I was so afraid I could barely move, and so my friends moved for me, scouring the place until they found her burying herself in the plastic balls, having the time of her life.
For many people, for me, living as an adoptee is living with that feeling all the time. The good news is that the body and the mind can’t keep up that crippling level of anxiety, and so there is a numbing. The feeling gets muffled, sometimes almost silenced, but it’s there, and more often than not I think adoptees have the distracting sense that something is wrong, but they just don’t know what, and so they cause problems on which they can blame their grief or anger or confusion.
For example, when I was younger, I could get these feelings by not doing my homework. As an adult, I have found being in debt is useful to me because then I KNOW why I think I’m stupid and incapable of caring for myself: I don’t know how to handle money. Dumb me. What an idiot. I can beat myself up because who sells a perfectly good car just to buy a new one when she doesn’t even have a job. Debt is great. I can have the satisfaction of trying to exist in the world by buying things and then I can punish myself later for being out of control.
Breaking up with people is also a wonderful way to feel really bad. Stealing is cool because you get stuff and then you get to feel awful for how you did it. Lying is helpful. You can say whatever you want and then feel like you are wearing a mask. Setting fires can be a good one. You can exhibit some of your anger and then feel like a criminal for damaging property. As you can see, there are so many behaviors where an adoptee can exhibit the complicated nature of her brain.
The problem is that if everything is going well in my life, I don’t have the opportunity to let off adoption grief (which I had never named before—I thought maybe I was just super moody or bipolar) and then I’m in the uncomfortable position of being a happy person with a well of aching discomfort built up inside of her. I have to do something to let it out: break up with my boyfriend, overeat, say something mean, get drunk. Something.
There is god-awful battle going on in my brain. There’s the me who loves herself and her life and everyone in it. Her name is Sunshine. She is confident and curious and smart. Then there’s the me who came into being in the gap between when I was born and when I was adopted and her name is Hari Kari. Her job is to kill Sunshine, and she’s really good at it, because she has logic on her side: how can Sunshine exist when her own mother didn’t want her? Nope. Sunshine has to go. The thing is, Sunshine sees the good in herself and so she tries mightily to defeat Hari Kari. She tries to be the good girl. She tries to make others happy. But then Hari Kari hands Sunshine a knife, and Sunshine can’t help herself because she feels Hari Kari’s fury that this life was not the life she was born to—this is a shadow life, and nothing makes sense and so she does some damage and Sunshine isn’t such a good girl after all. She’s adopted, and god only knows where she came from, and so even though she is so lucky, even though she was chosen, there is clearly something wrong with her, and she’s just not who her family thought. She’s such a disappointment. Maybe Sunshine cuts herself. Maybe she cuts someone else. She does something bad because, at least for now, Hari Kari has lead position in the brain, a fact for which Sunshine will later pay dearly.
I have a dear friend to whom I talk to about my feelings. He has two adopted boys and has a lot at stake when it comes to learning about adoption. He told me nothing makes him happier than holding me when I cry. When I was young and lost, there was a day I could not stop crying. I think I scared my father, for neither he nor my mother could see what was so wrong. Why was I crying? I wasn’t hurt. I wasn’t hungry. I couldn’t even tell them what was wrong. Why was I, at eighteen, being such a baby? My father had finally said, “Enough of this crying. Stop,” and had walked out of the room. It was a reasonable response, but for an adopted person, I am finding, there may never be “enough” time for crying if the person is trying hard to hold it in. I have a feeling that the more my friend holds me and lets me sob, the less I will need to cry in the future. Holding it back has been so painful. I hear of adoptees with chronic fatigue, skin conditions, fibromyalgia, depression, you get the idea. I’m starting to wonder what would happen to these illnesses if an adoptee, no matter the age, was held and allowed to acknowledge the grief that is associated with adoption. If the adoptee was allowed—allowed himself, herself—to cry. Perhaps for years.
And that’s a hundred times better than depressed.