I had a client who had gone to a High Tea party where wealthy women had dressed up, put on fancy hats, and convened at a house to drink cannabis tea. My client said they had sipped their tea from china cups and then had walked around for an hour saying, “Are you high yet?” She handed me a gift bag. “I didn’t feel much,” she said, “but this is for you. I got you the kind that is supposed to relax you and make you feel like you had a massage. Maybe your experience will be different from mine. Happy birthday.”
I’m not a big cannabis person, but I am curious. Tea that will make me feel like I had a massage? I had it for breakfast the next morning.
It was a long day.
I didn’t feel like I’d had a massage. I felt as if someone had vacuumed out a section of my brain I needed to go out into the world and accomplish tasks. I lay on the floor and waited to feel normal. And then I realized There is no normal for you. You’re adopted. Your brain is, 99.9 % of the time, in spin-mode. And so I decided the best thing I could do with my time was to slip under the tightly closed door of my secret life and write about the subject I least wanted to write about when straight: my relationship to money.
I might as well have thought, I think I’ll take off all my clothes and run downtown. Running naked in pubic rarely goes well. But there I was, high on the floor with my computer on my belly, dreamily typing, sometimes with tears running down the sides of my face, about me and money. More accurately, about me and debt.
(I rewrote what follows at Peets days later when I was high only on caffeine, trying to keep pace with that false courage I had found during my private tea party.)
I was reading about Harriet Tubman last night and am painfully aware that to even talk about my “problems” with money is ridiculous. But I also know that our problems are our problems, and if we dismiss them because other people have much more...what? pressing? difficult? problems, we minimize our own. And while minimizing your problems can be a wonderful way to reframe your position and see how good everything actually is, it can also be a way of dismissing what is desperately crying for attention.
We carry our own crying babies inside our guts, and it is our job to nurture these tender creatures and show them everything will be okay because Mama or Daddy is there. In other words, your adult self will care for what is fragile in you when you are your strongest, when you are running on all 6 cylinders.
To be perfectly clear, Harriet Tubman had to run on the banks of rivers at night with men chasing her while I had to face the ATM as it told me I had a lot less money than I’d thought. If I were up in the sky, picking between the two lives, I’d pick mine: white woman with expensive jeans stressing in front of a bank. But if I don’t mind sounding like a jerk, which I guess I don’t, I’ll tell you that what is happening to my nervous system in front of the ATM makes me feel as though my life is in mortal danger. So, hate me, but fear is fear and whether you are running from men and dogs or you are thinking you will soon be living in your car, both can tell your brain you are about to die, and the body, all your organs, all your tissues, get drenched with stress hormones. You are in so much trouble yourself tells yourself. Run. Or lie down and pretend you are dead.
In a year I have gone from thinking adoption has had no effect on my life to thinking there is nothing in my life not affected by adoption, and money is no exception. Recently I had a client (when I say client I am referring to people who come to me for deep tissue massage) who talked about her son. He is in college now, and what contact they have generally have has to do with cash and his almost constant need for it. When he comes home, he’ll ask her to take him clothes shopping, and when he leaves for school she will find the new shirts they bought, tags still on, laying on the floor of his bedroom.
He’d told her he was desperate for new shirts. My friend, while comfortable, does not live in a house paved with gold bricks. A new shirt is a real cost for her, but she wants to make sure her son feels nurtured, loved, and that he gets his needs met. And so she gives him money and takes him shopping. The son has had his struggles. He’d taken the previous year off school because he’d had problems managing his anxiety in college. There had been fears of overdosing. Of suicide. And so there is this feeling of just get him through the day. And, my friend hopes, since money and new shirts are what he asks for, maybe those are the things that will save him.
My friend’s son isn’t adopted, but I’ve found that when I’m talking with anyone who is dealing with some sort of past trauma in his or her life, resulting behaviors and beliefs parallel those of adoptees.
Why, when I am writing about adoption would I include a lengthy example about someone who is not adopted? It’s because I’m a connector, and while I do think that adoptees come with specific health and attachment issues (You can’t take separate someone from his birth mother and father and not have repercussions. Go ahead, argue with me. Tell me about your niece who is adopted and who has no issues. Then let me ask her a couple of questions. Questions you hadn’t known to ask.) many people who are not adopted have the same issues.
So while many people relate to adoptees’ struggles because so many people suffer from issues related to trauma or abandonment, it’s just that while it looks the same, it’s different. Because they’ve been separated from their mother planet, adoptees come from Mars. Everyone else comes from Earth. But the rest is pretty much comparable: depression, ADD, addiction issues, skin conditions. The grocery list of human discomfort.
(And just to throw a wrench into an already convoluted essay, while the boy in this story wasn’t adopted, his mother was. And I have noticed that it’s not uncommon for unexpressed anxieties regarding adoption to show up in adoptees’ children.
And when it comes to money, as with most things, things are more complicated for adoptees. Most of us were, after all, purchased. So there’s that. The awareness of value, as in, I cost my parents $700. (Or whatever, I don’t know the exact amount. It was 1964 and the paperwork is gone.) You might think having a price tag might make one feel valuable (Wow!! SEVEN HUNDRED DOLLARS!! THAT’S A LOT OF NICKELS!), but I would argue that something else happens, and it has to do with the fact that a human being should not have a price tag. The feeling of being bought is the opposite of feeling valued. If you were sold, you are powerless. Take that another step, and because you feel disempowered, you also feel worthless.
What feels really good when you feel powerless or worthless? Spending money. Suddenly you have power of choice. The power of purchasing what you want. Suddenly you are worth something: a tube of lipstick or a new car or a fish tank. You are valuable when you carry a bulging bag of who even cares what from Target to your car. You OWN that stuff. You are in control of your destiny. Until, of course, the chemical wash of I bought something new washes away and you are a black hole once more, desperate to feel better. Grounded. Real.
I want to get back to my friend and her son. I told her about Paul Sunderland’s Youtube video Adoptees and Addiction and how I had cried watching it because I didn’t know my attitude towards money could be a result of my adoption. I had cried because if my parents had been able to watch something like this when I was 13 (and if they'd been taught to LOOK for resources geared towards helping adoptees thrive), they would have had tools to help steer my wild boat towards smoother waters. And so I wanted my friend to see the hole her son was trying to fill was probably not about the money or the clothes.
Please stop here and go watch that video. I’ll be here when you get back. Go. Watch it now.
So do you see how it makes sense that an adoptee would gravitate towards the stress of I do not have enough and I am in so much trouble? Since the adoptee’s nervous system often lives in the memory of the relinquishment, of the loss of the mother, either consciously or subconsciously, the adoptee’s brain is going to want to keep swimming in the same energetic waters that have been home all its life.
After watching Sunderland's video I finally understood why I have spent a lifetime hating having money in the bank all the while saying one of my top goals is to have money in the bank. Talk about crazy. I’m trying to pump up a basketball and puncture it with a knife at the same time.
Having the security of money in the bank means I am safe. It means I am okay. It means I am valuable and that everything will be okay. And that, as an adoptee who was clueless as to how adoption had affected me, was an untenable feeling. The waters my brain and nervous system had known since birth, since I came together as a person in the womb, told me you are in trouble, you are not wanted, the world is not safe, danger, danger, danger. And as unpleasant as that water was, it was home, and so it was where I most wanted to be. Who wants to live in the world of ease and peace when it makes you feel like you have lost everything closest to you?
And so, if I had money, I all but threw it away. This requires rash decision making and two small storage units full of things I don't use.
When I was a freshman in college, I fell in love with an Ann Taylor leather jacket. It had big shoulder pads and it hung straight and soft. I thought it would make me look cool, valuable. I needed that jacket. I went home and somehow convinced my frugal father to lend me $400, and then, for a long time, I owed him that money. The jacket didn’t make my life better. I sweated at parties because I was afraid someone would steal it if I took it off. No one liked me more because I had an expensive leather jacket. I didn’t even like myself more. But my brain got to run with this new equation: Anne = expensive leather jacket. Also: Anne = father thinking she is worth lending $400 = he must love her. Granted, he didn’t give me the $400, so maybe he didn’t care about me that much (so my brain figured), but if I didn’t pay him back, then he does care about me because he did give me the money, after all. Sort of. And so a terrible pattern is established. Trying to find love through money is like trying to eat cake and build muscle.
Not paying my dad back also gave me a weird way of getting back at my birth mother for giving me up. It gave me a way to hurt someone, and by extension (note radical loss of logic), her. It gave me a sense of power. I could choose not to pay him back. It also equaled stress and a way for an adoptee (me) to feel terrible about myself. And there’s nothing like having sturdy reasons for feeling terrible about yourself when you are an adoptee and things are going well and you are in mortal danger of feeling fine.
Here’s the other crazy message my brain got when my father lent me $400: you’d never be able to earn that money on your own, so someone had to give it to you.
My poor dad. He was just trying to be a good guy, and here I am saying that loan messed me up. But here’s the other thing: if we drop the whole victim mentality thing, this isn’t about labelling actions and things. This essay is about my relationship, as an adoptee, with money, and, as an adoptee, I struggle with relationships, period.
The way I picture it is that when my infant brain realized my birth mother was gone, a break in time happened, a break where the self I was essentially died. For if you are a baby and what made you and is supposed to keep you alive disappears, it makes sense the brain and nervous system would decide you also just disappeared. But your heart keeps beating and your brain keeps functioning, and there you are in some stranger’s arms, still alive. And so you live.
But all your life your brain wants to go back to that moment of sheer panic because that connects you to your source, to who you were before everything changed. And debt is a wonderful way to feel awful.
What is the solution?
I’ve been working with my chiropractor friend Dr. Mark Lucas on finding ways through applied kinesiology to address the distress I carry in my mind and body. I had noticed that my nervous system was…jumpy. I was quick to slip into road rage. Quick to cry. Quick to startle if someone tapped me on the shoulder. I acted like someone who always expected something bad to happen. I had read about the Vagus nerve and about how it helps the body to relax and feel safe, and I started noticing how negative thoughts would come out of nowhere and tell me I was in trouble and then my body would tense and I would feel like I was in trouble. I wanted to break this pattern, and so that's why I contacted Dr. Lucas.
Dr. Lucas is no stranger to trauma. He caught on fire years ago and has lived through pain most of us will never encounter. He’s onto something with the protocols he has developed for me, for people whose nervous systems are caught in the sympathetic pattern of fight or flight. After just a couple of sessions with him, there is an ease in my guts, in my spin of my head, that I don’t remember having in a long time, maybe ever. I am so much less reactive. And I don’t spend money recklessly. I actually have money in the bank. Not a lot, mind you, but more than I had before. And I like it. I like feeling I am part of this planet. Mostly. I’m working on it. The writing has been an essential part, and paired with the bodywork, I am feeling as if I am finally coming home.
I can’t tell you how excited I am. I am 52 years old, and I am changing. Anything is possible.