Most of my life I have felt as if I am either running to catch up to something (me) or running to escape something (me). Yesterday I walked for three hours because I was trying to do both. I’d started reading The Spirit of Open Adoption by James Gritter, and I was feeling too much; I was feeling like an exploding spider, too much leg and not enough escape.
In the introduction, Gritter writes about adoption and secrecy, shame, respect, and honor. He quoted Gary Smalley and John Trent’s definition of honor:
Honor is a decision we make to place a high value, worth, and importance on another person by viewing him or her as a priceless gift and granting him or her a position in our lives worthy of great respect; and Love involves putting that decision into action.
I started walking towards Campbell and I did something stupid: I called my father. I wanted to see if he had any ideas of how I could get someone like my mother (if she were still alive) to read an essay or story or sentence about adoption.
(If you ever saw the movie Pushing Tin, you will remember the scene where Billy Bob Thornton and John Cusack stand on the runway as a 747 lands so they can get blown into the air by the wake turbulence. That’s what the phrase “Mom, can we talk about my feelings about adoption?” would have done to my mom. I was intuitive enough to not even try to land that plane of discussion around her, and, by extension, anyone else until I lost it at 51 and it all came pouring out.)
Talking with my dad about feelings is like trying to stuff a week’s worth of groceries into a baggie. The poor guy. My dad likes to talk about politics and weather. I like to talk about feelings, so our conversations have never, historically, flowed. I don’t read the paper or watch the news, and I probably couldn’t find Syria on a map if you paid me, and then I call him and want to talk about adoptees and feelings. I’d be a baggie too, if I were him.
I talked for about seven minutes explaining my current thoughts on the importance of getting parents who adopt to read more about how the whole process affects their children, and then my father said, “You know, Anne, my stomach is getting hungry.”
I went numb and in less than a second’s time, I turned thirteen.
“Okay, Dad,” I said. “That’s great. I know we can only talk about me for a couple of minutes. You go and focus on yourself. Bye.” I heard him say I love you, but I was too busy trying to be the first one to hang up to say it back. I walked and cried and imagined getting a vacuum cleaner and emptying his bank account. I wanted SOMETHING from him, and if I couldn’t have his attention, I would take his money.
Remember: I am 52 years old. I am an adult. But I am also adopted, and as an adoptee, I am a child, for the needs I have: to be mirrored, heard, understood, are those of a child needing to develop a healthy sense of an independent self. (Something I am working at doing. But, holy cow, it’s slow going.)
I walked and walked and walked. I did not want to be who I was. I did not want to be an adult having a tantrum. I did not want to need my father to listen to me. I did not want to need to be heard so desperately. I did not want to have needs. I wanted a do-over. I wanted to feel like everything was going to be okay.
There's this thing that happens in your brain when you click into a decision or you click into this sense of knowing. It’s like a knob turns and settles into the right grove and you feel all systems are go. That’s what I wanted. To feel dialed in, but I’m like a train that runs slightly off the tracks, and this feeling keeps my brain busy seeking balance so I don’t pass out and land face down on the sidewalk or burst into tears for no reason I can name.
Politics, anyone? Weather? I mean, really, how do you--not just talk to--but honor someone who has the needs of a child? How do you place high value on someone who is hardwired because of early abandonment to believe she is worthless?
I think the answer has to do with your ability to listen. The more I connect with other adoptees, the more I sense their need to feel heard. And what does feeling heard look like? It doesn’t mean saying you feel the same way and volleying back with your experiences and memories. It means listening. It means repeating some important points to show you are processing what she said and that you are checking in to see if you heard correctly. It means asking questions. Not interrupting. It means not judging, being an active ear.
HBL is the best listener I know. I met him less than a year ago, and I’m convinced I wouldn’t have written my book if it wasn’t for his daily texts and calls. He heard me. He asked questions. He made me feel like a treasure because his interest in both me and what I thought seemed boundless. I’m still getting used to the fact that I am free to talk about adoption all I want with HBL. Even when I say things that are hard for him, a father of two adopted boys, to hear, he stays with me, keeps me talking. I’ve never had that with anyone. Talking about adoption with people is like talking about herpes. It gets embarrassing for both parties fast, and there isn’t anything you can do about it. It’s not like you can fix it. It’s permanent.
Gritter wrote, “I am convinced that most of the beauty in the realm of adoption is integrally linked to its pain.” How do you sell pain to a listener? How do I get someone like my mother, a person who adopted a child for the beauty of family, to admit the connection to pain, and to not run from it? To run towards it?
I don’t know. And it keeps me moving.
My father, by the way, called back later that day. He apologized for listening to his stomach instead of to me. We agreed that my family had a low tolerance for talking about adoption. I thanked him for calling, said I loved him, and said I had to go because I had to work.