My friend Joe Loya robbed banks without ever using a gun. One day he robbed a bank and walked across the street and robbed that one, too.
I’m thinking it’s my turn.
I’ve always had a problem with money. There just never was enough. And when I did have what approached enough, I got rid of it as quickly as possible. I can’t tell you how much stuff I have bought and then given away. I have bought a non-refundable plane ticket to halfway across the world and then I didn’t go on the trip. I have paid for classes and not attended them. I have bought an entire set of All-Clad pans and then left them behind with someone who doesn’t cook.
For as unsettling as it is to have just a few dollars in the bank, having money I don’t need right away is like bringing my lunch with me in the car when I’m going to be driving all day. By 10 a.m. the lunch is gone, even if I wasn’t hungry.
Then I get to live in worry again.
In his YouTube video on adoption, Paul Sunderland says, “There is no relinquishment without trauma. There is no adoption without trauma.” The trauma of relinquishment is about “The grief of a child, of a baby, who has been waiting nine months to meet somebody who they are not going to meet.”
I am most myself when I live right on the edge of losing. When I can feel the shocked breathlessness of I may not survive this.
I watched the movie Lion the other night. There is a scene near the end where Saroo finally breaks down and tells his mother, Sue, he has been looking for his birth mother, a fact he has kept secret for fear of hurting Sue. Nicole Kidman, the actress who plays Sue, looked so much like my own mother with her pale eyes and delicate face that when Sue looked at her son and told him with all the love in her soul right there on her face that she wanted him to find his birth mother, I felt something had been stolen from me.
I know a young man who had to drop out of college because he couldn't wake up to get to class, to do his homework, to spend time with friends. I met with him recently and he looked happier than I had seen in a long time. “I have a diagnosis,” he said. “They finally know what it is I have.” He rattled off a string of Latin words. “What does that mean?” I ask. “It means, for unknown reasons, I can’t wake up,” he said.
A doctor had sat and listened to this young man after years of appointments where he was told, again and again, variations of “You just need to get out of bed.” If he could have woken up and gone to class, he would have. And, for as ridiculous as the diagnosis was, the truth of the situation is that the doctor had heard the young man, and he had mirrored back for him his experience of his life. And, in being heard, the young man felt he had made progress, had a better handle on his life because a doctor had listened well enough to name his situation.
I went from zero to gasping sobs when Saroo’s mom looked him in the eye and said yes to his finding his birth mother. I could not imagine what it would have felt like to have been so completely accepted by my mother, to not have felt there was some dark pocket of me that she feared and possibly…what? What is it you are feeling when someone brings up a topic and you run from the room? Disappointment? Revulsion?
I would like to feel confident enough to walk into a bank and to know I had the conviction of my own desires. The conviction that the fact I wanted the money was going to override the fact that everyone else in the bank didn’t want me to have the money. I would have to override a lifetime of trying to upset the fewest number of people so I didn’t risk abandonment. I would like to stride into a bank and drop the squeezing skin of adoption at the door and just go for what I want in life.
If you have a trauma at the beginning of your life, there was no you beforehand, and so you believe the post-traumatic behaviors you develop to survive are who you are. There is no pre-trauma personality. And so many adoptees, even when they are 52 years old, like I am, have no idea who they really are. They never got to just be.
The fact that adoption equals trauma is not a given out in the world where adoptees are routinely told they are lucky. It’s like telling my sleeping friend he should be grateful he gets so much rest. It ignores the heart of the problem. Before adoptees got lucky, they got their hearts broken, but adoptees are reluctant to talk about their feelings because few people aside from other adoptees want to hear stories about broken hearts that can’t be made into a Ryan Gosling movie.
I carry a disbelief that I lost as much as I did and that the person I most needed to understand and empathize, my mother, wouldn’t let the subject of birth mother in the room. And that disbelief can turn to a seeping rage or sorrow that comes out at odd times, for seemingly no reason. It’s doubly confusing because I don’t actively think about all of this. Most of the time I don’t even know what’s going on. I just think that, out of nowhere, I’m furious or depressed.
Like a summer storm my feelings hit me and then I just go along for the ride, causing destruction, throwing pens, getting fired. Stormy emotions as well as a floaty numbness been the background music in my brain since I was born so I don’t even notice it. I think it’s normal.
I don’t know what triggers me. I just know that all my life managing my emotions has been a full-time job. It’s hard to plan ahead when I have no idea how I will feel, whether I will be too sad or angry or just too generally upset to focus properly. And because I look normal, because I act fairly normal, people have no idea how hard I work to be me.
I would dress up to rob the bank. I’d be tempted to go jeans and slouch, but in the end I think I would go for the style of Bonnie and Clyde. I might even wear heels. That certainly would be a disguise! I would want to dress up to celebrate my own hubris. I might even wear a hat. Eyeliner. Maybe I would go to Tiffany’s ahead of time and steal some diamond earrings. I might go to Nordstrom’s and steal some perfume. I would dress myself like I was worth a million bucks.
And then I would shape my hand into a gun, shove it into my skirt pocket, and stride through the heavy door of some belly-heavy financial institution and make my will known.
In a recent episode of This American Life called Transformers, a former prison inmate, Rich was talking about why he had started setting fires as a young man. He said, “When you are told bad things so many times over and over and over and getting hit and you’re getting beat and you can’t get out of the house, you can’t go nowhere, when you finally get out, it’s such a release just to throw things on the fire and watch it get bigger and bigger and bigger it just consumes everything. And it felt like…it was consuming everything that was inside of me so I didn’t have to deal with it no more. The bigger they were, the more things they consumed out of me because when I walked away, even though I smelled like smoke, I felt so much better, like I could take on anything life might throw on me.”
There is the trauma of adoption and there is the trauma of not being mirrored by your parents in a healthy manner. It seems to me the results are the same. Much of the world acts if as it were adopted.
Joe Loya’s mother had died when he was very young, and his father started to beat him. When Joe would go to rob banks, his body would start to shut down, and sometimes he would pull over to the side of the road and play Comfortably Numb, loud, until he was cold enough with rage to get the car back on the road. He was going to take what hadn’t been given to him.
It wasn’t about the money. It was about love. And this need got him a long time in jail, almost a year in solitary. Use your words, I used to tell my daughter when she was small and angry and lashing out for no reason I could understand. I wanted her to see that if she could say what she wanted, I would do everything in my power to give it to her.
Use your words.
I would walk up to the bank teller, and I would remember what it was like the first time I was in Los Angeles and realized there was mountains, a world, behind what turned out to be a screen of smog. I could be the smog or I could be the mountains. Somewhere there was the real Anne. I just needed to find her. The teller would see me, a tall woman with short blond hair, someone dressed in the style of the 1930’s with a slim skirt and a tight sweater. A woman who smelled like lemons. A woman whose mouth trembled as she smiled. Later, the teller would say, “She could have been my sister. She took me completely by surprise.”
Paul Sunderland said, “For the adoptee, the issue of abandonment is life threatening.” The adoptee lives with the hunger to attach along with the contradictory feeling of This is not safe.
To want love and to be terrified of it is exhausting. Bad behavior is one way to deal with the deep distress of knowing you can see the heart of life but can’t touch it, can’t have it.
I have a lot of friends for whom I want to buy presents. A lot of friends I need to repay. But the first thing I am going to do with all my money is to buy a new car, something really fast with tinted windows and a great sound system.
I should have said, "Mom, I need to talk to you. There is something missing and I don't know what it is. I am in so much trouble." And she, because she'd done research on how adoption affects children should have said, "I hear you, Sweetheart. Many adoptees have a deep feeling of loss they don't even know how to talk about. Do you want to sit down and try to draw what you imagine your birth mother looks like? I bet she misses you. I bet you miss her."
We could have drawn my birth mother together. I would have pulled my chair close to my mother's chair. Our arms would have touched as we put crayon to paper and created a whole new world.
The car I will get will be a deep blue. It will have 6 cylinders. When I drive off the lot, I will put Aerosmith's Sweet Emotion on repeat, and I will burn rubber out of the lot. I have so many places to go. So many fires to set.