I’ve noticed many adopted people love drama. They love helping others who are in trouble, giving away the shirt on their back when they can’t even afford to buy a new one. They love the spin cycle on the washer more than the safe hold of the soak. They love the heartbreak of not feeling understood. The fear of death. The sadness of loss. They love to feel really bad. They love when their stomachs and heads hurt. They love the mysterious illnesses that befall them and keep them home from school, from work. They love feeling different from their friends in unnamable ways. They love feeling isolated, dirty, wrong, unwanted. They love hating themselves; they love thinking about ways to step into traffic and ending it all without leaving a mess for anyone to have to clean up. They love feeling miserable on their birthdays, stuck both wanting the celebration of who they are to go on forever and for the day to never happen so they don’t have to remember her. They love seeing that their parents are a different race than they are. They love being much taller, much shorter, much thinner, much fatter, much darker, much paler than their parents and siblings. They love the anxiety that comes with making a new friend; they love living with the belief that whatever you love goes away.
How many social workers and therapists are adopted? I have no idea, but I sure know many of them.
I realized something about myself in this past year of coming out of the fog, or, as Lesli Johnson recently said on the podcast Adoptees On, coming into the truth. I realized that if I can choose between two places to stick my face, a warm box of empty air or a heart-pounding bath of acid, more often than not, I’d pick the acid.
What this means is that if I can choose between going to the hairstylist and getting a trim or cutting all my hair off in a dramatic move of, I’ll have to fight the urge to ask him to shave my head. My body loves the sick rush of you are in so much trouble I get when I undergo a drastic change: quitting a job, breaking up a relationship, going on a diet, changing my hair color. This rush feeds me in a way that an hour walk in a forest doesn’t. The rush makes me feel like everything is in the process of falling apart, and this makes me feel at home.
The body, however, does not like stress. It does not thrive on a diet of acid. My brain is tired. My muscles are not as strong as they used to be, and it’s not just because of age. Stress eats muscle. It eats brain. I am 52 and need to start treating myself like an adoptee-athlete-in-training in order to keep my head clear and my spirit up.
When my mother died a handful of years ago, a part of my brain thought I would soon follow. I was zero-percent prepared to lose someone I had bonded with in a way that was not entirely healthy. Can you imagine if there had been classes available to me in high school or college (or now!), something like The Adoptee’s Relationship to Parents? Just imagining that stops me cold. I would have been seen. I would have been given tools to help me negotiate a world about which the majority of the people around me were entirely clueless. I would have known my crazy feelings were not my fault—I would have known I was just behaving as many other adoptees behave. I would have seen that I was not a problem. I was just myself on adoption.
Thinking I will die soon is yet another way to stick my head in the acid bath of anxiety. When I have that thought, that I am going to die soon, I have all sorts of proof: a mole on my shoulder, headaches midday, a strange taste in my mouth. A sore throat. A hangnail.
What if I decide I am going to live to 100? The shift in my body is almost audible. I have the right to think that thought. I have the ability. I don’t have to live in stress. Repeat: I don’t have to live in stress. Just because my entrance to the world, my birth, the disappearance of my birth mother, who knows what for ten weeks, new forever parent strangers after that, a lifetime of being told that being adopted made no difference, that I was their child, theirs, so please don’t talk about it, just because this was stressful doesn’t mean the rest of my life has to be.
Just because, at 50, I woke up one morning with the vision of what it might have been like to be born and to not go to my mother’s arms, just because the flood of feelings was borderline unbearable, just because the shock of the unthinkable made tears run daily for almost a year and a half, none of that meant I had to live an entire life fed by trauma. There was the process of coming out of the fog, coming into the truth. For that year and a half, I did more than put just my face into the acid bath of trauma, I went for a long swim, and, much to my amazement, it turns out there is another side, a shore onto which I can crawl. There is home on the other side of this, and the home, I am finding, is my body, the safety of my mind.
A home I need to keep clean. A home that takes a lot of work to maintain. When you have a newborn, you are careful it gets enough food, enough sleep, enough attention. As a “woke” adoptee, I am no different. I have lived with a dysregulated nervous system my whole life, and I need to be very mindful to keep it regulated. This means I have dropped some friends, the ones who asked me again and again to bathe in acid when they dumped their problems on me. This means I am more careful with money so I don’t have the stress of I am broke and in so much trouble. This means I don’t read Facebook posts where people call each other names. This means I don’t engage in arguments that aren’t about things I deeply, deeply care about. This means I don’t go along with the stream of thoughts when my brain decides to catalogue all the ways I am not good enough. It means I do my best to avoid sugar and alcohol, two things that lead me quickly to depression. It means I try to get outside at least an hour a day to walk so that my body can feed on nature. It means I take a lot of photographs so I can put my attention on things I think are beautiful instead of on my thoughts that spin. It means I do less, mindful of my need for private time so I can reset my nervous system. It means I cultivate friendships with people I feel fed by, people I feel I can also feed. It means I rub coconut oil into my skin every night before I take a shower as a way of saying, Hello, Body. Thank you for being there. I have only slipped in the shower once so far.
I do not have a “normal” life. That list above takes a tremendous amount of time. I don’t have a full-time job. I have a home provided to me by friends as I try to figure out how to be a woke adoptee and be able to also be fully functioning in the world. Sometimes, as you might imagine, this causes me a great deal of stress. What if I never figure it out? What if I am always relying on the kindness of friends to help me through this life? But I remind myself it is my mind’s job to try to get a rise out of me, a reaction. I am working on being the boss of me. I don’t have to listen to my crazy mind. I can go big-mind and focus instead on my life-goal of loving myself and others. If my thoughts aren’t in line with that goal, I can dismiss those thoughts.
I have not lived my future, and so how can I think I can know what is going to happen? How can I know what my life will be like when I do not continually put my face in the acid bath of trouble? Everything is changing: that much I do know. I don’t even recognize myself sometimes because for so long I have known myself in relationship to agitation, to upset, to fear. Who is this still box of air? And what is she going to happen next? And then I get agitated, fearful, looking for control. I remind myself to breathe, to feel my feet, to feel the joint between my big toe and my foot. I remind myself that I am not the story of who I am. I remind myself that everything is okay. I remind myself that I know love. That I have a daughter I love. Friends. I remind myself that birds fly.
I had a private yoga class recently with Kent Bond, and near the end he put a semi-deflated ball under my back, and I lay on it, resting my head on a yoga block. Kent put a strap around my bent knees so it took no effort for me to keep them together. The ball opened my heart, made my shoulders fall open. I closed my eyes and breathed and something happened. Kent told me to imagine my abdomen was a lake unstirred by breeze, and after a few breaths my middle stilled, and there I was, my legs and arms resting by the lake of me. I don’t feel that way now. I’m writing and not breathing deeply and my shoulders are caved in because that’s how my posture is when I’m at the computer, but I remember how lying by the lake of myself felt, and that memory is in my body.
I believe anything is possible. I believe I can live to one hundred. I believe that one day I can hold the child of my child and sing to her, quietly, so as to let her rest.