My friend’s son is a freshman in high school and is failing his classes. This is not new behavior, but the older the boy gets, the more serious the situation becomes. A failed high school career means…mean…what? Does it mean the boy has no future?
My friend thinks of ways to get the boy excited about opportunity. If the boy studies, he can get into college. If he gets into college, he can be whatever he wants to be. You know. That kind of talk. The talk we give. The talk we heard.
But the boy is now lying. He says he took his chemistry test, but he didn’t, and he has a 27% in chemistry. What does this lie serve him? Did he think his parents wouldn’t find out? Did he think his teacher would let it slide?
I wish I could remember my inability to get all my homework done when I was in high school, but I can’t. I just remember often dreading going to school because I was behind, because I hadn’t done the reading, because I just didn’t understand algebra. Molecular biology. The Odyssey. My teachers didn’t understand me. I was a smart kid. I tested well, had a solid I.Q. My parents didn’t understand me. I tested well, had a solid I.Q.
Why did I cheat in math class? Why did I fail molecular biology? Why did I stop reading The Odyssey?
When I try to remember, I get a sick feeling in my gut. Have you ever worked out really hard and then tried to work out the next day and found that you could not lift a weight or run or swim another lap because your body was done? I think that’s what school was like for me much of the time. I was underwater and people were asking me to sing. When you are adopted, for many people, there is a stress on the brain and nervous system that many people have no idea exists, but it’s like we have worked out incredibly hard the day before while everyone else was vacationing at the beach.
I had no idea that I was underwater—I just kept running, just kept eating sugar, just kept reading magazines and dreaming of another, more perfect self—I was living my life with no idea that being formed in the body of a woman who lived with the stress of knowing that she had shamed her family and would have to give me up as soon as she pushed me out, no idea that being separated from her at birth would affect the growth of my brain and my future ability to handle stress, no idea that being raised by loving people who could not adequately mirror me since we came from different root systems, no idea that if I had gone to an adoption competent therapist, my behaviors would have suddenly become normal, and I would have been given tools to deal with the brain and beliefs and nervous system I was lugging around with me.
This is why I think the boy is not doing his homework: every success he has is a nail in the coffin of the person he might have been if he hadn’t been adopted.
I came to this realization just this week as I accomplished some major feats: I filed two years’ worth of taxes (that’s two years of worrying as I fell asleep every night) (and here’s a HUGE shout-out to Dan Olmstead, one of the kindest, sweetest, fastest-driving tax guys a person could find); I renewed my license, and I had a copy made of my car and house key. All of these things assert my place on the planet, and I feel empowered for having accomplished them. Shocked, really. Getting the car key made felt like I was high-fiving god. I got this. I had my own back! I was not going to let myself feel the sinkhole of shitdom when I lost my car key and realized that was the only one, and that I was in big, big trouble. I was not going to have to drive around with an expired license and worry that I wouldn’t be able to get on an airplane or rent a car or that I’d get pulled over and have to pay a big, fat ticket. I didn’t have to worry that the years were going to pile up and I was going to be the person who never paid her taxes and then lost everything because the tax man came calling and took it all away.
Last night I couldn’t sleep because the cat I am taking care of had tags that clinked every time he stirred, and he did more than stir. He busted moves all night long, making his metal tags alarm clock me awake over and over. Then there was the clock that chimed on the hour, chimed heartily, like time was a party and it was there to celebrate. When I told my friend why I hadn’t slept well, he said, “Why didn’t you take off the cat’s collar and move the clock?”
You know why? It never occurred to me. There is a part of my brain that is so used to accommodating itself to uncomfortable situations that instead of thinking about how to break loose, I think about how to endure. I’m like one of those elephants that thinks it’s held by a rope and a pin. All the big guy has to do is walk away and the pin would come right out of the ground, but he thinks he’s stuck.
Being adopted has done something similar to me. The idea of making a space accommodate to my needs does not come naturally to me. I am so used to discomfort that I actually chose it time and time again because it feels like home.
How could my parents have known this? I fantasize about writing a book that will TELL adoptive parents what their kids will go through, an owner’s manual, if you will, so then the parent will take control and make sure the kid gets the professional support and guidance he needs. One problem is the argument that some kids seem untouched by adoption their entire lives, and so what if your kid is one of those kids? Why would you want to cause trouble where no trouble exists?
Just so you know, I’m sliding into migraine right now. This stuff is so hard to write about because I feel like I’m banging my head against a wall. The people who most need to hear this, parents who adopt, are the people most reluctant and fearful to talk about or read about or be proactive about the side-effects of adoption. And adopted kids are dying. They are killing themselves both figuratively and metaphorically.
I think my friend’s son is trying to erase himself by not doing his homework. It’s a way to not exist. It’s also a way to avoid, in a very funny way, disappointing parents who adopted you and hold dreams, like any parents, for your future. Only it’s not like any parents because these parents could return you. Even if that thought never, ever crossed their minds, as an adopted kid chances are really good that at some level, either subconsciously or consciously, it crossed yours. What if, as an adopted kid, you try to live up to the hopes your parents have for you and fail? You might as well just get it over with and fail without trying. At least then you won’t have to face the fact that you are not enough. At least now you have some feeling of control. You chose to fail. Your life is yours.
I am just now, as a mother of a daughter who is no longer a teenager, learning to own my life. I spent the last almost two years processing the fact that adoption has affected just about every bit of me; I have cried the tears of unprocessed grief, and I am ready to start nailing together a house of my making, a place where I can live instead of a place where I will die.
It has been such a long journey. I wish every adopted kid came with a piece of his birth mom and dad’s clothing, a letter from each expressing love, and an adoption-competent therapist who could serve as a kind of Yoda for this hero’s journey we call adoption.
The end for now.