The Stories of Adoption Can Kill Us or Make Us Whole
Usually when I’m thinking about writing a blog post, I have the feeling I’m preparing to scale a wall that’s a little too tall for me. I breathe shallowly, preparing for the starting gun, afraid but also feeling that somewhere along the line choice fell away. It’s like being a kid and standing at the edge of the dock, toes clinging, and the swim teacher saying, “Jump!” The teacher is an adult and there are other kids in the water, so jumping should be safe, but everything in your body is telling you the teacher is insane and the smartest, safest move is to hold on, stay with what you know.
But then you jump and you get to live the explosion of the dive.
And you keep diving because you can and because life is more fun mid-air.
And then someone tells you to swim to the bottom of the lake, and you think he is crazy. You can’t even see the bottom. But you want to feel the muck of the lakebed on your fingers. You want to know you are strong enough to go into the dark, so you make the dive.
And, in this way, you grow.
Sometimes, you feel the adventure is too perilous and you stay put. You decide the high dive is not worth the thrill. The fact that water becomes concrete at a certain distance keeps you immobile. You will not make that jump.
I feel that way now—I touched the bottom of the lake when I wrote You Don’t Look Adopted—at least I thought I did—and now I see that maybe I never surfaced. Maybe the bottom of the lake has a hold on me and I’m afraid I might not get back to safety. I'm not sure I want to keep diving down into all these feelings. Just when I think I have hit bottom, more space opens up.
What if when I was born and my brain saw that part of me—the mother part—the land to which I still belonged, the land of my flesh—my umbilicus not yet a knot—still a dangling piece of mother tissue—refused me, wouldn’t my brain then spend the rest of its life refusing itself? Wouldn’t that be the contract that was established at birth?
In the movie Lion we see Saroo’s brother, Mantosh, who was also adopted, beat himself on the head with his hands, with the wall, with the blunt edge of a knife, when he was upset. That’s an extreme example of what can happen when a child experiences too much trauma, but what if adoptees carry a Mantosh in them, only we don’t see the beatings because they are internal?
If you had asked me a year ago to consider that thought, I would have vigorously disagreed—sure, I was adopted, but it didn’t really affect me—but now that I have sat with adoption for a year, stared in its face, this is what I think: to be adopted is to live with a torturer, the self that made a pact with the mother: if you don’t want me, I don’t want me either.
I thought I had broken free by writing my story, but the fact is that I have been sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment ever since I published my book, often not sure where my next meal was going to come from, and I chose that life. I made it happen. I let myself speak, but I did not let myself be free. I was beating myself over the head and I didn’t even notice.
Some part of me wants to go along with the agreement that came with my adoption: Don’t make trouble. Be grateful. Make life better for everyone around you. Don’t be yourself. Be what others need you to be; in exchange, they will keep you alive.
But I’m going to keep writing even though the sentences are clumsy and I’m not even sure what is true aside from the fact that I don’t want to sleep on the floor any more. I’m done punishing myself. I’m breaking the mother contract. Maybe she didn’t want me, but I do. I’m finally ready for a place of my own because I know I can trust myself. I won’t be a danger to myself because the adult Anne is finally in control, and she’s taking care of the baby who has been running the show blindly all these years with tantrums no one could understand.
The other night I realized how radically I had changed when I was sitting in the living room of a friend’s house, and I thought: I could live in a place like this. I could live here in peace and not have to move to get away from myself. By telling my story, I had calmed my Mantosh. I realized I carried peace in my head. I sat very quietly on the couch and looked around as if the world were so fragile it might break if I blinked.
As soon as I realized what I had done, everything changed. I got a new place to live, a place with a bed. I got an amazing job. Being adopted does not mean I have to settle for less than I actually want.
I’m telling you this because tomorrow I’m talking to Pam Kroskie for her Indiana Adoptee Network News podcast, and she’s going to ask me to tell my story, and I’m not sure it will be healthy for me to tell it. I already know it, and it’s a story that ends with me saying, “And then I found my birth father but he didn’t want to meet me, either.” If I keep telling the same story where the recurring theme is abandonment and rejection, aren’t I just reinforcing those neurons in my brain to keep firing together, keeping the river of grief and self-hatred flowing?
What if I want new rivers in my brain? What if I want to love myself? What if I don’t want to talk about people not choosing to be with me anymore?
Am I no longer a good adoptee?
Here’s the hard part: for as much as I can see that I have grown and changed, if I am perfectly honest, I can feel Mantosh right there in my brain, waiting for an opportunity to try to beat himself out of himself, or myself out of myself.
There are different theories when it comes to time. Maybe there is a past, present, and future. Maybe all three exist at the same time. Sometimes I think when it comes to being adopted, the past is just as immediate as the present, and maybe that is why Mantosh beat himself on the head. It’s too much, to live both in the moment and in the moments of other time. It hurts.
But maybe that’s all story, and maybe the way to leave Mantosh behind is to stop looking at the past. I don’t mean to pretend it didn’t happen. Look at it, relive it if you missed it the first time, tell it clear, but then let it go and make new stories. Stories that start, And then I went out to see what I could do next…
When you say, I am adopted, you are the receiver of action. Someone adopted you. When you say And then I went out to see what I could do next, you are the doer of the action.
You own that shit. It’s your game. So go play.