There are some plants that stay underground for years and then suddenly bloom. I’m like that. It looks like it takes me forever to figure things out: how to succeed in school, how to write, how to have a lasting romantic relationship, and it’s true, it often takes me a long time to find my groove. Most people don’t need to go to four colleges before they figure out how to focus and graduate. Most people haven’t had 42 jobs before they find the one they love. Most people haven’t moved 54 times before they settle on a place they call home. Most people haven’t had three husbands. (Well, neither have I. Yet.)
It wasn’t until last year when I started reading and writing about adoption that I realized my inability to attach and my delayed style of blooming probably had to do with being adopted. I’m not a boy, so I don’t know the full physical impact of being kicked in the nuts, but I imagine being relinquished is physically and psychically like a serious kick in the balls. The child can then spend an entire lifetime trying to recover her sense of equilibrium and safety and self. Her parents, if they weren’t adopted and if they weren’t educated about the effects of adoption, wouldn’t know about the painful and distracting nuts, and so they would think the child had behavior or character issues and would go at addressing the problems in nonproductive (standard and potentially damaging) ways.
This is hard to write. I don’t want to tell you these things. They are embarrassing and painful, and after a lifetime of feeling I had no audience for adoption talk, to go on here even after having written a book on the subject and seeing there actually is an audience, the kicked nuts part of my brain wants to retreat and give up before I have to watch your eyes wander and hear you change the subject back to matters you feel are more real and pressing.
Trying to write this is also like making a sand castle out of dry sand. I feel like nothing’s going to stick and this is all going to be a waste of time. How can I tell you about my struggles when they started because no one around me even knew these struggles existed? When even I thought I was the problem, not adoption? Even now I feel like I’m making excuses for my own character flaws, and I am afraid that I am making stuff up because I’m not good enough to live the kind of life you, you not adopted person, have been able to live. One college. One spouse. One career. Ward and June Cleaver. You folks.
But I have committed to finding the truth of myself this past year, and so I am going to keep on writing, talking about the one thing I most and least want to share with you.
Soldier on, Anne. Soldier on. Fake it ‘til you make it.
I was scheduled to talk to Pam Dixon Kroskie for her podcast Indiana Adoptee Network the other day, and I was thinking about sharing my experience about adoption, and I felt like lying on the floor and crying. I felt so small in the face of all I wanted to say. I felt it was going to be impossible to get across in an hour how adoption has affected me.
Then I started thinking about finding my birth father last year and not meeting him because his wife had forbidden it. I started getting angry. I was thinking he was a coward and she was evil, and I wanted to punish both of them for turning their backs on me. I decided to write him a break-up letter via email.
I wrote to him how it wasn’t good for my brain to live with the hope that one day he would decide I was good enough to meet. I told him I didn’t respect his decision to listen to his wife when she said he couldn’t meet me because I wasn’t family. I was feeling stronger as I was writing to him. I was putting down boundaries. I was asserting my worth. I was a strong adoptee.
And then I got to the closing line of the email, and I had no idea what to say. All the best? Thanks for creating me? Fuck you and the horse you rode in on? Love?
I sat back and thought about what I wanted from the email. What I got to was I wanted control. It wasn’t that I wanted to break up with him and it wasn’t even that I wanted to get to meet him. It was that I wanted to feel I had some control over that situation and, by proxy, my life.
I used to love to break up with boyfriends. The best thing was to get one that would then let me grovel my way back so I could have both the control of breaking up with him and the experience of thinking I would die if he didn’t come back for me. I had one boyfriend I got to do this with monthly for two years. I got to experience having the feelings of being relinquished 24 times. I also got 25 I didn’t want you anyway punches in.
I was sick a lot those two years. I had migraines. My eyes hurt. Breaking up and feeling old feelings is stressful to the entire nervous system. I didn’t want to break up with my birth father. I wanted connection. I wanted love. Breaking up was not the straightest route to these deepest desires.
I had to deal with the stories my brain was feeding me: you’re not good enough; you’re not safe; there’s something wrong with you. My biggest adversary in life wasn’t other people or adoption, it was my brain, and I needed guides to help me learn how to step out of my own way.
I erased the letter to my birth father and wrote an email to the amazing Lesli Johnson in its place. “I need to make another appointment to talk with you,” I wrote. I was still processing what had happened when she had I had done EMDR (https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/) via Skype just the weekend before.
For years I have worked with Katie Peuvrelle learning how to overcome limiting beliefs using NLP (http://www.nlpu.com/NewDesign/NLPU_WhatIsNLP.html), and when I learned about Lesli, who is also an adoptee, and her work with EMDR I knew that was the next step in my journey to becoming the strongest, happiest, most productive Anne possible.
I didn’t know who Lesli was when I quoted from her Huffington post article “Ten Things Adoptees Want You to Know” in You Don’t Look Adopted. I just loved what she wrote. Later, Lori Holden, another wonderful writer in the world of adoption, connected the two of us. This, to me, has been the greatest gift in diving into the world of adoption: the connections I’ve made. I went to feeling alone in my experience of adoption to feeling I am part of an ever-growing and powerful web.
I’ve noticed that adoptees, myself included, have a habit of getting stuck in the stories of abandonment and rejection, and what you see in your head seems to be what you see in life, and so I have lived a life that, when I tell my story, is noticeably more about loss than gain. It wasn’t until I met Katie and she introduced me to the idea of questioning my basic assumptions that I saw how much power I had over the narrative of my life. My story was my story, and I could disempower or empower myself through the lenses I chose to look through (love versus fear, for example) and the language I chose to use (I am always learning versus I am so stupid).
When I spoke with Lesli over the phone, I felt right away that she got me. I’ve spoken with many other therapists, but, aside from the dinner I had with Joyce Maguire Paveo, I had never met with one who was adopted. I wasted thousands of dollars in a lifetime of trying to find someone who could help me understand myself. When you are an adoptee and you go to a therapist who has had zero training in what it means to be adopted (which was every therapist I’d ever gone to), you might as well, I think, burn your money and kick yourself in the head while you’re at it.
Lesli and I had a phone session where we talked, and the next day we tried EMDR in a somewhat unconventional manner, via Skype.
It was awesome. The way Lesli had me do the EMDR was that I tapped my knees alternately while I envisioned a powerful scenario accessed in the frontal lobe of my brain that overruled a traumatic one I carried in my child mind, the pre-language brain stem. As soon as I started tapping my knees, my legs got stronger. My bones felt heavy, real, and the feeling spread throughout my body. I was euphoric. I felt super-charged.
I’m still processing what happened, so I’ll write about it more in greater length in a future post, but suffice it to say that ever since we’ve talked I’ve felt like Harriet the Spy, free to roam the world as my curious self, no longer tied to the belief that my job is to make other people happy, that my role in life is to make my mother (who isn’t even alive anymore) happy. As an adoptee it’s easy to make that leap, to give up your own sense of self in the desire to please those close to you as a survival mechanism (if I please them they will love me, and if they love me, they won’t leave), but then you end up a shadow of your true self, and this is no way to live.
I want to talk to Lesli again because what I realized after writing and erasing the email to my birth father is that I believe I’m not enough. If I was smarter, more loveable, funnier, more successful, prettier, he would want to meet me. I also believe that if I were a better person, I could have saved my mother. I could have made her life easier and she wouldn’t have gotten cancer and died.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized I felt I let down everyone. I didn’t have enough time for my friends. I never sent care packages to my daughter. I didn’t answer all my emails in a timely manner. I let people down all the time. They wanted me to listen and I wanted to go off and read. But mostly, I had let down my mother. She’d adopted me to fix her life (so the story in my head went) and I’d failed her. She’d died.
I could have more powerful ways of operating in the world. I could use my brain as a tool for good instead of as a hairshirt.
I just can’t believe life can be this good. No. That’s not true. I’ve always had this idea that the life I was meant to live was right around the corner, but I was so busy beating myself up and getting in my own way that time and time again I’d run into the corner instead of rounding it.
Life is an entirely different experience when I’m not hating myself. It’s easier. A lot more fun. I still cry a lot. I still get sad out of nowhere, but I’m not as reactive. I just notice that I’m crying, that I’m sad. I’m not afraid the harder feelings are going to last forever. I’m just really curious about what comes next.