I grew up in a world where the sentence “I’m adopted,” was a way to cut community, to declare a difference so profound the other person wouldn’t even know how to respond, but in the world of Haley Radke, I’m adopted means, Come in. You are home.
The interview list goes like this: Carrie, Holly, Maeve, Becky, Ellie, Liz Prato, Mary Anna, Diane, Liz Story, Landric, Pamela, Davis, Lesli, Kelly. Each story feels like a gift and you have the sense you are getting to hear the souls of people talking. Some of these people are talking about adoption at length publically for the first time in their lives. The line that ties them all together is Haley, a Canadian adoptee who was born to ask people questions and to help make them feel understood and heard.
I don’t remember how I found Haley’s podcast, Adoptees On, but listening to it was like finding a shoe that finally fit, and for someone with size ten and a half feet, this was a big deal. These amazing people were telling Haley their stories, and Haley was telling her stories, and they were variations of my stories told over and over, like a song.
I’d been on teams before but when I binge-listened first to Carrie and then to Holly and then to Maeve, I had the first inkling of what community for me, an adoptee, might be like. It might be like talking with someone who understood the fundamental side effects of early abandonment, relinquishment, loss. Pick your word. The end result is the same: a very confusing life.
At the beginning of each show, Haley invites her guest to tell his or her adoption story. When she asked me to tell mine, I had planned to keep it short. I didn’t want to use a lot of air time talking about old news, talking about a story that didn’t lead to answers, a story that kept coming back to loss, but I ending up talking on and on, chasing the narrative of I was born and then I don’t know what happened. But Haley never interrupted, never yawned, and so I just kept going like a dog let off the leash until I got to the end, to, so here I am now, and I am so honored and happy to be here.
It’s the not knowing that keeps my brain on the spin cycle, so while I look like I’m paying attention, a good part of my brain is trying to figure out what happened to me after I was born. A good part of my brain is trying to figure out why she didn’t want me. It’s trying to figure out how to get all the wheels of my train on the track before I spin out of control and crash.
To live like that is deeply unsettling, but to hear other people live with the same issues—depression, problems attaching, suicidal thoughts, identity confusion, eating disorders—is so deeply reassuring, as strange as that is to say about things that are so disturbing. After a lifetime of feeling part of my family and part of a network of friends but at the same time feeling distanced because I was different, because I had experienced something none of my friends or family even knew how to talk to me about, something even I had no idea how to talk about.
What I learned from Adoptees On was that my story was worth listening to. At the beginning of each show, Haley gives the person she interviews seemingly unlimited time to tell his or her story. In the world, aside from the man I love, this was not something I had ever experienced: an accepting ear with no time limit. In my world, talking about adoption was sort of like talking about, depending on my audience, herpes or dandruff.
As an adoptee, you generally learn to keep your story short. Under a minute. That way you keep the discomfort level low for everyone involved. To make things worse, the more you talk about adoption, the harder it gets to talk about because there are so many dead ends to parts of the story, so many complicated relationships, and so following a standard narrative is often impossible and keeping track of your own story as you tell it, at least in my case, can be confusing.
It’s hard to tell a story when the story itself confuses you.
Increasingly I believe that if parents who adopt were able to do for their children what Haley does for her interviewees, the adoptees would thrive. It’s not just about listening, for many adoptees don’t even know they have something to say about adoption. So many of us grew up firmly believing that we are fine with being adopted, that it has no effects on us, that we are lucky to have the families that we have and the people who claim to struggle with adoption need therapy and/or a good dose of stop playing the victim and just suck it up.
Until six months ago when I realized adoption had affected my life so profoundly that at 51 I was virtually immobilized in my life, my brain was wired to keep thoughts about adoption to a minimum. Don’t think about it; don’t talk about it. This was not something I was ever told—my parents had not made adoption a shameful thing. They had not ever told me not to talk about it. My friends or people in school had never teased me about being adopted. I had never been made to feel less than by another human being because I was adopted, and yet, there it was in my brain, the golden rule of living as an adoptee in a world where no one else I knew besides my brothers were adopted: don’t talk about it.
Why? Because when you say, “I’m adopted,” people don’t say the right thing. They say, “So your parents aren’t your real parents?” and something inside of you shrivels and you change the subject.
So when someone like Haley says, “I know what you mean. I also feel that way,” you keep talking. Or when she says, “And then what happened?” you keep talking. Or when she says, “That is fascinating. How did that make you feel?” you keep talking.
Parents, take note. Husbands, wives, friends, brothers, sisters, take note. Your child, your wife, your husband, your brother, your sister, your friend have stories they need to tell. And if they are adopted, they have stories that may be compressed deep in their guts and need encouragement and understanding. Read about adoption. Listen to Haley’s podcast. Learn your people. Love them. Listen closely. Stop telling them how to feel, how to think. Listen like your life depends on it.
I talked to Haley last week, and then I got on a plane and went to Boston to talk to some adoptees I had gotten to know online. I have met with Maeve from Haley’s show; I have met with Julie who blogs on http://www.nextlifenokids.com/ and https://sobermommies.com/. Today I will have lunch with Michael who, after a lifetime of saying adoption was not a big deal for him, just recently met his birth mother, and tonight I will have dinner with Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao who, as an adoptee, author of The Family of Adoption, and a therapist, is a crucial voice in the adoptee community.
If someone had thrown me with these people just a year ago, I think I would have talked about my daughter, my unhappy marriage, my confusion about what to do with my life. I would have asked them a lot of questions to get them to talk about their lives, their kids, their dogs, anything to avoid the black hole of emptiness I danced around all my life, the hole of I’m not real. I hope you like me. I hope this new friendship defines me, saves me. But it’s all different now. It’s so real. I don’t dance around the hole—I dance in it. We talk about emptiness and fear and loss, and although this sounds sad and depressing, it’s the opposite. It’s so vital. We laugh a lot. We do tear up. We do feel sad. But do you see—we feel.
What has been hard as an adoptee is not the grief that comes with losing the primary connection with my birth mother and father, it has been the fear of the grief, the inability to verbalize it. Feeling sad is not terrible. It’s just a feeling and historically has led to the creation of great art, but feeling isolated or different or fearful because I felt sad is where it got dicey. That’s what made me feel different. That’s what made me feel lost and confused—the fear of what I was feeling.
I didn’t know who I was before, but now I do. I am my search for the roots of my self. Other people are born into their families and, through blood and DNA, other people know the history and story of their people, and, by extension, themselves. As an adoptee, I am the search for the stories. And I am fine with that. A search for stories is so much more exciting than an empty pit. I can still be lost, but I feel I am headed somewhere, and I am in such good company.