Camp Suck It Up
I lasted almost 24 hours before I lost it, before I felt I would die if I didn’t close my eyes and block out the world. “You have the right to be happy,” HBL said to me as I looked both at him and past him. I so needed to be alone. HBL so needed to stay. The trick was that if he had left, if I’d managed to push him away like I’d pushed almost everyone else away, I would have been bereft. Not just sad—devastated. Like I’d lost my home, my bones, my will to move.
My mind loves that feeling, loves living on the edge of loss. I court it and then, because when you play with fire you often get burned, I experience the dark fall of losing what I thought I didn’t want. I get to feel as if I am going to die when I break up or am broken up with by a man or a friend or a job or a house.
Even now, knowing this about myself, I am with someone who can only be with me sometimes because he’s married. That means I get to experience loss every time he leaves. I get to feel not worthy enough of having someone of my own. I get to look at the phone and know I can’t call him because he is at home and his family is there.
I know better than this, and yet this is what I choose. I want that feeling. I like it.
I think when you are born and suddenly your birth mother is gone, unless you have a certain kind of innate resiliency, your true sense of self sinks to the bottom of the lake of existence (or dissipates into the ether of god knows where) and the you that is left skates through the rest of your life, rudderless. You look so normal to the rest of the world, skating, but you can feel you have air where other people seem to have something weighted that grounds them to themselves and their life, and so you fake being real. Or you take drugs. Or you drink. Or you spend money. Or you have lots of sex. Or you set fires. Something to distract from the fear that in your core you are a missing person.
I was listening to an episode of This American Life about camp (episode #109, Notes on Camp) and the overall message was about how much camp changed kids’ lives, how the traditions and songs and shared experiences created not only community but an increased sense of self in the campers.
When I was a kid, I came home from camp supposedly with the flu but really I was homesick. And, deeper really, I had attachment issues and didn’t know how to leave my parents. Adopted kids are tricky. You can’t just throw them in normal situations and expect everything to go like it did for cousin Glenda. The same goes for, of course, adopted adults.
But I want to go to camp now. I’m even working on starting one! It’s called Camp Suck It Up and it is for adopted people. We are going to sing songs and we’re going to have food fights and we’re going to do activities that strengthen our sense of self and our ability to feel we are an important part of a community. We the campers are going to feel real.
It’s called Camp Suck It Up because, as adopted people, that’s what most of us have been asked to do all our lives: lose everything and then pretend like we didn’t: So what that you lost your mother. Your father. Suck it up. You have new parents. Ones that wanted you. The camp is called Camp Suck It Up because it’s funny and because the t-shirts will look cool. It’s called Camp Suck It Up because I’m in charge now and that’s what I named it.
As an adult I am going to create opportunity for me to do what I wasn’t able to do as a child: trust that everything will be okay when I leave home. I’m going to create an independent sense of self who can go out into the world and not constantly look back over my shoulder.
When I was a kid and hyper with happiness my mother used to say, “Calm down. Soon you’ll be crying,” and she was usually right. I’d go from joyful to miserable with no warning, and I’d go to my room and lie on my bed and sob with no real idea of what was wrong. I’d try to pin the grief on something. Maybe I didn’t really like school. Maybe I was secretly hurt when my friend had said something. Maybe I hated my life.
Maybe I was a kid who had lost her mother.
That, however, was an option that didn’t occur to me until I was 50 years old. Certainly no one suggested it to me. All I knew was that I carried a sadness in me that wrecked almost everything, and so my inability to maintain happiness became something I feared about myself. I had no idea what I liked and didn’t like. I didn’t know what I wanted from life. I didn’t know what made me happy or sad. I was a problem. I tried antidepressants, but they just made me sick. Therapists didn’t help. Yoga and meditation made me feel better, but I still went up and down, still threw the stick of sadness into every lake I encountered.
Why couldn’t I just be the joyful person I felt I truly was?
The other night HBL sat across from at dinner and I looked into his dark eyes. “You have the right to be happy,” he said. We were near the ocean and I could hear the seals barking. I knew he was trying to wear me down. If he said it enough, maybe a crack would appear and his words would slip into my brain. I knew he was right, for I felt the same way about him, about everyone I knew. I spend a substantial amount of energy trying to convince others of that very thing, of their right to be happy. Not just the right. Of the necessity. One life is so short.
And yet. And yet. To allow myself to be happy means I am in agreement with the way things went down. It means I say yes to being relinquished. It means I say yes to having birth parents who don’t want to meet me. It means yes to feeling like an alien. It means I say yes to being raised by people who, although I love them so, so much, are not related to me by blood. It means saying yes to the fact that I did not choose who shaped me, (and they did not choose me, despite what all the adoption books say. I was given to them because they were next in line for a baby).
It means I have to let go of the idea that I was not good enough to keep. I have to let go of the belief that one day, if I just do things perfectly right, maybe I will be good enough. It means I have to let go of the fantasy that I could magically morph into the baby I was the moment before relinquishment and get a do-over. It means I have to let go of the grief that binds me to my birth mother and gives me some secret, dark hope that she will come back (even though she is now dead). It means I have to let go of my grief, and for a person who feels she lost so much, my grief is mine, and I am reluctant to part with it.
It means I have to grow up. It means that I have to zip up my skin and commit to a life without a birth mother, commit to a life of who I am in this body. It sounds so simple.
I’m packing my bags. I’m going to camp. And I’m going to stay there until I figure this stuff out.
Thank you Reshma McClintock for the t-shirt design.