I’m going to tell you a love story because it’s Saturday and it’s raining and it feels like the right thing to do.
This is about HBL and writing and learning to live as an adopted person. Or learning to live period.
I wrote about HBL in my book a little bit, so maybe you know about him. I talk about him a lot to my friends. HBL this and HBL this. He’s met a few of my closest friends. My daughter. My dad. My brother and my brother’s family. Everyone likes HBL.
He doesn’t wear a ring and so the fact that he’s married isn’t right out there for everyone to see, but I’m quick to tell people because I want to get it all out on the table. I don’t want to look like an idiot. I know he’s married, so that means it’s okay. He's doing the best he can in a marriage that makes both him and his wife miserable as they live out the dance so many people struggle with: we are doing this for the children, so they can have a home undivided by divorce.
HBL has two sons he and his wife adopted when the boys were infants. This is one of the things that connects us, his hunger to learn about adoption, how it affected me, how he can better raise his sons with the information he is getting from me and from what he now reads about adoption and trauma and relinquishment.
He travels for business—he’s in sales—and he’s good at what he does, really good, and he’s very busy. However, if he’d had a liberal arts education, he’d probably have been a lawyer or a writer. That guy lives for words: he just didn’t get to recognize that until he met someone, me, who tries to make a living with the written word. What he discovered when he met me was just how deeply he loves language and writing: specifically, mine.
We had dinner our first date, and it ended somewhat awkwardly as I’d decided a married guy who travelled for a living was probably not a solid choice for a second date. My way of breaking off and explaining why I wasn’t available was to send a piece of my writing about what it was like to be adopted.
The writing, much to my surprise, was a siren call for him. He wanted more.
I had met him just days before I’d left for New York to write You Don’t Look Adopted, and he was there via text, phone, and email, every day. He was my cheerleader, my editor, my sounding board. He was the best listener I’d ever encountered, and what he loved to listen to was me.
Later, this ability of his to listen would be medicine for me. It would let my body and mind know I was worthy of attention. It taught me to listen to others more closely. It taught me how important it is for adopted people--all people!!--to be able to talk out their full range of emotions and to feel they are valid.
Our second date was in New York, and it lasted three days with me on the floor of the bathroom after throwing up. I’d asked HBL to take a picture of me lying there because I thought the red of my shirt would look good against the black and white Italian marble floor, and later I used this photograph to promote my first Write or Die classes, me in the fetal position. I pretended the picture was about what can happen when you write your story, but what it’s really about is what happens when you have had someone in your space for too long and your body can’t tolerate the closeness any more. Welcome to being adopted. Or welcome to being human. I can’t tell the difference.
I had two life-changing moments with HBL. One was when, after being in New York for two weeks, I went to a writing retreat on Martha's Vineyard and faced the fact that I could not write a book because I still, after over thirty years of trying, could not get beneath the surface of any story I was trying to tell. I stood in the middle of the road one early morning, texting HBL all the reasons I could not write. My heart was broken. I'd given up everything to chase this dream of writing a book, and I was empty. I wrote all these thoughts to him, and then I walked to get coffee.
He texted back a few minutes later. "That's your voice," and, much to my shock, I saw he was right. That strange, sad, needy thing I'd used to communicate to him was my voice. That thing I'd tried to hide my whole life with bravado and humor. That thin silver river of truth that ran the length of my spine, that was my voice.
Everything changed from that moment forward.
I could write.
Somehow our relationship survived me dating in New York and returning to California and all the confusion that follows throwing caution to the wind and risking everything to leave home and write a book. The coming back home was a shocker. I had no money. No job. I cried a lot. I’d told my story, written things I’d never told anyone, and now people I didn’t know were reading my work, commenting on it. I had sold my soul not for money but in the hope of claiming my life, and yet, there I was, sleeping on the floor of my writing partner’s extra bedroom, so afraid I was not going to be able to make something happen for myself, so uncertain I was going to get away with all that going deep in debt just to tell my story.
It wasn’t that I had just wanted to tell my story. That was part of it, but mostly I wanted to help other people to tell theirs because that was my favorite thing to do. I’d tried with my mom most of my life, and now I wanted to do it out in the world with people who were actually willing to do it before they were on their death bed. But to be someone who said she could help others write their book(s), meant I had to write one myself.
And it worked. I wrote a book and now I help others write theirs. I am living my dream.
I got away with it. All of it.
I still can’t believe it. I chased my dream and I didn’t die or end up living on the streets. I ended up meeting people I never would have met if I hadn’t done this crazy work of being Anne. I met Pam Cordano, and two weeks ago we led a healing retreat for adopted people, and it was such a remarkable, holy experience that I still feel like a bell that has been struck. I am still ringing. I get to walk by the ocean almost every day for hours and take pictures of things I think are beautiful. I get to write this blog. I get to coach people who want help chasing their dreams. I get to drive to Berkeley and visit my daughter. I get to massage people and listen to their bodies. I made this life happen. I risked a lot to get here, and it was so worth it.
The second life-changing moment with HBL had come a bit after I'd returned from New York. I'd written the book and self-published it, and I was emotionally cooked. I didn't have the get-up to create a new life, get a job, pay bills, all the stuff one needs to do to keep off the streets, and I had to face that I was in big trouble because I had no idea how I was going to survive. HBL had business in San Jose, and so we were staying in a local hotel. I got a notice of insufficient funds, and I went into a panic. I'm one of those people who isolates, and so having what felt like a nervous breakdown in front of another person was my idea of hell. I was ashamed of my weakness, and I was afraid my emotions and reactions were going to be too much for HBL, and so more than anything, I just wanted him to leave the hotel room while I bawled, but he stayed and stayed and stayed and just held me. He saw me have no faith in myself. He saw me believe nothing was ever going to be okay again. He saw me at what felt like my worst.
He couldn't save me. He had his own complicated life, and so he had nothing to offer but his steadiness of spirit and his determination to let me know he believed in me and that, although he knew this was a hard time, he believed with his whole being I would be fine.
He didn't leave even when I was a sobbing wreck. As an adopted person, it's easy to get hard-wired to believe you are supposed to be easy in order for people to keep you around. My brain saw HBL stay even when he couldn't fix the situation, even when I couldn't seem to get a hold of myself, and it made me trust him. It made me feel I could be myself.
Last week, I told HBL I could not be in a romantic relationship with him. I didn’t realize that the day I told him this, March 1, was the day we’d met two years earlier. He’s the date guy. He’s the one who remembers everything. One thing about the adoptee retreat was that it became very clear to me that in order to really heal from any kind of trauma I stored in my body because my mother had to give me up at birth I was going to have to live a mindful life. Being with someone who is married is a way of putting myself second, of avoiding intimacy, and of not fully existing.
I love HBL. No man has ever been as unflaggingly supportive and as loving as he has been since the day we met. I love that we have so many stories together. We have been to so many cities, weathered so many storms. I love that just about every piece of writing I have put out publically has been edited and, often, made stronger because of his suggestions. I love how we learned to work as a team even in our strange, distanced relationship that felt like the closest one I'd ever had with a man. I love that I knew every day we would connect and be there for each other.
I also knew, from day one, that I was repeating old behaviors. I knew I had created a fantasy person. I didn’t even use his real name. HBL stands for Hunk of Burning Love. I knew that, as an adopted person who has attachment issues, claiming to be the girlfriend of a man who has a wife is a perfect recipe for no growth. It’s a perfect way to bubble myself into thinking I am moving forward in learning how to live and love when really I am just living out a controlled story.
When you are adopted, it’s very hard to lose people. When I told HBL I had to stop being us, my body shut down. My arms got weak and I couldn’t think for days. I cried. Because here's the thing: I have woven HBL into the fabric of my being, and it's very hard to tangle out fantasy from reality sometimes. I had an awful feeling in my gut that I’d been kicked ages ago and the bruise had only festered. I got in a small fight with my good friend because I was living in trauma brain and couldn’t act like a normal, decent person. I acted like a selfish baby, and since my friend was a human being, she pushed back. Luckily, she’s also adopted and so the next day we were able to talk like two hurt, loving, compassionate people and end up in a place where we feel even safer with each other, more loved, more loving. .
I want HBL to find the courage to leave his wife if that’s what he really wants to do. But mostly, I want him to be happy. Before I wrote my book and really began owning my place on this planet, I stole things. There are many ways to steal. When you are adopted and have grown up from a place of believing that you weren’t good enough to keep and therefore still worthless, you can feel that even things you were given: love, education, a purse, were stolen because you hadn’t deserved them.
I felt this about most things. It’s all so complicated because I also felt worthy of all the good I had in my life. Welcome to the fragmented brain of the trauma survivor.
I have a dream. I do. I want to give as many people as possible the opportunities to feel empowered. My mother and father did that when they adopted me and when they showered me with their unwavering love. My favorite teachers in school did that: Mr. Milan, Ehud Havezelet. My writing partner Antonia Bogdanovich did that. Kitty Stockett did that when she gave me the space to write. Scooter, Carol and Dan. If I start listing all the people who helped get me to where I am now I am going to wear down my fingers.
And to live my dream I have to live my truth. And my truth is that I deserve a partner who is all mine.
If you can’t fight for what makes you strong, how can you help others around you to be their best?
And we lived happily ever after.