Adoption, The Inability to Work Out, The Big Bang, and Leaping the Tracks
When I started writing “You Don’t Look Adopted”, I stopped working out. I walked, but I didn’t exert myself because every time I tried to do a vinyasa yoga practice or run stairs or jump up and down in place, I felt sick. It wasn’t the kind of sick I could push through. It was the kind of sick a person would feel if she had just run a marathon and then decided to continue and run a 10k.
Unless you are the kind of person who runs 100 miles in the deserts of Arizona, your body is going to fight this bright idea of yours. Your body is full of lactic acid and exhaustion and your body is going to tell you, “Knock it off, Buddy. It’s time to rest,” and it will do this by shutting down. Your muscles will be too tight and fatigued to lift your legs. Your brain will get foggy, confused.
Writing the story of what it was like to be adopted was not like taking the top of a jar and having a magic genie of wonder appear. It was like pulling my guts out and looking for the places of twist and bind. It was also like looking into my heart and hearing songs of love and feeling the sharp flight of joy. The act of feeling my past experiences and getting them down on paper was, much to my surprise, a full-body workout. I never knew that sitting on my ass could be so systemically exhausting.
It has been three years since I finished writing the book, and I’m easing back into exercise. I now get on the Nordic Track most mornings and start moving. Almost instantly I have a rush of what feels like anxiety wash over my stomach. It feels as if I am suddenly very nervous, and my impulse is to stop moving and to go lie down somewhere until the feeling passes. This used to happen to me in high school when I ran track. This is not a new feeling. I had just learned to work around it, to not run as fast as I could have if I hadn’t been bent around an ache. For most of my life I thought that feeling sick was part of being alive.
But I’m not giving up on cardiovascular movement because I’m tired of watching my muscles disappear. It was never my goal to be skinny and jiggly. I want to be strong, and if I have to feel like I’m going to puke on my way up the mountain, I’m willing to go to Camp Suck It Up to see what happens, mostly because I’m curious.
This is what I discovered this morning: when I kept breathing into the anxiety as I walked/ran on the Nordic Track, I found there was a source originating deep in my abdomen. I paid attention to it, and I saw the locus of pain/fear/anxiety as a black seed planted in my navel. It was tiny: a slippery apple seed, and it was causing havoc. It was steering the ship of who I was because it had taken control of my stress hormones and it was having a field day down there, telling my system something was wrong and that trouble was on its way, and the best thing for me to do was to be on guard and wait for the worst to happen, because it was about to, any minute.
I think this is why working out hasn’t worked out for me. Since my system is already in fight or flight, when I actually go into flight—or any movement faster than a walk—my body says SEE!! I TOLD YOU!! YOU ARE ABOUT TO DIE!! The bodyworker part of me wonders if my diaphragm isn’t involved in all of this lack of full expression. I wonder if when I was born and my first or second or third cries weren’t answered by my mother, my diaphragm went into some sort of muscular lock-down or trauma-shock, making a lifetime of deep breathing so much of a challenge that a habit of shallowing breathing naturally developed.
Bessel van der Kolk, could you PLEASE write about this? The body keeps the score, I know, and I still can’t figure out why you mention adoption exactly zero times in your book. Your book that has 464 pages and that, according to Amazon, weighs a pound. Did you and your doctor friends wait so long to have babies that you end up adopting? Is that part of the overall silence from the academic field? Anyone?
While I wait to hear back from the medical field, I have some what ifs to present: What if you have no idea who you actually are because there was no you pre-trauma? What if this life-long feeling you’ve had of not being on the right track is because you’re not? What if you are going to die an earlier death than you really should because stress hormones are wearing down your body at a faster rate than is healthy or normal?
Something occurred to me this morning when I was on the Nordic Track, sweating myself through anxiety, watching the seed in my belly try to get me to stop moving. What if the seed is unrealized potential? What if it’s my own pre-Big Bang—the genesis of the Bang, the compressed energy that will explode into a whole new universe if I give it enough space? If I relax into it instead of gripping it into compression? What if I don’t have to adjust to the track I’m on, the one that leaves me rocking back and forth, uncertain, angry, depressed, lost? What if I can jump tracks completely and land on one I claim as my own?
What if part of being born from and into trauma is the opportunity to leap from one track, one life, to another? One of our choosing? I think this question is behind the idea that people who aren’t adopted have that leads them to think adoption is so cool—they see adoptees as people who are not constrained by DNA or family in the same ways they are, and they, with some envy, see that as freedom and opportunity. But, as I said in a hundred different ways in my book, if you aren’t grounded as a child, secure growth as a human being is catastrophically challenged.
I have been preparing the last three years for this leap to a whole new track. I just didn’t know it. I have made understanding myself and understanding other people who were relinquished/adopted my top priority. I have had so much help along the way from friends and family as this type of lifestyle means I don’t hold a full-time job. My chosen lifestyle means I can rest almost any time I need to. It means I avoid people who make me feel stressed. In many ways it’s like I’ve taken myself back in time and am giving my nervous system a chance to be a child in an environment that is better informed about my needs. I have a lot of quiet time.
Three years is not a week of vacation. Three years is almost a college education. I didn’t know just how tired I was until I let myself lie down and feel. My bones were tired. My thoughts were tired. It’s frightening to be this worn out. This fear can make you want to reach for caffeine, alcohol, Nordstrom’s Rack, anything to distract from the realization that you are in deep trouble because you pushed yourself too far for too long and now you have no idea where you are or who are you and you’re not sure you’re strong enough to change, never mind to just go on.
The other day I was walking the shallow summer-warm waters on the flats of a Cape Cod beach with my friend, and she showed me how to feel for cold spots and to seek out the small holes in the sand where the natural springs were, well, springing from. I stepped on the holes and my foot sank into the shocking cold of water coming up from source. My foot loved the cold. My skin loved the cold. My whole body felt refreshed, fed. It took some courage to step in these spots because the sudden sink had my mind telling me that the world was going to open up and suck me down into it, but that was not ever what happened. I’d sink into the chill slightly past my ankle and then solid ground would appear. In letting go, my body got to feel in deep contact with the planet.
The world is not as it appears. The ocean looks as if it has always been there, but it is being fed from so many sources, including rivers that run below the surface. Life is like that for us, too. Part of surviving adoption/relinquishment for me has been to go AA on the process and to seek out help from a higher power. I can’t do this alone, is what I have found, and believing there is a force greater than myself helps me to understand there are doorways available to me that I may not even be able to see at this point, but that if I believe in essential goodness, the top of my head, the thing that slams shut when I am living in fear, opens, and I bloom like a peony, living in the full blush of love.
I am paying attention to the black seed in my belly. I am preparing to leap. Being born into trauma can teach the body/mind to avoid stress and new situations, but I better understand myself these days, and I see that I can go places I never imagined possible because I was so busy managing current stresses I didn’t even have the bandwidth to dream.
How can you dream of a new life when you are busy surviving the one you have?
That will be the subject of my next post.