Drowning in Homework
I am reading the book Belong, by Radha Agrawal. In it, Radha asks that we, her readers, draw a timeline of our life marking a series of significant events and people.
This is the first exercise in the book, and while my brain thought it sounded interesting, my guts clenched. If I were a car, I would have been driving with both the gas and the brake pedal pushed hard to the floor. I have learned to pay close attention to resistance. If I feel it, or fear, more often than not I know this is something I should do.
I went home and got some paper and drew a line across it. I marked my birth date, my adoption date, and I went on until I got to sixth grade, and then my guts took over and shut down the show. I put the pen down and went looking for chocolate.
Homework started to be a problem in sixth grade. I can remember Mr. Geary standing by my desk, confused, asking me why I hadn’t been turning in my papers. I was a good girl. I was friends with Mr. Geary’s daughter. I’d been to their house. My parents were smart. I lived in a white house on the main street in our town. I had a dog. Two brothers. A basketball hoop in the driveway. I had friends. I was loud, silly.
Why wasn’t I doing my work like all of my friends?
Even now, this is where my guts take over and make me want to step away from the computer. My guts are telling my brain something is wrong and my brain feels like it’s on the edge of blacking out. I’m breathing like I’m in a room full of smoke. Part of me wants to get up and run away, but to where I have no idea. Maybe this is why I gave up running years ago: I finally realized there is nowhere to go. I contain the problem. I am it.
I don’t know what happened with homework, why it only got worse when I went to junior high and high school and the first three colleges I dropped out of. If I had continued to draw the timeline, I would have started to go under water in 6th grade, for while on many fronts everything was fine (mostly because I had friends I loved, and so I got to be a kid doing kid stuff) something inside of me was pulling me under, only the drowning was so private I had no words for it.
It was like I was part of a swimming race where an invisible hand kept shoving me down so I’d have fight to come up gasping, only no one, not even I, could see the hand. Adopted people have a higher rate of suicide than non-adopted people, and I suspect this invisible drowning is one reason why. It’s exhausting and the only person you can blame is yourself, and you don’t even know what you’re doing wrong: you just know that, for some reason, things are not as easy for you as they are for other people, and even if there are things you do better than most people: draw, run, answer math problems, it’s not enough: you are wrong, and it’s your job to keep pretending none of this is happening. Asking for help is not an option because what can you say? An invisible hand is pushing my under that water? I can’t do my homework and I don’t know why? My head spins and I can’t get it to stop?
Asking for help when you are using all your energy to stay above water is too much. It’s like trying to smoke a cigarette in a tornado.
I’m not sure what I needed as a teenager, as a person who had been adopted. Let me try to figure it out here: I needed people who understood my brain better than I did. I needed adults who knew that for me the world spun at a much faster pace than it did for my friends. I needed someone to recognize I was eating brownie batter just so I could crash from the sugar high and finally be still. I needed someone to break down homework assignments into bite-sized bits so I could understand the steps needed to get from A to B. I needed more hand holding. I needed to be held, to be rocked. I’m not sure I would have accepted those things. When you are scared or trying to survive or deeply distrustful of yourself and the rest of the world sometimes all you can do is focus on is getting through this moment and then the next moment, and all the rest gets filed under overwhelming.
I still need these things. I spend so much energy holding on to a world that is turning at warp speed, trying to throw me off. More than anything I could use a hand to hold, but I am so afraid of being rejected, so afraid of letting go, so afraid I’ll take the hand only to have it disappear.
Part of having attachment disorder is having problems with trust.
I’ve been going to AA meetings recently. I don’t drink much, so I’m not going because I need to break up with alcohol. I’m going because I love the community there. I love the accountability of going through the steps. I love the idea of admitting that my life is out of control and I need the help of a higher power. Soon I’ll have to find the “right” group, but for now I’m hanging out, listening, resting in air that feels like home.
Next week I turn 54. One good thing about getting older is that my mask keeps slipping off. It may have crashed to the floor and shattered to a million pieces these last couple of years, but I’m not sure. I need people, and this delights and terrifies me. I may still have mask pieces left in my desire to survive, but I can’t tell anymore. It’s hard to know if you are yourself when you don’t know who that is.
I wish I had told Mr. Geary I was lost. I wish I had told him something was wrong but I didn’t know what. I wish I had caused a disturbance in my family, let them worry about me because I’d told them there was something to worry about. I wish I’d believed someone actually could have helped. I thought I was alone at sea. I thought it was my job to keep swimming and that I should not pull anyone—not my mother, not my father—down with me. That sickness I got from eating too much brownie batter? That awful fall of despair was me, and so how could I call for help when I was my own wreckage? How can you help the helpless? I had to pretend I was okay, do you understand? Otherwise my whole world would have collapsed.
How can you talk about a problem when you don’t know what it is, when you think it’s you? How can you do your homework when your insides feel sick? When your brain is spinning?
How can we help our children thrive in school?
What do they need?
What words have we not taught them? What words have we not taught ourselves?