What if Contact with Other People is Slowly Killing Some Adoptees?
I have been reading Nadine Burke Harris’s book The Deepest Well, On Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity. It is deeply upsetting to me, but I am only on page 56. I so look forward to the part where she starts talking about possible solutions.
Something occurred to me as I read about a drive-by shooting where she’d tried to save the victim and where her life had been in danger. She said, “After I got home that night, I couldn’t sleep. In the following weeks and months, every time I saw a red car approaching quickly or heard a car backfire, I felt transported back to the fear I felt that night. Physically, I would have the same responses: my heart would pick up its pace, my eyes would dart around, and I’d feel tightness in my stomach.”
She went on to say, “I see now that my biology was reacting to an unusually high level of stress by temporarily linking red cars with danger. My body was remembering what happened and was sending a flood of stress hormones shooting through my system in case the red car now was as dangerous as the red car before. My body was doing what it was designed to do—keep me out of harm’s way.”
She said, “If a little kid touches a hot stove, his body remembers. Biochemically, it tags or bookmarks the stove (and all stimuli associated with it) as being dangerous, so the next time the boy sees someone turning on the burners, his body sends him all kinds of warning signs: vivid memories, muscle tension, and rapid pulse.”
I want to tell you something. I don’t understand my body and my mind. It seems the older I get, the more I am morphing into an infant who just lost her mother. There are days when I don’t feel that far from lying in a crib, screaming and crying, or lying in a crib in stunned silence. Fifty-four years after losing my mother, sometimes I feel like I am losing my mind. I can feel the stress hormones coursing through my body. I sleep lightly, wake up frequently, jump easily, cry easily. I am moody. I am often sad. I am also angry. I want to be better. I want to be a fully functioning human being, not someone on the edge of losing it much of the time.
The funny thing is, in many ways I think I have gone farther down the path of healing than many adopted people. I wrote a book about the experience. I regularly talk to other adopted people, bringing me community and understanding. I co-lead adoptee workshops with a brilliant (adopted) therapist. In many ways, I’m successful. I have many friends. I get to help other people to write, to realize their dreams. There is so much about this world that I love. I regularly cry out of joy. I have a daughter who is a perfect human being.
And yet. And yet I often do much of this with my legs knee-deep in mud. I push to exist. It’s work to claim my space on the planet because when my birth mother disappeared, so, it seems, did my sense of belonging.
Gravity keeps us from sailing away, but I think motherloss messes with gravity, making it denser or lighter. I think trauma makes dancing more difficult: doing the tango with a dark pit of loss is not something featured on Dancing with the Stars.
Here is my thought: what if, for some adoptees, seeing people is a trigger for a cascade (or a steady trickle) of stress hormones just as the red car was for Burke Harris? What if, instead of temporary, the reaction is permanent because there isn’t anyone to point out what is actually happening? What if the adoptee, what if the adoptee’s doctor, the adoptee’s therapist, doesn’t buy into the idea that relinquishment equals trauma?
What if the brain of the adoptee thinks Is that my mother? Is that my brother? Maybe that guy is my uncle, my father, my grandfather every time he or she is with other people? What if every time the brain asks this question, the adoptee has to reorganize what he knows about his life? (If that guy is my father, then maybe I was supposed to be a doctor; maybe it’s not my fault I stutter; maybe I belong with him more than I belong with the family I grew up with. What then? Do I even love them? Do they even love me? Would they let me go? Would I survive without them?)
What if my brain is doing that? So much happens below the surface, especially when it comes to motherloss.
Stress hormones equal inflammation and inflammation equal cancer. Rheumatoid arthritis. Chronic fatigue. Inflammation is the body trying to heal, and when inflammation steps into the building in response to trauma, the body gets confused and starts attacking itself. I have elevated blood sugar levels, and although I joke about eating lots of chocolate, when I do, it’s generally 90% or 100% cacao—that’s a lot more bitter than sweet. I eat about twelve cups of organic vegetables a day and not much processed food. I rarely drink alcohol, and yet my doctor says I am borderline pre-diabetic. My stomach is knotted most of the time. My body is so tight the skin on my head barely moves when I push at it with my fingers. It’s like the sock of my skinbody is a half size too small, keeping me from feeling free and relaxed.
What I am trying to tell you is that I think the spigot of stress has been leaking in my body since I was born and my mother let me go to someone else. What I am trying to tell you is that maybe just being out in the world is a trigger for adopted people. What I am trying to tell you is that I need the medical community to realize that life may be killing me, may be killing other adults who lost their mothers as children. What I am trying to tell you is that I’m spending my days now figuring out how to turn off this spigot of something is terribly wrong because I have one life, and more than anything I want to live whole-heartedly, fearlessly.
I don’t want to be ruled by red cars or by memories I carry in my cells.
I want to be wild.
I want the adopted people I know to thrive because, holy cow, you should meet these people. Fierce angels. Miracles. Wonders.
As, you and I both know, are you.