Adoptee Body Keeps Score

(Also shared at Musings of a Birthmom.)

marginalised

As an intercountry adoptee from Malaysia to the UK, I am still so marginalised that it took a lot of anger at the age of 44 to motivate me to claim my own ethnicity. Yet, when I spoke out loud with frustration, confusion and anger, “I am an immigrant” and “I am Asian”, repeating it to friend after friend and to family; I expected at any time that someone would tell me that I am not. I watched their faces intently for signs that the statement was true or false. I was so confused about my own identity and how I was viewed in the eyes of others.

I am so marginalised that I censor my own thoughts for fear of who they will hurt. I find myself left with disembodied stress and pain, unnamed and unattended, because I can’t even allow myself those fantasies or thoughts. I remember that I had burned my own journal in my twenties, and in so doing buried and destroyed memories of sadness and isolation.

In meeting a distant-but-still-biological cousin for the first time, I noted with practiced distance the eager curiosity of people asking me how I was. How had the meeting gone? Even people across the world were asking my husband. I told them all, “It was lovely, it was fine, we had a lot in common”. And we did. And it was.

Yet, it wasn’t until the plane ride home that I was finally alone with my thoughts and pulling together the threads of what I had voiced for the first time with a wise friend and with my husband via Facetime from Australia.

These discussions floated incongruously in my mind, high above the ground literally and emotionally. I experienced a growing physical anxiety and increased heart rate, which continued through the night as I tried to sleep. I woke several times in the night hearing mysterious sounds and my hyper vigilance kicked in alerting me to the possibility of an imaginary intruder in the house. Had I left my keys in the door on the outside in my tired and bamboozled state? Was someone here with me?

I locked the bedroom door. My husband, who had long since anticipated moments like this, had added a deadbolt to the attic door, creating my own private panic room.

But no, there was no intruder. The intruder was me, my own thoughts, my own body!

A therapy session began to unravel that I had held a long time secret fantasy about having a sister. I had privately hoped my cousin would be just like that imagined sister. I hoped that she might look like me, that she might resemble me in other ways. Indeed, we shared a bond through many eerily similar experiences and common hallmarks of intercountry adoption:

  • colour blindness
  • secrets
  • racially charged political differences in our families

.. but our personalities, our responses to these experiences, and our basic physicality were inherently different.

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My adult protective self had already distanced me from the fantasy, knowing it to be unrealistic and a one-way-road to disappointment. But another part of me silently and stubbornly held on with the steely resolute grip of an inner child. Disembodied, unspoken, unacknowledged; no wonder I experienced such an overwhelming physical anxiety once I allowed myself to visit my own thoughts.

It’s all true, the body keeps the score.

I don’t know why planes are such emotional places but it does seem to be a universal experience. Maybe we all still have a sense of wonder about the miracle of it. And then there are memories of flying between countries between homes, between possibilities and flying off on adventures. But I do know that my first plane ride was when I was seven months old, leaving my country of birth. Maybe that’s a preverbal and body-held memory. My plane ride to meet my cousin and returning home was not just THIS moment, THIS trip. It was that first trip, all over again.

About Juliette

Resources

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessen van der Kolk

 

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