Not My Adopted Child!

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If my mum read my posts about adoption, she’d think, “Not Juliette, not my daughter!”

I’ve done the emotional work because I know my parents haven’t and never will. Brexit tore my family apart when my parents voted and arguments revealed just how little they understood they had an Asian immigrant daughter. I struggled and battled them over Brexit, Trump and racism for two years. I raged, I withdrew, I reflected, I dug around for answers but I knew I could only ever work on myself. I knew the whole argument about Brexit had always been about adoption, but they didn’t. Likewise, I knew the first rift that happened in my teens, on the surface was about moving (countries) for about the 6th time in my short life, was also about adoption. But I never said it, so we never talked about it. And as far as I know, they never knew it.

So when at age 46 a friend gently suggested I meet up with her 70 year old adoptee friend who’d done plenty of therapy around her own adoption, I shrugged and agreed. I did not realise how much it would clarify and soothe me to talk to another adoptee, something I had never done before. That’s still incredible to me! Imagine being blind and never connecting to another blind person for most of your life – never knowing how universal your feelings are or realising only those who’ve experienced it, truly understand. As someone who’s been adopted, compared with those who haven’t and think it’s a beautiful happy ending with little to do with anything else, there are things I could never tell anyone while growing up. My loneliness, my longings ended up revealing and highlighting that biology matters and that my family was not enough and that their difference (not mine) was a source of deep isolation and pain. I understood from an early age just how forbidden that topic was and just how little self awareness my parents had about their own grief and it’s impact on me.

I could not find my place in this large white working class family whose only experience of Asian culture was take-out food. I’m not sure they ever rejected me exactly, perhaps I rejected them? But I certainly wasn’t embraced by them. I wasn’t in the minds of extended family, except to be asked about politely as an after thought, after speaking with my parents. If it ever occurred to my immediate or extended family to wonder how I felt being adopted and different, transracially and intercountry adopted, I never had any evidence of it.

For those aware of Tuckman’s model of group development (Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing) I never got past the first stage of Forming with my extended family. They never stopped being polite. That reminds me of the first reality show on MTV, “.. the true story…of seven strangers…picked to live in a house…(work together) and have their lives taped…to find out what happens…when people stop being polite…and start getting real…The Real World.” Perhaps it sounds blissfully charming to live in a world where people never stop being polite, but the real connection doesn’t actually happen until you do. That doesn’t mean when you stop being polite you start being rude, it just means you start exploring each other in a more open and honest way and that can get muddy – but done with curiosity and empathy, it can also lead to stronger and more meaningful relationships.

Now that I think about it, I’ve never left the storming phase with my adoptive parents. The classic movie 12 Angry Men is a great example in a nutshell of a group of strangers, moving from being cautiously polite through to an angry battle of wills, until they begin to learn more about each other’s stories and perspectives and in doing so, are able to reach understanding and consensus. A group can be colleagues, or it could be a jury, or  new or old friendships. If you cast your eye on your relationships with friends or family, you’ll see the ones that got past the forming/polite stages, or through the storming phase, and those which never have. Side note, one of my friendships actually got a real life dose of this after we worked briefly together on a project and never saw each other again until we found ourselves on a jury together. We’ve been great friends ever since!

Some teams or relationships will never leave the storming phase and will then never reach their potential together. They will at best remain independent of each other and work alongside each other without too much jostling, at worst actively sabotage and disrupt progress and harmony. When they reach the storming, they will never test their own beliefs against differing perspectives, instead they will retreat into the safety of a story told from a single lens, their own. This is what my parents have done, you may be wondering right now if I have done that too. Certainly there is plenty I can’t know. But I can tell you I have thought it out from their perspectives initially more than I did my own, it’s the nature of life as an adoptee. For emotional safety, the pervading priority is the comfort of adoptive parents and the story they tell themselves. Society easily empathises with their longings — not ours as adoptees. It’s my deep understanding and prioritising of their perspective which also keeps me from unravelling theirs with my own. This also hinders the possibility of healing the widening rift in our relationship with truth.

Rightly or wrongly. Most of my therapy has been an attempt to work out the question of whether I should or not. Whether they are capable of growing at this point in their lives, or whether I would only cause pain and confuse them without any useful end game. In doing so, I create more emotional labour for myself in trying to explain the unexplainable.

When my mum went to see the movie Lion with her sister, I wondered whether it was an opening for us to talk. When I asked her how it was, all she said was, “It was good”. Neither of us pushed it further than that, though I remain astonished that she could have nothing more to say than that. I imagine that she looked at that story and specifically saw all the ways in which the protagonists story was not like mine, not like hers. What I think she would cling to was that I was a baby, not a few years old with memories of my family. In her mind, I had not experienced what he did as a lost child in India, searching for my missing relatives and not knowing how to get back to them. But of course I did, except as a baby, I experienced it all without language and by the time I had words for it, I also had awareness of the pain it could bring. And awareness of how little anyone would understand it.

I now have language for my experience and I understand the value of sharing it with other adoptees. Sharing with adoptive parents and with a society which harbours a one dimensional view of adoption through the lens of adopters, I want us to move past the forming phase of using babies to heal the wounds of infertility and opaque illusions of saviourism. I want us to move past the storming phase of denying the reality of adoptee losses and denial of our human rights, into an age of genuine problem solving, equipped with self awareness and the courage to learn from others. Still, it’s common to find people responding to this thought with, “Not every adoptee …”, not their friend, not their cousin, not their daughter.

To you, I remind you that my mum would read this and think that too.

About Juliette

 

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