by Allison Young adopted from South Korea to the USA.
And on those days when we walked to the sea and found Mi-ja waiting at her usual spot in the olle, Grandmother recited common sayings in hopes of comforting us two motherless girls. “The ocean is better than your natural mother,” she said. The sea is forever.”
~ The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
One year ago on September 11, after a lifetime of waiting (and one devastating almost-encounter in 2003), I finally met the woman who carried me for 9 months and gave birth to me.
I would like to say it was a happily-ever-after situation, that it was cathartic and I’m so thankful for the meeting but due to her circumstances, I was told we could never have a relationship or even further contact.
Although I have compassion, this hurt more than I could allow myself to feel. At the time I allowed myself one day to fall apart and then I put those feelings away. I had 3 kids in a tiny apartment in a different country and was soon going to adopt my son. I knew it would probably come back for me later — because that’s how trauma and grief work.
To be rejected by one mother figure broke my heart and then a few months later, to be scorned by my other mother nearly broke me.
Sometimes it takes a life-altering event to realize what love is, to see who is actually loving you and who is kicking you down, while calling it love. I have learned so much in this past year, by far the hardest year of my life. I am learning the meaning of self-love, self-care and boundaries. I am mothering myself, decolonizing my mind and body and allowing the ocean to heal me.
I did seek professional help and am working with a therapist. I am making changes to my life for the better, for my own future and so I can break the cycle for my kids.
When I look at my 4 beautiful children, I hope they know that while I’m far from perfect, I will try so hard to be a good listener — to learn, grow and change; to value what matters most to them and see them for who they are.
백절불굴 (baekjeol bulgul) is a saying which means “indomitable spirit.”
My birthname,수은 (Soo Eun), means “grace of water.”
I will be okay. And I am ever grateful to those who helped to keep me afloat this past year.
It’s been a long-running inner debate since the time I was born. Abandonment will do that to a child. It’s been my sickening suspicion that my life has been a waste. This suspicion was probably implanted in me as soon as my birth parents scattered from my presence. The fact that I was left in the care of strangers who couldn’t quite get past the impression that I was a stranger in their midst was never lost on me. With my identity as an adoptee not yet fully realised or solidified so early in life, there were days when I felt unmoored. Not knowing what it truly felt to be loved by my own blood, I would wish only to be expelled from the love and care that had been handed down to me by those who tried to convince me they only had my best interests at heart. The residual resentment of not knowing whether my father and mother loved me and wanted me with them has coloured the way in which I distrust myself with the feeling and act of loving someone. I remain convinced that there is something wrong with the way I love and how I have sought love from others. Even allowing love for myself was never an expectation. Love is a thing that people always said they had for me but could neither show nor explain to me because how can you describe something that seems to be only pulled out of thin air at one’s own convenience. As a youngster I grew up with the nagging feeling that I was thrown in with a lot of people to live in a random place that I didn’t share a history with, but was coaxed each and every day to respect and appreciate by saying “I love you” whenever it was my turn to speak. Affection and companionship were thrown at my feet with the admonition to take them or leave them. I mirrored customs, expectations, and incentives to love, but what was missing was a genuine and clear-headed comprehension of what it means to love and what happens to your mind when you decide to show love and receive love. Absent any key discussions and explanations, my young mind could only play along and follow the unwritten rules when it came to familial bonding, early crushes, and soul-mating. Because of my pretend existence and ignorance of my innate truths, I conducted myself like a laboratory technician whenever the atmosphere softened around me and I started to tingle all over when my eyes settled on a girl at school or in casual passing. In my head, I had all the flasks, tubes and chemicals available to concoct a love potion that I could sprinkle over the brow of the one who had caught my eye at the time. The sad, self-defeating thing was, though, my feelings, thoughts, words, and so much of my personality resided solely in my head. This self-imposed silence, masquerading as humility and reservedness, had the effect of extracting sympathy from a potential lover. I then used this sympathy to position myself as the man who could rescue them from pain that others had inflicted, from histories of spouse/partner abuse and from their own self-destructive habits. My ego always got a kick out of playing savior, exalted as it always was by any reciprocal affection. Selfish were these gambits, nay, habits of involving myself in a person’s life so as to ostensibly use them to help me remind myself that I am a good person, even though I feel myself drifting out of humanity’s fold as each year passes.
I remember back in my mid 20s when I had been in a serious intimate relationship for 7 years – my first love! Do we ever forget our first? No! For me, it was sooooo intense! The first person who I felt truly loved me as I was – warts and all. The first person who really tried to understand my mind and heart. The first person whom I felt “safe” with. As an intercountry adoptee, I had grown up in an adoptive family that hadn’t been an overwhelmingly positive experience and I yearned to feel love, yearned for a connection that wouldn’t be scary or hurtful. I remember my adoptive dad saying more than once not to be so “clingy” to people when the occassional visitor gave me attention. I craved their warmth and nurturing mannerism! The words of my adoptive father made me feel there was something wrong with my desire. In his words I was, “All over them like a bad smell”. But looking back, I recognise this now as the adoptee within who was hurt, abandoned and seeking the connection with a mother figure who wouldn’t let me go.
I kept looking for that “connection” and into my young adult life, I had several serious intimate love relationships. Each time, when it ended, as it inevitably did – it really hurt! I desperately wanted to be loved but I also needed to keep the person at a distance so they couldn’t hurt me too much. My experience of life was that people who said they loved me, either left me because I was “too much” or they hurt me.
Through alot of therapy in my mid 20s and 30s, I eventually recognised what was going on. I call it the push-pull dance that we adoptees master. The dance says: I want you close but I want you far away. It is the powerful dichotomy that we adoptees live. It reflects the dance we have going on within ourselves of wanting to believe we are loveable but living a reality that says the opposite – if we are loveable, then why are we left alone on our own, without our mother. We then subconsciously search for that connection to repair the hurt damaged child within, to want to see a reality that says “we are loveable”. I internalised my relinquishment as “there is something wrong with me” which was enhanced by an adoptive family environment in which I was neglected and abused. These experiences compounded into a feeling that I was always inferior, of no worth and why would anybody want to stay with me. The damage was so immense that I did actually hate myself and this was reflected in self harming behaviours such as suicide attempts. My self hatred was turned inwards upon myself. Others may show it in different ways.
Every human being has a powerful desire to feel loved and for adoptees – it is enhanced on steroids. Our rejected inner child drives our motivations and instincts to recreate and bring back that connection which was unfairly severed with our mother who carried us in-utero. We never really get over that loss of “mother”. I’ve done alot of therapy in my life but fundamentally, it still hurts to have lost her and never know who she is, to be held within her arms as a babe usually is, and to never hear her soothing voice or be held up to see her smiling, adoring face. We adoptees lose those precious moments forever, even if we manage to reunite and find each other again it doesn’t undo the trauma imprint left upon our heart and psyche. So it is not surprising that we carry on our search for that magical “mother-child” intimate connection through our romantic adult relationships.
The hard part is, when we feel so unloveable there is a mismatch between what our heart and our mind says. Our mind says what we all know logically – that every human being is of worth. But yet in our body, our heart, we don’t feel loveable. So our mind wants us to believe we can be in a relationship and that somehow we will find that one relationship which will wash away our pain – we pull people towards us, desperate to find that connection. But in our body and heart we don’t feel we’ll ever be good enough and therefore we push them away. We then get into a cycle of judging ourselves harshly for being in these patterns, saying, “See, told you so! Nobody will ever love me. I’m not loveable”, and it becomes a self fulfilling and cyclical prophecy.
So the question remains: are we adoptees left to forever be incomplete in someway? Going through the motions of this constant push-pull dance? I believe through my own experience, that we can find healing and it can vary for individuals as to what that healing looks like. For me, it was the deep body reconnection therapy I did which helped the most. It was a powerful moment when my therapist helped me recognise that my mother and I are not separated forever – that I am a part of her, that I haven’t lost her, for she is actually within me. That I carry her within me! That blew me away to actually feel this truth. I finally grieved and consoled my inner hurt child.
I also had spent several years working through the negative impacts of my adoptive family and the damaging messages I had internalised. But eventually, it all came together through perserverance and commitment to being on the path of self recovery. Once these things happened, I learnt to reconnect with myself and stop pushing away my own inner feelings of hurt, loss, rejection and to deeply love my inner child, accept her and not make her feel bad for “being needy” and wanting love. The subconscious instinctive response to push people away no longer controls me and I’ve been capable of being in a healthy positive intimate relationship. I now understand why many of us adoptees can journey along without ever being aware that we have “adoption related issues”. It is not until we see the repetitive cycles of our intimate relationship patterns, the push-pull dance, that we begin to fathom how much our relinquishment impacts our life. For some of us, it can be the first overt signal that something is not quite right.
A really useful book that helped me along while being in therapy, was Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Connection. (The first book of hers that I read, The Dance of Anger, was so important to my healing!)
If you are an adoptee reading this blog post and you can identify with the pattern of wanting people close to you but subconciously pushing them away, you are not alone. This is a completely normal response to a difficult beginning. We act this way for a reason and the good news is, it can be changed. It starts with a conscious decision to learn as much as possible as to why we became this way and how the pattern began. Then its a matter of finding a way for yourself that helps free you of the subconscious drivers. I refer to this as being on the path towards healing and recovery.
In the past month, I’ve become a fan of Anthony Robbins after watching his Netflix I Am Not Your Guru show. So much of his approach matches my healing journey where I learnt to accept and nuture my wounded child. I think that’s why it’s so devastating if we have an experience of an adoptive family who never fully accepts (or even understands) our wounded traumatised child within. When adoptive parents reject and push that hurt child away, it gives us the subconsciuos message that our child is not loveable and therefore, we as adults replicate what they’ve done because we don’t know any better. We push our inner hurt child away too but yet, the real path to finding healing from our relinquishment, is to embrace our inner child, love it, nuture and protect it and then allow it co-exist with our adult self. Only then do our beginnings no longer control our destiny.
Our path towards healing and recovery can start any moment. It is a choice. We don’t have to be controlled by our beginnings forever. A healthy positive intimate relationship is possible! Reaching out to post adoption supports are a great place to start. Finding a therapist who suits your style and personality is another. Doing yoga or meditation is another. But give yourself the chance and be gentle on yourself. This stuff doesn’t change overnight, it can take years of commitment to healing and recovery. It starts with awareness and the desire to figure it out.