Relief?

This morning I noticed that my friend’s sister’s blog (who is a surrogate) had been updated, so I went ahead and read it.

Here are some excerpts (from today’s post as well as prior ones):

Mentally, it is still very easy to feel disconnected to the baby, and I have to constantly remind myself that I am pregnant.

Yes, this pregnancy feels like it is going quicker than my other pregnancies because I don’t have the anticipation of meeting my child. There is no: “oh, I can’t wait to meet my little girl/boy” or “I wonder when I get to finally meet you, little one.”

I feel nothing. I didn’t expect to feel this way. When I made this decision to do this, I knew that I would not feel attached or feel like I have some claim to the child but I didn’t expect to feel so emotionally, and mentally detached.

Earlier in the week, I was talking about these posts with someone, and the person wondered if I had any feelings of ‘relief’ about knowing this. At the time, I couldn’t process if ‘relief’ was an accurate way to describe my response, however when I read today’s post I realized that it’s not relief at all. Rather, it’s a jarring realization that this spectrum of experience exists. Having a degree in anthropology, I have always been focused on trying to understand the human experience, however in this regard (woman carrying child), I have always thought that those attachment feelings would be both natural and universal. Though, while I’m not naive enough to truly believe this, the larger part of me was hoping that I was right.

But, reading her posts have demonstrated that I was wrong, that complete detachment is not only a possibility, but a reality. A reality that both extinguishes the idealistic hope that I’ve carried regarding the sentiments above (i.e., belief that my birth mother would have thought things like “I wonder when I finally get to meet you, little one”), while also serving as a reminder of the “ungrounded/disconnected” feeling that is so pervasive in my life.

Ultimately, I think the hardest part to swallow is coming to understand (and accept) that it’s a very likely possibility that I entered the world more alone than I could have previously imagined. So, no, I don’t think that I have any feelings of relief when I read her words; it’s the complete opposite.

“Home”

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” -The Great Gatsby

After a series of dreams that plunged into the depths my subconscious, I awoke with a deep sense of gratitude for all of the factors in my life that have shaped who and where I am today. The good, the bad, the terrible…all of these experiences have come full circle and have ultimately led me “home.”

And for that I am immeasurably grateful.

I’m at the 1-year anniversary of my trip to South Korea. Being the big milestone, nostalgic person that I am, I’ve spent a lot of energy reflecting on what this means. What have I learned? How have I grown? Have I healed?

I’ve attempted to answered all of those big questions that I’ve struggled with, largely through conversations with people that I love and by reading. The academic side of me required that I read as much I could find about adoption, ranging from reunion stories to memoirs to lengthy, dry peer-reviewed articles.

What I found helped me validate my feelings and finally make sense of my experience. As a result, I have finally begun to accept myself just as I am.

There’s a wide breadth of research about the trauma that babies separated from their mothers experience. Perhaps the most famous is Harry F. Harlow’s experiments with monkeys and surrogate mothers, in which he found that those with surrogate mothers from birth had stronger bonds, which weakened in proportion to the duration of the delay. This is corroborated by research by Dr. John Bolby which found that the mental health of children who have been separated from their mothers is severely damaged, influenced by “the quality of the substitute mothering experience, and the length of delay in providing an adequate substitute, and the number of such substitutes during the first three years of life.”

We have to wonder how the baby’s subjective self was reacting to these multiple dislocations and whether it was able to consolidate a cohesive core self by six months, like other babies.

Looking at my own experience, I went from my mother to an orphanage to an adoptive family (in a completely new cultural context), all within a 5-month period. It’s a series of attachment, separation and adjustment that is true for all adopted children, however how children respond to this trauma and stress varies. For those who are met with loving families and healthy relationships, the effects of this unstable period are reversible, while those who do not experience these healthy environments are often plagued with issues of abandonment, attachment and identity. 

I recently read through an old notebook filled with my schoolwork from grade school and found a story that I had typed when I was ten. It was titled “My Life” and was primarily the origin story I had been told: “I thank my brother. He’s mostly the reason I’m here today. Why? He wanted a baby sister to play with so he kept on begging my parents to get one. Finally they decided that they were going to get one. My mom wanted a girl. So they decided to adopt one from South Korea. They picked me up [at the airport].”

Reading this 16 years later, I was surprised that my adoptive parents never tried to alter this narrative that is analogous to a child begging for a toy at the toy store.

Growing up with no origin story, many adoptees are forced to disavow reality and often carry around fantasies about their heroic mother or father coming to their rescue. Nightmares are also common, as this mythic fantasy merges with reality (having to choose between two sets of parents). Subsequently, they struggle with existential questions about who they are and how to define “reality,” perhaps more deeply than those who have a reflection of themselves mirrored back to them everyday.

Those who know their mothers cannot imagine what it is like not to know the woman who brought you into the world. What it is like to be forbidden by law to see her face, hear her voice, know her name. No one can imagine it because it is unimaginable.

Additionally, many adoptees feel unlovable deep down in the core of their being. This can easily happen when your first sense of self is as someone who has been abandoned and unwanted by your own flesh and blood. Relationships with family members and friends can seem tenuous because you are constantly afraid of being deserted and abandoned again. This silent fear can manifest in a variety of ways.

As attachment problems, trust issues and difficulties with intimate relationships. As low self-esteem. As shame. As depression. As loneliness. As a quest for an authentic identity. As a perfectionist, afraid of making any mistake or error. It is manifested in the way many adoptees carefully suppress all emotions except for gratitude and the way in which large chunks of childhood are repressed and lost.

Adopted children, who get the message that not only were they chosen, but they were chosen to be the light of their parents’ lives, often do not feel entitled to express any negative feelings, such as grief or anger at being cut off from their origins. Some become so successful at splitting off their feelings and keeping up a cheerful facade that they do not even know when they are angry.

Perhaps the most prevalent theme among adoptees is the search for “home.”

From the moment they are separated from their birth mothers, all adoptees are consciously or unconsciously in search of some place, perched somewhere between conception and birth, that could be called Home.

This has certainly been true in my own life, as evidenced by the strong desire I had last year to find my birth parents. When I reflect on my search, and the ensuing disappointment, what I was really searching for was “home”– unconditional love, acceptance and a sense of belonging. So much so, that life without these things didn’t make sense or seem worth it. 

The word home is virtually impossible to translate into other tongues, we are told by the classicist Bartlett Giamatti.  It is not a concept, not a place, but a state of mind where self-definition starts. It is origins. We can see the search for Home as a universal quest, but for the adopted person it is also a literal one. It is a quest for the beginning of one’s narrative; for the lost mother; for unconditional love; for meaning; for the recovery of lost time; for a coherent sense of self; for security; for form and structure; for grounding and centering.

A few months ago I was reading a blog about a friend who was able to reunite with her birth parents. As I scanned through the pictures of her and her biological family, I felt happy for her, while at the same time having no emotional desire for that. I recognized that the people in the photos were still mere strangers, disconnected by language and culture.

They don’t know each other’s past, what the other struggles with, or their likes or dislikes.
They can’t decipher what various facial expressions mean or communicate with gestures.
They haven’t been with each other throughout the good times or the bad times.
They haven’t experienced life together.

As I recognized all of these things, I felt an overwhelming contentedness and joy for the family I have found, neither biological nor adoptive, but the family I chose. These are the people who I feel an unexplainable connectedness to, people who I get” and am “gotten” by, who I love and am loved by. So, a year later, I have finally found home and it is largely due to the search for my biological parents and willingness to finally explore my adoption.

Each time an adopted child wonders whose tummy she was in, what her mother looked like, why she was given up; each time he has a fantasy or a dream, looks on the street for someone who looks like him, the adoptee has taken a small step on the journey toward Home.

Life

Earlier today I was prompted to write about a moment from childhood. It was a time to reminisce and to reflect, but while other people were carefully crafting their narrative, I was left alone with my thoughts. I tried in vain to think of something, anything, to write about, but to no avail. I’ve long known that I’ve repressed most of my childhood, as I have very few memories (and even fewer fond ones), but I was surprised when I was assaulted with the realization that I’m equally good at blocking out life. In my attempt to numb the pain, I’ve numbed the joy, as well as the experience of being alive. Essentially, I’ve shut myself down to the moments that make life worth living.

Joseph Campbell is often quoted for saying, “I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.” He’s right, and for a long time this resonated deep within me. But now…it just doesn’t, even though I still believe it.

My experience of being alive isn’t very fulfilling right now and I find myself with a strange detachment toward it.

Nighttime Visitors

Two nights ago I awoke from one of the worst dreams I’ve had in a while. Actually, it may have been the worst dream I’ve ever had, as I woke to a pillow soaked full of tears and the inability to concentrate for the rest of the day. (It’s still lingering burning in my mind today.)


I dreamt that I had been transported back in time to the day when my parents gave me away. I was fully grown, yet possessed the mindset and skills of an infant. All at once, they were judging who I was and who I’ve become, deciding if I was worth altering the course of time.

They chose to not change anything.

Instead, due to my pathetic begging and groveling, they sent me away with “firsts” to hold onto, in place of them– the first outfit and pair of shoes I wore, the first blanket from a grandma, the first family pictures, and so on. Gradually, they moved from “first” material possessions to “first memories”– the first time they saw me, the first time time they told me they loved me, the first time they held me…

The whole time I was being forced to stand and accept all of the “firsts” into a tiny, transparent box. While part of me greedily wanted to hold onto all of the firsts they would give me, another part wanted to throw the box back at them, yelling “you don’t get it! This isn’t want I need!”

However, having only the mentality of an infant, I was unable to act on my own free will, unable to try to convince my parents that I was worth it.

Once again, I had no control, no say, over this part of my life.


Waking up from the dream was a struggle. Even though it was unbearable, I wanted to stay in it as long as possible, stay closer to the feeling of my parents.

Constant Hunger

What would have been the one-year milestone of my (Ultimate Life Fail) ULF recently passed.

In fact, as I’m typing a group of wonderful individuals are together celebrating their mid-point together.

It’s a group that I should be a part of, but because I just couldn’t do it, I’m here, staring blankly at the disappointment of who I’ve become.

All of this led me to reconsider, once again, what happened and what went wrong. I can’t stop thinking about how different my life would be, how different I would be if I were still on that track.

If my circumstances had been different, would I still be there?
Would I be there, celebrating my resiliency, rather than here, wondering if there’s even a shred of resiliency left in me?
Would I still be that strong person that I used to be? That person where bad things could happen and I could take an Eastern perspective and say “that’s life” and move on, unbroken?
Would I still enjoy life?

If I would have stayed and found self-worth through my actions and doing something good, would this hunger that I have for love, acceptance and belonging be as intense? Would finding my biological parents still mean everything to me?

Orphans are always hungry. You can feed them Spam and chocolate bars and poisoned apples all day long and they’ll still complain about emptiness. That’s why the government manufactures cakes made of grass. The cakes have no nutritional value, but they possess a magical property that makes orphans feel full. -Jane Jeong Trenka in Fugitive Visions

I remember how it felt as the plane began its ascent toward Japan; how part of me wanted to do something completely inappropriate so that they would stop the plane and leave me in Korea, or at least buy me more time, because, for as much as I wanted to be anywhere but there, leaving stirred up those familiar feelings of failure and disappointment. You’re leaving. You’re failing your biological parents. You’re failing yourself. Try harder. Why won’t/can’t you try harder?! Do something, dang it! If it’s that important to you, you wouldn’t be leaving, you’d be staying. What don’t you get about this? It’s simple. And yet, you can’t do it. What’s wrong with you? You can’t give them that? You’re a terrible daughter, of course they were right to give you up. What don’t you get about that? You’re humanity has been demeaned; you’re barely human. You’re a monster. And monsters don’t deserve to live.

Process? Ha.

Ashuipda: to deeply, passionately want to have or to do something, but not be able to fulfill that desire.

It’s been 20 days since I’ve returned and as much as I’d love to say that I’ve processed things and have moved on, the truth is that I’m nowhere close.

Instead I find myself at a loss and needing to sort through “the loss of my birth parents, my birth country and culture, home, someone caring for me, family, love, closeness, happiness, sadness, understanding of my beliefs, honor pride. A loss of me, a loss of who I am, a loss of what life has to offer me” (Voices From Another Place). I can’t even begin to think about these losses in a way that doesn’t leave me as a crumpled mess on the floor. So rather than processing, I shut down, or at least attempt to, because the way I see it, there’s nothing else to say that hasn’t been said and nothing left to do that hasn’t been done.

But each morning as I prepare for the day, a sense of dread hits me…dread at having to trudge through another day when all I feel like doing is curling up in a ball and giving up. You’d think that this dread would have relented by now, at least a little, however it’s only become more intense.

The process of cutting back on obligations/commitments and adding in more enjoyable activities has, ironically, exacerbated things. My life should be more organized and calm than it has been in a long time, right? Instead, the nothingness feels like I’ve been thrown into a state of complete disarray.

It’s like being lost in the middle of a cornfield– every direction looks the same and no matter how hard you look, you can’t find your way out; standing still isn’t going to get you any closer to finding your way out, so you walk, directionless, just to get closer to an unknown something. But after all of that walking, you’re still lost and notice that you’re hungrier than ever, emptier than ever; you become weak and begin questioning if you’ll ever find your way out or if you should just sit down and accept the inevitable.

“No Feelings, Just Ice Cream: A Memoir”

On the last night in Seoul, a few of us went out to get ice cream, opting out of the optional “Reflection” time that our tour leader so apathetically presented (it says a lot when a whole group opts out, but I digress). There were a few of us who became good friends, so we decided to go out and enjoy what remained of our last night together (it was already 10 pm). On the way there, one of the individuals (aka: my twin who happens to be 4 years older), had remarked that we were skipping all of the mushy feelings– “no feelings, just ice cream.” I laughed and said “that sounds like a book title,” to which she responded with something to the effect of “yeah, for your memoir.” We laughed again because of how fitting and accurate it would be.

When looking to the trip, I envisioned being magically “healed,” or at least closer to a resolution and feeling okay and at peace. Now, at the tail end of the trip, I’ve realized that nothing has been resolved. If anything, more things have been stirred up and I find myself in an emotional limbo, stuck and unable to “join loved ones” on this side due to my inability to be loved and be accepted, both by myself and by others.

Everyone who was able to meet their birth parent(s)/families or foster parent(s)/families have spoken about how they feel ecstatic, happy, healed; how they have been forever changed. They realize that there will still be complications, given the complexity of adoption and its repercussions, however they know that they will be okay. They’ve found it– their past, their identity, love from their birth parents, a way to become whole.

Listening to everyone’s stories was torture, but I am so, so happy for them because I know how much it must mean. Although everyone’s experiences are relative, I can feel how significant it is for them to know about who they are and to finally begin to become whole.

After seeing what’s possible, I’m craving it now more than ever. You hear stories about reunions gone awry, but I’ve just witnessed more than five and know the healing power that even a simple, short meeting can hold. How does one ever move forward knowing that it’s out there? Knowing that their healing has only come from a reunion? Knowing that you’re being forced down a different path that will be “close, but no cigar?”

I can’t fathom anything else, any other way.
It’s just not possible.