Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.
Adopted Bodies Are Good at Holding It All In
By Liz DeBetta, PhD
I am forty-three years old and have only recently been seriously working through my adoption issues with the help of an adoption-trauma-competent therapist. It has taken me this long to find the right kind of help. To see that I need help. To begin to feel the feelings I have managed to bury for so long.
It shouldn’t have to be this way. I should have had help from the beginning, someone to look me in the eyes and say, “Liz, you aren’t broken. There is nothing wrong with you. None of this is your fault.” But in 1977, no one knew that adoption and trauma were intimately linked.
No one told my parents to look for any signs of anxiety or trauma responses. So they chalked up my always-on-the-verge-of-tears childhood to the fact that I was “sensitive” and “over-emotional.” I was the “queen of crocodile tears”, the one who wore her heart on her sleeve.
They didn’t know that I had panic attacks at night when I was alone in my room— in fact, I didn’t know it either. I’m starting to remember flashes of things from when I was much younger. I thought (at the time) that I was having some kind of waking dream, but, in retrospect, I was deeply anxious, and my body was trying to deal with it.
I suspect that the many episodes of my throat closing were connected to anxiety and panic during those years and not mysterious allergic reactions. They didn’t know I used my nails to make the skin on my palms bleed when I was alone in my bed. I recently had a memory of the flowered sheets my mom used to make my bed. (I couldn’t sleep on white sheets). The flowers were bright red and I remember dabbing the blood onto them so no one would see it.
I don’t know why I did it and it scares me that I locked that memory away for so long. But adopted brains are good at keeping secrets. Adopted bodies are good at holding it all in.
What am I holding in my body?
This body that sees, hears, feels too much (and not enough…)
This body that holds me together
when all I want is to fall apart
Partitioning myself into particles, pieces, portions
that are disproportionate to what my body holds,
to what my body needs to heal
and be whole
For years, the only thing I let out were tears. Crying is my default setting for every feeling and emotion, no matter what.
I cry when I am sad, I cry when I am angry (and allow myself to be), I cry when I am frustrated, I cry when I am overwhelmed— I cry. I have had stretches of time where I have not been able to stop crying because my body cannot contain the truth of its pain and grief and the only release is to cry. But it’s exhausting and debilitating.
At one point, it was so bad I could not function at work. I was experiencing the breakdown of my marriage at the time and was still unaware of the role that trauma was playing in my life, but I knew that to be so deeply despondent as to quite literally cry at the drop of a hat was not “normal”; it was most definitely not healthy.
The thing I want most in the world is to be healthy and feel whole. In many respects I am healthy by society’s standards, but I am not healthy in myself because I have never felt like a whole person. I feel unhealthy because I feel like a fraud.
I feel like my insides don’t match my outsides and I am constantly exhausted by trying to figure myself out. I have struggled to feel worthy of taking up space. I am so used to keeping myself small by not talking about things. By holding it all in. By ignoring my own pain, I have made myself numb. I have made myself a container of fear.
Instead of being able to express my true feelings and emotions, I have contained them for fear of being hurt, misunderstood, abandoned, or forgotten. It’s not good to fill yourself up with fear; it doesn’t allow space for love.
Jamie Anderson says that grief is really love, all the love you want to give but can’t. She says that all that unspent love gathers up and has no place to go so it becomes grief. What if all the love I have held inside me for so long has been reprocessed as grief?
That would explain the intense bouts of tears and always feeling on the edge of despair throughout my childhood, teens, and early adulthood. What if grief became the default emotion that I felt safe to express instead of love? My baby brain was hardwired for fear.
The first nine months of my life are a mystery to me, I don’t know who was caring for me or what that care was like before I went home with my parents. Developmentally my nervous system was, and is, in permanent shock— fight, flight, collapse, or freeze.
Hypervigilance is my middle name. That kind of constant wariness makes it hard to calm down enough to trust. Love requires trust but I learned early on that I couldn’t, or shouldn’t, trust. This is not something I had words for until recently. I couldn’t have articulated in any coherent way the amount of fear I am beginning to realize I hold and how this fear has kept me stuck.
It is deeply uncomfortable to come to terms with the fear factor in my life. It is more uncomfortable to continue to ignore it. I couldn’t hear the messages my body was trying to send me when I was alone in my room, either panicking or making myself bleed, but I am learning to pay attention now. I am working through the frustration of not having the right kind of support for too long.
I spent years in therapy never talking about adoption, never discussing the pain of ambiguous loss or learning to manage the grief that accompanies the loss of a mother you never knew, a family that remained a mystery, and the confusion about who I really was.
Never talking about adoption at home or with my therapist meant that I never got to talk about myself in a way that helped me feel whole and seen. This piece of my identity was locked away as if it was irrelevant.
Being adopted is not irrelevant. I know this now. And so now, at forty-three years old, I am struggling to integrate the parts of myself that have been at war for so long. I am struggling to make peace with the narratives that were given to me in place of truth.
I am struggling to forgive the errors of a system that says that relinquishing a child is a brave, loving choice, a system that is built on secrets and lies.
I am struggling to let go of fear and confusion so that I can love myself enough to love the people who are most important to me. I am struggling to stop pathologizing myself and accept that I am enough. So I remind myself:
I am a meditation
Breathing in peace that I do not feel
Breathing in the space of silence
Silence that is too too loud
Lengthening my hours
I am a meditation
Breathing in ease that I do not feel
Breathing in the expanse of myself
Myself that is too too loud
Strengthening my resolve
I am a meditation
Breathing in faith that I do not feel
Breathing in the solitude of remembrance
Remembrance that is too too loud
Loosening my sadness
Liz DeBetta, PhD., is a scholar/artist/activist who uses her work to inspire change. She teaches English at Utah Valley University and is the writing and performance mentor for Act Risk No More, a non-profit theater for social change group that believes in using the arts as a way to heal trauma. She is passionate about using stories as activism especially in the culture of adoption.
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter