(Most of the excerpts quoted are from Nancy Newton Verrier’s “The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child” unless otherwise stated.)
|Three adopted munchkins.|
Being adopted is something I always took for granted growing up. My sister, brother, and I always knew we were adopted. We were informed of our “non natural” state at such a young age that I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t part of our identities. The first friend I ever made, at the age of four, was also adopted, as was his sister who became my little sister’s best pal for years. As a child I pretty much thought everybody was adopted. More precisely, the word “adopted” was almost meaningless because it was just the way things were. When I was around five years old I remember a friend announcing that she was going to have a sister or brother. When I asked her which, she said she wouldn’t know until her mommy had the baby. The idea that a human mother was pregnant, like a cat or a dog, was shocking. Up until then I hadn’t known that could be a thing. I was only two when they brought my sister home, but I was just big enough at five years old to remember going to the hospital to look at my little brother in the maternity ward at Swedish Hospital in one of those classic glassed-in rooms full of babies in boxes. For years I thought that’s how you got a baby: you went to the hospital and picked one out, like going to the pumpkin patch for your Halloween jack o’ lantern.
There was no shocking revelation later in life. There was no stigma about it. We were raised like any other kids. We weren’t less a part of our family, or spoiled to compensate for some vaguely unfortunate beginnings. The only drama that occurred, according to my adoptive mother, was when I cried when I was told that I wasn’t Norwegian like them, but some combination of German and other European background. I have no recollection of that incident, although I remember a brief time when I toyed with the idea of being Irish for some reason.
That story used to make me chuckle. Poor little kid crying because she found out she wasn’t a Scandinavian: awwww. The more I learn about adoption and its consequences, the more sympathetic I am to the disappointed little kid I once was. I wanted a connection, to belong, to fit in and be an intrinsic part of a tribe. Somehow I thought that even though I was adopted into another family after birth that I was still at least somehow similar to my legal parents in some way. Nope, I was an alien. A much loved alien, but “not us” nevertheless. Personal identity became a fluid thing, since I didn’t really have a concrete one of my own. This does not make for a secure mental canvas. Despite what we were told back then, adoption is not the clean, easy, pain-free solution that the social workers were selling during the Baby Scoop era. There were consequences on all sides.
Abandonment Issues and Acting Out
“For love to be freely accepted there must be trust, and despite the love and security our daughter has been given, she has suffered the anxiety of wondering if she would again be abandoned. For her this anxiety manifested itself in typical testing-out behavior. At the same time that she tried to provoke the very rejection that she feared, there was a reaction on her part to reject us before she could be rejected by us. It seemed that allowing herself to love and be loved was too dangerous; she couldn’t trust that she would not again be abandoned.” (Verrier, p. xiii)
I see this in myself, as well. As a small child I had dreams of being abandoned. The recurring one I remember most was usually short but traumatic. Mom would be driving us to a store with a big parking lot, implying a grocery store of some kind. Sometimes it was both mom and dad, but at any rate the parent is driving. As folks often did back in the day, we were instructed to wait in the car while mom ran in to pick up a few things. I/we would wait and wait, until I would finally decide to go in and look for her because it was taking so long. Just as I reached the door of the store I would hear the car start up and I would turn around to see it pulling away. I would scream after them to wait, but the car always drove off without me.
I usually woke up crying.
Later on, in my teen years, my subconscious turned the tables and I became the abandoner. In my dreams I would overhear family, and sometimes friends, talking about what a problem I was, or how disappointed they were by me, or some such thing, and I would feel crushed by rejection. At that point I would either jump out a window and fly away, or leap into the trees and swing off into the deep forest like Tarzan in the jungle. Sometimes I would then feel the people who just rejected me giving chase, grabbing at my feet, but I would kick them away and struggle to keep ahead of them in a panic of flight. Sometimes it would be a breathlessly clean escape, and I would feel the exhilaration of freedom as I soared over the ocean or up into the mountains. These were often the last dreams of the night. My dreams were, and are, usually quite vivid, and the last one of the night will color my mood for the morning and sometimes the entire day.
Verrier talks about her daughter, and other adopted children, developing “testing out” behavior. I don’t feel like I did much of that beyond the average moodiness of the typical teenager, but I do think I began to pull away from my adoptive family as I entered puberty and began to feel the “I don’t fit in” feelings of adolescence. In later years I just chalked that up to the vagaries of puberty. Most of us go through a phase of feeling that nobody understands them. For me this angst was definitely aimed at or received from my immediate family. My adopted sister, a classic extrovert to my classic introvert, definitely manifested “testing out” behaviors. A typical strong-willed child (after the James Dobson model), Cheryl befuddled our parents by constantly pushing and testing boundaries. I befuddled them by turning inward, isolating myself, rejecting classic “girly” pursuits, and falling into periods of depression that became clinically problematic by my late teens.
As a young child I occasionally resisted attempts to integrate me into childrens’ activities at church, like Christmas pageants and the like, and would deliberately perform badly at rehearsals in a feeble attempt to be removed from the program. This must have been aggravating in the extreme for my mom, the church organist, who knew I was more than capable as a performer. At one point I grew so fed up with my piano teacher, an old-school battleaxe with a penchant for corporeal punishment, after she once again rapped me across the knuckles for making a mistake, that I exploded and mouthed off at her. I have no memory of what little bratty me said, but I definitely remember the dressing down I got from my father when he got home from work and heard about it from mom. I was told what a rotten kid I was, and that I was way out of line for acting so badly to my teacher (no argument there). Not for the first time, and certainly not the last, I was told that I had an “attitude problem”. There was no commentary about the knuckle whacking habit of the teacher. I heard about my “attitude problem” a lot in those years. Any time I was depressed, or sad, or confused by my math homework, or generally being a sulky kid, I had an “attitude problem”. This resulted in me 1) hating the word “attitude”, and 2) increasingly convinced that I was broken.
One summer, on one of the last “family vacations” I ever endured, teenaged me was experiencing a particularly blue patch and keenly missing my Sea Scout friends and other chums back home. I was not happy about driving hundreds of miles a day cooped up in a hot car with a father who struggled with anger issues on a regular basis when either the car broke down or he just got tired of driving cranky kids around. We ended up in Queen Elizabeth Gardens in Vancouver one day, a truly beautiful place, but it was utterly lost on me. I was lonely, feeling hopeless about my life and my future prospects, and in the middle of a two week road trip with people with whom I had little in common other than living in the same house. Everything was colored, or more accurately de-colorized, by a particularly bad bout of yet undiagnosed depression, and the beautiful garden seemed like a complete mockery of my feelings of hopelessness. I made the grave and untactful error of declaring “This is depressing” within earshot of my parents. Not unsurprisingly my dad blew a gasket. He ranted at me, barking “There’s something wrong with you!” with no attempt to hide his disgust, generally indicating that I was a blight on the landscape and a discredit to the family escutcheon. That fit in perfectly with my already bleak outlook and general sense of worthlessness. In hindsight, part of me was probably trying to provoke that very response and get that dreaded abandonment in motion. I think I thought it was always looming, so why not get it over with?
My parents did the best they could with the three of us, but they were at a real disadvantage. They both came from Scandinavian-American backgrounds with huge, tight-knit extended families contented with a seasonal round of family picnics, holiday gatherings, anniversary celebrations, and other large gatherings where the kids played in the yard and the grown-ups sat around a table and played card games. They went to 9-5 jobs, got married, had kids, went on fishing trips, attended a couple of different Lutheran churches, and avoided drama of any kind. This was fine when I was very small, but as I hit my teenage years I was longing for adventure and excitement. I was a Sea Scout and never happier than when out on a boat or at least working on one even tied to the dock. Both my sister and I were and are avid readers, with me leaning toward action-adventure, sci-fi and fantasy. My sister, an extrovert, can talk to anybody about pretty much anything, and was always busy at family gatherings. I found myself increasingly turning inward as the years went by, and found it difficult to engage with anybody because I could never seem to find common ground. Great folks, all of them, but our interests just didn’t overlap and I would find myself out at family functions sneaking off to read or play with the family pet.
Some of this can certainly be chalked up to “surly teenager syndrome”, but not all of it. Most of the time I wasn’t crabby, just generally ill-at-ease and longing to be left alone. Mother repeatedly badgering me to “Smile and be pleasant!” didn’t help, especially when she surprised me with that admonition at times when I felt I was being perfectly sociable. I was more than likely doing a really bad job of masking my misery, never having had a particularly good poker face. Poor mom and dad: there’s nothing quite so discouraging as complicating those hormonal teenage years with undiagnosed grief manifesting as depression and abandonment issues.
By my mid twenties I would be officially diagnosed with chronic dysthymia (persistent depressive disorder) coupled with occasional major depression.
“According to 1985 statistics used by Parenting Resources of Santa Ana, California, although adoptees at that time comprised 2-3% of the population of this country, they represented 30-40% of the individuals found in residential treatment centers, juvenile hall, and special schools. They demonstrated a high incidence of juvenile delinquency, sexual promiscuity, and running away from home. They have had more difficulty in school, both academically and socially, than their non-adopted peers. The adoptees referred for treatment had relatively consistent symptoms, which are characterized as impulsive, provocative, aggressive, and antisocial.” (Verrier, p. xv)