The Open Wound
“Many doctors and psychologists now understand that bonding doesn’t begin at birth, but is a continuum of physiological, psychological, and spiritual events which begin in utero and continue throughout the postnatal bonding period. When this natural evolution is interrupted by a postnatal separation from the biological mother, the resultant experience of abandonment and loss is indelibly imprinted upon the unconscious minds of these children, causing that which I call the ‘primal wound.’ (Verrier, p. 1)
Even though I always knew I was adopted, and saw it as perfectly normal and not any kind of big deal, and was raised by a two-parent, middle-class household with plenty of love, there are consequences to being separated from one’s mother as a newborn.
I was told that I had “colic” as an infant. It’s not surprising, as in 1963 I’ll bet they put me on some nasty formula made with pasteurized, homogenized cow milk. I don’t know if I was ever nursed by my birth mother. I’m guessing not. There’s nobody to ask now, although somebody may know what the hospital policy was for surrendered newborns in the early sixties. At any rate, how much of my distress as a newborn was intestinal and how much was being yanked away from my mother right after birth and put in a crib in a room with a bunch of other screaming babies? I was taken home by my new parents at eight days old. That’s eight days out of the womb. For nine months before that I had been intimately connected to my biological mother. Hearing her voice, feeling her heartbeat, sharing cells and blood and hormones. She was uniquely designed to respond to me and nurture me and give me the security to grow and gradually become an independent human being. No human baby can be anything but traumatized by the adoption process, however smooth and benign and immediate. I have no conscious memories of this first period of my post-natal life, and that’s probably just as well.“…the (adoptive) mother usually attaches very quickly to the (adopted) baby and loves him as her own. Most of the time, because she has had no previous experience with which to compare what she is now experiencing, she notices nothing unusual. And even if she if very perceptive and does notice some difficulty in the bonding process between her and her new baby, she may have no clear understanding of it, because she has not had adequate preparation for it. She has not been told that the baby is mourning for his first mother.” (Verrier, p. 54)
Avoiding the Search
“When asked why they want to search for birth parents, adoptees will often give a socially acceptable answer, such as wanting health information or having an interest in genealogy. Yet when I asked a more specific question: ‘For which parent would you search…?’ the majority answered, ‘The mother.’ …something to do with feeling an unconscious connection with that lost mother which seems profound to them.” (Verrier p. 18)
“Socially acceptable” pretty much sums up my approach to everything as I entered adulthood. I dutifully attended Bible school in Minnesota because it was expected of me. By the end of the school year I was glad I’d gone, but I would never have considered telling my parents I didn’t want to go in the first place. By my late teens I was what we in the Christian ghetto call a “luke warm Christian”. Yes, I still believed, but I wasn’t exactly on-fire for the Lord or any kind of prayer warrior or anything else overt. Let’s just say I was kind of a “coasting on momentum” believer.
|Baby Cheryl & 2-year-old me, Nov. 1965|
My sister, on the other hand, balked at the idea of attending Bible School. Maybe it was her searching for spiritual relevance outside of Christianity, or just the thought of spending months in Minnesota, but I guess it was non-negotiable for her because she went straight to college. Resisting authority came naturally to her. When she finally met her birth parents, a free spirit and a high-powered investment banker (never married to each other), the origins of her type-A personality were obvious. She was the kind of kid who could blithely ask for anything she wanted or make fearless declarations of intent regarding school, jobs, or whatever.
I did my rebelling and exploring in a less obstructive, more internal way.
In seventh grade I had an English teacher who encouraged creative writing, and I embarked on a journey of short story and vignette writing that lasted until I began to lose my innocent creative verve in the grind of college and young adulthood. I had a whole fantasy world where I was the protagonist, a kind of alternate universe that explained my origins as an adoptee. Of course it needed to be romantic. Being a huge Edgar Rice Burroughs fan at the time, it followed that I was the child of a warlord on a distant planet. Sadly, my mother had died in childbirth during a time of war, and I had been sent to Earth for safekeeping with a typical family. It didn’t occur to me at the time that perhaps this was my subconscious sensing the separation from my birth parents, because I was unwilling to let myself actually want to find them. Why would I want to do that? I didn’t want to upset my adoptive parents, despite the fact that they always told us they would support any desire to look for our origins.
I gradually put away my childhood dreams, and creative writing endeavors, and tried not to rock the boat too much. I did have my limits. I was not going to study engineering like my dad, or marry and produce a gaggle of kids as my mom hoped, but I would try to get an acceptable degree and become some kind of “successful” adult.
It didn’t pan out that well. I was trying to please people who just took for granted their expectations for me. When I did well at something that I found fulfilling or important, it seemed to be registered as me demonstrating an amusing but unmarketable talent. When I failed at attempts to move in a direction that made sense to them, they never criticized or condemned, but neither did I sense any support to help me find a path that made sense for me. I had to do that on my own, feeling like a failure every step of the way. It’s very difficult to write about my early adulthood without sounding bitter or critical. It is not my intention to attack my parents, especially since my mom isn’t around to defend or explain herself. They really did the best they could with the tools they were given, and another couple could have done very much worse. I’ve come across some horror stories in my reading on the adoption phenomenon of the mid twentieth century. There are so many kids who were lied to about their origins, some not told they were adopted until adulthood, sometimes on the adoptive parent’s deathbed. Then there’s the classic “sibling turns out to be a parent” situation, always good for mental anguish. I’m so thankful my parents were honest and up front about it all. That said, I still struggled with identity and expectations, and it all came to a head in my college years.
My first year at the University of Washington, my dad’s alma mater, starting Fall quarter of 1983, was exciting but ultimately frustrating. My initial goal had been a degree in Ocean Sciences, but my freshman year was a series of miserable grades in math and chemistry prerequisite courses. I lost 15 pounds one quarter from the stress of trying to get a passing grade in basic chemistry. It was the math. I just don’t do numbers. I ended up dropping my final attempt at a remedial math course after a week. It was one of those giant rooms with hundreds of students and I had no idea what the instructor was talking about half the time. It was terrifying to feel so helpless and stupid.
A trip to the South Pacific, from August to November of 1984, afforded not only some needed time away from normality but also a couple of heart-to-heart talks with different guys who were following their hearts in creative ways. One, a music major, was especially instrumental in helping me come to the logical conclusion that I could take all my interests and talents and glob them together in the Drama department. I declared my major the next quarter after returning from that trip. I didn’t think my parents were overjoyed by any stretch of the imagination, but I thought at the time that it was something I could at least excel at, academically, and come out of with a degree.
It should have been a relief and a joy to be taking courses that I could throw myself into with a measure of enthusiasm, but I always felt like I was disappointing my parents on some level, so the moments of real joy were few and far between. After a couple of years I just wanted to graduate and get on with life, whatever that meant. It didn’t help that my depression was getting worse.
Before I continue this more or less chronological story of my journey, I want to reiterate the fact that my adoptive parents loved and wanted us. They absolutely wanted kids. Before they got the three of us they were youth group leaders at their church and constantly had a house full of kids. Some of my earliest memories were camping trips with carloads of teenagers. They tried for several years, but Marilyn just wasn’t able to conceive. They were both twenty-seven by the time I came along, and they were thrilled. There are baby books full of congratulatory cards and letters for each of us. Grandpa Ostlund (mom’s dad) shot the occasional short reel of 8mm film of us as kids, and in the sequences with mom and dad and any of us babies, you can see how happy they are. One thing that mom told us over and over when we were little was that we were “special”, that they had picked us out of “all the other babies” and that they loved us very much. I took that at face value as a tiny kid, but at some point it started to curdle as I matured and applied a bit of logic to my situation.
For adoptees, being told we are “special” can come to seem like a bald-faced lie. I never saw it that way, but at some point in adolescence I started to mistrust mom’s opinion of my “special”-ness. Part of it was the mistrust of any mother’s opinion of one’s talents and accomplishments. We want our parents’ approval, but we also wonder about the weight of approval that is almost obligatory regardless of merit, because we’re their little angels. The other part of that growing mistrust was something I never quite understood until my recent reading of “The Primal Wound”. Just how special can I be if my birth mother didn’t want me? Many adoptees are told by adoptive parents that “Your mother loved you so much that she gave you away so you could have a better life (or whatever story they choose to tell).” The illogic of that statement isn’t lost on a child. They are basically being told that love equals abandonment. Therefore, if the adoptive parents say “we love you very much”, the child, even if it’s on the subconscious level, expects that abandonment will probably follow at some point.
“…the child, having been told that he is ‘special,’ feels that he has to be perfect in order to retain the love and acceptance of his parents. This need to be special can put a great deal of pressure on the child to live up to some perceived expectations which are frequently unattainable. This often leaves the child feeling inadequate and worthless, a reinforcement of his feelings of having failed his first mother. The need to be perfect for the ‘rescuing’ parents makes the child suppress his own true self in order to submit to the wishes of his parents. …’you have to be good or you’re gotten rid of.’” (Verrier, p. 57)
I’ve already mentioned my abandonment issues and some of my abandonment-themed dreams. There were other variations on those dreams over the years. They have all but disappeared in the last decade, but I spent my teens through thirties basically feeling like a giant failure, and those dreams followed me the whole time. I made feeble attempts to do what I saw as the right things, and when I tried to follow my own dreams and made a mess of even that I would chalk it up to being “bad” or “broken” again. I was my own worst enemy.
Graduating college should have been a happy time for me, but I was so tired of school and people and life that I didn’t even want to go to the graduation ceremony. I did it under duress, and because I felt obliged to my folks for putting me through school and they really wanted to do the whole deal. More guilt.
After college I threw myself into a series of theater jobs. Stage Manager for Taproot Theater, costume shop stitcher at UW and then Seattle Opera, plus a smattering of odd costume design gigs around town. During that period a misguided engagement to a guy I should never have dated in the first place ended in a disastrous breakup, followed by a couple of other relationships that also left me bewildered, spiraling me down so deep into the pit of despair that I cut off my hair, grabbed my backpack, and headed for the Olympic Mountains on an aimless sort of “get out and vegetate” impulse. My grandfather was also dying of cancer, so I left my North Queen Anne apartment and moved to Redmond to help grandma out.
Cutting my hair alarmed my mother enough that she finally saw I was seriously floundering, and she suggested I get professional help. A battery of tests at Harborview Hospital’s Depression and Anxiety Center netted me a dysthymia and major depression diagnosis.
Sometime during those last few years of college, around 1985-87, my sister got serious about finding her birth parents. We attended a couple of meetings of the Washington Adoption Reunion Movement together and heard many heartwarming, and sometimes heartbreaking, stories of adoptees, and also birth mothers who had relinquished children years before. Part of me still saw being adopted as normal, unremarkable, and of no concern. Another part of me was packed firmly into the back closet of my subconscious, and that part was very much concerned indeed with finding my real origins.
I was still telling myself that I had only an academic interest in locating my gene pool. If the subject ever came up in conversation, I would cite “medical history” as the number one reason, but after hearing all those WARM testimonials I also wanted to at least, whether by letter or in person, tell my birth parents that everything had turned out fine. I would certainly not tell them that I was a depressed college kid who was rapidly burning out on theater arts and hoping for an alien abduction. I also didn’t want another family to disappoint, with all the obligatory holiday dinners and other regulation social obligations that family implied. One family was plenty.
I know this makes it sound like my adoptive family were terrible people, and they aren’t. They're pretty awesome, and a few more years of maturity has helped me appreciate them for who they are. Back in the 80s and early 90s, however, I was a sad kid gradually losing hope for a rescue, by aliens, marriage, or anything else. The first thing I looked for when attending a holiday function was the resident cat or dog, or library. I enjoyed being around my family, but was happier if I was at least one room removed, listening to the conversation as comforting background noise. That’s still a default setting for me in especially a new social situation, but now it’s a happy place that I can move in and out of, rather than a hideout.
The sad fact is that once the childhood “food and presents” focus of birthdays and Christmas and the “food and more food” focus of Thanksgiving evolved into the more complex expectations of young adulthood, I found I had less and less in common with my immediate and extended families. Family gatherings became an exercise in control for me as I struggled to be sociable. Being pleasant with grandma’s cat or smiling while walking Uncle H’s dogs (a great excuse to get out of the house) didn’t count. Every year after about age ten it was harder and harder to find something to talk about with cousins, aunts and uncles. My little brother was always close to his age-equivalent cousin on mom’s side, and still is today. My sister, the extrovert, is great at networking and keeps in touch with folks, too. I just never got the hang of that. It’s all on me. I just had nothing in common with my extended adopted family other than being family. I was going to say “other than being related”, but the reality is that I’m not related other than by being grafted onto an existing family tree, like a pear branch being grafted onto an apple tree. I was fed by the same root system, but I’m still a pear.
That pear, by 1988, was a severely depressed, but now medicated, Drama School graduate living with her grandparents (soon to be grandparent, singular), barely making a living in theater arts, with a series of catastrophic romantic relationships under her belt and no idea what she was ultimately going to do with herself. That invisible wound had become a major problem. I should have been actively searching for my birth family, but I had banked that fire so far down that I pretty much forgot it was there.