The way out is the way through…
The words have always been on the tip of my tongue in some form or another. Recently, I heard them again on a show I’d randomly tuned into called Persons Unknown. Ironic. In the show, a group of strangers had been kidnapped and transplanted into a replica of a town square constructed in the middle of nowhere. They are subjected to psychological experiments while members of a group called, The Program observe their behavior. You can probably see the direction my brain took. A bit of a stretch, maybe, but it struck a chord with me.
It was one of those days when life had slowed down long enough for me to think, which isn’t always a good thing as some of you know. I’d just watched First Person Plural again and was already mulling over the feeling of having lived multiple lives. Deann Borshay Liem’s film reverberated with me from the beginning in how she opens the film with multiple introductions of herself. I understood right away.
It’s still difficult for me to verbalize the the sense of displacement and disorientation buried in my psyche. I’m so much better at writing things out than I am at explaining things verbally. Yet, even writing about this subject is a challenge. The last thing I’d ever want to do is pathologize and/or stigmatize adoptees.
However, I cannot deny that the disorientation exists – at least for me. In my experience, not all feel this way and most of the adoptees I know who do get through life just fine. As for me, the feeling is not something overtly acute or something that keeps me from functioning in everyday society. It has, however, been significant enough to cause long bouts of self-absorbed introspection. Why do I do the things I do? Feel the way I feel?
Retracing my steps in bigger shoes
Moving back to Texas and living with my adopted father was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do, but there was a positive side to it all. One of the benefits of returning myself to a similar familial/social situation was that I was able to see it from a different perspective. I was more aware, hopefully, a little more mature and not as easily intimidated as I was as a child. I began to notice and remember things that I’d previously purged from my mind.
I remembered why I didn’t talk about how I felt and why the thought of it had made me so uncomfortable. I mean I really remembered, because I was having to relive the situation all over again. There was this feeling that everything was contrived somehow. Dad wanted to paint the perfect picture, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not get all the members of his family to fall into place. I think it frustrated and baffled him to no end.
Seeing the difficult time all but one of my younger siblings had talking to him made me realize it wasn’t just me. I was getting a rare glance at what life might have been like if he had been there during my childhood. All the material things were there and for all the outside appearances, the family was perfectly normal. However, there was a deep, underlying dysfunction that would smack you right in the face if you stared too long. In private discussions, out of my adopted father’s hearing range, it was discussed (and joked about) openly.
There were moments that I wanted to forgive him, but then would grow angry when he’d get indignant as if there was nothing to forgive. I’m sure in his eyes, he was beyond reproach. In his words, “You broke my heart when all I wanted to do was save your life.” He was referring to when I left home at eighteen. “But why,” I thought, ” did you tie my adoption to my leaving home almost eighteen years later?” That one statement screamed volumes of what had remained unspoken between us. It told me that he had been holding my adoption over my head all those years.
Then the memories came back. The lies he’d told, the address he’d hidden from me until I was in my mid-30’s and the way he’d tried to use stories of Má to cajole and manipulate my behavior. I still have the letter where he tried to use stories of her to manipulate me from my adopted mother. Lies, all lies. I realized he had not changed at all, and I had to admit to myself that he was the embodiment of everything I’d previously been so critical of concerning white adoptive parents. It had always been there, obvious but unspoken. Who had broken who’s heart?
But I didn’t want to get into the blame game again. It seemed pointless to worry about something that would probably never change. My dad and I had two completely different points of view. I was the ungrateful, rebellious adopted daughter while in my eyes, he couldn’t see past his “good deed” enough to understand and accept that he’d contributed to the way events had played out.
In my more defensive moments, yes, I was quick to point out where he was at fault. However, I didn’t want it to be all about blame, but how one thing had led to another. We had both made our choices and were living the results. It seemed that one of our biggest mistakes was that we had never really played a significant part in the others life. Too much time had passed thus our later attempts to re-insert ourselves had felt more like an invasion than anything.
Perhaps if I’d been more assertive and honest in the past and not been such a coward, I might have at least laid down lines of communication for the future. Looking back, I can see all kinds of could-have-should-have-would-have’s that might have changed things, but my adoption also taught me that the past can’t be unwritten. There are only the choices we make today. In our own ways, my adopted father and I had tried and likewise in our own ways, we had failed.
If I think about events in that context, absolution from either side seems irrelevant. In the end, I knew we’d both find our own ways to justify our decisions and just live with it. That’s what people do. Which person’s version is “more true” depends on who you ask. Reality of the mind is a subjective and unreliable luxury after all, and we are all subject to its allure.
Temporary permanence and temporal flux
Though I can never say that my adoption is the root of every failure or success in my life, I would never deny its influence on the direction I have taken. The effect is sometimes subtle, sometimes profound depending on the what, where, when and who. I’ve tried to adjust my perspective over the last year. Rather than pitting nature against nurture, I’ve tried to see how the two have interacted in order to shape the person I’ve become today. In other words, instead of asking how my adoption affected me, I wonder how did my adoption and my particular personality type interact? How did they play off of each other?
Temporary permanence was was one of my earliest childhood lessons. From my earliest memories, change truly was the only constant. Existence felt like movement without motion, being everywhere and no where, being everyone and no one, knowing so much yet understanding nothing. Psychologically and spiritually, it felt as if my atoms had been split apart until I no longer recognized myself. If it comes off as crazy reading it, imagine how it was to live it. Besides, they are the only words I have to describe the feeling. Anyway, sometimes it takes a touch of crazy to stay sane in the weird world we live in. And really, it’s not all as ludicrous as it sounds.
I think all human beings go through something similar at least once in their lives. People stuck in a bad marriage may be mentally dissolving their emotional bond with their spouse yet for whatever reason may still be married to them. People living in a location they hate may dream of an alternate life for years before they actually break away. Someone’s who’s experienced trauma in their past may relive those moments for a long time before they learn to effectively deal with it. I’m simplifying, but hopefully, you get the idea.
It made living up to conventional standards impossible. Conventional meant stability, stability meant permanence, permanence meant safety – or so I’d thought. Attempts at constructed permanence such as the illusion my adopted father tried to maintain only created a false sense of security and an obligation to play along in order to maintain that false sense of security. Any perceived threat to bring it all down, was quickly silenced or eliminated. I learned this also during my marriage. That’s not to say I didn’t negatively contribute to the breakdown in those relationships. We all have our baggage, our flaws and our hang-ups.
One of the benefits of traversing a landscape of such constant inner and outer change is that I learned to live in the moment. Sadly, one of the drawbacks is also that I learned to live in the moment. True to my contradictory existence, I could be “stuck” in one moment in time yet simultaneously be moving beyond it. In one instance, I could be moving physically away from something but still be mentally and emotionally ensnared. In another, I could be mentally moving beyond one moment while still be physically trapped by it. This constant leap-frogging seemed to be my pattern. One was always behind the other.
Yet the more determined I became to break this cycle, the more trapped I seemed to feel. The disorientation and displacement were at their worst when either my mind would race away from my physical state of being or my physical world would change before my psyche could adapt. I knew I had to find a way to synchronize the two.
How could I delve into my past without losing my emotional sense of time and space? Was it possible for me to prepare for the future without creating undesired, self-fulfilling prophecies. How could I learn to just be? Whether that moment involved joy or sorrow, I wanted to be able to experience life as it was. I had to learn and accept that I couldn’t control everything but at the same time, had more power to bring about change than I gave myself credit for.
In moments when I feel self-critical, I can be more honest with myself. I’d feel my mind heading toward the precipice but would feel powerless to stop it. When I’d experience a life-changing event, I’d analyze it to death all in pursuit of “the why” and “the how”. I had to know the cause in order to predict the effect. If I could predict the effect, I could make adjustments to change it. I had vowed to never again be the helpless war baby or the voiceless wife who had given up almost all control over her own destiny.
The problem with the trying to foresee the future is that sometimes you end up choreographing the exact outcome that you’re trying to avoid. For me it was like suddenly taking the wheel of a semi-truck and then driving myself over a cliff. All too aware of the dangers of unintended consequences, I tried to see every possible outcome of every choice, every action. My habit of over-analysis fueled the fire until my mind became consumed by it. By the time the smoke had cleared, I’d be left to face a wasteland of self-sabotage.
Here and there and back again
The last year and a half has been one marked equally by success and failure, sadness and joy, upheaval and peace. I still mull events over and analyze the hell out of them, just not with the same intensity as I use to. Then affects now but I’ve learned that then is still then and now is still unwritten. One would think it’s common sense, but knowing a thing is different than living a thing. It’s one of the things I have to constantly remind myself of when life catches me unprepared – which is more often than I’d ever care to admit.
The difference now is that life is beautiful again, not because it wasn’t before, but because I allow myself to see it now. I find myself again, staring at the night sky as my mind fills with wonder. I know the sadness will come again with the remembrance of all that’s been lost. But I guess that’s the beauty of it all. One must know one to truly know the other.