Being a grown up

I am currently 51. You would think I have been an adult for a while, even allowing for new thinking that adolescence goes on until the mid-twenties still gives me 25 years, right? Uuhhh, no, not really. I feel like my adult kicked in emotionally about three years ago and so is still in development and settling in. Surely, yes, I did adulting and fulfilled many mundane tasks and responsibilities, all the while, inside, feeling a fraud or like a frightened child.

I finished my first degree at 21, and then I started professional training and got married at 24. By this stage I had bought a flat, was running a mortgage and running a household. All of these are deemed grown-up activities and responsibilities, and I performed this adulting with outward ease. Looking back I can see I got on the conveyer belt of adulthood after university and fell into job/house/mortgage/marriage, what might be termed conventional paths of a person brought up in middle-class England in the late 20th century.

The catch for me is, I can see now, I literally did fall into these things, as one might fall into a river. I was wandering along the path and not looking where I was going, turned around and slipped into a current stronger than Myself. It feels like I didn’t think through any alternatives, I am not sure I thought at all, I was fulfilling my destiny as a child in my adoptive family and destinies don’t often include personal choice. There was no coercion; I thought I was happy with my “choices” but that thinking proved flawed.

I was brought up in a home where education was everything and luckily I was bright enough to do well at school. Mum was set on it, her parents, from mining stock in the northeast, both went to university in the 1920s and so there was absolutely nothing more important than getting into university. Come hell or high water, and there were plenty of both, my brother and I were to study, pass exams and go to college. This was so expected that it was only years later I realised I never considered anything, not even for a second, except to go to university after school. Nowadays gap years and other routes to employment are perfectly usual but I did not have a thought of it. Friends of mine did go Interrailing in Europe, which was the closest equivalent at the time, but I did not consider that as a possibility!

In fact, for me, studying was a saving grace. I worked and worked; my study was a safe place to be in the shark-infested waters of the family home or the world outside. It was where I incessantly studied or practised the piano, both acceptable activities. This became an issue in my later school years as we all felt the rising crescendo of marital and emotional disharmony and mental illness in the family. I worked more and more, probably obsessively, so much so that dad attempted to shut me out of the study during my last few months of the sixth form in fear of my own wobbly mental health. It was not a great move as I felt more out of kilter and lost without my safety net. Notwithstanding, I still managed to get good grades at A level and my passage to university was secured.

At university I floundered. Although academically I did OK, and somehow ended up with an upper second (which pleased mum – and that mattered!) I did not feel confident or able to have fun. In my journal of the time I recorded, “What it is to realise you are unsure of everything. I want to be able to be me and not worry what others think and feel all the time.” and “I don’t want to go out to pubs and clubs, I want to be in, I am used to it. I don’t want to be an outward extrovert, I don’t want that at all, it’s surface life not inside.” Also at this time, I had a boyfriend whom I relied on heavily and whom I nearly fell into marrying, this would not have been a success! (In fact, my history with boys/men is messed up but this is a post for another time!)

The idea that adulthood should not start until later into the twenties strikes me as an accurate one, at least for me. I look now with hindsight and more maturity, seeing I was incredibly young and emotionally unready when I was taking on all those adulting roles in my first career and marital relationship. I was swept away further down the river.

This river induced a kind of hypnosis, and I continued on the adulthood conveyor belt by moving into a career in finance – so far away from my natural bent, which involves words or people development. I did not know myself enough or have the capacity at that time to make a better decision. I desired a” career” because I felt it would please my dad, but mum always maintained that they were both flummoxed as to why I chose accountancy!  I believe I wanted him to be proud of me and it felt like I didn’t have a choice; my field of vision of acceptable and safe activity was incredibly narrow and restrictive. In fact, I came to realise I am dyslexic with figures because calling over columns of figures in accounts made me panic and I could not transpose what I saw on the page easily into the numbers to say out loud. I really struggled to succeed, ending up being made redundant from my first job because I failed my exams.

It was as I approached my thirties that I became conscious of the current I was caught in. D and I made an abrupt house move south, completely away from home for the last ten years, this displaced me and I felt more and more lost and confused. That life change was sufficient, (along with some disturbing news about my past, a story for another time) to tip me into what I termed my mid-life crisis, although it was a little early! I began therapy for the first time, but continued to struggle in my professional and personal life for another five years, feeling often like I was out of control and in a large vehicle with no brakes – like the bus in the film Speed. I deem these years the Fuckwittery years, and I don’t think I am in a place where I can share them here, but by 2000 I was a bit more together and chose to start a new year by leaving my job and changing career.

This felt like I was beginning to take back some control, starting to climb out of the fast flowing river. I spent the next ten years progressing my career as a coach and personal development professional, both gaining qualification and credibility in my new field. Still, I felt a fraud and at times the frightened child inside would wreak havoc with exploding anxiety and fear – often expressed as drunken anger – none of which is conducive to a happy marriage!

Starting a new relationship with J in 2010 was another huge life change and that, plus my best friend dying early in 2011, and having enormous work stress caused a mental collapse that saw me off work for six months, only to go back and be made redundant! I have a series of events that I call my “Metre of Misery” that flow from 2009 to 2012 – literally a timeline on the back of wallpaper that is one metre long and causes therapists to raise their eyebrows when they see it. On the Holmes and Rahe stress scale I was off the scale!

The support of therapists is weaved in and out of this story, and I am grateful to the three ladies who helped at different times.  As I have recorded here on the blog, it is the death of my parents and the age of fifty that finally seem to have birthed my adulthood. I am looking forward to enjoying it now!

What do you need me to be?

It would appear that I have asked this question unconsciously in every interaction or relationship I have ever had; I want to know what you need me to be so I can best ensure that you stay happy. In everyday parlance this doesn’t sound like a bad thing;  wanting people you care about to be happy –  but it has an insidious underbelly if it is the only question you ask, not also asking what do I want to be, or what do I want from this relationship.

I became aware of this chameleon feeling a while ago as I worked on myself both in therapy and in my professional development as a coach. It is a strange experience when something that feels as natural as breathing becomes obvious to you, a behaviour you previously didn’t see becomes visible – or more than that, becomes visible and feels odd. It moves from a subjective experience to an objective one and the sensation felt like I was acting outside myself; I was watching myself during interactions and I did not have control over my responses.

This is puzzling when it first occurs. Insight is a weird and wonderful thing, wonderful in that it gives you an opportunity to change (the first step to a solution is to be able to recognise the problem) and weird because it’s awkward, like if you try to remember how to walk downstairs the chances are you will trip up; as soon as an activity we have performed out of conscious awareness is brought to consciousness we become incompetent!

So, there I was, in a psychological way trying to walk up the stairs consciously and often feeling like I was falling. My automatic response, without thinking, had been to ask the question, but now I realised that the question wasn’t always helpful and I had to work out what I wanted to do. I remember one of the first times I consciously worked on making a choice for myself, it was tough. My mum wanted me to go with her on a weekend break sometime in the early noughties, I had done this before with her but I found it difficult, not relaxing. It was also emotionally exhausting; being myself with mum was only possible in fleeting moments, mostly I worked hard at being what she needed at any point, and this had been my life’s work. I said no to this newly suggested weekend away, this invoked a hurt reproachful response from mum, and one that even made her Christmas newsletter months later when she said I “refused” to go with her so she had to ask the neighbour because it was already booked! I had responded with trepidation, knowing this may be the response and I had to work hard at maintaining a boundary so that I didn’t give in and go just to please her. This is the secondary fallout from development after you make a change to behaviour or attitude; some people can’t appreciate the change and pressurise you to return to “normal”. This old habit of mine had been to ignore my own wishes or feelings and please the Other, I had come to psychological damage previously – it had to stop!

Actually, I had come to genuine physical damage too. My first husband is a beautiful person but he and I liked doing very different things; he loves the outdoors; camping walking, cycling, running, water-skiing, windsurfing. He loves practical doing and the making and doing of gardening projects, the building of things and the opportunity to be active. I love reading and being in the emotional space with people, I love my coaching work and my one to one or workshop work with people developing their potential, and seeing them fly. I love the drama and beauty of the mental, intellectual and emotionally mature life – some academic, some philosophical, some just connections with others at a meaningful level.  This did not make us very compatible as we grew up from the very young people we had been when we met and fell in love in our early twenties. I did try the physical life, I did try the things he loved and did well, except I fell off jet skis, I hated camping, I am scared to death on a bike because I have a very poor sense of balance, but I did nearly die from water-skiing. We were in Portugal on holiday and we went out for a lesson. I can swim but not well and I am scared of deep water, but along I went.  There were four of us, and Jack the instructor. I went second. I have very little memory of getting into the water except I was brave and my heart was racing. I had seen how far away the coast seemed as we had bombed away from it in Jack’s little speedboat. I remember the sensation of my arms being pulled from their sockets as I was tugged along on the water surface, roped to the back of the boat and then attempting to stand up on the ski. I did not manage it, I slipped and fell, the ski banging my head as I went under the water, I could not breathe, and I have a visual memory of seeing the never-ending water at eye-level as I bobbed up to the surface. Jack raced the boat around and looked anxiously in the water at me, his previous chatty patter halted. I was hauled out, I shivered and was silent. I have never been back in the sea since.

I have strived subsequently to these events to maintain a level of awareness that enables me to question myself, my motives for acting. I fail spectacularly sometimes. I will find out halfway through an activity or event when I notice that I am feeling resentful, it’s a red flag that I probably don’t want to be there. Or a plan will be made and I feel scared or anxious about it, then I feel I am triggered by my feelings and I look to spend some time reviewing what is my wish, what do I want to do?

It doesn’t mean I never want to do things for others, or even that I will not put others first at times. Love and compassion are great motivators to be aware of. I wish to practice the four brahmavihāras; Buddhist virtues, loving-kindness and compassion are two of those, so I have to be awake to my own needs and the needs of others.

The aetiology of my chameleon is not complicated to work out, even if it is complex in its effect. As I have written before, I began a second life at three weeks in foster care and then, at seven and a half weeks, a third new life in another house with another primary carer. As an alien in sequential new worlds, my reptile brain was flooded with stress hormones and needed to work quickly, if primitively, to survive. It seems my flight, fight or freeze response was to freeze; I was a “good” baby, a compliant child, I froze, and, once I had worked out what was expected of me, I did that. My mum said I was fine as a younger child and teenager; it was when I left home that I “became difficult”! I was attempting to exert my independence, be myself, but that was not OK. It was many years, into my forties before I really, truly understood all I have written here, and only now, into my fifties can I see what I need to do to honour my own needs and ask myself, “What do you need me to be?”

Story of a search

I knew I wasn’t theirs and it had always seemed perfectly normal to me; it was natural not to look like my parents, or feel a sense of family.  Then when I was eight, dad handed me a small brown envelope addressed to him and mum. In the top left corner in his hesitant hand and blue ink was the simple word “DETAILS”. I had watched as he fetched the small package from a box on the top shelf of the cupboard that housed his coats and jackets and now we were sat on my parents’ bed, side by side. From inside the envelope I drew a folded and faded yellowing piece of paper. Ink from the type was visible on the reverse, and the origami performed to originally get this letter into the tiny envelope had to be undone.  Dated 25.1.67, the note informed my parents that in six days they could travel from their home near Birmingham to “meet” a baby at 12 noon in central London, with “a view to taking her home”. This was my first glimpse at my history and I read that I was three weeks premature, and was considered a “very pretty, small baby, with good features, flat ears, and a well-shaped head.”  I also learnt that my name at that time was Anna Louise Munro.

The rest of the letter was only two short paragraphs, one about my mother, one concerning my father. Reading on I discovered that my birth mother was then an unmarried, attractively slim, 19-year-old Australian who’s “very musical and also good at sports, horse-riding in particular”. It said that my birth father was British born but half Spanish, also musical as he played the guitar, and he was an engineer in the Merchant Navy, having gone to sea at 16. The letter went on in a manner that I still find terse; “The girl met him on the boat coming to England.  She did not see him after that and he never knew about the baby.”

I cannot recall now how I felt on reading these few short lines about my start in life and parentage, but I am certain I did not anticipate how life-changing these snippets of information would eventually be for me, nor did I stop to appreciate the huge impact on my adoptive parents when they had first received the news.  My eight-year-old self accepted it all purely at face value, but I could soon recount that letter word for word. That status quo lasted for over twenty years. I knew that those people from the letter were out there somewhere but they were one dimensional, stuck in that sixties moment when the letter was written. Furthermore, for me growing up, having one set of parents was trouble enough – I didn’t need anymore!

When I turned 30 I began to be more curious, I wanted to discover more about me, about my birth parents, and I started the process of learning how that could happen. A national charity called Norcap existed at that time for people affected by the triangle of adoption; birth parents, adoptive parents as well as adoptees. It had a history of making connections for those separated at birth – a reunion of the lost family.

After joining Norcap the next step was to apply see my adoption records and arrange to get my birth certificate. In England it’s a legal requirement for an adoptee placed for adoption before 1975 to be counselled by social services prior to receiving their records because before this date all adoptions were closed and no contact was thought ever to be made. I sat through this interview with almost perfunctory ease and my adoption records and birth certificate were requested.

My ease in the situation abruptly changed when my birth certificate arrived on a cold day in January. Having spent all my life thinking I was fostered from birth, I was overwhelmed, and sobbed as I found out my mother’s address was the same as mine when she registered the birth: we were still living together! This meant that I spent my first Christmas and New Year with my birth mother.  (When I got my records I found out we had been discharged from hospital on Christmas Eve, two weeks after I was born, and had then gone to a mother and baby home where we stayed until January 4nd.) This reaction was to become familiar: new information would rock my world, my view of myself had to shift and I had to rewrite part of my life story.

The local social services were proficient and quickly found my adoption records, a feat that amazes me still – paper records from thirty years ago found in what I imagine to be a very large warehouse!  On the day of my appointment I went to the small social services office in the centre of town during my lunch break from work.

Here the revelations multiplied; I found out my birth father’s name (of course it wasn’t on my birth certificate as he was not there then); I found out that he was married – the “details” letter had said that he was unmarried; I found out about the adoption process and got to see the application for adoption as filled in by my birth mother; I found out my grandmother had come over from Australia and was with her daughter at the time I was being handed over for adoption. I remember the social worker sitting with me and asking me how I felt about all this – the papers I think she meant – I wasn’t sure but it was too immense to comment on the entire story in that cramped upstairs office – the whole thing felt surreal. I remember she was appalled at the lack of information and wanted to comfort me that there would be more nowadays, including photos and maybe a letter for me from my birth mother. That seemed too much to hope for!

Most disconcertingly of all at that time I found out that my birth mother was in fact from Papua New Guinea, and, although Australian, not from the mainland as I had previously thought – again, information in the “details” letter didn’t match the reality. I felt a loss of identity or possibly homeland – another big shift for me to adjust to –  I had spent my childhood with a large map of Australia on my wall, but only the mainland. This was not, apparently, the right map!

From this meeting I had the excitement of getting to take home the letter written by my birth mother passing on my birth certificate to the adoption agency. This was my first real thing of hers; I treasured it and read it often, trying to imagine the person who wrote it. It was the only original I was allowed to keep – all the rest were diligently photocopied and presented to me, I treasured them just the same. Information had been rationed and any new piece vital at this stage, I felt.

After this heady and life changing time I didn’t do anything else for six years. Looking back now it seems I needed to come to terms with all that I had learnt, and integrate this into my life and history. I wasn’t really contemplating actually searching for a birth parent, let alone finding one!

I stayed a member of Norcap, and read all the newsletter’s reunion stories, often crying at ones that tugged at my feelings. Norcap had my name on both the National contact register and the one maintained by Norcap but neither had any matches. I remember getting the acknowledgement letter of my entry in each case and being really disappointed that my birth mother wasn’t looking for me.

Gradually I came to thinking about how it would be for the letter to arrive saying there was a match on the contact register, or how it would feel to see my name and my birth mother’s in the reunion page in the newsletter. I started to want this more and more…

In the spring of 2003 I went to Norcap and asked them to help me. I searched the records in the Norcap offices near Oxford and talked to a researcher, but to no avail. Even though I was born in London and adopted through a UK adoption agency it would appear that my birth mother had gone back overseas. Norcap staff suggested that I contact a researcher in Australia and recommended one to me – then it all seemed to happen at once. Within a week of the researcher receiving my information, she had made an electoral roll match that appeared to be my birth mother. I tried to work out how I felt about this and what I should do; this was not so easy.

During my search, I had been in contact with a couple of Aussies who had lived in Papua New Guinea (PNG) around the time my birth mother did. The contact was made through a website forum, where ex-PNG residents reminisced.  Interestingly, all the people who helped me from that site were touched by adoption issues sometime in their lives; there was a lot of empathy and understanding around. At the same time as I got the message from the researcher that my birth mother was alive and well (a great relief, but a scary reality too) I got news, via the forum, that she had an entry on the Aussie version of Friends Reunited on the web. When I looked up the entry it validated what the researcher said – we had a match!

In November, after applying to Norcap for an intermediary I took the step of asking that contact be made. I was sure now that this was what I wanted, and it couldn’t happen soon enough, although I was terrified that my birth mother would not want to know.  Happily, this was not the case and she replied by e-mail to my intermediary, Wendy, the very day she got the letter, saying she was surprised to receive it now it had finally come but had been expecting it. Margaret wanted to know how long it had taken to find her and had thought about looking for me, but resisted, not knowing what I knew of my history, or even if I knew I was adopted. I really appreciated this thoughtfulness given my disappointment of not finding a match on the contact registers; it helped me to hear she’d been thinking of me.

Wendy and Margaret had along phone conversation and then Wendy rang me to debrief. I was sat in my car outside my therapist’s house when I took the call – probably an appropriate place to be!  My heart thundering as I tried to take notes to record all Wendy was telling me. I still have them, written balancing on the steering wheel while juggling my mobile phone; they feel like the first precious things of contact and connection that I had been longing for.

Now there was a more tangible, three-dimensional history. I began filling in the blanks by email and putting the facts straight about my first weeks of life, although this job never seems to end as it takes some time to be comfortable asking tricky or very personal questions. It can take a while to absorb the answers too.

I am excited to learn every little thing and it was an amazing time, emails flew back and forth in flurries – the honeymoon period of reunion. I had to come to term with more big shifts in perception, such as being the oldest of four kids in my birth mother’s family, whereas I am the younger of two in my adoptive one. I also now know that she did see my father after the trip over from Australia, but didn’t stay in touch when it turned out he was married, and she says she still didn’t tell him about me. (I have more information about him nowadays too – but that’s a story for another time…)

In addition, I got to see people who look like me for the first time in my life.  My birthday in 2003 was very special as I received photos of my birth mother and new-found sisters; they were a marvellous birthday present.

Finally, I had a family I could call my own.