Should I stay or should I go?

A huge dilemma, always: am I in or am I out? I have worked hard at staying, sometimes in places that have not been healthy for me – workplaces, relationships, even living spaces (staying to appease or just because I did not know what I wanted and stasis was easiest) – but at the back of my mind is the thought of leaving, particularly this thought; the possibility of leaving first.

Of course I feel I want to leave first! I don’t want to experience that first traumatic loss of being given away; I don’t want to have my skin ripped off and my atoms scattered, I don’t want my brain to be so alarmed that I either shut down or let rip, and I certainly don’t want to leave the possibility of this happening at the mercy of someone else!

Leaving first – the mythical way to avoid pain, to avoid feeling any loss and to maintain that bigger myth; I am in control of what happens. All the thought of it seems to do – and I have years of practice here – is to create a life of living with one foot out of every door, every relationship, every experience. In reality, it has left me with a half-life, a life in which I have not been fully engaged, fully present.

Through much education, reading and therapy, my adult cognitive brain is very aware that living always with the threat of being left is an echo from my first experiences, a powerful echo but an echo nevertheless. I “know” I am no longer a helpless infant and cannot be left in a way that I have to fight to survive – I have many resources and certainly more agency than the baby who was on to her third mother at seven weeks old, but still the effects, the reactions, come; the emotional brain is not party to that knowing yet, although I am now trying to help it learn.

Anne Heffron, a wonderful advocate for helping understand the impact of adoption, writes in her blog about being caught in the effects of her own adoption, saying

I’m stuck with the brain I have until I’m able to crack the code. (I want to be relaxed! I want to feel safe! I want to believe I am loved! I’m trying! I’m trying!)

This is the work I am striving to accomplish too.

In a blog post that is one of the most moving pieces of writing I have ever read on adoption trauma, Anne says

It felt like I was dying, and it was so difficult to believe that an “accident” I had at birth was the cause of all this pain… I didn’t know how to listen to my body because it was speaking a language no one had taught me. The language of loss.

This is absolutely how I feel. The frustration of knowing that I can be overwhelmed by a feeling and being unable to stop it, much as it feels impossible to stop a runaway train. The feeling of reacting through the emotional triggering of the amygdala and being awash with the primal instinct to protect myself and defend against pain.

The learning to manage and hold the boundary, to form a response beyond the reaction is the work of a lifetime.

So, returning to staying or leaving. I hate the leaving – being left, the partings, change in circumstances place, people. I will endeavour to leave first, even in minute ways.

The leaving is a deep deep retraumatisation and its management is tough. The leaving is confusing and heart-rendering and constant. The weird contortions I use to mitigate – leave first, no goodbye but a “see ya”, quick parting, no looking back – can feel hurtful to others.  It is all a bit of a minefield.

It can also manifest as being distant and disconnected for a while before a parting, this is confusing for the others involved, but for me it is all about trying to protect my heart. An adoptee commenting on Anne’s post on loss describes vividly:

Oh yes, the crying. After goodbyes with those closest to my heart. Even when the time together has been wonderful, even when the separation will be brief – a few days. Even when headed toward somewhere I can relax and enjoy. The crying still seeps up from the solar plexus, lodges in the throat, and either escapes through silent tears or explodes into full-on agony groans and weeping. Even after 60 years, it’s still RIGHT.THERE. I’m sure it will be, as long as I’m alive. I can’t explain, trauma is wordless.

No surprise

Do you ever read the last page first, or know the entire plot of a movie before you watch? I know, that seems to defeat the purpose of the ‘journey’ of story, but I notice this habit in me to search out spoilers and I want to explore it some more.

I think I have always done it. I remember as a child I would always begin with the last page of a novel. Something of a cliché, but I couldn’t bear not knowing what the outcome was, what would happen to my new friends in this book. Somehow there was a settling in knowing, even if the ending was sad, if I knew what happened before I started I felt more comfortable. This was true for all genres – if the book was a whodunit; a favourite Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes, I could not resist. It did not seem to spoil the read, I liked being prepared.

Obviously, as a child I did not have the same control over film watching. In the days before Google a plot could not be revealed, and unless I had read the book of the film I had no way of discovering the outcome. Nowadays I will almost always look before I watch, checking in for content (not too violent or no more than “mild peril”) as well as endings. No surprise is the only way.

I have been caught out. When I watched the first Terminator film, a long time ago I knew it was going to be violent but I did not anticipate the rising panic in me when Arnie, as the Terminator, began firing in a confined space, a dormitory of some sort. We had to turn the TV off, I had a panic attack! Luckily I was at home for that one. Years before, I had been in the cinema for Robocop, that was stressful but I did sit it out, although I feel nothing like that can count as entertainment for me.

I will now countenance the reading of a novel without the ending being clear to me. And I have actually watched a film without the third act being revealed first (it was a very obvious romance so too easy to guess) but I notice I do now check episodes of any Netflix series we watch – I read ahead on Wikipedia – so as I am not taken unawares by violence, an extremely difficult emotional scene or a death, particularly of a main character. (Also, as I write this, I am noting with interest that it’s easier to read about violence then witness it visually on the screen. My imagination is not as vivid obviously!) I am disturbed by very difficult documentaries and I can’t sit through David Attenborough, however beautifully filmed, as I find wildlife death unbearably tragic even as I know nature is “red in tooth and claw”.

All this appears to be one element of a bigger issue:  I like to control my own physical environment a little obsessively; I like to have a plan; and I have a difficult relationship with spontaneity. All these have one thing in common – the aspect of no surprises.

 As I have been learning more about how the brain works in relation to response to trauma and the subsequent sensing of danger, this habit of mine to have no surprises becomes more understandable: the early relinquishment trauma of losing my first mother (and then my second!) and subsequent life events led my brain to be hypervigilant to signs of loss and to defend against feeling this loss or any subsequent loss fully. Anything that feels like loss is dangerous (as it had happened before and was critical) and, crucially, the feeling of lack of control of being unable to prevent this loss has to be avoided at all costs – my reptilian brain sees it as life threatening.

The original loss was so powerful, and very early, it literally changed the way my brain was wired; if triggered by a feeling of losing control or reacting to loss, my cortex, the thinking brain, is out of commission as animal instincts kick in big time and bypass it. The middle brain, the emotional brain, is over active and feelings are overwhelming and huge – the amygdala is firing and is like a fire alarm going off inside; it just records “fire” and can’t distinguish that this fire may be manageable and reacts as if this was the original traumatic event because there is no access to reasoning from the thinking brain – this is the neurobiological reactive response to trauma.

I launch into full flight, fight or freeze; move away from the stimulus, become overemotional (angry, sad, panicked) or extremely anxious and tense. This can all happen within a very short time; seconds after being triggered I can find myself in a maelstrom of sensations and emotions alongside a chaotic feeling of being out of control.

 I guess then it should not come as a shock (no surprise!!) that I have developed “life hacks” to mitigate against a lack of control and also to prevent a meltdown in event of an overwhelm of feeling. My habit of avoiding surprise is one such strategic life hack.

Now I am learning so much more about the way my brain works and I am working on changing it; I am literally in the business of rewiring! How that happens and what it entails is the subject of another post, but for the time being I am pleased to be able to respond to my habit of checking everything out, of being planful and careful, with more understanding and compassion.

Shifting sands into heart sense

So much in my life recently has been about sifting through my history and understanding much more about how that history that has led to me being the person I have been and how I am aiming now to be the emotionally regulated adult more of the time. It’s good to have a goal!

Over the last 20 years, I have worked through talking therapies, mostly in the psychodynamic or person-centered fields as these have the depth and breadth of psychical understanding that has resonated with me. I spent four years training as a therapist in the nineties and then another ten years working as a person-centred coach and mentor, so I have some personal experience too.

Books on my nightstand have usually been in the field of depth psychology, or therapy. For example “The Therapeutic Relationship” by Petruska Clarkson, or the “Boundaries of the Soul: The practice of Jung’s Psychology” by June Singer.  Then I expanded the repertoire into mindfulness and the overlap with healthy mind, this led me to such books as “The Mindful Way through Depression” by Mark Williams and “Wherever You Go, There You Are” by Jon Kabat Zinn, and many many others in similar vein; books by Pema Chodron, Brene Brown, Oriah Mountain Dreamer. On it went but a great deal of this was “head-sense” for me and somehow I had yet to find the route to connect it all to “heart- sense”, that discernment that I feel connected, I am integrated mind, body and soul.

Gradually over the last four years, I have been doing the work I have described here on the blog. More and more it seems I am turning to that heart-sense, tuning in to my heart. I had already begun to understand that a healthy mind also needs a healthy body. But it is more than that; it also needs a connection to that body, a direct route to listen, to deeply listen to the small voice that has spent many years muted or indeed mute.

I began that part of the voyage of discovery about 18 months ago by going to see a massage therapist regularly to help me make connections to my body. Even to stay mentally in my body while someone is touching me can be a challenge so this was not an easy ask for me, or even at times a pleasant experience. Over the last year I have begun to relax and enjoy being massaged more – trust is such a huge part of any relationship and does take time to develop – it’s great that I can now do this.

I also began practising yoga this summer. My body was telling me it wanted to move more, and yoga is a mindful way to build stamina and body awareness. I did a few uTube videos and found a way to make up a flow that suited me and takes about half an hour. I do that about three times a week, I aim for every day but sometimes life happens!

I have moved more into the mindful presence of yoga and seen, or more accurately felt, my balance, my posture, and my energy improve. I have also been informed by my massage therapist that my muscles are more open to deeper work and so there is and will be, a greater benefit to me of the work she is doing. I hope that this opening will continue and as it does I can move more and more mindfully back into my body and unmute the small voice that it shares with me, if I listen.

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.

The reunion

While I was on a writing course in 2013 I wrote this composition as a piece of coursework. At the time I had not written a great deal about adoption and so this was a lovely thing to write about. Today I want to post a happy post because the last few have been painful. Here is the story of a meeting that happened in 2004:

Meeting Margaret

It was sunny outside, on what could have been a lazy August afternoon. I paced across the lounge, again, and then sat heavily on the edge of the sofa.

“It’s three o’clock! Where are they?” I shout at no-one in particular. Dan is in the garden, impatient with my impatience, and I can see out the patio doors that he is carefully deadheading the purple Cosmos, engrossed and, for the moment, not concerned that his wife is losing the plot in the lounge.

“Where are they?” I wail.

The phone in the hall starts to ring. I rush to pick it up and I hear Anja’s voice.

“Hi Roz, you OK?”

I think for a moment; yes, I am still breathing, albeit a little heavily.

“Hi, yes, just here, waiting. Where have you been?”

Anja laughs down the phone “Well, Margaret just had to have her hair done and Ron wanted to come the scenic route, so a little difficulty in the setting off time we had talked about!”

I picture the scenic route from North Yorkshire to Oxfordshire and silently I am thankful that they arrived here today at all. Their friend Anja, enjoying her role as go-between, has been tasked with transporting them to our meeting, and for the several months that passed while the arrangements for today were finalised, she and I have been in regular contact. I am, as ever, grateful for her help and support today.

Out-loud I say “Where are you?”

“We are in a street by the church. I think that pub you suggested we meet in, that’s along here somewhere, isn’t it?”

I am so busy with the details of the practical arrangements that it isn’t until I put the phone down and turn towards the door to the garden that I remember. Then I have to sit down on the stool at the kitchen bench. I am drenched in fear and anticipation and excitement, all mingling in my body; I can feel tingling and my heart pounds, blood gushing round my cells.  I find myself stumbling towards the back door where I meet Dan coming in from the garden. He puts his arms round me and meets my eyes with an inquisitive gaze.

“They are here,” I whisper…

So, finally “The Moment” has arrived, and now I find I am not prepared at all; I need to change, again, and go to the toilet, again. Eventually, I appear from upstairs and am pacing once more, this time up and down the hall.

“Come on, let’s go,” Dan says calmly, as always.

The pub I have chosen for the meeting is completely the other end of town from our house. I rue this as we tramp along the busy shopping streets in the blazing sunshine and hazy air of the centre of Witney.  I think I am silent but my head buzzes and adrenaline makes colours vivid and my step broader. By now it is 4pm; we are approaching The Green by the parish church where the sunshine has enticed people to collect outside the pub.  As Dan and I walk together along the shaded pavement beside this open grassy space I see the tables in the sun are busy.  I am searching for faces I have only ever seen in photographs; further ahead of us I spy the group we are to meet. I see a woman’s head whip round in response to a girl’s nod in our direction.  Short, newly cut, copper coloured hair on this woman is striking, and is my first and (as I can now say) lasting impression of Margaret.

I am moving towards the group, fixated on Margaret. She is about my height (five and a half foot), and I recognise the stocky build I have been fighting with all my adult life. She is dressed casually in blue jeans, and a jumper the same colour as her hair; I am burning on this hot August day, she is not, being the daughter of an Australian expat, who grew up in the tropics of Papua New Guinea.

As I approach the table I hear Margaret’s laugh, and the three people round the table stand up. She and I lock eyes of cornflower blue, and immediately I am drawn into a short but definite hug. “Long time no see!” I say over her shoulder as we are momentarily held together by the embrace. She laughs again, and I feel my shoulders drop, relaxing a little into the meeting now the ice is broken.

Dan is greeted by the man. “Hi, I’m Ron” he says in his wonderful antipodean accent, and with what I know now is a customary familiar and friendly warmth. They shake hands.

“Champagne! Do you like champagne?” Ron asks me, once the men have settled their welcome. “Margaret, would you like champagne?”

Not really waiting for answers Ron walks purposefully to towards the bar. Anja is watching us as she sits back down, smiling, and I reach for a chair, feeling a little dizzy again. Margaret and I sit and look at each other; this is how mother and daughter meet after 36 years apart following my adoption at 7 weeks old, when Margaret was only 19.

Once champagne is served and Ron re-joins the group, he and Dan strike up a conversation. I stand to take a candid photo of the gathered clan and Ron looks up at me. His eyes open wide, seemingly startled.

“She looks just like our daughter, Jeanette!” Ron exclaims.

He is not my dad (but I do wish he was!), nevertheless he can see the family resemblance.  They all agree; I do indeed resemble my half-sister.  Up until this point I have merely seen photographs of my three half-siblings sent over the internet from Australia, and they, in turn, have seen a few carefully selected ones of me. I guess it is only in the flesh that the comparisons become striking.

As I look back to this reunion, over eight years ago now, I am unsure really what we talked about but the conversation continued as we all began the impossible task of trying to recover the missing years. I do recall that the next few hours passed in a blur as we drank champagne and got warm and relaxed in that late afternoon August sunshine.

I often look back on the photographs of those precious moments; they are vivid with smiles and bright celebrations.  One of my favourites shows me sat next to Margaret, we are both looking happy, laughter not far away, but, just in the corner of the shot, you can see Ron’s hand in hers, comforting, reassuringly steady.

As the years have passed since that first reunion meeting I have found out more about my Australian family and been over to visit them in their New South Wales homes. My younger sister, Linden, and brother, Markham, have both visited me in the UK and been great hosts on the Australian tours.  During my first visit to Australia Jeanette invited me to be a bridesmaid at her wedding, even though she had never met me personally. When asked about this she explained that as I was her sister, and mum had met me and liked me then that was good enough for her.

Just after this wedding I was due to travel home, and Margaret and Ron took me to the airport. Goodbyes are tough for me and I was dreading this one. After a long lunch at the airport, spotting planes for Ron and the obligatory glass of champagne for Margaret and me, we were walking to the gates. She veered off and disappeared out of view into a card shop. Ron, impatient with his wife, huffed and paced; I had a plane to catch!

He had walked ahead by the time she appeared. She handed me a small package, laughing, but with tears in her eyes. I looked inquisitively at her, she said “Show Ron, so he knows what all the fuss is about.”  I opened the bag; inside was a pretty stone fridge magnet decorated with purple flowers that reminded me of those Cosmos. On it were the words “Always my daughter, now too my friend”. We knew then what the fuss was about.


The alien chameleon

One big problem with being adopted is no one understands how much it feels like you are an alien. Anne Heffron puts it very simply, “You want to hear my generalized story of the adoptee in six words? Something is wrong. No one understands.”

Possibly if adopted as a young child then people would see that you had a history with parents or foster parents or in an institution of some kind, but I was placed for adoption immediately, with the gap of only seven weeks between birth and adoption and no one thought that was time to have a history. I don’t know when the cut off is, my brother was three months old when he was put up for adoption and no one thought he had a history either, even though he had been with his birth mother all that time, and cried for a full day when first he came home with our mum and dad. He cried until he was exhausted and then was fractious, but no one thought about the trauma to him of losing his mother, suddenly and completely.

Another point made by the wonderful Anne Heffron (an adoptee who wrote “You don’t Look Adopted”, the book which began my current flurry of writing) is this; imagine being suddenly removed from one life completely then confusingly placed somewhere unknown and randomly told to get on with it with people you don’t know, where you can have no contact with your previous family or life, where if you are upset by this they simply don’t understand why. Now imagine this happening to an adult. It’s called kidnapping and is a criminal offence. But that is how closed adoption works, where files are sealed and no contact is allowed. I know it’s different now in many cases, but this is how it was for my adoption.

By the time I reached mum and dad (I use this nomenclature to be less clumsy than adopted mum or adopted dad, and actually mum and dad were the roles they were in, successfully or not) I was on my third mother through having been fostered, so the alien syndrome was already present. It is now known that newborn and very young babies are responding to their mother and she mirrors them, she smells right and she has the other half of the bond they share fixed before birth, the biological bond that is our animal heritage birthright. Of course, an adopted mother, even if she is the most loving and devoted parent can have none of these advantages, she is on the back foot before she begins.

I am not an expert in the biology and psychology of these areas, there are many good references on bonding, attachment, and separation trauma, starting for me with John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott. Initially, I learned most of what I know in relation to adoption and these issues from Nancy Verrier, who wrote “The Primal Wound” and “Coming Home to Self”, both of which are go-to reference books for me in dealing with the adoption issues. Read them for lots of sense, and referenced and researched science.

The bit of science that seems relevant here is the limbic regulation that the mother provides to her baby, to soothe and to give a feeling of security. This is part of a neurochemical bond and without it, the child feels overwhelmed and this causes a large part of the traumatised response that maternal separation induces. I imagine my little mind was full of confusion and loss, the limbic overload of trying to mirror and connect but not getting the right signals, maybe not any signals given my mum was not a cuddler or an empathetic mother. My baby needed to connect to stay alive, literally, the baby is helpless and all they have is this connection.

There appear to be two responses to this lack of connection in adopted children; to be compliant or to act out in the external world their rage and despair. I was a compliant baby – a “good” baby, mum said. When the Adoption Society conducted a welfare visit on 24 March I was reported to be on three meals a day and sleeping through each night. I was 15 weeks old.  The reptile brain operates very basically: do what is asked of you and be safe, anything else and they might abandon you too. I conformed and slowly turned into a very proficient chameleon.

Growing up it felt normal to feel alien, it was the water I swam in. I didn’t look like anyone I knew and felt disconnected and abstract for much of the time. I continued to be a compliant and quiet child, the chameleon. But more of this anon, I feel the need to process what is written here already, stay with the newly adopted Baby and be with her.

The Gap

“You were chosen”. These words are said carefully by parents who adopt, but they are not true. They are meant to make up for the fact that there is a silence, a gap in history not spoken about, the gap between being born and being adopted of which nothing is known in any closed adoption. This gap for me is 7 weeks, which is how old I was when I passed to my adopted parents.

The words are not true because you are not chosen from a range like selecting a brand of washing powder from the supermarket shelves or a new car with a variety of options in a showroom. No, not chosen, you are delivered like information on a piece of real estate, in a letter with your particulars and those (that are known) of your anonymous birth parents. The new parents can then accept or reject you, as my adopted parents had already rejected one baby on the grounds they (read my mum and grandmother) didn’t think the baby would be intelligent enough. Mum was already, unconsciously perhaps, emulating her cruel mother by loving conditionally, even before this baby was able to talk.

Then you are collected, like a parcel from the post office. In my case, there were six days between letter and delivery. You don’t, however, come with instructions so everyone is feeling the burn of the change; no nine months to get used to it, read up, or plan anything in the case of parenting, and no way of helping the baby understand what was going on. Like a plant, I went into transplant shock and I am still dealing with it today.

The big trouble is until about 1990 no one realised that babies noticed the difference. The separation from biological mother postpartum is a primal wound, the bonding that begins in utero is the start of a continuum, so bonding does not begin at birth. Thinking about it that would make no sense – the baby is literally formed from the mother’s cells, within the mother’s body – she grows a fully formed human connected by a blood pumping cord – how could they not be attached even at birth!

I blame Descartes! The separation of body and mind. And a human history of arrogantly thinking ourselves  “above” being an animal. Of course a baby separated from its mother is hurt and terrified, we see it happening in all animals – it is not natural and it is a trauma. In terms of understanding it from an adopted child’s point of view, I recommend The Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier. It’s where I started my journey into all this 20 years ago.

So, that was me, traumatised, in an alien environment for the second time (having spent four weeks in foster care) with an alien mother, who, as I’ve described previously, was ill-equipped for mothering any baby.

But still, the world kept turning.

The Mothership

What does “mother” mean? How does it shift if I consider that I have a birth mother, a foster mother and an adopted mother? I understand intellectually the dictionary definition – mother means a female parent, but that is what they are, not what they do.

Maybe, simply, I can describe a mother’s role to be responsible for mothering? Mothering seems to be encapsulated by the word nurturing, defined in my dictionary with phrases such as feed and protect, support and encourage, bring up and educate. OK, where do my three mothers fit into all those?

Down the rabbit hole we go…

I was conceived on a ship that my birth mother took from Australia to England where she had a short relationship with a member of the crew. She got off the ship 10,000 miles away from home and pregnant.

I arrived three weeks early and very quickly by all accounts. Consequently, I was delivered at her home in London by a paramedic. I was then with her for three weeks. In that time did she mother me, was I nurtured?  As I write this I don’t know if I was fed by my birth mother. Clearly, I was fed, but by her milk? She has been back in my life 14 years and I have never thought to ask this question! For two of those weeks we were in hospital where, she reports, staff were surprised I was to be adopted, so I am deducing that she did look after me as any new mum would.

The last week we had together before I was fostered was spent at a “Mother and Baby” Home. I wonder what protecting went on?  She was only just 19, I imagine she needed support and encouragement and protecting too, were we vying for the emotional care and the physical resources that were available? I find it heartbreaking that this week was Christmas and New Year and I don’t imagine there was much celebrating going on, while now my Baby-self remembers and cries at Christmas.

I was taken to the foster mother, Mrs Jones, by my birth mother. While I was there my maternal grandmother flew in from Australia, no mean feat in 1966, and was helping/hindering her daughter in the details of my despatch. There has been talk of her wanting my birth mother to keep me, of her asking where the baby was in her very late years after being overtaken by dementia. But my birth mother has always maintained that I was to be adopted and she wanted me to have two parents. It always was her decision, she says. During the search for my birth mother, I was given access to my adoption file, a thin and meagre set of papers that the social worker seemed to be embarrassed about for its lack of detail. However, within its contents was one telling handwritten note: “Mrs Jones reports, the girl’s mother won’t even look at the baby and the girl’s father, still in Australia, refuses even to discuss the matter, therefore, adoption is the only answer”.

I know less about the four weeks I spent in the foster home. Were there other children or babies there? Did Mrs Jones look after me with others or just her? What was it like there? I know that my adopted mother said, disparagingly, I arrived with nappy rash so she thought I had a bit less nurturing than necessary, obviously! However, I know nothing more of that time except when I left I had spent over half of my life in that house. I do know that January, the span of which covers my time with this temporary mother, has always been a tricky emotional sea for me to navigate each year and I am sadly familiar with the bleakness that can’t always be squared away with it being wintery outside.

I arrived with my adopted parents, (who I shall refer to here as mum and dad) at seven and half weeks, moving on to my third mother. This woman was already an adopted mother to a three and a half-year-old boy. Still, I am unsure how ready she was to be a mother. She had had five days notice by letter of my impending availability when she and my adopted dad travelled to collect me. This time I was destined to stay and was legally adopted at 5 months.

This mother was ill-equipped psychologically for her nurturing role. She suffered from clinical depression, not yet diagnosed at my arrival, but it manifested over the rest of her life in ways that blighted our family and created much despair for her and for me (and others). She was such a damaged individual herself; reared by parents who wanted a boy, who demanded academic excellence and dominated by a mother who was cold in her emotional neglect and cruel in harsh judgment – she once said to my mum it was a good job that she and my adopted father could not have children as heaven knows what they would have produced! Permanently feeling a failure on all counts and battered by life, my mum fell into severe depression and never really recovered for over fifty years.

Unfortunately, having such a poor role model, my mum fixated on the practical details of mothering; we were washed and clothed and fed and educated. We were not protected or nurtured; we were not loved, cuddled or supported emotionally. I remember even as a small child how I felt her lack of connection with me when washing my hair or cutting my nails; she would hold me or move me like I was an object, an inanimate thing, not warm or caring in touch or sensation.  I know now it was her lack of empathy, her inability to feel or to understand what the other feels, but then it just felt remote, harsh and strange, and it left me with a sense of being a burden or an inconvenience, a feeling which I still find hard to shake in relationships today.

I was desperate to connect; adoption leaves the child with the adoption grief – the loss of the mother – at whatever age this occurs. Sadly, my adopted mother was not available for connection, and I know this upset her terribly from conversations we had when I was an adult. She regretted not hugging us, not cuddling us but it was too late and patterns were concreted in. She said she didn’t feel she could love or was loved by anyone and I tried, desperately, to be there for her and to love her, ending in a childhood too full of caring for her, helping dad to care for her. She told me she could love me more if I was her natural daughter. This when I was 14 during one of the late night heart to hearts when I became a surrogate therapist. But it was all one way; I never dared to tell anything of mine for fear of breaking her, upsetting her to the point of collapse, which was often threatened. Being asked to stay away when I was at university, by my dad, because my being at home caused rows and upset her; being yelled at to effectively choose which of my mothers I would be loyal too when I was an adult and had successfully searched for  my birth mother; having been asked at 18 if I thought they should split up because I was so upset just before my A Levels began that I had my mum by the neck and was screaming “It’s all your fault!” over and over into her face. These, all these, lead me to suspect my mothering left a lot to be desired.

It may be unsurprising then that I decided not to be a mother myself. I felt totally unmaternal and completely put off the child rearing idea. Once I had decided, even after a failed attempt at pregnancy, that I was not cut out for it I was more settled. With all that I recount here and the instinctual feeling that I couldn’t be a mother, that Mothership sailed and I remained a childless mother as well as a motherless child.

I am learning to mother myself now.