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.

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.


Moving into Myself

This winter a transformation began to crystallize. Before, it was swirling around; I was aware of it but now it feels more grounded and available to me. Since dad died last August I have noticed the small voice that I knew as the Grown-up – my adult self – has been getting stronger. This is not exactly a voice of reason as it holds many emotions,  but more a still centeredness, an assuredness, and the gift of fielding my reactions and allowing me to respond appropriately.

Previously, I have felt a tsunami of feelings when I am upset or angry. I have not always been able to avoid being swept away into a reaction that is devastating and damaging to myself or others around me. I would yell, cry, maybe even leave the building, and then repeat if pursued. This is a catastrophic limbic reaction, I know, and I found it impossible to contain, until now. More often I find that if I feel upset or angry I can hold that in, return to it and while breathing through it, not open my mouth to shout or feel an overwhelming urge to run away. I can literally face the emotions that are coming up. I have a new image; a dam wall holding back the water and I can operate sluice gates to let a little emotion out, and then a little more. It isn’t perfect and sometimes the dam wall breaks anyway, but it is beginning to feel more enduring and I am beginning to trust it will stick around!

I am sure that mum’s death, now three years ago, began this change, enabling me, freeing up space in my head (and in the physical world), to move more into Myself, hear my Grown-up, and feel the corresponding groundedness that accompanied it. Mum and I had a complex relationship. This is another blog post in itself I am guessing but here are the headlines; my adoption issues and her depression, the contorted family relationships and our repeated failures to be the mother and daughter we needed led to much pain and heartache. Her death was a release from the binds of this relationship and so I could stretch, begin to move into Myself.

I also think that being 50 became a turning point as in the last year since that birthday the sense of Myself has been stronger. I am amazed because this last year chiefly has been full of all the parental woes; illness; aging; incapacity and finally death. J and I have been juggling three parents in these difficult stages in practice whilst also trying to handle the emotional minefields that these circumstances created. The amazement is because, looking back, I have not only managed myself through these tricky waters I have also grown and changed in this period. In times gone by I would have felt I was continually bailing the boat of myself, the leaky vessel would be getting worse, not better. I have the definite feeling that I am mending the holes in the boat – healing not constantly bailing and just barely managing to keep afloat. This is both a surprise and a joy.

Being 50 and being free of my parental relationships released me into something that I didn’t know I needed; permission to be Myself. I will continue to navigate this opening way and hope to record it here.