When I was in college and felt all cool and edgy because I’d “discovered” Pink Floyd (i.e. someone else played it or loaned me a CD — I never “discover” bands; also, this was the 1990s — pretty sure Pink Floyd had been “discovered” already), when things were bad, I’d sit in the dark and listen to moody music. Like Pink Floyd, and probably some other albums I’d be embarrassed to admit now if I remembered them.
There was one time where I’d broken up with a boy who then showed up at an event I was attending. I mean, he should have known that I would be there and he showed up anyway, just to ruin my night. Because, you know, there’s no chance at all that he, also feeling bad, went to a public event for college students at a public facility where lots of college students would be. No, he did that AT me, or so I was sure at the time. Because it was all so damn personal. I went home, trying not to cry on public transit, and sat in the dark, on my roommate’s (kind of awesome) beanbag, listening to Pink Floyd too loud, with the windows wide open and cool autumn air blowing through.
I remember that time so clearly because it was such a multi-sensory experience. I love autumn air, when it’s cool, not cold, and smells like dying leaves. I really loved that beanbag. Something about the music centered me in the moment of pain and abandonment and made me sit with it rather than hide or run or distract. And I felt a little lighter at the end of it.
What I felt then, I didn’t really learn. In the last year or so, I’ve been learning that sitting with the feelings that crash in on me is harder at the onset and easier in the long run than what I’ve been doing the rest of my life. In high school, when the sense of not knowing who I was crashed down, I tried harder and harder to be a social butterfly who charmed people. I’m really really bad at that, as an introvert who, on a good day, prefers to be alone in a comfy chair with a good book. For most of the years between 15 and 18, I felt like I couldn’t breathe, like I was being suffocated and would die at any moment. The thing that kept me gasping for the air I felt I didn’t deserve and couldn’t have was the thought of getting away, getting out on my own, and figuring out, on my own, who I was.
It’s funny, but life doesn’t work that way. I think most teenagers dream of moving away from their families. I think most teenagers feel like they are misunderstood, not understood, unique snowflakes who are beyond the understanding of mere mortal adults. I think many adoptees feel as though they have never been understood and that, in the context of the families they’ve learned to live in, they never can be. But, as Buckaroo Bansai so eloquently plagiarizes generations of Zen writers, “wherever you go, there you are.” We take ourselves and our complications with us always.
My adoptive family is full of decent people. They are not perfect, but they are good, and they have tried hard to raise me well and love me and respect the person I am. They don’t know that I’ve almost never been myself around them, not completely, because I never felt safe in doing so. Who they wanted me to be is different than who I am capable of being, so I balanced in the space between those. It isn’t the fault of my family. It is a part of adoption for many of us.
In adoption, the first thing a child knows is rejection. My first mother never held me. I know this now, out loud in words. I’m pretty sure I’ve always known it. I know that for the first four days of my life, someone, likely the nurses in the hospital, took care of me, but I did not have my mother. My adoptive parents came next, and I know that I was wanted and loved by them. I’ve never questioned that, not even when I was doing my level best to test that love. My parents, with the best of intentions, used the adoption language given to them by the “professionals”: your birth mother loved you so much that she wanted you to have a better life and put you up for adoption. Love=Abandonment.
So I’ve always tried to be what my parents signed up for, to be the child they wanted to parent. I’ve not been great at that, either, but I tried. I thought that college would give me the space to figure out who I was outside of my family, and my mother really wanted me to go to college, so it was a win-win. To a degree, it did give me space. I couldn’t always figure out what was me and what was me being the person I thought other people wanted me to be, though. People-pleasing — just one possible side-effect of adoption.
So that night, sitting in the dark, feeling utterly sad and alone? It felt authentic and real and unquestionably me. Not that I would always be sad, though I was pretty convinced I’d always be alone. It was more that I could be sad and it wouldn’t destroy me. I could be sad and not fall apart. I could be sad and still show up to class the next day and function as an adult(ish), even if I was probably going to subsist on cocoa puffs, ice cream, and Mr. Pibb for the next few days.
This past summer, with my first mother’s birthday and then, three weeks later, mine, I was sad. I felt alone and lonely. I was not alone, but that’s how I felt. Bereft. And I sat inside the darkness for most of a month. I went to work. I came home. I watched TV and petted my cats and read books. I saw my friends occasionally, I saw my boyfriend. I ate birthday cake. And I was sad. And it was okay. I survived.
More and more I’ve learned to sit in the dark and sit with the dark and let it pass through me. It seems like it happens too often right now, but I wonder if part of that is the number of years, decades, that I’ve pushed it away and out and not let it in. Even when I get frustrated, though, because I think it’s too much, I think I should be “over” it, I think that I should be less confused by now, not more, even then, I can slow down and sit with it. Sometimes.
That’s what I’m doing this year for adoption awareness month. I’m sitting in the dark, I’m feeling sad, and happy, and angry, and lonely, and loved, and bereft, and very utterly, complicatedly, adopted.