I’ve often thought that my real healing began on the breezy morning when I watched my adoptive mother’s ashes sink into the endless blue of Maui’s friendly waves. Even as I sobbed the deepest of soul-shaking tears I wondered, had I ever cried so hard before? I was puzzled, for these waves of grief were out of proportion to my rather detached, superficial relationship with my dead mother. We were cohabitants, friendly compatriots, occasional buddies, but never bonded mother and daughter– intimate and invested. Even as I wept convulsively, the part of me that always watched from afar wondered why. I wasn’t to find out why I cried so much that day for many years to come, for my body/mind/soul wasn’t about to let go of their driving secrets without a struggle, without a threat.
That threat came in the form of an 8 lb., 14.5 oz. bundle of unbridled needs and wants. Our son was born to my husband John and me when I was thirty. We named him Ian. The experience of mothering relentlessly chipped away at the artificial self I had presented to the world– and myself– for 30 years. Mothering broke me open. My solid fortresses of defense and control, my “Things are perfect, I’m handling everything fine,” persona that had thwarted a few earnest attempts at therapy over the years finally began to shred under the pumice of my son’s raw, baby neediness; his control-shattering toddler defiance; and the terrifying demands of intimacy that children innocently exact. Intimacy that I would soon realize I had never been given by my own adoptive mother.
I had always thought that I’d had a truly ideal and wonderfully interesting, if somewhat unconventional, childhood. My adoptive mother was a charismatic, energetic, and powerfully attractive woman with exquisite taste in everything and a keen business sense. Around the time of my adoption, she was overseeing the construction of our custom home in Tiburon, across the Golden Gate from San Francisco. On the heels of that project, she opened a crafts gallery called “Many Hands.” She wasn’t home much, but there was always some caring housekeeper around to attend to me and do the cooking.
So what I was finally grieving at age 31 was what I’d never received in my adoptive home– the unconditional nurturing, the security, and the predictability that children crave and thrive on. And these, in turn, were the things Ian was demanding that I provide him every hour of every day. Trying to meet his demands, I was drawing from an empty well, which awakened long-dormant feelings of hurt and loss and rage. One day, when Ian was a few months old, I said to John, “I feel like he’s sucking all the me out of me.” Actually, he was sucking the real me, terrified and raging, out of hiding.
None of the issues that had been unveiled from my life to this point had been adoption-related, per se. The kind of neglect and abuse that I experienced go on in all kinds of families, usually in the name of love or guidance or God or money or, as is so often the case, the parent’s or parents’ own untended wounds. Adoptees certainly don’t have a monopoly on non-malicious child abuse, and people hearing my story might tend to attribute my history of inner struggles solely to the unfortunate dynamics of my adoptive family. But I would invite them to learn, as I did, about the special kind of invisible trauma that is part of the adoptee’s legacy– and many non-adoptees as well– which builds their walls of defenses and control stronger, higher, and deeper than most– almost impenetrable.
I’ve thought for a long time now that my real, true healing began on the day before my daughter was born– three and a half years ago. I had to leave a concert at intermission because I was feeling so strange, something akin to nausea, but different. When we returned home, I walked straight through the house, not stopping to hug my son or chat with the babysitter. I closed our bedroom door behind me, stripped off my clothes, and crawled into bed. I began to cry, then sob, wrapped in my sheet in a fetal position. After some moments of this sobbing, the words began to come out of my mouth, “Mommy doesn’t want me. Mommy doesn’t want me … ”
I knew exactly what it meant. While I’d barely ever considered my adoption, in terms of my emotional life, I was familiar with the concept of Erik Erikson– when one spends a lot of time with a child of any particular age, unresolved issues from one’s own childhood at that age tend to be awakened. After having nudged and prodded and stirred up the soup of my psyche with the trials of motherhood, this fetus I’d invited to grow under my heart– a budding girl– had secretly continued the unearthing process, which culminated in this spontaneous regression to my own pre-birth feelings.
A few months later I telephoned Annette Baran, who’d appeared in a television show I had produced 10 years earlier. I told her I wanted to do a documentary project on this intuitive notion of mine– was it crazy? That adoptees enter the world already wounded?
Soon I was at my first AAC Conference, awash in epiphany, empathy, and community. Verrier, Lifton, Pavao, Severson– their soothing words of explanation, validation, and context corroborated my long-shunned reality and flowed over me, through me, and deep down inside of me. I sighed the deep, relieved sigh that comes with being heard, being known, and being acknowledged. I was not crazy, just appropriately grief-stricken by losses that had never been spoken of. I had endured a sort of “Gaslight” existence in a family that couldn’t speak the truth about much at all, and certainly not the painful truths about dead babies and broken wombs and mommies who couldn’t keep their daughters; a family who instead put smiles where weeping faces had a right to be.
Nancy Verrier’s work led me deep into pre and perinatal research, which continues as the field charts new territory. For the past 15 years, the work of people like Thomas Verny (“The Secret Life of the Unborn Child”) and David Chamberlain (“Babies Remember Birth”) has promoted a broadening understanding of how profoundly affected a person can be by the circumstances surrounding the pregnancy of his or her mother, and that mother’s attitudes and feelings toward her unborn child.
Profound revelations about the prenatal trauma in adopted (and many other) people continue to accumulate in my files. First there was the idea of the primal wound, which I came to consider as being a continuum of separation, beginning months earlier in the womb of a mother who has emotionally detached from her baby. Then I met and interviewed Dr. William Emerson, a pioneering psychologist who has been treating infants, children, and adults for pre and perinatal trauma for twenty years and has worked with hundreds of adoptees and their families. While I was focused on questioning him about the traumatizing effects of separation from the birth mother, and– as in my own case– several days of languishing in a hospital nursery, Dr. Emerson told me that he believes the greatest trauma to adoptees happens in the first trimester!
As incredulous as I was when he first said this, it soon made profound sense to me. He explained the foundational traumas of being a mistaken conception, of having a mother who is disappointed– or worse– at the news of her pregnancy, and who psychically rejects the baby inside her, or even fantasizes about abortion. (These circumstances aren’t true of all adoptive pregnancies, but certainly the majority.) The message transmitted to that incipient being is that she shouldn’t exist, she doesn’t deserve to exist, and her creator doesn’t want her to exist. Dr. Emerson believes that it is in those early weeks of intermingled genesis and rejection that the artificial self begins to form, out of sheer survival instinct. Everything he said resonated deeply within me and helped make sense of the fact that my core issue goes beneath abandonment and rejection to my basic feelings of unworthiness of existence.
There was the rage that threatened to consume me– rage at my birth mother for “throwing me away”; at my adoptive parents for not seeing and easing my deep pain; and at the world for letting this happen to me. There was the hopelessness and helplessness, and the nearly unbearable sadness and longing. It was this deep sorrow, unearthed for just a moment, that flowed in those tears so long ago when I buried my mother. It was my ache for the lost mother, the original one, and the stark realization, unspoken until all these years later, that I never had a mother and I never will.
I regard all of my past years and methods of addressing the traumas suffered in a neglectful, unhealthy home; all the methods of struggling to “thaw” my emotional coldness and soften in my intimate connections; all the various disciplines to plumb for my true essence, while shoring up my depleted physical energy. If I worked very hard, kept my shoulder into it, and never let up, I perhaps would see a little movement. But the moment I relaxed my attention, turned my consciousness to something else– like simply living– everything slipped back.
The relief I have experienced is distinct and profound. In contrast to the struggles of my past, I’m emotionally available; I’m able to focus outward rather than compelled to turn inward; and I get to experience, in a connected way, the moments of my life, rather than feeling the need to control those moments and thus remain apart from them. Most blessed of all, I experience my children as joyous gifts rather than burdens.
My husband says it’s the first time he’s seen a change in me that is tangible and demonstrable, rather than the subtle, subjective shifts I felt inside. There is nothing subtle about the work I’ve been doing this past year. When a primal feeling is triggered by a current circumstance (e.g., something that smacks of rejection, threat, or betrayal) and begins to push to the surface, my burned-in reflex is to unconsciously resist it and keep it tamped down. Over a couple of days, I become increasingly taut, brittle, and irritable. The best barometer is how available I am for my children, and when I’m sitting on some feelings, I become emotionally inaccessible to them.
A therapist once explained to me that you don’t get to get what you never got. You only get to feel how bad it feels, and that’s when you heal. “It’s already gone, it’s already lost, and the only thing that you can do in therapy to heal is feel the loss. There’s nothing to fill that hole– there’s no man, there’s no sex, there’s no drugs, there’s no house, and there’s no money– because it’s already a loss. People hate that because they want a therapist to fix it, but all you can do is bring them to that empty hole, let them look in again, and scream at the emptiness.”
It took many years and many hands to guide me to that empty hole, to help me find the strength to look in without turning away again, and to hold me while I quaked. It took many hands, along with my own, to deliver me my real, true life. Bless them all.
Marcy Wineman Axness, an adoptee, lives in California with her husband and two children. She writes and lectures nationwide on adoption and pre and perinatal issues, and is completing a novel, The Awakening of Pearl McEvoy. She has known both of her birth parents for almost twenty years. She welcomes correspondence at her email address, email@example.com.