It had been safely tucked away from view for 10 years. Every time I had that curious, longing itch to revisit the documents, I'd go dig it out of its hiding place, look at the words, the font; smell the pages, touch them, and stare at the two crumpled, thin, black and white paper photos with a crease right across my birth mother's top row of teeth.
My freshman year of high school, my mom took me to the adoption agency from where I was adopted to retrieve documents in a folder that were available to me.
I would find out that my birth mother was pregnant with me when she was 15.
15 years later, I would see these documents for the first time at the very same age.
I don't remember feeling much as I slowly flipped through the pages. There was a lonely stillness in my heart, like a foggy, deserted town holding its breath. Waiting. Searching.
It was a closed adoption, so I noticed that all the last names were whited out. They were all copies, no original documents. There was a stack of papers with comments of social workers who had interviewed my birth families as well as my mom and dad during their visits to each of their homes. Scenes formed in my mind as I read the narratives. My birth father's family was described as "jovial."
I had to look the word up.
I remember feeling excited as I read that my birth mother played piano and my birth father played guitar.
It was a puzzle piece that fit into an incomplete picture of me. Starting piano when I was three, violin at six, and composing when I was 10, music was about the only thing I seemed to connect with.
I was hoping to see a birth certificate, but there wasn't one (in fact, I have never seen it, and was recently informed that there are only seven states that allow unconditional access for adult adoptees).
Then I saw their faces for the first time. I wondered why I didn't get actual color photos, but it was better than nothing. It was hard to see details because the copies were so dark, but I could make out her teeth and a big smile. He wasn't smiling in his picture. It was so strange, seeing pictures of these people.
Where were they now? Were they like me? What do they sound like? I tossed the folder onto my bed and ran into the bathroom so I could hold up their pictures on either side of my face.
I was a perfect mix of both of them.
There was a poem from my birth mother, and a two-page letter, both signed, "Love, Mom."
I had a mom, so it was weird for me to see. Was it weird for her to write that? Did she still feel like my mom?
The poem was typed in Courier New font, and I read it first.
I had written poems, too, that my mom liked to taped to my parents' shelves in their office.
It was titled "Never Forgotten", typed across the top, and then underneath, "for" the name she gave me: Marilyn.
It said "by" and then her first name, with her last name whited out - all except the first three letters, which, little did I know, would ultimately end up being the key to finding her ten years later.
The letter was long, repetitive, thoughtful. It was in cursive handwriting. I could tell that she felt passionate about making sure I knew how special and loved I was. She explained why she was giving me up, how conflicted she was, how hurt she felt...how she loved my birth father so much, yet they were just so young.
Young, but in love.
I wanted them to stick, for them to fill the emptiness that had always been inside of me, but the words seemed to bounce right off my chest and back onto the page.
I had only known that I was adopted for five years after finding out when I was 10, although my body knew it before I did.
I had a family, and therefore, I should just be grateful. I shouldn't think about my past, because things like roots, where you're from, and who you are don't matter when you have such a wonderful, loving family, right? All that counts is that you're loved.
That's what I believed, though, and that's what society tells us to believe.
But how do you have language for adoption when the trauma of relinquishment is preverbal? How do you know what you feel?
You don't. So you go along with what will keep the peace at home, at school, at church, and at extracurricular activities. I wanted to be a good kid. I was constantly trying to please my parents and doing things to make sure they were still there, because that's what you do when you fear re-abandonment with such a physiological, intense terror.
I wasn't sure what to expect with my new folder of papers, but whatever it was, hurt.
At the time, I had no words to describe their value, but I kept them close to me, guarding them like they were precious gems.
I kept them hidden at the bottom of my nightstand. I was afraid that if they were visible, it might hurt my family's feelings...and perhaps also my own. They were the only pieces of my identity I now had: a further reminder that I was different. Not good enough to keep. Given away. Not chosen.
The folder was all around shameful, and it needed to be out of sight.
So I put it away, closed the drawer, called it gratitude, and left it alone.
But there's an internal battle that brews when we subconsciously deny things we're unaware of - things inside of us that bubble up for a reason. If we don't know to face them, the battle brew eventually overflows outward and into our lives.
As a 15-year-old, however, I didn't have vocabulary for this. I opened the drawer every time I felt three emotions: lonely, angry, or sad, like an adult secretly indulging in addiction to suppress those things.
I had formed this relationship in my mind with my adoption through these papers - staring at them, crying at them, crumpling them when I felt enraged, smoothing them out in desperation, and then staring at them some more as if the text on the pages were supposed to change or turn color.
Going through this initial process felt kind of like opening up a box of cereal for a nice, big bowl of breakfast and then pouring out the last few puffs. You want more, but you don't have any more and you should probably eat something healthier anyway. A part of me wished I would have never seen any of it.
What does a 15-year-old do with hope and shame at the same time?
I had opened a magic box filled with pieces of treasure. Pieces of me that could never be put back together; and therefore, I was not whole.
I'm not a huge drinker. I enjoy spending time with friends, and occasionally, that involves going out, maybe trying a new restaurant, and catching up. Even if I've seen you a thousand times, I'll still have social anxiety, so a cocktail will be ordered as soon as I sit down.
The problem is, you can't tell I'm about to explode. I'm an introvert, but you'd only believe that wholeheartedly if you knew me really well. As an adoptee, I've spent a good part of my life people-pleasing, which, in my world, just means fear of abandonment in action. And as an introvert, I absolutely dread small-talk, so mastering social skills means only one thing: a genuine effort to connect; one of the most terrifying things in all existence.
I should've named this post "How To Take An Un-Reunified Adoptee To A Bar" instead. This year marks a decade since I met my birth mother in 2008. I'll be honest. There's not a day that goes by where I don't wonder if I'll finally see that e-mail from her in my inbox, and then hating myself for it. It's truly a complex battle between abandoned baby vs. adult self - and quite the balancing act. I had a friend lightheartedly ask me once, "Why don't you just let her go?" I felt that gut punch for months (she's my birth mother), but I don't know what's worse: living unawarely or being in denial. Feeling pain as a result of trauma has never been a matter of choice; the only choice here is the validation of its existence.
Before I get too off topic, I'll say this. To be fair, I understand not everyone will understand another's grief (after all, each of us are wired differently with different backgrounds, experiences, etc.), but maybe the most painful emotion to experience as a human being, is the dismissal of our pain by others.
As an adoptee, this pain cuts deep into my core wound of relinquishment - the trauma volcano that has been erupting inside of my body since before I was born.
Only within the last few years have I begun to come out of what's known as 'adoption fog', and while my heart and life have changed in the best, most healthiest ways possible, I've also been introduced to a new kind of pain that grabs you by the heart, and then sets you free...over, and over, and over again.
So, about drinks. If you’re out with an adoptee who is navigating grief, awakening, learning love; and you want to be supportive yet you’re not sure how to help, please know this:
Telling our stories is like a baby learning how to speak for the very first time. Be patient with our grief. Finding your voice takes courage; learning how to use it takes vulnerability.
Growing up, the fact that I was adopted wasn't really something that was discussed. I've been blessed with an amazing family that I am eternally grateful for. I was a happy, care-free kid full of energy and entertainment. There was this part of me, though, that I couldn't quite put my finger on; something painful that was always there. Underneath my upbeat personality were feelings of anxiety, sadness, emptiness. Grief.
Research studies show that the removal of an infant from its biological mother is intensely traumatic for the baby, and the excruciating affects remain in their physiology throughout their life. Following this separation, I was placed in a foster home where care was negligent, an environment void of my birth mother's touch, voice, or scent . . . things a baby needs when they first enter the world. These traumatic events created a psychological blueprint that remains with me to this day, and the post-traumatic symptoms I've experienced manifest themselves in different ways, affecting every area of my life.
Adoptees often carry around with them a painful sense of rejection that heavily affects their self esteem, causing them to constantly question their worth; the feeling that they're at fault always present, regardless of the background story for why an adoption took place. For me, the trauma of abandonment and post-traumatic stress became a state of mind and body with which I operated out of on a daily basis.
Open conversations within family can ease painful, confusing emotions and help adopted children feel validated and unconditionally loved regardless of their difference in biology and/or ethnicity. Avoiding the topic can exacerbate feelings of shame, intensifying the idea that there is something 'wrong' with them and that they will always experience rejection in life. Those unfamiliar with an adoptee's world might say: "Well, at least you were adopted into a family, so why can't you just be happy and thankful for that?"
If it were really that simple, research studies and statistics wouldn't reveal adoptees being four more times likely to commit suicide than children living with their biological families.
In reality, adoption is truly a unique landscape. Understanding its complexities can help children in foster care and adoptive parents build a more secure attachment, learn how to approach sensitive issues, and encourage a deeper understanding of our emotional brain development.
It was after learning I was adopted at age 10 that I began to write music. What I was unable to express with words, I conveyed through song. When I didn't know how to articulate what I was processing - I found my voice, my comfort, through music. When nothing else could, sitting at the piano soothed me.
My adolescent years are a blur of drifting in and out of depression, anger, obsessive-compulsive behavior and low self-esteem; day after day, fighting relentless anxiety in my body . . . I watched other people enjoy their families, friendships and relationships. More than anything, I wanted to have that, too - but at the time, I simply did not know how to attach to others in a healthy way. Over and over, I re-enacted abandonment and, conversely, I would abandon.
I saw my first therapist at 14, and continue to go to this day. It's my favorite day of the week. It took years to find effective, quality therapy that was a good fit for me (there are all kinds out there), but without it and/or music, in all honesty, I don't know where I'd be. Therapy is kind of like building a puzzle. Piece by piece, your original 'framework' starts to come into view . . . you can see where edits were made along the way, and why. You begin looking at a bigger picture, and more and more, you make sense. Coming to terms with the root of my pain has given me understanding, more compassion for others, and hope. The daily journey of healing and therapy continues, and while at times challenging, it's been life-changing.
As a result of these experiences, I'd always felt hesitant to really pursue my dreams wholeheartedly . . . but I experienced a huge realization recently that has not only given me new perspective on purpose and what that means for each and every one of us, but has literally broken down walls I've kept up between my heart and what's always been waiting on the other side. I believe we all have unique gifts to spread real love in this world; and by doing so, we can heal our own hearts in the process.
Artist | Singer-Songwriter | Composer