We Come From A Place Not So Safe
by Paula Free, Adoptee
The Darkness Inside Me
There is a quiet rage burning through my soul. It’s lived inside me for years. Buried. Deep beneath the layers of abandonment, rejection, worthlessness, self-pity, and self-hate. I’m trying to get to the good part inside me, but all I feel is bad. It stretches through my heart and burns its way into my mind. I feel like I want to tear out my hair or scratch off my skin. This ache is so intense I could vomit. But instead, I sit in it and let it burn through me. Circling inside my belly. I can feel it intensify and grow more unbearable to handle. It has a hold on my soul and doesn’t want to let me go. I can’t move. I can’t speak and I can barely breathe. But I sit here. I am waiting to find a release. It keeps changing from one emotion to the next. All equally as evil and dominating. It’s as if they feel they have a right to live inside me, and now I belong to them. They own my soul and they have no intention of letting me go. I have slipped away under their power where I am lost and wandering, and alone, having settled into a life as a slave to the force of darkness that has replaced Me. She has established her domain. And I have submitted to her power. Not knowing where she came from or how to get rid of her, she is now me and I slowly lose the awareness of the good that I once knew existed inside me. She’s not so obvious to the world. I have been trained to put a smile on my face to mask the darkness covering my soul.
I feel only the abyss of pain deep inside and it consumes me. It is big and it is heavy and it feels like I am dying under the weight of it. I try to fight my way out but become exhausted and buried deeper still. I give in and stop and for a while walking around like this, feeling totally helpless to find the way out. What I have tried hasn’t worked. And then, I will read something, or hear something and I will feel it penetrate the negative weight around me, and for a moment I can remember how it feels to be safe, secure, and loved and I don’t want it to end. The feeling starts to fade and I try to keep it, hold onto it and make it mine. I want to stay here forever. I want to believe it is my right to belong here. And I can, for a while. I get comfortable here. Thinking it is my place; my home. I’ve fooled myself somehow finding a way to convince myself this is mine. Warmth grows in my heart. A smile grows on my lips and I am alive again. It’s love. I forget that I don’t own this place. I am only a visitor. I don’t know how long it will last or when it will be stolen away. For now, I live like it’s mine determined to hold on to this place I can’t seem to find, on my own.
I Need to Find You
To know where I belong. It has to be here somewhere. Who will accept me and keep me strong? If you, give me the strength, I don’t know for how long. I don’t know who I am or where to be so I look around for you to remind me. It’s still always temporary, and I am getting tired of the up and down is steadily getting tossed around. I feel at your mercy. I’m only OK when you like me. Because who will bring me to that place if it isn’t in your face. If I disappoint you I get cut off, and I am beginning to not know how to fit in. I need to know where you are. I think when I find you I will now be complete and get from you the entire suit. The pieces I can’t find inside I will get them from you and begin to rise. Now I know I must find you and I begin to look at everyone I see. Perhaps YOU will notice me. Then I will be found and the story will be that YOU in searching, found, and restored me. Time passes and nothing happens and I am certain I will never know how to become safe and whole. I look harder and become more aware that I will need to pay money to finish this stare. I know it is a big commitment to make the find move. I begin to panic and get stung by fear. What if you’re not available to give me your ear? I do it anyway. What have I got to lose? It must be done before I become a permanent member of the blues. I get the call you are willing to talk to and meet me to see what I have become. You happen to have been waiting for me all these years hoping I would find you to quell your tears. Tears you’ve cried for me since I’ve been gone. Not realizing the pain would always belong.
I am never more unsure and certain at the same time. This meeting was meant to be for us to climb out of the emptiness created after we separated. You cried when you saw me. We talked. and you tried to fill in the blanks of how there came this big divide. I listened and waited and thought it would be a magical moment of you and me; together again, bonded and strong reunited to sing our old song. It wasn’t the same. How could this be? I thought you were the answer to me. I didn’t really know you, but I was glad to see, there was some resemblance looking back at me. I wanted so much more but what I got would do. I had made some progress in finding you. I left not sure of what to feel. My completeness not seeming anymore real. I didn’t know how to fit you into my life. I definitely didn’t need another mom in my life. I came to you. I thought it would be the replaceable part that went missing from me. I realized there was nothing you could say to give me back what I felt stolen away. So, I stick to what I know works, keeping others happy to get the praise I’m worth.
Lost in Pleasing
It doesn’t take long before I’m exhausted and you seem to have found the pleasure in manipulating me to get your way. It’s so easy. I’m so needy. You see the power you have over me and begin to withhold the praise you see I need, watching, waiting to see if I bleed. I get weaker than I’ve ever been. Addicted to praise I work to please, every move draining me, I fall to my knees. Begging. Pleading. Desperate for you to see me, praise me, love me. Is this all I am? All that’s left? A life of deprivation I’m forced to accept. The more I need you the worse it gets. You strengthen as I weaken. You grow as I die. You no longer care as you watch me cry. I am lost more than I’ve ever been to. What I once held onto holds onto me. I am trapped in a space; falling, falling away from the first place. The pain has compounded; your rejection upon my lack of affection. Death to my soul; deeper than the deepest hole. I am now completely out of control. How do I fight the desperation I feel. I struggle. I’m trying to become more real than this pain inside getting harder to hide.
It has grown and has a life force of its own. I am fighting you. I am fighting me. I can’t find a place to let me just be. Chaos in my soul. I have no idea where to go. I am afraid. I am alone. I feel my heart will never find its home. I need someone to love me; feed my exhausted soul. I can’t go on like this. I’m not made for this abyss. I collapse. I am sobbing. I cry out in pain “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” over and over again. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry why did you have to go? I feel so unloved and unloveable.’ Was I too bad to kiss? Why wasn’t I worth the risk? “Please come back, come back, I need you in my life. You need to come back and make it right.” Oh God! Oh God! What am I going to do? I am alone and nobody can help me through. Nobody can help me through. NOBODY can help me through. I don’t know if I can make it like this anymore. It has to be me that gets up off this floor. I am now lying there, still. Waiting to receive the invincible pill. I roll to my side and curl up like a ball. Holding myself tight, I wait for the call. I am waiting for something inside me to change. Please help me, I need you… I need you…please help me find my way.
I open my eyes and jump up off the floor. I’m not giving up. I’m trying some more. I set out to see what has become of me. I can do this. I can do this. I have to believe. Things will be different just wait and you’ll see, a certain strength has come over me. I am determined to figure this struggle out. I know one thing is perfectly clear; this is about me and my enormous fear. The fear that has controlled me since my birth. Thinking I will never be loved for my true worth. I hear…and I’ve been told… I am worth more than gold – simply because I’m made from a one and only mold! Can it be; who I am, has nothing to do with how YOU feel about me? I’m getting excited and jittery. This thought alone is setting me free and releasing power from deep down within. This might be the first time I feel, I will win this race, and not forever be a victim to the constant chase. I have a sense that I’m on top, giving myself permission; it’s time to stop- hurting myself by not being clear; there is a reason I was sent here. No one can take my life away. It’s mine to choose what to do, what to believe, and what to say. I close my eyes. I go back inside to figure out my soul’s divide. Could it be I’m OK? You didn’t leave with my heart that day? I still have all my pieces intact? I have my heart. I have my worth. They belonged to me from before my birth.
I am Priceless
Complete by Design
Given to the world,
with you in mind.
My destiny is
“Here is something I have believed about myself and my adoption since I was a child, since before I knew I was an alcoholic: My birth mother took one look at me and knew that I was worthless and unlovable and unredeemable. She didn’t want to keep me because she knew something was wrong with me.”
(I know that this absolutely isn’t true and that my birth mother loved me very much and made a very difficult choice. But this is what I have told myself.)
For me, as an alcoholic and an adoptee, the feelings of loss, uncertainty, and identity that come from being given away by my birthmother can be as cunning, baffling and powerful as alcohol. And as I’ve been trudging our road of happy destiny, I’ve met a lot of other adoptees with similarly persistent feelings.
It’s why I started AAA. It’s a new group focused on AA & Adoption. It’s at the intersection of 2 triangles – the AA triangle – unity, service, recovery – and the adoption triad – birthparents, adoptive parents and adoptees.
For adoptees in recovery, our root causes and conditions stem literally from our origin, from our birth and the circumstances around it. There’s often an unexplainable feeling of loss that haunts us and a fear of abandonment that persists throughout our lives.
From some estimates, adoptees are 5 times more likely to become alcoholics than the average person, 10 times more likely to be in therapy, and 10 times more likely to be in prison.
Suffice it to say, we have problems.
It’s said in the rooms that there’s a God-shaped hole that we as alcoholics try and fill with booze – and drugs, sex, shopping, eating, gambling, etc. For me, as an adoptee, that hole has always been shaped by that initial separation from my birth mother. You could say that the God-shaped hole inside me was also a mom-shaped hole.
Adopted or not – many alcoholics say we feel like we never fit in. For adoptees, we often felt like that from the beginning, from the families that raised us. We looked different – height, weight, hair color, skin tone – and often grew up alongside biological children of our parents. We feel like we had to be grateful for this new home we were given – and that at any moment we might be relinquished back if we didn’t behave.
Yes, adoption gave me a home with two loving parents who did their best. They did enough wrong that I need therapy but not enough for a best-selling memoir. And today as a sober man I will tell you they’re my mom and my dad and I love them very much for who they are and how they raised me.
But adoptive parents – no matter how great – can’t heal that initial break from our birthmothers. I’ve probably read as much adoption literature as I have recovery literature. I strongly identify with both. There’s a book called The Primal Wound about that break in which I recognize more of myself than in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The Primal Wound – AA, Trauma and Adoption
I don’t think the 12 steps are particularly great at treating trauma on their own. They absolutely give you the chance to stop all of the addictive behavior you’ve piled on top of the trauma and to establish a connection with a higher power. I don’t think there’s any hope of getting better without getting sober. It gives you a chance to heal. But then there’s still more work to be done.
And being separated at birth from your mother is certainly a trauma. For many adoptees, we were then shuttled off to an orphanage while waiting weeks and months for our adoptive families to get us. While there, we weren’t held as often as is necessary for the health of an infant. There have even been studies that show a baby will die if it is not touched or held. (Which is an insane study if you stop to think about it.)
So how do I heal that hole in my heart? How do I start feeling lovable and worthwhile?
For me, it started as I was detoxing from alcohol at a psych ward. I don’t know why I did it but I tried to connect with each individual in that facility as a human being experiencing pain and to show them compassion and care. Like Bill W. relating to Dr. Bob, one sufferer relating to another. I saw each fellow patient as a real human, as someone worth loving, as someone who had something good in them. I wasn’t going to throw them away or relinquish them, even if they’d ended up in this psych ward.
It’s what I desperately wanted for myself but never did or could never take in. It’s when the healing for me began.
As I entered the rooms and began sharing my story, I found that whenever I spoke at a meeting, invariably there would be at least one adoptee that would come up to speak with me afterward. And as I began collecting their numbers and seeing them around campus, it became clear that we could really help each other.
I’ve found healing through compassion and projection and from telling my story as an adoptee and an alcoholic. When my friend Darrylynn – an adoptive mom of an alcoholic – heard me speak, she understood that not everything her daughter was suffering through was her fault as a mom.
And when I’ve heard from AA birthmothers who gave away a child, I got to hear about how they never forgot a birthday, never went a day without thinking of that son or daughter and how much love and heartache they felt for that relinquished child.
Out of that, and some sober experience working through some of my issues, we started AA&A at the beginning of this year. We meet on the first Sunday of every month (on the weekend, so anyone in LA can get to the meeting without fighting traffic.)
As I’ve been going to different groups and announcing the AA&A meeting, on more than one occasion, an adoptee would come up to me after the meeting and say, “I’ll take your flyer, but I’m not coming to your meeting.”
Which I get. We adoptees don’t like joining things – because we fear that group will eventually reject and abandon us. It’s also a very emotionally fraught subject to deal with – like opening up a page of your 5th step that you’ll deal with but never truly eliminate.
So it’s a big deal to go to a meeting like ours.
The spiritual, maternal hole
Adoption didn’t give me the physical allergy to alcohol. (Though indirectly, it did through biology– my birth dad is likely on the streets and an addict if he’s still alive.) And I probably would have been an alcoholic even if my birth mom had raised me.
But it definitely helped with that mental defect. Emotionally, I tried to fill that mom-shaped hole inside of me with whatever I could. The grief of never knowing her felt like it would never end and was a raw open wound that would never heal. For example, any time I watched a movie where a mother would protect her son from danger, I’d end up sobbing – why didn’t my mother have the courage to raise me, to protect me from the dangers of the world with her love?
And feeling worthless and unlovable, believing that anyone who would see the real me would see that defection and then bounce, that contributed to a giant case of the fuckits.
To me, one of the greatest things about AA is that it’s a program that’s based on the concept of one sufferer relating to another fellow sufferer. Bill and Dr. Bob shared their common problems related to alcohol in that way. There’s a common bond in that, and it’s my belief that there’s a spiritual connectedness that happens when we share our vulnerabilities, our strengths, and our weaknesses and our shame that allows for something divine to move in us.
With AA&A, we can do that on 2 levels. As alcoholics, and as adoptees.
The AA&A Meeting
When we have our meetings, we do a short ‘moment to remember why we’re there’, and then we dive right into sharing. In some ways, it’s more like a support group than a typical AA meeting. Questions are welcome, and we definitely cross-talk in the sense of acknowledging when we relate to how someone feels or clarifying some family history. We have so many similarities – struggles forming and keeping relationships, feelings of not belonging that have stayed with us into our adulthood. Oh, and the abandonment issues. All the abandonment issues.
Some of us have met our birth families. It rarely meets the fantasy we had of that family as kids, and it doesn’t make everything suddenly better. Sometimes it’s complicated, and sometimes it’s worse than that.
We’ve had families of our own, and had the chance to see another living relative for the first time. We have our regular alcoholic problems of wanting to drink or numb out or isolate, too.
As Dave R. said, “I have about 100 issues around adoption, and I’ve dealt with about 40 of them.”
But every month, we leave feeling better and feeling understood. We’ve found a place where we are a part of, not apart from. For someone who was taken away from the first family they were supposed to know, that’s immensely powerful to feel a sense of belonging.
The Future of AA&A
“No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.”
I want our meeting to be there when someone comes into Alcoholics Anonymous when that primal wound from adoption is no longer being numbed from alcohol and drugs, but bleeding and aching and raw and horrible, I want to be there for them. Because life does get better. The feelings around adoption can be cunning, baffling and powerful. They may never fully go away, but I want to show that you can be sober, full of life, and still have that peculiar pain and struggle that we adoptees face. But you can manage them and find peace.
It’s my hope that we can grow our meeting and that word gets out enough that when a newcomer says that they are dealing with feelings around their adoption that enough people in the rooms of AA can send them our way.
If that sounds like you or someone you know, please have them contact us. We’d be thrilled to carry the message to another alcoholic adoptee.
Celia Center Support Group for Adoptees on 4th Saturday of every month at 2pm at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Studio City MORE INFO HERE
Adopt Salon was developed and is supported by the CELIA CENTER, a non-profit Adoption, and Foster Care Support organization.
An open support group for all members of the Adoption Constellation: First-Birth Mothers/Fathers, Adoptees, Former Foster Youth, Foster Parents, Kinship Caregivers, Siblings, Significant Others, Legal Guardians, & Adoptive Parents. $20 Suggested Donation
A place for the Adoption & Foster Care community to come together to share stories, thoughts, feelings, ideas, receive psycho-education, process grief/loss, learn about search and reunion, and build strong bonds/connections.
This group will be facilitated by Adoption Psychotherapist, Adult Adoptee Jeanette Yoffe, MFT. and Anne Bonura, Adult Adoptee, and First Mother
Participants: Members of the Foster and/or Adoption Constellation are allowed ONLY.
First mothers, First fathers, (pre & post-adoption)
How to Cope with the Ups and Downs of Being a Foster Parent by Dr. John DeGarmo
As a foster parent, you NEED to take care of yourself. You NEED to ensure that you are watching out after yourself, finding the time you need for you, and the help you need to care for not only the children in your home but for yourself and your family. If you do not, all that you do will suffer.
Remember to “Be in the Moment”
It is important to stay in the moment, so to speak, to focus on the here and now, instead of what might happen, of what could be. When we worry about what might happen in the future, we lose the chance and the opportunity to embrace and enjoy what is happening in the present time. When we allow our worries and concerns to overwhelm us about future events, we do not allow ourselves to be helpful to those around us in the present moment. As foster parents, we can’t care for, help, teach and love the children living with our family, children that need us to be with them right now, at the moment, if we are overwhelmed with things we have no control of tomorrow, next week, or next year.
Let your heartbreak
We do love them as our own, and we experience feelings of grief and loss when a child leaves our home and our family. Yet, it is healthy for us to become emotionally invested, and to become attached to the children in our home. If we do not become attached, and hold ourselves at arm’s distance, so to speak, and try to protect ourselves, we will not be able to help the ones we are trying to care for.
Patience is a Virtue
If you are struggling with maintaining your own patience, go ahead and call your own time out. Don’t be afraid or let your ego object to asking your spouse or partner to step in and take over a situation if you are becoming too frustrated, or feel you are losing control of your own emotions. Tell the child that you will talk about it at a later time, allowing both you and the child to cool off. Step outside or into another room, and give yourself time to count to ten. Any of these are positive ways to de-escalate a situation.
Don’t Take it Personally
As foster parents, we need to keep in mind that it isn’t really about us. The child has been abused, neglected, abandoned. There is a reason why the child living in your home has been placed in foster care. He is hurting. It’s not about us. It’s about the child and his pain. Even when he is yelling at you, “I hate you!” and slamming the door. His anger and emotion may be directed at you, but it’s not true about you. Instead, his anger and pain come from someplace else.
When your buttons are being pushed, it is important to remember that you are the mature one, you are the adult, you are the parental figure. Resist yelling back, don’t give in to the temptation to respond in anger, no name-calling from you. Try to not respond emotionally. Instead, focus on the child’s behavior and not his emotion. Respond to why he is feeling this way, not to the words he may be yelling at you.
Your Own Support Group
I have said it over and over again; no one truly understands a foster parent like another foster parent. That’s why it is important to surround yourself with a support group of fellow foster parents, especially when you are feeling burned out. There are a number of foster parent support groups and associations across the nation. A few of these organizations may be national ones, while many others are, comprised of foster parents, like you. Either way, you will benefit by being in a support organization, as they will provide you with not only support, but information, fellowship, and important insight that will help you be a better foster parent.
Dr. John DeGarmo is an international expert in parenting and foster care and is a TEDx Talk presenter. Dr. John is the founder and director of The Foster Care Institute. He has been a foster parent for 17 years, and he and his wife have had over 60 children come through their home. He is an international consultant to schools, legal firms, and foster care agencies, as well as an empowerment and transformational speaker and trainer for schools, child welfare, businesses, and non-profit organizations. He is the author of several books, includingThe Foster Care Survival Guide and writes for several publications. Dr. John has appeared on CNN HLN, Good Morning, America, and NBC, FOX, CBS, and PBS stations across the nation. He and his wife have received many awards, including the Good Morning America Ultimate Hero Award. He can be contacted at drjohndegarmo@gmail, through his Facebook page, Dr. John DeGarmo, or at The Foster Care Institute.