Once Removed: Residue of Separation

Adoption Insight by Marcy Axness, PhD | Parenting for Peace

I had originally intended to post a different article “for my birthday” this year, but this one raised its hand and spoke to me loudly. This one, this day, feels alive and real and timeless.

Twenty years ago I wrote the following essay to serve as a prelude in Jane Guttman’s powerful 1999 book, The Gift Wrapped in Sorrow. In her book, Jane chronicled the pain, surrender and healing she had experienced as a birthmother. In her introduction to my essay, Jane wrote, “In the course of writing this book I have become intimately related to the pain of adoption. But I can only truly know my pain. It has been of the utmost importance to me to also become aware of what it feels like to be surrendered. I believe it is essential to include an impression of that experience as well.”

I’ve been aware these many decades that many adoptees get sad around their birthday. Some therapists see this as an “anniversary reaction”—irritability, sadness, anxiety, depression, or less-defined, unsettling feelings that occur at the anniversary of a traumatic experience. (The whole issue of newborn separation as a trauma that is rememberable is another topic, discussed elsewhere.)

That was never me. Yes, I was separated from my biological mother right at birth, and yes, I spent six days in the hospital nursery before going to my adoptive home. But I have always loved my birthday, who knows why.

Maybe because my adoptive mother always made it a really special day for me growing up. I’ve always been a “Hey, it’s my birth–month” kind of celebrator. But this year, for reasons that remain vague and murky, I’m sad for my birthday.

So I give you…

“Once Removed”

Once removed

That is how I have felt for most of my life. Standing apart once removed from the stuff of real, human life. Outside once removed looking in, an alien. Exempt from some invisible, inscrutable core human experience connection that seemed to initiate everyone else into some grand cosmic family to which I was merely a step-child. An adopted child. A surrendered child.

Cast in the fire of disconnection. Unplanned. A mistake. An inconvenience. Carried by a mother who saw me as a “gift” she was making for a nice, barren couple. My first mother didn’t so much reject me as much as simply fail to claim me as a significant part of her own life, even during her pregnancy. I suffered from premature relinquishment, since she let me go once removed  without ever really having me.

All of my relationships found their blueprint in that foundational indifference, and shaped themselves around the invisible once removed scars on my soul. My adulthood became a stage whereupon I reenacted that first intimate relationship, in which I felt too loosely held, too faintly regarded, too unclaimed. So I would urge my co-star of the moment claim me for the moment find me good, find me fine, find me so I can find me too. And they would, for awhile. But a force no less than Destiny herself had deemed me once removed unkeepable. My co-stars always fulfilled the obligations of their role, to not be able to give me what I needed, to agree to part amicably, indifferentlyto set up the inevitable scene for me:  I find my way back to the void.

        I have found healing by stepping into that void, by staring down into the endless black of it. My gift in return for that harrowing journey is a life with connection, with a loving family. But the knowledge is still there. The truth is still there. Down there deep, where the snake resides, where my body resists going, fighting it with every fiber, every cell, fighting by simply stepping down to an idle so slow that I might simply stall out. Yes, the truth is still there, coiled up and waiting:  the primary, shaping reality of my life, disconnection. It is where I still revert in times of stress or trauma, because that is how my brain and my psyche are wired. I was cast in the fire of separation, and despite all my years of tender and compassionate tending of that wound, despite all the years of carefully constructing a life that includes intimate connections, my body knows that at the core of me still squalls that once removed baby in the void… insignificant… alone.            

And yet, just as true is that the years unspool, and Destiny reveals a sliver of the Big Picture at a time… We reunite. We struggle, we ache, we thrill, we drink in echoes of our selves reflected in the other. We dabble in the folly of trying to recoup the lost years. We reenact the severed connection in our poignant and feeble human attempt to create a different outcome, to somehow make it right. But it cannot be made right. It just is.

And when we can hold that brutal truth, we are no longer once removed disconnected, from each other, from ourselves, from humanity, from God.

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