Adaptation and self-image

One supposes it must seem strange to someone who was never adopted to consider what it is like growing up around people who look nothing like you. Adaptation is the key to adoptee survival, adapting to a world that is out of joint, a world that is filled with cracks, fissures, where an identity can disappear, only to be replaced by a legal fiction. A world where international adoptees can be disappeared as non-citizens, non-entities, adrift in a liminal legal state between countries. Adapting to this world as an adoptee does set one apart from the ‘normal’ experiences of family and society. One must adapt, as there is a kind of warping between one’s personal expectation of one’s eventual appearance and the actual appearance one naturally develops into… I did not know, when I was fifteen, what I will look like when I turn fifty.

As I aged, and my appearance changed, I felt the fracture between myself and the adopted family within which I’d been placed grow ever keener, sharper, hard-edged. I felt my social circles expand in directions that provided escape, freedom from a space that increasingly seemed confining, suffocating. Realistically, I am unable to tell if my experience was tied to any one trigger, or if it was a cumulative pressure of a number of factors. I am certain that I would have given up, lost the will to live, actively pursued self-destruction, if it weren’t for my friends who found ways to extract me from the home environment I felt trapped within.

Now, years after that time in my life, and a full beard or two later, I know who I look like and what to expect. Discovering that information was painful, and grueling, and worth every moment of anxiety and confusion. To lack a sense of identity is to be unmoored from the very fabric of society. Not having that internal sense of how I could expect to age, to know how I will appear given enough time, was one constant source of dissociative stress.

Now, accentuate that disassociation that a person adopted into a family of a different culture, skin tone, or country. Imagine the impact that the lack of genetic mirroring must have on an infant, a child, an adolescent throughout their life. I acknowledge fully that I have had it easy, compared to an adoptee who is ‘transracial’ or who was adopted from another country. Spare a moment to consider why adoption must appear as itself traumatizing, when there is such a life-long compounding of the lack of physical identity, a mirroring that all non-adopted individuals take entirely for granted. I survived, but not without scars and a great deal of emotional strife. I’m a lucky one, there are adoptees who have had much, much more difficult lives… and all too often, those lives didn’t need to be so disrupted.

On sending in DNA as an adoptee…

Focus on any given nugget of information long enough and eventually an over-active mind will link and loop in all manner of false flags and mixed signals, creating conspiracy theories that fall apart under logical scrutiny. One can only teeter out on the edge of “what if” for so long before all manner of belief becomes malleable, everything becomes suspect. I sought fulcrums, constant consequences, worlds where stability and reproduction manifested according to rules I could understand. I was drawn to web layout and presentation because of these principles, but that’s a sort of byproduct of my need to have mastered principles of reproduction, however secondary that may be to rebirthing myself on my own terms, which is the underlying drive.

Staying conscious of these kinds of dark psychological structures is exactly the same kind of muscle it takes to keep a foot elevated for days after a surgery. The trauma that is preverbal, locked behind a fog of false and non-memory, exists as a shaking, a fist clenched through my lower spine. Frozen trauma, frozen time, anchored there at my core. Navigating that, breathing through that sensation, means being awake but distant, disassociated from body, almost back and above the body my consciousness is riding. I am an adopted person… by negating all of my otherness as “adoptee” I am isolating myself within a tiny community that lacks central cohesion. As a human being, conscious of my own relative privilege, it’s inherently disturbing to think that I could swamp out more eloquent, less visible adoptees who have stridently more urgent stories to tell, seeking their histories for urgent medical needs, a kidney, perhaps, bone marrow, a rare blood type… or any of a thousand countless number of other reasons.

Still, that is part of why I sent out the DNA kit to a sketchy startup in Texas. I have “nothing” itself to lose. I must lose this “lack of knowing” if you will… the missing elements. Every bit I lock into place provides a bit more stability, a sense of knowing self, even if its not true knowledge… bits that help me guess what might come next. Heart trouble? Diabetes? ALS? Dementia? How will it end, should I live out my days without an accident or violent end, unlike so many other adoptees? WIll it be cancer? Would we have “caught it sooner” if I knew my biological father’s whole family had a history of “it,” whatever “it” might be?

Some multiverses are longer-lived-in than others, for adoptees. Doing DNA testing collapses those multiverses into a result – a thread, an answer. Or at least, data of some sort. There are all sorts of holes and gaps in these webs of life that the services are mapping with our spit and shreds of skin cells. The fact that adoptees can use DNA services to route around laws designed to prevent families from reuniting is a bug, not a feature of these services. It’s an overlooked end-run around an abusive legal situation.

But DNA is only so much, it’s a piece of the puzzle of the adoptee, a part. It’s not the whole – the searching, the struggle to search, the early awareness, the late discovery rage, all of this is a set of experiences that are unique to the adoptee. My experience, being both unique and bounded by privilege, is inherently normalized by similar yet unique experiences of other adoptees. I am understood and understand people who were adopted or grew up within foster care. I am adopted, but I self-identify as an adoptee.

I am an adoptee because it is my tribe, as opposed to Irish, or Swedish, or Spanish, or British or French or German. I’m a white cis-het adoptee, a foundling, a disconnected changeling too traumatized to cry when I was first found. I was a cuckoo who outgrew his early murderous instincts by the age of three, after which my adoptive parents got themselves another traumatized adoptee, who served as my sister in family photos. We grew close in retrospect, and played for a long time together until the move to Kansas. Kansas broke apart my adoptive sister and I, and I am lucky we have repaired our relationship only recently.

On a related note, I am beginning to walk again.

The image for this post is the furies, who personify the rage of the dead in Greek myth as painted by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, in 1862.