By Liz DeBetta, Ph.D.
It’s the beginning of a new year. A new opportunity to go deeper with myself, with others, and learn more about the complexity of my experience as an adopted person. I am never not adopted. It’s a condition of my existence that will never not be true and it makes every relationship I am part of infinitely more complex. Including the ones I have with my family; with both my families.
In 2017 I reconnected with my first mother, Mary. It was forty years in the making. Forty years almost to the day, weirdly enough. I received the copy of my original birth certificate in the mail on my fortieth birthday and finally had proof that I had been born to someone named Mary. Someone who had previously only lived in my imagination and in the deepest parts of my interior self. I could never see her as more than just a fuzzy shape in my mind’s eye. I could feel her, but I could not see her until the day I read her name in black and white (and then looked her up on Facebook). She was real and I was finally real because I could now attach a name and a face to a living, breathing person instead of feeling as if I had just appeared one day out of the ether.
It took me almost two years to tell my parents that I had found her and that we had begun a relationship. Despite the fact that they had always told me that they were supportive of me finding her if I ever felt the need to do so I was hesitant to have the conversation when the time finally came. It was a conversation that was fraught with fear. How would they react? Would they be happy for me? Would they feel betrayed? Would I be able to articulate why I had waited to tell them and adequately convey the tenuous grip I had on myself in the process of making contact with my first mother after forty years of secrecy and closed records?
This experience illustrates the complexity of our adoptee experience. Living between two worlds, not feeling fully part of either and trying to strike a balance while simultaneously guarding ourselves against further pain and rejection. It’s exhausting but I have found ways to navigate the both/and of complex family structures by writing, reflecting on my writing, and writing some more. My process of using writing as a tool for healing and navigating complexity started more than thirty years ago before I understood the therapeutic benefits of poetry and expressive writing. I just knew it made me feel better when I unburdened myself on the page.
My words are tears
flowing from the pain in my heart through
the tip of my pen
years and years of tears
Some crystal clear and salty
Others midnight black and bitter
Tears that take the shape of syllables
stacked and synchronized
spelling out the story of
Tears that make pictures
of the paths my memory takes
of something just beyond my reach
suspended in time
So I cry out on the page
to unburden my soul
to free my anxious heart
to heal my unstaunched wounds with words
Poetry has always been a way for me to express what can’t be said in any other language. It helps me to see the interior parts of myself much more clearly. It helps me to understand the emotions that run deep alongside the parts of me that still need nurturing. It helps me to analyze my feelings by giving them a container and then looking inside the container for clues about what I need.
I have complicated feelings about my families and complicated relationships as a result of many things, including years of not openly discussing adoption as a part of my identity. The avoidance of those conversations is what drives me to keep writing and to hold space by facilitating writing to heal workshops with other adoptees. We need spaces where we are seen and heard. We become mirrors for each other when we write and share our stories in community, the mirrors we have lacked in our families. The avoidance of those conversations is clear when I free write after spending time with my family.
I don't know how to explain me or my life when I don't come from you. When my life became different from the moment I left one family to join another and the people I should have known became strangers. That family was, and is, different in ways that I'll never fully understand. Just like you'll never fully understand me and the ways that I am different. Not because of a lack of love or care, but because of biology. Because our family was made from the pieces of other families and the connections we have been made to stitch together like a quilt. I don't always feel connected. I don't always feel connected even though I want to. I come back to this thought again and again. I am a part but apart. My parts have been at war for so long and it's exhausting to have to compartmentalize and repeatedly piece myself together. But I have learned what I feel and what I need and how to thrive outside of the chaos that used to be my mind. The chaos that has been contained in the container of my body. My body that I have discounted and been disconnected from for so long. My body that now tells me what I need to listen for. My body that signals to me what I can or should not tolerate. My body that has been divided between ideals, divided between families. My body that has divided me from myself. - 2/21/22
Free writing is one of the best ways I’ve found, in addition to poetry, to get at the subconscious layers. It’s a way to tap into what’s underneath the surface by giving yourself permission to just write without censoring. Just put pen to paper and let it flow without editing. And as adopted people we do alot of self-editing, am I right? When I look back at this piece of writing I notice several things: the repetition of the words family, connection, a/part, body; the use of the first person - me, myself, I; the image of the quilt. This gives me clues about what still feels raw and needs attention - my relationship to family and connection, the need to reconcile the feelings of being separate from or apart, and the importance of listening to myself and my body. I am the one who knows me best.
I’d like to save the world
I have to remember I can’t --
I can only save myself
and maybe a few others who listen and relate to my words laid out like puzzle pieces
Stretched across miles of emotions waiting
to break free
to fit together,
form a clearer picture
Dr. Liz DeBetta is a US domestic adoptee and independent scholar-artist-activist committed to changing systems and helping people navigate trauma through creative processes. She believes that stories are powerful change agents and when we write them and share them we connect and heal. She has presented nationally and internationally on topics ranging from adoption and reproductive justice, using writing to heal trauma, gender-based violence, and resisting colonial paradigms in higher-ed. She is a former facilitator of Adoptees Connect in Salt Lake City, a Rudd Adoption Research Institute Scholar, and spent six years teaching writing at Utah Valley University. She has published articles on adoptee narratives, has an award-winning one-woman show called Un-M-Othered and is the co-founder of Operation Fog Lift with Rebecca Autumn Sansom. Her book Adult Adoptees and Writing to Heal: Migrating Toward Wholeness is available from Brill Publishers. (Use discount code 72325 to save 25% until 12/31/23) Find her on the web at www.LizDeBetta.com
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