I’ve been feeling really frustrated recently. Angry even. I find myself lying awake at night just raging against things in my head — mundane injustices and difficulties and obstacles that I wish would fuck off. The other night I found myself ranting to my analyst about it — specifically the sense of injustice I feel at having to see him, as a sort of last resort, with the monthly cost of weekly sessions being almost as much as my rent, and the fact I’m only really there because I feel utterly failed by the NHS, which has rebuffed me at every turn because nothing wrong with me, physically or mentally, can be tied up in a nice little bow and explained away.
“No further action needed” is the perpetual response I get to every single enquiry into mental and physical health treatment and support, despite the fact that everything keeps on deteriorating.
Therapy is good though. It’s working — or it is at least doing something. I feel the ground shifting. I sit in my emotions more and don’t hide them away. (Doing so has kept me off the blog at late, and away from a lot of other things — although the way I schedule and split up by manic moments of productivity means that no one has probably noticed.) But this “work” I’m doing is only on myself, and is seemingly it’s own reward.
That’s fine, of course. But whilst I might be starting to feel more at home in myself, it’s not making relationships any easier or my work or my ability to cope with any sort of external stimuli or disruption. When I did go through the NHS, I got to the point where I was just saying, “look, I want a diagnosis”. “That may not be the best reason for us to refer you”, they said. And fair enough, I suppose. But what I meant to say was that, if you can’t just snap your fingers and fix my life, I need something. I need a slip of paper I can pass onto my employer or something that gives me a little extra time and support because, despite the fact you have no idea what to do with me, my life is disrupted every single day. But “adoption trauma” doesn’t seem to be recognised in the DSM and I think a lot of people with it are “high functioning” anyway, whatever that means.
I say that, but I think I do know what it means. I read an interesting blogpost recently about the chameleon self some adoptees feel like they have, which I found both reassuringly and unnervingly relatable. Roz Munro, discussing her own sense of postnatal separation, explains:
Our biology … involves the limbic regulation that a mother provides to her baby, to soothe and to give a feeling of security — the attachment bond. This begins as part of a neurochemical hormonal bond in the womb and without it the child feels overwhelmed. It is this devastating loss at the start of life that causes a large part of the traumatised response induced by maternal separation. I imagine my little mind was full of confusion and terror, the limbic overload of trying to mirror and connect but not getting the right signals…
My baby-self needed to connect to stay alive, literally, the baby is helpless and all they have is this connection; it is a matter of survival. The baby’s responses are elements of the adaptive behaviours that adoptees use as attempts to get their needs met, they are survival responses to the relinquishment trauma suffered on loss of our mother. Nancy Verrier writes in Coming Home to Self about the two modes of coping that adopted children implement to manage the alien situation: acting out and acting in, i.e., defiance or emotional shut downness. She also distinguishes between these behaviours, which can define a child early on, and their true personalities that are hidden under levels of management of self: to fit in or to radically object.
Either way it is not the true self that is known to the family, or to the individual. I became a compliant baby — a “good” baby, mum said. When the Adoption Society conducted a welfare visit I was reported to be on three meals a day and sleeping through each night. I was 15 weeks old. The reptilian brain works very basically: Do as they want, and this will not endanger me. This translates in my adoptee brain as “do what is asked of you and be safe, anything else and they too might abandon you.”
This layering of behaviours and coping strategies add further silt to the difficulty of knowing, or being, oneself after the trauma and resultant brain changes of being relinquished as a baby and adopted into a biological strangers’ family. I conformed and turned into a very proficient chameleon. I continued to be a compliant and quiet child. The chameleon who asked unconsciously in every interaction or relationship “What do you want me to be?” In essence, I wanted to know what you needed me to be, so I best ensure that you stay happy, and I remain “good enough to keep”. My mum said I was easy as a younger child and young teenager; it was when I left home that I “became difficult”! I feel I was attempting to exert my independence, be myself, but that was not welcomed.
Munro’s experience very closely mirrors my own. And it’s quite a revelation to be able to recognise that — I was in complete denial of this up until six or seven years ago. Growing up, I knew a lot of adopted or fostered kids who acted out. I think my mum was relieved that she’d gotten a well-behaved one. In fact, she used to brag a lot, even when I was much older, about how I was such an easy baby, who never cried or wanted. But having read Verrier myself a few years ago, I already know the truth. In fact, having since acquired a lot of notes about my early life, it’s written right there on the page. One note from the local council, visiting me whilst in foster care, notes how I am a quiet but attentive child, with big eyes that watch the world around me. I think I know that version of myself. They see a child who watches and imbue it with some sort of sign of early emotional development; I see a child terrified and anxious and untrusting of those around them. And so, I too acted in, and in many ways still do. It builds relationships at first, as I’m often eager to please, before the mania calms down and relationships become stunted. This trauma and its responses, so often invisibilised, really do ruin lives.
What’s making me so angry of late is how isolating it feels. I feel at odds with myself, at odds with society, at odds with the institutions and expectations of those around me, and angry that the only solution I’ve been able to access is to sit alone in my room and talk about it somewhat philosophically over Skype. That’s how therapy feels at my grumpiest. The solution to feeling alone on the outside is to go into a little confession box and engage in some sort of frank communion with another outsider. (That’s not how it should be, of course, but such are the lingering COVID restrictions.) Is it helping me? I hope so. But also, the issue isn’t just me. We can focus on my sense of self all we like, but what hurts the most is a life of missed connections and stunted relations with others.
That’s where I’m at right now. Unable to put down roots, despite a great deal of effort, I’m left having to come to terms with the fact I don’t quite fit in where I want to be (or where other people want me to be). Though I understand the implications and the best way forward in theory, it is hard to counter a sort of visceral and embodied feeling that is deeply seated in your soul, dealing with a sort of nomadic baby’s existence that I don’t have any conscious recollection of, but am nonetheless reminded of every single day.
The older I get, the more I try and find ways to understand myself in this regard, only to feel all the more misunderstood by those in positions of power. Again, medical professionals are of no help. To say you grieve a relative you’ve never known, outside nine months in utero and a few days after, sounds silly, even mystical, and surely like a retrospective projection? But for as long as I can remember, I remember feeling grief, even before I knew what the word was or meant. The earliest emotion I can remember feeling is loss, and so many of my most vivid childhood memories are memories of loss also. On the surface, they’re mundane — grief for broken toys, toys left behind — but these ultimately inconsequential losses triggered a kind of embodied response. I was an easy child until I lost something.
Even now, I remember that feeling in my solar plexus of a ragged void, a dense emptiness that weighs a ton. It has been ever-present. And you should see the face on your average GP when you tell them that another round of CBT probably isn’t going to cut it.
In my experience, they don’t really know what to do with you after that. Consider the past year of my life alone: I’ve self-referred to my GP four times because I’ve, at times, felt suicidal or I’ve injured myself or I’ve been in pain or made myself sick. But those moments come and go. Bones heal, moods settle, they send you home. Once at home, the main way I self-medicate is with food. Over-eating is a sort of quick fix for filling the hole. Friends will be aware of this because, as much as I try to hide it, my weight fluctuates rapidly depending how where I’m at in the constant cycle of coping and not coping. So I was referred to an eating disorder clinic twice in 2021, only for them to turn around twice and say the obvious: “you have an unhealthy relationship with food but you don’t have an eating disorder.” So I go back to my GP again and say, “look, this was stupid and a waste of time; my depressions are getting worse, what can I do?” They recommend banal things like trying to consume less sugar or going to the gym more. I do as I’m told, and the latter in particular has been a good form of release, but it hasn’t done anything to fix the ragged void. It’s a short-term endorphin boost; a form of counteraction that balances out, rather than actually addressing, this inner tumult.
In ranting about all this to my analyst, the intention was not to cast aspersions on what we were doing, of course, but it was nonetheless a frustration to recognize that this hour, once a week, was the one place to just let it all out — a break from trying and failing to spin the plates of everyday life. It wasn’t that I was mad about therapy in itself, but I was mad about it as an enclave, a compartment for the mess, otherwise kept painfully in check at work or in my relationships or anywhere else. (The blog is occasionally an exception — this post included — but the closer I find myself getting to the core, to an active reflection on daily life, rather than just a space for last night reflections on old wounds, the harder it feels to say anything here at all. This post, in particular, has been lingering for months as a kind of emotional blockage, getting in the way of writing anything substantial about anything else.)
As I’ve mentioned before, this is Laingian analysis, and though I may feel frustrated at it, it is undoubtedly the best thing I’ve done in years. Though initially it felt like a shot in the dark, it has been the best thing for me to embark on, I think, with all of the above in mind. The other day, my analyst discussed his own interest in it, and explained a little bit more about the community houses that grew out of Laing’s approach, which he believes are genuinely effective. Though euphemistically described as group housing for people who are “in distress”, he clarified that the intention, coming off the back of the anti-psychiatry movement, was to provide a space for people who were rebuffed by clinical psychiatry because their issues did not neatly fit into some symptomatology or could not be explained away by neurological defects or chemical imbalances. They were places of and for “uneasy dwelling”. It was for people who found that the ultimate thing they needed to reckon with was their experiences, and these community houses provided a space for people to do that, away from the frenzy of everyday life, that was not an institutionalised or restrictively medicalised space of confinement.
It’s the sort of space I wish I could go, in all honesty. Having never found any adequate support through the “proper channels”, it seems the reason for this is that the root cause of my distress can’t be dealt with by society at large, because the very issue at hand is society and a falling-out of its structures. That’s because there’s no clinical treatment for adoption trauma. It may get lumped in with cPTSD, but in my experience, you are so stretched over different compartments of understanding as to be ultimately ejected. Adoption trauma has no institutional remedy. In fact, it is born of a flight from that very first “institution”: the family.
In going through this process, I’ve begun to feel a lot more intrigued by the immediate political applications of a thought like that of Deleuze and Guattari. Though their appeals to madness, to schizophrenia, are often interpreted as affirmations of some of the most extreme mental health conditions in society, the truth is that schizophrenias can be mundane and ever-present. Laing’s Divided Self, for instance, is a schizophrenia; “schizo-” meaning “cleft, divided, split” and “-phrenia” related to the mind — that’s why we associate schizophrenia with “split personalities”. But looking beyond the Hollywood caricature of “splits” that are nonetheless whole — multiple (seemingly) fully formed personalities seated alongside each other, which do occur but are incredibly rare — the truth is that we are split in so many other ways, and many of us due to circumstances of birth or identity or gender. Is being transgender a kind of schizophrenia, for example? Is being mixed race or of a mixed cultural heritage? Is being adopted? Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy seems appropriate to all of the above, for the ways it describes our slipping and sliding out from convenient but poorly formed understanding and categorisations; the quite visceral experience of being bodies that resist social organisation.
This is the radical perspective of the “body without organs”, which isn’t an extreme form of disembowelment but a perspective available to us all, on the other side of a medicalised view of the “organised” body. It is an affirmation of the madness that results from an acknowledgement that there is no linguistic foundation for your experiences. It isn’t just to fall out of the social but, perhaps more fundamentally, to fall out of language and therefore understanding. It’s not just about “going mad”. “Mad” is an insult. For Antonin Artaud, who infamously coined the term “body without organs”, it is precisely this limited perspective on human experience that makes society itself mad, as a false totality, rather than those who inhabit its imagined peripheries. He writes that,
demented as this assertion may seem, present-day life goes on in its old atmosphere of prurience, of anarchy, of disorder, of delirium, of dementia, of chronic lunacy, of bourgeois inertia, of psychic anomaly (for it isn’t man but the world that has become abnormal), of deliberate dishonesty and downright hypocrisy, of a mean contempt for anything that shows breeding, of the claim of an entire order based on the fulfilment of a primitive injustice, in short, of organised crime. Thing are bad because the sick conscience now has a vital interest in not getting over its sickness. So a sick society invented psychiatry to defend itself against the investigations of certain visionaries whose faculties of divination disturbed it.
Artaud’s celebration of “madness”, particularly that of Van Gogh, almost seems cliched today and a little extravagent. “I’m not mad; the world is” is the sort of truism you’d expect to find on a fridge magnet alongside “live, laugh, love”; a sort of “I’m Joker” non-point about the world in which we live. But it is true nonetheless. We need only look at the statistics. A life of oppression, of racial discrimination, of class struggle, of trying to find your place in a chaotically ordered world, greatly increases your risk of schizophrenia. This is clear enough when we look at people who grew up in care, who were fostered or adopted, etc., who make up just 1-2% of the population, but account for 4-5% of all mental health referrals. Those we do not fit into a white, cis, middle-class imaginary are overrepresented in our mental health systems (as well as in prisons, etc.).
This is the attraction of Artaud’s view on Van Gogh. We all know the famous painter’s personal circumstances very well, such that they have been absorbed into a high-cultural mythology: the cutting off of his ear, his botched suicide, etc. And we’ve accepted it all. We place him back into the fold, recognizing that his paintings are beautiful and expressive visions of nature. We interpret his madness as genius and see both as innate to the man himself, as if madness were a “quality” and not always a category of relation.
The truth is that Van Gogh didn’t have to be “mad” to paint his works. The madness came instead from society’s revulsion at his flowers. That’s what his ejection amounts to. “For Van Gogh’s painting doesn’t attack a certain conformity of manners and morals, but the conformity of institutions themselves.” Society punished Van Gogh for “tearing himself away from it”, for painting according to his own vision and not that which has been accepted by others. It’s telling too, I think, that his own “vision” is not simply reactive. It is not an imagined inversion of what is accepted. It’s just his own sense of the world, which doesn’t offend manners or morals but is rejected nonetheless. It is that rejection, that betrayal, that was undoubtedly the biggest factor in his mental deterioration. He was “suicided by society”, as Artaud provocatively puts it.
Other reasons have been found for Van Gogh’s struggles since. Neurologists and psychologists try to find reasons to retrospectively diagnose him, as if to give him just cause now that he is beloved. But this is nothing more than a belated attempt to bring him back into the fold. “He was one of us, except for this chemical imbalance, which is nothing more than a shame.” But this only neutralises the escape, the very thing we say we cherish more than anything, but which, in reality, we punish more harshly than any other crime.
Somedays, I feel I’d take death or confinement over the invisibility of the ragged void, the shadow of a primal wound. It is a life in purgatory. “Van Gogh could not shake off in time the kind of family vampirism that wanted Van Gogh the painter to stick to painting,” Artaud writes, “but which, at the same time, denied him the right to claim the revolt necessary to the bodily and physical blossoming of his visionary personality.” We make a mistake when we think, “well, at least he had his brushes.” That was all Van Gogh had, until we began to posthumously venerate him. He deserves our veneration, of course, but for his escape. And veneration needn’t be a by-word for assimilation. When we think of veneration, we think of saints, for instance, who are so often ridiculed and martyred and destroyed, but who ascend to a higher plane. All saints are mad, in that regard.
Framing “madness” in this way starts to feel like a slippery slope towards delusions of grandeur and lionisation and hagiography. But again, the reality is often so much more mundane, to the extent that we’d never think to treat those around us this way; those who slip. More often than not, we’ve already discarded them. PKD’s line that “the symbols of the divine often show up in the trash stratum” has a twisted logic to it. The trash stratum feels like a naturally occurring zone, where things that escape some centre of gravity find a way to orbit at a distance,e but the truth is that we always put them there first. The vast majority of those who end up spat out by society aren’t celebrated radicals, nor are they limited to the most destitute among us. There are plenty of mad people who walk among us, functioning, looking for even the most basic assistance from the institutions set up to help us, but finding themselves turned away — whether through prejudice or ignorance, which so often amount to the same thing. The demand, of course, is not to be welcomed into the fold and given a comfy place to sit. The demand is for a society that stops clutching its pearls and makes space for other ways of passing through its institutions.
There is a further layer to this, of course, for those who “act in”. The truth is, I’m a bit of an idealist. In going through life and thinking of things to make or do, I tend to always imagine the perfect version of something and just wait for it to appear or happen, thinking the stars will align and set everything right if I’m patient enough. I’m a stubborn idealist too, in that sense. Even when reality is clearly indicating otherwise, I’ll hold onto my ideal and its potential to be fulfilled, or otherwise find a silver lining in an imperfect scenario, doing what I can to work towards it or, as can tragically be the case, treading water waiting for some outside activation. I’m a pathological optimist. “Things can only get better” is the mantra adhered to, with no basis in fact or experience. Sometimes I think it’s a superpower, as good things do often come to those who wait. Other times it’s a curse, as you can waste your whole life waiting for a right moment that never comes.
Lately I’ve realised that these ideals aren’t mine, but ideals acquired. They’re social ideals that I internalise for the sake of acting in, of keeping up appearances, for forestalling what feels like my imminent abandonment. But in having this hardened sense of what or who I should be, I find myself stuttering and tripping up every time I try to live up to the ideal foisted upon me (in ways that, ironically, I don’t think most people do).
My first kiss is a funny example — to me at least. I’d built the whole concept up in my head so much that I was terrified of even holding a girl’s hand in case the moment wasn’t right. The ideal I had in my head maybe made me seem quite “gentlemanly” to some, frigid and queer to others, but either way, it was always to an embarrassing fault. In the end it took the steering hand of another to set it right and bring me out of myself. There are similar scenarios I can identify throughout my life, and plenty less significantly proximal to that particular right of passage. Indeed, this impotent idealism is as true of platonic relationships as it is romantic ones. I have a tendency to sit around waiting for the perfect moment to be present in something and then, before I even know it, I’ve sat out a whole relationship.
It is a tendency that manifests itself innocuously enough — in person, quite unlike how I am online, I can be very quiet and distinctly hate talking about myself. It makes me a difficult person to get to know. My (ir)rationale is that I don’t want to spoil anything going on around me. For someone who can casually write 6000-word posts about personal grievances, I dread ever being a punisher, to the point I could more often described as its opposite — whatever that is. It’s like knowing that something will remain perfect so long as you don’t touch or fiddle with it, but from the outside it probably looks like negligence or indifference — or, at worst, like I’m harboring some sort of pretentious superiority, as if I see myself as some omniscient observer on high. I’ve been accused of all the above before, but on the contrary, I’m often so anxious about messing anything up, I play a spectator even to my own experiences.
Thankfully, this isn’t something that applies to my whole life. When it comes to creative endeavors, I’ve managed to force myself out of this strange impotence. For instance, as a teenager, I was always sad that I could never draw or paint or play music because I always wanted everything, from the first mark or noise made, to be perfect. I knew that this was silly and a major mental block for me, and so I spent a lot of time trying to find my way around it.
It turns out that, for a neurotic kid who feels like they’re sitting out on their own life, photography is a good way to still observe but also start to participate. To begin to learn the craft is like watching the mess of life pass before your eyes, figuring out when it is best to pounce so that everything, even if just for a moment, lines up. It was a way to pull out the ideals and pin them to boards, so that life could keep going as you gather up your little melancholic mementos. It was strangely empowering. I could sit and wait for that one decisive moment, as I’d always done, but I also learnt how to seize it, take it, insert myself into it and capture it for (what I felt was) the benefit of everyone.
Then, over time, I got tired of taking “perfect” photographs, beautifully if anally composed. In fact, plenty of “perfect” photographs aren’t all that “good”. They can be lifeless and contrived, for instance, and it took me a fair bit of time to learn to shoot from the hip more and let life back in. Photography started to feel like jazz to me then. It was improvisatory and responsive but confident in itself, rather than fleetingly self-engaged to the point of onanism. It required a real attuning to life to do it right and stick with it. It was like learning how to free yourself from your own education — the infinite undoing of a twisted knot of autodidactic joy. “A schizophrenic out for a walk [with a camera]…”
I’ve written many times before about how I think I cracked some sort of code when I started to apply that way of working to writing. I’m an admirer of a perfectly crafted sentence as much as the next person, but if you’re not careful, your will can end up suffocating the very thing you’re trying to write down. Sometimes it’s good to just write whatever is on your mind and let it all flow out of you and treasure the messiness and the ill-formed nature of something because, though it might never win you any institutional prizes, there’s often something about the vitality of it all that can sometimes be even more affecting and compelling. The mistaken assumption often made is that this is just giving into mediocrity, but I think it’s an appreciation of all life as anything but mediocre. It’s not just a celebration of the “mundane” but an exploration of its texture, its rhythm, and the ways in which it, in itself, can be split and transformed — something which can be elevated to the sublime when seen from the right perspective. It’s the texture of unfolding human experience, in all its messiness.
Regular readers might hear an echo here. I’ve often tried to articulate my own shift from photography to writing on this blog, trying to understand how so much of what I wanted to photograph then relates to the same writerly concerns I have now. The difference between then and now, if there is one, is that I once struggled to verbalise what I was thinking. Expressing it through “photography” is one task, and an often profound one, but I never felt like anyone else shared my visual language. There was an abundance of expression but a failure of communication. Photography, in the end, is another isolating medium.
But this is not another one of those posts. Forgive the extensive recap, but what I’m struggling with at the moment is how to define the negative image of that kind of self-exploration. Because, unfortunately, writing and photography are the only two outlets I’ve found for this kind of thinking. I wish — I wish — I could practice what I preach in all other instances. But I can’t. Despite all my love for the imperfect in all things aesthetic, I’ve yet to master life as its own wabi-sabi work of art. The trauma of adoption, in this sense, is that I wish I could conform, for fear of never finding a place to call home, but the reality is that I can’t. I can only keep up the charade for so long. Then, every few months, the world falls apart and I along with.
I’m struggling with this a lot right now, to the point of feeling ungrounded by an early on-set mid-life crisis. As I enter my 30s — not “mid-life” for most people, I appreciate, but my more pessimistic self is experiencing it that way anyway — it feels like everything is about to change and my control over things is limited. If I had any money, I would probably buy a silly car.
Things are coming undone or becoming fraught, difficult, hard to manage, upsetting. A general sense of homeliness, far from fixed but somewhat portable, is being carefully and gently deconstructed. It’s about time too, I think, but I’m finding it very hard to let go.
I’m moving to Newcastle in mid-March. I’ve got a flat with my oldest friend. I was hoping to do a PhD up there but circumstances are such that I’m now moving before I know if it’s possible. It’s exciting, in lots of ways — no matter what happens, I have so many friends in the city and my Dad’s family live nearby. And yet, despite this newfound promise of a rehabilitated social life, I’m moving up without my partner of ten years. And that is conjuring up feelings of a very particular and painful loneliness that I’m struggling to come to terms with.
It’s the ideal. I’m struggling to let go of the ideal. The socialised ideal that I’ve carved indelibly onto my heart in my many attempts to socialise myself and “act in”. It’s an ideal that looks like a nice house in the country and all these other markers of social and emotional stability. In truth, though we’ve both yearned for them, in our own ways, we’ve never had them, at least not together. When I come close to it, I find myself acting out, as if I am about to acquire what I should want but which revolts me in its own way. Still, the dream is there: this sense of settling down and putting down roots, entering my 30s with a plan to finally make a home, a base, a place to always come back to. I’ve not had a place like that for a long time, or ever, in terms of bricks and mortar. Home, for the last decade, has a person. Now I’m leaving home. Whilst some people get on fine without it, I struggle without a nest. The loss of that stability is the first thing I ever mourned, and I’m still not over it. Every loss still resonates with that ragged void, no matter how minor. Every time the ideal is revealed to be just that — an ideal and nothing more — reality quivers, is repeatedly tarnished and degraded, jettisoned further and further out of reach, but always aimed for and always desired. It’s not a “madness” anyone can really help with. It’s a split implemented by society itself, in its failure to make space and its disregard for the consequences of its own ill-fitting solutions to complex social problems. That’s what adoption is: a remedy with lifelong consequences, the support for which is zero.
My friends are very supportive, of course. “Embrace this change”, they say; “this is a really exciting time for you”. I’m sure I will eventually, but for now I’m feeling suddenly adrift in a society that I know I cannot rely on. Support feels fleeting, immaterial, conditional. “Let’s get you back on track”, is the perpetual promise made. But the feeling of having never been on the track in the first place looms large, and is rarely understood. Hence all these draft translations of Joe Bousquet lately. I want to say we’ll get back to our regular scheduled programming soon, but this is it. This is what it has always been. From Fisher to patchwork to all the rest of it — how to make a home in your own wound is the only thing this blog has ever sought to think about. The attempts have started to get a lot more direct. They will continue to.