Coming Home to Self

I crashed at a friend’s house and, at first, struggled to sleep. Staying up late talking about life’s difficulties, I nonetheless found myself waking up at intervals. At 4am, I came to in a cold sweat. I could immediately smell myself. I felt calm on waking, but could taste the cortisol in the air, flushed out of every pore.

I felt awful about everything this afternoon, now back at home. All the writing and the confessions. There was, at first, something empowering about an embrace of a present vulnerability. Then, after yesterday’s second post, I felt I’d gone too far. Or rather, I’d set myself up for an affirmation that I’m not sure I’m ready for, or which I am at least overwhelmed by, as I begin to once again reorient myself. Putting something down in writing feels very certain — a desire emerged to go back to yesterday morning and burn the diaries.

The whole discomfort of this past week, this past month, two months, has come from a rush to understand. And yet here I am, rushing myself again, unmasking myself again, dismantling a rickety scaffold of self, if only to construct another, no more steady than the preceding structure, but perhaps hoping it might be more impossibly true to the contours of the void around it.

This process was already started some time ago. First in Huddersfield, just over a year ago, then when I first moved up here. In fact, on my first weekend visit to Newcastle — the first of a two-part process, as I negotiated working around moving and moving around working — I confessed as much to my new flatmate. She told me how she was doing some things differently now. I said I wanted to as well. And then, in getting caught up in everything, I fell back on some old habits or a more familiar way of being. But as I’ve said repeatedly over the past weeks, familiarity and home are two different things. I’m still looking for home. Newcastle will do for now, but I feel I am yet to build anything here that might withstand the uncertainty ahead. I am shaky on my feet, but I’m slowly marching onward.

The book plucked from my shelf on my return home, against all better judgement, as I sat down to begin this newly adopted daily ritual again, more aware than ever that it exists somewhere between self-actualisation and self-flagellation, was Nancy Newton Verrier’s Coming Home to Self. It is the sequel to her now-seminal study of adoption trauma, The Primal Wound, which I first read and wrote about some years ago.

She begins by talking about the sort of home one might “come home” to, as well as how multifaceted that sense of home can be:

In dreams a house is often a symbol of the psyche. People dream of houses with many rooms, most of them unexplored. Some of the rooms are sunny and bright, and some are dark and mysterious. Exploring the depths of our being for hints of a true Self can seem like opening those closed doors into the unknown. One thing is certain — to build a house that will withstand the elements, it is important to first build a strong foundation.

From here, she goes on to explore how weak a foundation adoption provides, given the tumult of the whole process, as she argues in her first book, is rather a foundational trauma. The symptoms that manifest from such a trauma are numerous. She writes about hypervigilance and hyperarousal, and the strange effect adoption can have on the formation of beliefs. “For most adoptees, the trauma takes place during the period of childhood amnesia or implicit memory”, when “the events of their lives are having a profound effect on their perceptions and on neurological connections in the brain” — events that the adoptee will have “no recall” of. The fallout from this can be unpredictable and sprawling. “When traumatic events become disconnected from their source, as is the case in any trauma happening in infancy, they begin to take on a life of their own.” A pervasive anxiety can result, which has no real source or obvious trigger in the present, but which nonetheless conjures associations in the adoptee’s amnesiac brain. (Something I have felt every day for almost two weeks now.)

The consequences of this trauma, she argues, are threefold: terror, disconnection, and captivity. Terror is already covered in the pervasive anxiety described above, but the latter two consequences are more particular.

Disconnection affects the adoptee’s basic human relationships. “Adoptees often describe themselves as floating, never feeling connected to anyone, alone even when surrounded by friends or in the arms of a lover. There is no sense of belonging, of fitting in. Sometimes there is no sense of existing.” As is a recurring and often quite spooky tendency with Verrier’s works, she describes the experience in such detail and so perfectly. She is the adoptee whisperer. Everything I have written over the last week is expressed here so plainly. “There is a desperate yearning for intimacy, yet an intense fear of allowing that kind of connection.” She suddenly affirms the feeling that has made me feel so utterly insane over recent days.

This in turn leads to feelings of low self-esteem, a ruptured “sense of basic continuity” in life, and a fear of what new connection might bring. “For many, the risk of connection is synonymous with the risk of annihilation.” All of this is compounded by the amnesia of the trauma, such that these feelings are utterly inescapable, given there is no basic understanding or memory of what Verrier calls a “before trauma self”.

But this feeling of disconnection is also mirrored by a feeling of captivity. This comes from the adoptee’s eventual placement into a situation in which they feel they do not belong, resulting from the fact “the adoptee is living in a place where he is not mirrored or reflected… He is confused by the conflict between his genetic self, which is authentic but not reflected, and his adaptive self, which feels false, but is more encouraged and accepted.”

What is intriguing about this part of Verrier’s analysis is how she skirts around the more pronounced experience of an “institutional” family. She accepts that an expression of this feeling of captivity might be question-begging. “For most of us, our thoughts go to prisons, concentration camps, cults, brothels or abusive families.” My mind goes quite naturally to Foucault. This sense of captivity is also compounded for me by the breakdown of my relationship with my adoptive family, discussed the other day, through which I felt like a quite literal prisoner in my adoptive home, subjected to abuse from my adoptive mother.

From here, Verrier goes into even more detail, presenting a sort of Spinozist ethics of adoptee life, through which she offers up various processes of self-regulation, self-rationalisation, and self-care. The most interesting advice given, for me at least, is her final recommendation, related to “the importance of the narrative process”:

Narration is an important part of achieving self-regulation and self-organisation. We have to try and make sense of events in our lives. Even if they don’t seem to make sense, we have to be able to tell others how these events affect us. […]

For the adoptee, talking about the experience of separation is more difficult, for there is no memory of it in the sense of conscious recall. He feels a void, but he doesn’t know what is causing it. Nevertheless, when other events happen in his life that scare or puzzle him, it is important to provide a forum for his being able to process them as long as he wants.

She adds that, “Acknowledging and communicating our grief in conjunction with others is a faster pathway to healing than suffering alone.” Here, again, I feel seen. Nothing explains my compulsive writing habit more effectively, nor my tendency to write about grief and its communal processing, as I did in my first book and have long continued to do on this blog. Verrier continues on this point specifically:

Sometimes written narrative is helpful. Writing about our losses, our fears, our hopes, and our joys can help us integrate these experiences. If prose doesn’t seem to work, perhaps poetry will. As difficult as it may seem, sharing our words with others is necessary to the integration process. We need others to bear witness to our experiences in order to integrate them and feel connected.

Though I still sometimes struggle with my compulsive desire to write in public, which is not always conducive to social cohesion and connection, particularly when this coping mechanism runs roughshod certain ethical boundaries or even come to vaguely resemble a “career”, it is this necessity for others to bear witness to my own processing that I constantly come back to and affirm.

But still, I do wonder how healthy this is. Yesterday, I went back and edited a few of my recent posts, erasing some potentially identifying information about friends. Someone described how, whilst the above process was clearly important to me, it had a tendency to compound my disconnection, as conversations with friends are relayed like dialogue between characters in a novel. “We’re not characters. We’re here.” I know this. I struggle to feel it. Or rather, it is I who feel like a character, a construction, not them.

I am drawn back to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Still a young nobleman, before the gender transition of the Eighteenth century, she writes how Orlando comes home to time itself in his sprawling country house, where he

began a series of very splendid entertainments to the nobility and gentry of the neighbourhood. The three hundred and sixty-five bedrooms were full for a month at a time. Guests jostled each other on the fifty-two staircases…

But when the feasting was at its height and his guests were at their revels, he was apt to take himself off to his private room alone. There when the door was shut, and he was certain of privacy, he would have out an old writing book, stitched together with silk stolen from his mother’s workbox, and labelled in a round schoolboy hand, ‘The Oak Tree, A Poem’. In this he would write till midnight and long after. But as he scratched out as many lines as he wrote in, the sum of them was often, at the end of the year, rather less than a beginning, and it looked as if in the process of writing the poem would be completely unwritten.

Elsewhere, Woolf talks about the importance of “a room of one’s own”, a space not just for women but for women’s writing to take shape. But prior to Orlando’s continuous becoming, I feel somewhat stuck in my room. I am writing as much as I am unwriting. I think it is time I disconnect not from my friends but from this compulsive habit to narrativise. Those who I need to bear witness to it are not online but in my immediate community. They are the ones who pick up the phone in the middle of the night. They are the ones who invite me to be — however I am feeling — in their own rooms, spaces and homes.

Homes have many rooms and many inhabitants. I’m going to spend more time with those I’ve moved in with recently — not literally, but proximally, emotionally, who are so happy to see me arrive.

With great kindness and encouragement, I’m going to step away from the room of my own and dwell, as much as possible, in others’. No writing. No reading about adoption and trauma. It’s time to give my brain a rest.

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