“One of the lucky ones”: A testimony on the trauma inherent in adoption

November is National Adoption Month.  Last week, I talked to Wendy, a Canadian mental health professional who was adopted in the early 80’s and met her first mother at the age of 29. Wendy is Black, and her adoptive parents are white.
 
Our conversation (which has been edited for length and clarity) began when I first asked her if my perception was accurate, that we’re much more likely to hear the testimony of adoptive parents, than the stories of adoptees. 
 
W: Yes. Among the adoptee community, that is our biggest complaint, esepcially during National Adoption Awareness Month. Did anybody ask us?
 
It’s quite appalling, the extent to which people who are hoping to adopt only want to hear the positive side; they only want to hear the fairy tale. And if you say, “That’s not the whole story,” they don’t want to hear it. We are called names, we’re gaslit, we’re told to get therapy.
 
On certain platforms, whenever I open my mouth to say, “Okay, but adoption is not a fairy tale” at 8:30 in the morning, I put my phone down, and by lunch time there are twenty-five people calling me bitter, angry, and ungrateful. Here we go, another day on social media as an adopted adult. 
 

Why are people so unwilling to hear it?

 

W: Adoption is an industry. The industry has to advertise itself.
 

As an entire society, we have really bought hard into this “adoption is a beautiful option,” especially in pro-life circles. It’s, “If you can’t parent, here’s this almost uncomplicated, beautiful option.” 
 
If I say to an adoptive parents, “No, it’s not beautiful, and it’s very complicated,” what they’re not saying, but what I hear, is, “I thought we were doing a good thing, and you’re telling me we’re not. If you’re telling me all of this is true about adoption, then all of this is true of what my child has experienced. But my child is happy to be adopted, and my child is well-adjusted.”
 
I would have told you the same thing until I was 34 years old. 
 
What happened?
 
W: We have this phrase called “coming out of the fog.” In oversimplified terms, it refers to realizing adoption is not a fairy tale. As an adopted person, you get this narrative growing up: “We chose you from all the other children to be part of our family; isn’t that special?” You have to explain it to children in a way they can digest, and people want to make it a good story for a child. They tell it as a fairy tale, so you grow up thinking, yup, it’s a fairy tale. 
 
The other part of the story for me is, I am a transracial adoptee, which means I’m of a different race from my adoptive parents. My adoption is very visible. I’m a Black woman with a very Irish last name. 
 
Growing up, people ask you, “Are you adopted?” It’s amazing the questions people think they have a right to ask. You’re coached to answer the questions as a fairy tale. Looking back, those were very intrustive questions they had no right to ask, but I was encouraged to answer them, because it’s such a beautiful story. That’s the lens I had for the longest time. 
 
Even while having that lens, there were times, from the age of 11 or 12, that I would have these very negative emotions that didn’t seem to be attached to anything. My life is fine; why am I feeling like this? 
 
I was 20 or 21 and I realized I was not a big fan of my birthday. On the day, I didn’t want anyone to talk to me, I didn’t want to make a big deal of it, and I didn’t understand what that was.
 
Finally, years later, I said to a friend of mine: “As an adopted person, that’s the day I lost my first mother, and I do not feel like celebrating it.” 
 

How did she react?

 

W: She was able to take it on board. Some people really are not. Some adoptive parents can’t get their heads around it. They want to celebrate their child’s life. But whether your child has realized it or not, it’s a day that marks loss. Of course, not every child feels like that; maybe not every adult feels like that. 

Did you know other adoptees? When did you start realizing this was a common experience? 
 
W: Other than three cousins, also adoptees — they are indigenous. The Sixties Scoop  is most likely how they came into our family. I don’t have a lot of contact with them. One is not alive anymore. We’ve never had a conversation about adoption as adults.
 

It was as an adult, and it was on social media, that I had my first honest conversations about adoption. It’s interseting now to see new people come out of the fog, and the response you see over and over is, “I’m not weird; I’m not messed up. Everyone is telling me adoption is this beautiful thing, and I just thought there was something wrong with me.” No, there’s a whole other side to this.

What are some things your parents could have done differently, that would have given you a different experience? Or is it almost a rite of passage that everybody who’s adopted has to come to terms with at a certain age?

 
W: When I’m getting that backlash, the implication is that I should be grateful, and a lot of people want to run to the defense of my parents. They put a roof over my head and treated me like their own.
 
The thing that was missing is the realization that every single child who has been adopted, especially if it was not a kinship adoption [placement with relatives], has been traumatized by the separation from the first mother. The story started with trauma. 
 
The phrase that’s often used is “Adoption is trauma.” Yes, it’s the trauma of separation. The more I think about it, the deeper I realize it goes.
 
People will say, “But you don’t remember. It’s not like you were five and dragged screaming away from your mother. You were a baby.” But if you know trauma, you know about preverbal trauma. You don’t have to be old enough to have a narrative of it, for it to affect you. It shows up in the body. I can’t tell you a story of what’s troubling me, but I’m feeling a certain way. 
 
Then recently I was led to think about the effects of prenatal trauma. If a woman is pregnant and is she is abused, or is experiencing poverty or food insecurity or is homeless … what’s the effect on the child she’s carrying? 
 
It’s not so much what my parents could have done differently, it’s what the agency and adoption professionals could have done differently. I would bet my bottom dollar [my parents] were told, “Love will be enough. Take this child into your family and love her as your own, and everything will be fine.”
 
But if the trauma is there, and it absolutely is, you can’t love it away. But if you’re informed about how trauma works, and what a traumatized child needs, you can parent differently. When that trauma starts showing up, if you know why, maybe you don’t take it personally as parents. 
 
A hopeful adoptive parent recently told me all she hears about adoption lately is trauma.  She asked me if she should adopt. What I said is, If you’re not prepared for your child to look you in the face, a child you did your best to love and provide for, and for that child to say, “You’re not my real mother,” you’re not ready to adopt. If you can’t sit still for that, please don’t adopt.  
 
Are you concerned that this will scare people away? That children who would get homes are not going to get homes, because of your cautions?
 
W: Maybe this is callous, but if my speaking honestly scares you off, you’re not suitable to adopt.
 
And I absolutely believe that. Until we get to a conversation where we can say adopted children carry the trauma of separation, and until this conversation is happening at the industry level, we’re gonna get people who are surprised by this. We’re gonna get people who hear this talk about trauma and are scared away. 
 

So what do we do about that?

This hopeful adoptive parent I was talking to said, “It sounds like you’re saying the whole system is rotten.”

 
I said, “Yeah, it’s rotten to the core.” 
 
I say this because vulnerable women who approach adoption professionals, some health care professionals, some mental health professionals,  are pressured and often shamed to give up their babies for a promise of a “better life” with other parents, instead of having a conversation about whether she wants to parent, what supports she would need in order to parent, whether there is any way to involve family or community so that she can keep her child.
 
There are many cases, more than most people know, and more than “adoption professionals” will admit, where a mother or the mother’s family could have cared for the child if supported to do so.  But instead, we terminate parental rights, change the baby’s name, alter the birth certificate and put the child in someone else’s arms.  It’s rotten to the core. 
 
But until we arrive at adoption reform, this system is what we have. There are children who cannot safely remain with their parents.  There are children who have already endured that trauma of separation, and are in foster care, and right now adoption is the way we provide care and permanency.
 
I don’t think adoption, the way we do it right now, is a good thing. Why do you need to erase someone’s indentity, ancestry, and history to provide them with stability and care? You don’t. But that’s what the adoption industry does.  The unspoken idea is that if you erase a child’s history and identity, they can be easily inserted into a new family, and be “one of them” the way a biological chid is.   But that adopted child already had a family and an ancestral history.   That doesn’t cease to exist because someone altered some paperwork.
 
So for right now, it is what it is. There are kids that need care and permanency, and right now, we do that through the adoption system.
 
That’s my quandary, as a mental health professional. If you can’t recognize and support a traumatized child, you should not be parenting an adopted child. I will die on that hill. So what do we do with these children who are already in care and experiencing this instability? They need a solution. The current way we do adoption is not it.
 
What I hear a lot from foster parents is, “You might think you have to be the perfect parent and know exactly what to do, but you don’t. You just have to do your best, and be there for that child.” Are they wrong? Or is that situation just too different from adoption? 
 
W: It’s in the same broad circle. The idea that you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to do the best you can, there is absolutely a lot to that. 
 
You can’t go back and make that separation not happen. I think the best an adoptive parent can do is be willing to learn about the trauma that is inherent in adoption, and be willing to do the work to understand how to support a child who has been traumatized by the process.
 
That’s where the thick skin comes in. Do the work. Go to your own therapy. Talk to adopted adults. There are things you can to.
 
As a mental health professional, I get to have this moment where someone is sitting in front of me, and they’re experiencing depression or anxiety or OCD, and by the time they get to me, someone’s already given them a diagnosis, but no one has talked to them about what it means. I get to say to them: “Here’s what it means. Here’s what you might be experiencng.”
 
The facial expression, the relief in their voices: “You get it. You said it. It’s real. Someone understands.” I didn’t cure your depression; I just told you you weren’t going crazy.   And so, with adoption, you can’t erase the trauna, but you can acknowledge it and support your child through it.
 
Can you tell me some more about your own circumstances, your birth mother? 
 
W: I’m “one of the lucky ones.” I’m in reunion with my first mother. 
 
Sorry, it’s “first mother,” not “birth mother?” How did you land with that term? 
 
W: If I say “birth mother,” that feels like that’s the body I came out of, and then she ceased to matter. Well, she didn’t. Her absence mattered to me, and will matter until the day I die. And my absence mattered to her, from the day I was born, and will contine to matter to her until the day she dies. 
 
“First mother” is like: I have a mother in the mother who raised me. But I had a mother before her, as well. 
 
So you’re in reunion with your first mother? When did that happen?
 
W: I was able to contact her in 2011. I had just turned 28.
 
Did you express any interest in meeting her growing up? 
 
W: Yes, but even when I was a kid, I could sense there was some discomfort around that. When it came out was when I was angry or upset: “You’re not my real family. I’m gonna go find my real family.”
 
But in addition to that, my parents had a very surprise baby when I was ten, and there were all these conversations about who that child looks like and takes after. I didn’t have any of that. I didn’t look like anyone. 
 
I met my first half sister in 2002. We have similar mannarisms and similar brains, but we don’t look like sisters. Whereas my other half sister, I couldn’t stop staring at her. I was 28, and I had to say, “I’m sorry I keep staring at you, but you have my face.”
 

And growing up, what was it like, thinking about your first mother? Was there a longing?

 

W: A longing, and a wondering. I don’t think I uttered the phrase “you’re not my real parents” after the age of about 8, because I realized that it landed, and really landed really hurtfully. In a way an eight-year-old can, I realized that whatever else was going on, don’t say that. 

But until I entered reunion, there was that longing. That’s really what I was feeling on my birthday, before I even realized it. That date brought it home.  

 
How was it, meeting your first mother? It must have been a lot. 
 

W: It was a lot. I don’t think I processed how much it was. I think I’m still processing how much it was.

We met in person in the summer of 2012. It was just so strange. Because so much of it was so normal. But meeting your first mother you’ve never met until the age of 29 is not normal. It’s not a normal thing to do. Yet all that happened was she hopped on a train and came to the city where I lived, and I met her outside this random building. I walked up to this woman, and this city does not have a lot of Black folks, so I knew who it was, even if I hadn’t seen her close enough up to realize she looks exactly like me.
 
I’m trying not to fall apart. We’re in the middle of the public square. I was physically shaking. She was extremely stoic; I was not. I was crying, but trying to hold it together. We embraced.  We didn’t speak in the first moments.  I bought her lunch, after. We just sat there and chatted. It was very strange that we were doing such normal things. I just kept looking at her, like, is this happening? Is this real?
 

It will never not be strange. Here’s the thing about reunion. It’s beautiful, and wonderful, and absolutely terrible, and heartwrenching, all at the same time. The intensity of it. Nothing else I’ve experienced has the strange intensity of being in reunion.

One of my sisters and I didn’t undersand how to be in each other’s lives. We fought, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Fighting with a sibling after being in reunion, it was terrible. We have to be very careful now. 
 
It’s nature and nurture. We are both people who will argue that the grass is blue and the sky is green if we think we can carry it off. We have to be right. When two people like this get in a fight, it’s freaking ugly. And so at a certain point, I said, “I can’t talk to you. I’m in danger of saying something unforgiveable, and if I don’t, you will; so we’re not going to talk right now.” We didn’t talk for a year and a half. 
 
You’ve had this longing for connection, authentic connection and belonging —  the belonging is a really big piece — and then to fight with the person you finally experience it with? No thank you. 
 
When that relationship went wrong, did it make you feel like there was something wrong with you, like maybe you don’t know how to have relationships with people?
 
W: This fighting was happening before I came out of the fog. I got the fairy tale ending with the reunion; how did this go so wrong? Is it me? Is there something wrong with me?
 
I’ve said to my first mother, “You and I, we cannot fight. We have to be able to have a conversation before it turns into a fight.”
 
There have been times when we had a miscommunication or missed contact] and I was having a reaction like, “You’re leaving me again!” and I’m in a panic. And I have said to her, “We can’t have a fight, because I will go out of my mind.
 
 Is your first mother motherly to you? Does she perform the function of a mother, or is it a different kind of relationship?
 
W: This is one of the griefs I carry. When we have those moments when she’s acting in a motherly way, that brings into sharp relief the relationship we lost. Even though we have those moments, we can’t get back what we lost. She is my first mother, but she wasn’t my mother for 28 years. You can’t come into somebody’s life when they’re twenty-eight and be their mother, you just can’t. 
 

This may be a loaded question, but do you call yourself a pro-lifer?

W: I consider myself pro-life. I’m not a huge fan of that term. That has more to do with what comes out of the mouths of other people that associate themselves with that term. One of the arguments pro-lifers come at me with is, “Well, would you rather have been aborted?” No, and if you see those two options in such a black and white dichotomy, you’re not very intellectually flexible, are you? 

I’ll say that, as a Catholic and someone who is pro-life and as an adopted person, and someone who sees this tension and the trauma that is inherent, I find myself in a very precarious position. 
 
The adult adoptee community are vehemently prochoice. I can see exactly why. For some adopted people, they’ve been so affected by this trauma, some will say, “Yeah, it might have been better for me if I had never been born, than to live in this much pain.” And then there’s the concern that if someone does not want to carry a child and give birth, they should not be forced to; they should have that option to terminate. And from a bodily automomy perspective, I can see that. But as a Catholic, I see that new life, that soul.  If I weren’t Catholic, I would probably be pro-choice. I probably wouldn’t have been, until I came out of the fog.  
 
I am the only practicing Catholic in my immediate family, one of two in my extended family. The story of my Catholicism is a whole other story. The bottom line is, by the time I came out of the fog, if I hadn’t been Catholic, that would have been the end of me being prolife.  And though I am, I make a lot of Catholics angry by saying I don’t think legal prohibition of abortion is a good answer.
 
 As vehemently as I am prolife, I can absolutely see the other side. I can see both sides, and when both sides dig in their heels, this is how we don’t make progress. Both sides are busy screaming at each other and vilifying each other. 
 
Wendy, I appreciate you sharing all these personal things with me.
 
W: Well, nobody’s been telling me to get therapy or calling me a horrible ungrateful wretch, so this is new, this is good. The funny thing about the “get therapy” thing is that good therapy is the reason I’m able to have this conversation in this way.
 
That’s one of my things. Adoptive parents, go to therapy. I know you don’t think you need it, but you freaking do. Don’t you dare adopt a child until you’ve been to therapy. 
 
That surprises me. I would kind of assume that people would. 
 
W: I don’t know what the process is like now, when someone approaches an agency to adopt a child. I’m so interested to know if it’s suggested, strongly suggested, required? 
 
When the older of my half sisters and I first connected, before we were allowed to talk to each other, we were supposed to have 4 or 6 separate [therapy] sessions about this reunion experience. Then there was this other option, where they would send you all this reading material, and you had to sign sworn statement that you had read it and don’t have questions. I’m waiving any right to say I was harmed by this process, because I’ve chosen not to do the therapy. 

Who required this?

 

W: Family and Children’s Services. You could ask to be named on the adoption registery, and if someone else who they could trace as being related to you was also named, you would get this official letter that this relative has also registestered. If youd  like to have contact, you can. 

There was a social worker assigned to our case. She could talk to my sister and she could talk to me, but we weren’t allowed to talk to each other until either the therapy was complete, or we’d signed that waiver. I called the social worker one time, and my sister was in the office, but it was against the law to talk to each other. It’s against the law for me to talk to my flesh and blood sister.
 

There was another time. I got what’s referred to as “non identifying information about my first mother and her family. It was biographical information without identifying details, and it was like, pastimes and hobbies and how tall they were. No medical information; why would I need that? That’s another fun thing, when you have medical mysteries going on, and you go to the doctor and they say, “Do you have a family history of this?” and you say, “I don’t freaking know.”

The other time this weird gate keeping happened, was I was already in reuinion with my first mother, and I thought, what happens now if I ask for non-identifying information? Because the one I had from when my parents requested was so redacted, whole paragraphs were missing. 

 

So I requested it again in 2011. I called the F and CS office in my hometown and was told, “When you come in and pick it up, we’ll have you sit down with a counsellor. There’s information you might find distressing.”

I told her, “Let me tell you, I have met my first mother, and she told me the story, and yeah, it’s pretty damn distressing. Whatever’s in that document, I already know about it, because she told me. If I have to get therapy, I’ll get therapy. I live five hours away; I’m not coming in to do therapy five hours away.  Mail the documents, please.”

 
Finally I had to write a whole letter saying I understand there’s distressing information in this file, I probably aready know it, and I’m releasing you from any liability if I’m emotionally damaged; now give me my freaking documents.
 
And they were still redacted.
 
It’s your history, and they’re keeping it from you. That must feel so strange.
 

W: You get that growing up. I knew my parents knew more than they were telilng me, because of this non-identifying information.

It’s my information; how am I not ready to have it? Some of it would have been pretty difficult to find an age appropriate way to say that, but by the time I was thirteen or fifteen. Tell me something. 

 
When people say, “Why are you so angry?” I am.  It’s that erasure of history. That erasure of ancestry. That erasure of identity. It’s actually not necessary to provide care and stability to someone. But the adoption industry wouldn’t thrive without it. Because it has to be the fairytale where you live happily ever after with a new family.  No one wants to talk about what you lost, first.
 
 
 
 
***
Image via Pxfuel 

Weeding codependency out of Christian love

It’s a strange and beautiful thing, becoming one flesh. When two people marry, they begin the lifelong process of intertwining their hearts, growing into each other’s lives, sharing joys, sharing sorrows, finding self-worth through assuming responsibility for each other’s emotions and behaviors…

Hold up. That last part doesn’t belong. That last part describes something we call “codependence,” and it has no place in a loving relationship. It’s very common to find it there, though, because it’s great at mimicking sacrificial love. 

What is codependence? In its basic form, it’s a habit of taking on responsibility for someone else’s actions, emotions, responses, thoughts, and obligations.  

It’s a maladaptive coping mechanism many people develop in response to trauma. If we’re told as children that it’s our fault dad drinks or mom is always yelling, or if our spouses blame us for their irresponsibility at work or their bad temper at home, we may internalize that blame – and then spend the rest of our lives scurrying around, doing and saying anything that seems like it will stave off more conflict. 

Codependence isn’t simply a habit of trying to be helpful; it’s a heartfelt belief that another person’s entire experience of life depends on our behavior – that the sins and failings other people freely choose are somehow our fault, because we haven’t worked hard enough to keep them from happening. 

In truth, an adult with free will is the only one who can control how much he drinks, how much she yells, how they behave at work or at home. But abusive people are all too willing to let someone else take on that blame, and then blame them again when they can’t do the impossible and make everything better. 

Codependent behavior often feels like love, especially like the radically self-sacrificial, noble love that Christians are enjoined to cultivate. Codependency can look and feel like the great love of giving one’s life over for a friend. It can look like a form of holy martyrdom, mild or violent: “Look how selfless I am! I take onto my own person the suffering I do not deserve, just like Jesus!”

But there are crucial differences.

In authentic love, we are willing to help and be generous, but we do not pretend to have control over other people’s thoughts, actions, or emotions. Sometimes this real love might even look selfish, but in fact it shows respect for the other person’s autonomy, because it gives them credit for having free will and a unique, personal relationship with God. 

Codependency, on the other hand, may look generous, but is actually limiting, because it presupposes that the other person isn’t truly in control of his own behavior. It believes that other people can be manipulated into acting, saying, or feeling the right things.

Another difference: authentic love is rooted in healthy love of self, which recognizes that we are made in the image of God. Only trees with deep roots can bear generous fruit, and only firmly-rooted self-love can bear the fruit of unselfish love for others. In authentic love, we firmly believe we have something good to offer, and we’re even willing to suffer through offering it; but we don’t believe our own worthiness comes from our success at changing someone else.

Codependent behavior, though, is rooted in insecurity, fear, guilt, and shame, and a desperate desire to prove that we’re worthy of love. The drive to solve other people’s problems often comes from a deep terror that we may not be useful or necessary.

Sacrificial love brings joy and peace; codependent behavior brings bitterness and resentment.

And codependent behavior is reactive. We respond in the way we feel we must. We believe we’re forced into our actions by the behavior of others.

But loving actions are radically free. They come from a place of acknowledging and deliberately using our free will to imitate Christ, even though we have the choice not to do so. 

Christ knew who he was, and that’s how he had the strength to make the unthinkable sacrifice he made of his own life, for our sakes. But first, in the desert, he resisted the devil’s temptation to make him believe he needed to prove his worth; and throughout his life, passion, and death, he acknowledged that not everyone would follow him. He did not set about to change people who did not want to change. He would willingly take on their suffering and the sorrow, but he would not try to supplant their free will.

That is our model of authentic love.

It takes practice to break the habits of codependency. In some marriages, it can be done with attention and a firm, calm resolution to stop participating in an unhealthy habit. In others, where the origins of codependency are old and deep, it may take help from a therapist or a marriage counsellor, and it may take a long time. 

In either case, the upheaval that comes with untangling codependence from love can be unsettling, even terrifying. But it is worth rooting out. Like an invasive weed, codependency is not content to live side by side with love, but tends to crowd it out, strangle it, rob the healthy vine of nourishment, and eventually take its place entirely. Freeing a loving relationship from codependence means freeing love to flourish and bear good fruit. 

 

 ***

A version of this essay was originally published in Parable Magazine in 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

Thanks to Anna O’Neill and Kate Cousino for their help with this essay. Further reading: “Boundaries, Blaming, and Enabling in Codependent Relationships”  by Sharon Martin, LCSW; “Codependency, Trauma and the Fawn Response” by Pete Walker, M.A., MFT; and “Learning to distinguish codependency from love” by Anna O’Neill 

 
Image by simonwhitebeard from Pixabay

Sublimate your anger, $5 at a time

I won’t say who it is, because I don’t want to embarrass her, but someone recently told me about a new policy she developed for herself during the pandemic. Every time she started to get mad at someone for being selfish and irresponsible, and she wanted to righteously lash out and put them in their place , she would send a few dollars to the food pantry, instead.

At first I thought this was a sweet and good but somewhat random gesture: Instead of doing the bad thing (being mad), she was going to do the good thing (feeding the hungry). But I actually think there was actually something more interesting and meaningful going on: Something called sublimation.

Sublimation is when you take some undesirable urge and redirect the energy of it into something worthwhile and commendable. It is not repression, because you’re not denying that the urge is there, and you’re not pretending it doesn’t affect you. Instead, you’re acknowledging that the urge is powerful and forceful, and that you can’t make it just go away; so instead, you make it work for you.

The person in question felt an understandable rage and frustration when someone would rudely refuse to wear a mask, or would spread lies about vaccines, or would harass other people for complying with safety protocols. (Yes, these are all things that happen regularly.)

I think this anger qualifies as righteous anger, because these actions hurt vulnerable people the most. But she knew that following her heart by cussing them out or smacking them would just make things worse for everybody. So instead, she balled up her anger and used it to help vulnerable people. Thus the donation to the food pantry.

So it wasn’t just “do good instead of bad.” She took anger over someone hurting people, and used it to help people. The food pantry is great for this kind of thing, because there will always be poor people, and poor people will always need food (or even better, money so they can decide what kind of food to buy).

The thing about sublimation is not just that it makes good things come about, and it’s not just that it steers you away from crashing on the rocks of sin. It actually changes you. Here is where I recall one of the first really useful things I learned from my therapist years ago…Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.
 
Photo by Intricate Explorer on Unsplash

Stepping out in doubt

Has anyone ever told you there are jokes in the Bible? The one I found the other day made me laugh until I cried.

A little background, first. My old therapist had one of those wretched inspirational posters on his wall. It was a stock photo of a misty lake, and the caption said something about needing the courage to step off the shore so you can begin your journey.

It never made sense to me. What kind of journey is that? We don’t have to wonder what will happen when someone steps off the shore: They sink. Step off the shore, under you go. Bloop! End of journey.

Well, that poster may have been an illogical cliché, but it also turned out to be decent advice—as long as you don’t take it literally. But it was terrifying. Feeling nothing under my feet is the worst thing I have ever felt. There is always the temptation to scramble around and flail your way back to familiar ground because even if you recognize that your old life is a disaster, at least it is familiar.

But I did it: I stepped off into the void many times over the course of several years while I was in therapy. I was learning what in my psyche was craziness, what was garbage and what were traps I laid for myself, but also what was good, sane, powerful and admirable. What truly belonged and could be developed further and how to do it. It was an untangling process, and what was salvageable about myself was much more solid and worthwhile than I had feared. It is such a cliché to say “I found myself,” but that is more or less what happened when I took a big step away from security. I discovered, to my relief, that there was a real me there, in the heart of all the dysfunction.

Then, armed with a new sense of self, I started working on untangling some relationships. This was, if anything, even more terrifying. I knew that if I cut away everything that was unhealthy, there might be no relationship left.

People are who they want to be, and if you are going to become healthier and more whole yourself, you have to let other people be who they choose to be. Sometimes this means the relationship will end. You will lose someone you did not want to lose. This is a thing that happens sometimes, when you step out, away from secure footing. Many of my relationships changed. Some became stronger. Some were lost.

Then, at a certain point, my therapist asked me to look hard at my relationship with God and with the Catholic Church.

Read the rest of my latest for America magazine

Image: Ivan Aivazovsky 1888 Jesus walks on water (detail)  Public Domain

Señor Secondthoughts

Who wants to hear about a parenting victory? This one comes with a mascot, and his name is Señor Secondthoughts. 

Our youngest got a much-desired present for her sixth birthday: A stuffed Owlette and and a stuffed Gecko, of PJ Masks. She’s had Catboy for a while, but she really wanted the other two. I discovered it was cheaper to buy a set of three, so when the new stuffies arrived, I tossed the extra Catboy in my closet and wrapped up the other two, and she was absolutely thrilled.

A few weeks later, she barged into my room and stumbled across the extra Catboy. So we explained what happened and said she could keep the extra toy if she wanted to. My husband suggested that she could give him a mustache and turn him into Catboy’s evil twin. She thought that was amusing, and went on her way.

Half an hour later, she barged in again, this time in tears. She explained that she “actually took Daddy seriously” and went ahead and gave Catboy a mustache, and now she changed her mind, but it was too late, because she used permanent marker. She then dissolved into sobs of real, terrible sorrow and regret.

 My first struggle was not to burst out laughing, because Catboy looks hilarious with a mustache. The one she gave him has a little twirl and looks very evil indeed. 

My second struggle was to resist doing any of the things I would have done in the past, if a child had come to me with a problem like this.

In the past, if I had been feeling cranky, I would have told her that it wasn’t so bad, and it wasn’t worth crying over, because it was just a toy and she does have another toy, and some kids would be happy to have two Catboys.

If I had been feeling sympathetic, I would have said I don’t want her to feel sad about a birthday present, and I would have ordered a replacement on the spot (for a grand total of three Catboys) to make her stop crying.

Or if I had been in a hurry, I might have just tried to distract her, make it into a joke, or change the subject, so she would forget her problem and be cheerful again.

Behold: I have been in therapy for several years, so here is what I did instead.

I held her and rubbed her back while she cried, and said I could see how sad she was and how bad it felt, and how I know she wishes she hadn’t done it. And we just stayed with that for a while, and were sad together, until he started to calm down a little. In pop psychology terms, this is called letting her “feel her feelings.”

Then I said there is a name for what she’s feeling, and that name is “regret.” I told her regret is when something seems like a really good idea, so you do it, but then you suddenly realize it wasn’t a good idea. I said that everybody does things and then feels regret sometimes. She is a kid who loves words and loves to understand how human beings act, so giving her a name for what she was feeling was important; and it was important to let her know that it was a common human feeling, and she wasn’t uniquely foolish or uniquely suffering. This also gave her something intellectual to focus on, and broke up the storm of feelings somewhat.

Then I told her that sometimes, we feel a lot of regret over something, and it feels really bad, but sometimes, after a while, we figure out a way to make it work, and then it stops feeling so bad, and might even start feeling good. I said that it was okay to feel bad right now, but that she probably wouldn’t feel this bad forever. I said that everybody knows she’s really good at figuring stuff out and finding ways to have fun with things, so she could probably someday figure out a way to have fun with Evil Catboy — or, as I was by now calling him in my head, Señor Secondthoughts. I wanted to build her up a little, and remind her that she’s capable of rising above this. And I wanted her to know that this was going to be something she herself would be dealing with. 
 
She was quite a bit calmer by this time, but I know she has a habit of suddenly reminding herself of what she was upset about and getting worked up all over again; so I seized the moment and distracted her with some other topic entirely. She took the bait, got excited about the new thing (some snack or something, I forget what), and off she went, leaving Señor Secondthoughts behind.  
 
She has since re-discovered this mustachio’d villain, and it doesn’t seem to bother her at all. 
 
Here’s the important part: This is not a formula for making everything better. That did happen in this case, with this particular kid, for this particular problem she had. But even if she hadn’t responded so well, I would have been happy with how I handled it, because it’s not about the problem right now. It’s about the kid and her future.
 
More and more, I’m realizing that my job as parent is not to fix my kid’s problems, and it’s definitely not my job to make them stop feeling bad and start feeling good as quickly as possible. You can do that with babies, but once a kid is old enough to have a conversation, they’re old enough to start talking about feelings, and learning what to do with them. 
 
When a kid is upset, my first impulse is usually to try to push past the bad feelings, either with sternness or with sympathy. But even if it does quiet the kid down quickly, this is just papering over an emotional mess. The mess will still be there, and the kid will not have learned any skills for how to clean it up when it inevitably happens again. 
 
I had a big revelation: Part of the reason I want to fix things as quickly as possible is because my kid’s strong feelings elicit strong feelings in me; and sometimes, that’s actually what I’m trying to manage: My own feelings, not my kid’s. It’s very normal to feel impatience or disgust or distress or pity when a kid comes to you sobbing. But it’s not fair to make the kid to change her behavior so that my feelings about it are more manageable. This doesn’t help the child at all. It doesn’t equip her for the future, and may even teach her awful mental habits of inappropriate shame and nameless resentment that will emerge in various unpleasant ways for the rest of her life (not that I would know anything about that, twitch twitch). 
 
My job isn’t to make her shush. My job is to teach her how to be a human being who will inevitably make mistakes, feel bad about them, and live to tell the tale.
 
So this is how we do it: We let kids feel their feelings. We name the feeling, and we call it normal, and let them know it’s okay to feel this way. Then we talk about what might happen next, and remind them that they do have the power to move on and be awesome. And then we do something else. You can actually do this with kids of all ages, using age-appropriate terms. 
 
Important: Sometimes, you just don’t have time for this, and that’s okay, too. Sometimes a little kid is melting down and you absolutely need to be somewhere, so your only choice is to scoop them up and deal with it later. This, too, is normal. But if at all possible, it is a good idea to deal with it later, and not just chalk it up to a kid being bad. 
And sometimes you just blow it. Sometimes you’re not the ideal parent, and you handle things wrong. And what is this called? This is called having regrets. It feels bad, but etc. etc. etc. See?  You can do this for yourself, too. 
 
When you do have time to go through all the steps, though, remember that it won’t always result in a calm, happy kid, but that’s not really the goal. The goal is having a kid who has emotions, knows it’s okay to have emotions, and has some clue about what to do with her emotions.
 
That’s my goal for myself, as well. We can do it! Señor Secondthoughts is here to cheer us on.  
 
 

Humility in parenting can help heal the past

My brother is a therapist, and he says his clients don’t talk much about being hurt by their parents.

Okay, that’s not true. Let me back up.

When I first started seeing a therapist, I had a lot to say about the things my parents had done wrong. I was doing so many things differently, and better than my parents had. I also had a lot to say about the things I had done wrong AS a parent, and how afraid I was that my kids would be justifiably angry at me for all the ways I had screwed up.

It’s a strange place to be in: Simultaneously recognizing just how wrong your parents were, and being honest about how much it hurt you, and recognizing just how wrong you often are yourself, and being honest about how much it hurts your kids. How do you even live that way? How do you move forward?

In my less fraught moments, I had to admit that, for all the stupid and awful things they did, my parents had certainly done better than their parents — and it was also likely that my grandparents had done better than their parents. I floated the idea that, if things kept up on this trajectory, and every generation improved on the previous one, then within a few decades, we’d be a race of gods. I’ll have to get back to you about how that works out.

The pattern is a real one, though — up to a point. We see what our parents have done wrong, and we don’t make that mistake. No, instead we invent brand new mistakes to make instead. We would hate for our kids to miss out on all the delicious angst and resentment that should come along with childhood, so we make sure we come up with something for them to correct when they have kids of their own.

I’ve thought about it a lot, and there is a real answer to the question “How do you live that way?” — that is, there is a way to live with yourself when you’re simultaneously aware of how much your parents did wrong, and how much you’re doing wrong yourself.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

10 things Catholics (and others) should know about therapy

For World Mental Health Day, I’ve updated a thing I wrote a few years ago. It’s all still true! And since then, other members of my family have started seeing therapists, too. We’re so dang mentally healthy around here, I don’t even recognize us.  

***

I’ve been seeing a therapist for several years now. I make a point of mentioning it because a lot of Catholics (and others!) are resistant to the idea of therapy. I understand much of that resistance, so I thought I’d share my experience. Here are some basic observations:

1. Therapy is not a replacement for confession or spiritual direction. You may end up addressing the same behaviors in both therapy and confession or spiritual direction, but you’ll learn different things about where they come from and how to deal with them. If you go to therapy, it doesn’t mean you think you’re not responsible for your actions. It means you’re serious about trying to change them.

2. At the same time, therapy is not incompatible with Catholicism – or it shouldn’t be. Ideally, they should dovetail. In my case, I’d made no progress trying to conquer certain behaviors through prayer and confession, so I turned to therapy to help me learn practical ways to do it.

3. It’s far better to see a good therapist who doesn’t know much about your Faith than it is to see a faithful Catholic who’s a second-rate therapist. I went in with the idea that I’d listen with an open mind to whatever my therapist could offer, and I’d do the job of filtering out whatever was incompatible with my faith, and I’d integrate whatever was compatible. Once I got to know and trust the fellow, I let him know that I felt defensive about my Faith, and that I was afraid that he’d see my religion as something to be cured – that he’d see my big family and my spiritual obligations as the things that were dragging me down.

He said that it’s true that some therapists see religion as an unhealthy thing, and they may or may not be aware that they have this prejudice; but he said that most of the good therapists he knows will want to treat the whole person, and that includes their spiritual life; so he encouraged me to be more open about matters touching on religion. I have done this, and it’s worked out well.

This makes sense, because I have made a deliberate effort to integrate my faith into every aspect of my life, so it’s not as if I can compartmentalize it anyway.

At the same time, occasionally bringing up matters of faith with someone who doesn’t share my religion has made me examine pretty closely what I really believe and why. It’s all been to the good, even if it was an uncomfortable and somewhat frightening experience. 

4. Therapy is not for losers. Knowing there’s a problem and not going for help is stupid. Knowing there’s a problem and going for help is what adults do, for their own sakes, and for the sakes of the people they live with. 

5. Of course it’s hard to get started. Important things usually are. It is hard to make the first phone call, especially if you have to make lots and lots of phone calls, and explain over and over again that you need help, until you find someone who is taking new patients and accepts your insurance. Just keep calling. Set a goal per day – say, six phone calls – and just keep plowing through. If possible, if you need it, ask someone to make the phone calls for you. Just get the ball rolling.

6. Don’t assume you can’t possibly afford it. Therapy might be covered by your insurance, or they might offer a sliding scale fee structure, so at least make some calls and find out. If you call an office that does not take your insurance, ask them if they can recommend someone who does. Also ask at your parish. There may possibly be some grant money available. 

7. You might not find the right therapist at first. Give it several sessions, and if things seem really off, it’s completely normal and useful to say so and try someone else. The whole point of this is to help you, and if it’s not helping, then what are you doing?

I was set to see a therapist for an introductory visit, and she didn’t return my phone calls, and then left a message saying she would call back, and then didn’t. So I fired her before I even met with her. If I want to get treated like crap, I can just hang out with my four-year-old at home for free.

8. Therapy isn’t magic. You have to actually do the things throughout the rest of the week. Just showing up for your appointments isn’t going to help anything.

9. Even when it’s working, it takes a while. Things often get harder before they get easier. It’s normal to have ups and downs, and it’s normal to regress at a certain point. You should be seeing some progress at some point, but don’t expect to be on a dazzling upward trajectory from day one.

10. Therapy is smarter than you think, smarty.  So give it a chance, even if your therapist uses words or ideas that sound goofy at first. If you have a decent therapist who seems intelligent, responsive, and respectful, then keep an open mind.

I had a hard time, for instance, getting over the word “mindfulness.” I was like, “But I do not balance crystals on my forehead when I get overwhelmed by yoga pants shopping, so get away from me with your mindfulness nonsense!” Well, it happens that I went in for help changing some behavior that I do out of habit, that I do without thinking, and that I do when I feel like I’m not in control of my responses. So guess what I’m working on? Mindfulness. La di dah.

***

If you’ve had a good (or a bad) experience with therapy, what would you add? What would you like your fellow Catholics to know?

Image via MaxPixel (Creative Commons)

You are not dead. You are waiting.

One winter vacation when I was in college, I went with my mother to a charismatic healing Mass. You could say that I had been “struggling” with depression, but that’s not really the word. I lived there.  I was being swallowed whole by it, day after day, and I could not get out. Wherever people led me, I would go, whether they liked or loved me, hated me, or just found me useful. So I went with her to ask for healing, not with hope, but just because it couldn’t hurt.

The service was emotional—tacky, to be honest— and while the priest was fervid, the scattered congregation sounded sheepish and forced as they softly hooted and called “Amen!” into the chilly air of the church.

We lined up and the priest recited some words of healing—I forget them utterly—over each of us.  Then he gave every forehead a firm shove, to put us off balance in case the Holy Spirit wanted to overcome anyone.  A few people crumpled and passed out, snow melting quietly off their boots onto the tiled floor.  Most of us just staggered a bit under the pressure, recovered, stepped around the fallen, and went back to our seats.

Well, I thought, another dead encounter with dead people in a dead world.  I slid into my pew.  Nothing had changed because nothing could change.  I was dead, and everyone else was allowed to be alive.  Why?  Who knows?  Someone had been sent for help, but help would not come.  Help was not for me.

And then I heard these words in my head, “You made Me wait.  Now you can wait for a while.”  They were not my words.  The tone was warm, a little sad, with a small vein of humor.  I think I was being teased, chided for taking so long to send for help.  You like games, talitha?  All right, I will play.  Now, wait.

Then I went home. Nothing happened, that I could see.

Years later, I thought of that day as I read Tomie dePaola’s The Miracles of Jesus with my four-year-old daughter.  She listened attentively, but I could see that most of the wonders didn’t impress her much.  In these short narratives, some kind of grown-up problem is introduced—and then poof, God solves it, The End.

I think she saw Jesus acting more or less like all adults act:  making good things appear arbitrarily, making sick people feel better, occasionally being cranky and strange, and wishing people would say “thank you” more often.  It was cool, but it didn’t mean much to her. They were miracles, not the kind of thing that happen in real life.

Jairus’ daughter, however, really got her attention—probably because it was about a child, and also because it was a full story, with suspense, despair, and a happy ending, plus the hint of a full life to come.

Jesus hears the news that the girl was sick, but He isn’t teleported to her bed. He walks, one foot in front of the other, on His way to her.  And when He gets there, it’s too late. Her family is weeping; the girl, the poor little thing who wanted to be healed, is already dead.

My daughter got very quiet at this point.  We read on:

“But Jesus said, ‘Do not weep.  She is not dead.  She is asleep.’
And the people only laughed at him, knowing that she was dead.

She looked at me with big eyes.  They laughed at Jesus!

Jesus took her by the hand and said, ‘Child, arise.’
And her spirit returned and she got up at once.  Then Jesus told them to give her something to eat.”

At this point, my daughter hurled herself at me and gave me a big, squeezing hug. She got that part!  She knows about being sad, needing help, waiting far too long, being rescued, and then having something to eat, because all these ups and downs make you hungry.  And then life goes on, once you have been saved.  Here was a miracle she could appreciate—the kind that’s part of a story.

I got it, too, because I knew that story. I had been that girl. And I had heard that voice. It was a long time, and a lot of steps, before my slow rescue from the dead came up to the speed where it was recognizably healing, recognizably a wonder. But I never forgot the words I heard, telling me that help was on the way. That I wasn’t really dead; I was waiting.

If you have ever lived inside a black hole; if you have moved about the world enclosed in a dome of sound proof glass, with no voices but your own voice, which you hate above all other sounds in the world; if you have felt so bad for so long that you don’t even want life to get better, you just want it to be over—then you will understand that it was very, very good to hear this voice that simply said, “You are not dead. You are only sleeping. And I am on my way.”

I was not merely sitting in that cold pew, it told me. I was sitting and waiting.  Someone was with me; or at least, someone was on the way.  I was happy to wait.  I was happy!  This was new.

That was how I began to be healed, more than twenty years ago.  It was a long road of waiting, after I began to be healed.  It is a long road.  I’ve been in therapy for over three years, and now I’ve started spiritual direction. I don’t know what is next. The road keeps getting longer, to be honest, and every time I think I am finally healed, I see that I am not, not yet. But I can see Christ better and better as He approaches, step by step. My healing started when I asked Him, without hope, for healing.

That is what our breath is for: To call out for help. As long as we still have breath in us, we are not dead, we are only sleeping.  We are not alone; we are waiting for Christ to arrive.

Can you wait a little longer? You are not dead. You are waiting.

 

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Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Related reading: I thought good Catholics didn’t need therapy. Then I went.

Mindfulness, meet my bumper

Don’t shoot those helicopters down

Ten things about therapy

Passing through the moor

When you are sad, cry.

Don’t you realize comedy is a matter of life and death?

Faith, reason, depression, and help

A version of this essay originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2011.

 

 

 

Does Your Child Need Professional Help? You Can Do This.

All parents, sooner or later, come up against a problem they can’t solve. This is where we recall that parenting is about self-sacrifice, and sometimes it’s our pride that needs sacrificing. Your child is more important than your self-image. Your job is to fight for him or her, and that includes enlisting help.

Read the rest of my latest for Parable magazine.

Image by Alon via Flickr  (Creative Commons)

How to celebrate World Mental Health Day like the crazy bitch you are

On a bus? It’s only courteous to apologize to everyone for the noise your head is making.

Primal scream therapy has been largely debunked. Instead, try emptying your mind, relaxing your muscles, opening your throat, and then, for as long as you can sustain it, make a noise like a wabbit*. I think you’ll find it immensely liberating (for other people).

Throw glitter on people, so they will understand what a strong person you are! Or something! I don’t know, I saw it on a meme.

If you can’t find your pants, simply stand in the middle of the house and shout, “PANTS! PANTS! PANTS! PANTS! PANTS!” until someone comes running with your pants. I know you’ll think I’m just saying this because it was on a TV show, and you’re right; but on the other hand, it actually works. It sometimes takes a while, e.g.. when no one else is home, but this is when persistence counts.

Hey, why don’t you smoke a lot of pot? That will help! Smart smart smart!

Those “hippe-dippie” calming mantras are actually surprisingly effective, and can really ease anxiety and restore your sense of peace and proportion. Just be sure you have found one that is completely unique to you. If you accidentally use someone else’s mantra, they will know, and — you know what, nothing bad will happen, probably. It’s just something to keep in mind. You know what, it’s probably fine. Don’t worry about it.

Break into your therapist’s office after hours and hang up all his friggin’ pictures. The Ansel Adams and the generic tree landscape, and that dreadful framed inspirational poster with the kayak, that have all been leaning up against the wall since your intake visit, marking the spot where they are supposed to be hung. And also the clock that always shows 9:53, with the unopened package of batteries balanced on top of it. Seriously. Is this just to make you feel more sane in comparison, or what? Is this some kind of social experiment? Is that even ethical? Why 9:53???

When did you last eat something? Fingernails doesn’t count. Geez, go have a spoonful of peanut butter and then we can figure out if existence is really empty and meaningless or not. I’m not saying it’s not. I’m just saying, have some peanut butter.

Always remember: It’s okay to shoot your TV screen for saying “Flappity flippers!” one more time. You warned it.

*(“WABBIT!!! WABBIT! WABBIT!”)

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Image: Asiir at English Wikipedia (Asiir) [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons