by JS LEE
These are scary and uncertain times. We—and people we love—are getting sick, losing income and health insurance. Loved ones are isolated. Violent crimes against Asians have been on the rise, riling more emotions. Sometimes I’m surprisingly buoyant. Other times, I feel like I’m drowning.
The other day, I cracked open my fears and heard a voice say, I’m going to die alone. I felt the words echo through me. I sat in my discomfort until it began to take shape.
Dying alone is a fear shared by many during the influx of COVID-19. But for adoptees like me, it circles back to an anxiety woven into my fabric when I was born. I don’t have access to the facts of my earliest days, but I know they were spent in physical and emotional deprivation.
Newborns are still preferred by adopters who, despite science, believe they’re blank slates. Studies have shed light onto how untrue that is, but it hasn’t much changed the perception. Psychologists share that young kids separated from their parents incur pre-verbal trauma. Unarticulatable pain can rewire our nervous systems. Memories can get trapped in the body. And newborns rely on their natural mothers in ways that older kids don’t. Early separation disrupts our biological needs, denying us nurture and nourishment at our most crucial time.
This isn’t to say that when child separation occurs, the child is forever doomed—but I do believe we’re forever impacted. The trouble is that often, the trauma isn’t validated, forcing us to play Make Believe and repress our pain. When the pain manifests, we’re often to blame for not assimilating into our unnatural situation. Other kids adapt, so why can’t we?
My adoption story wasn’t a Happily Ever After. I wasn’t raised feeling loved, safe, or with a sense of belonging. When I shared my sadness and fears, I wasn’t consoled but made to feel guilty for them. I’m now estranged from my adopters—which is for the best—but it leaves a hole where a family should be.
I’m married to a partner of twelve years, but newly estranged from his family, too. I won’t get into it much here—beyond stating I no longer tolerate disrespect and repeated racial trauma from anyone. This has caused some turmoil at home, but thankfully brought my partner and I closer. It also reinforced that I can’t trust when people call me “family”. From my experience, “family” is a word that lacks meaning. Having family is a transient state, based on compliance and convenience. It’s a temporary, feel-good facade—until it’s not. Each time I lose someone who was “family”, I feel more alone.
My husband and I both freelance. For us, that means we love what we do but lack access to affordable healthcare. Being uninsured during this pandemic adds extra stress. I have two chronic illnesses flaring up. Last week, I was in so much pain that I considered going to the ER. It wasn’t just the massive bill that kept me home, but hospitals are overloaded with Coronavirus cases. So I stayed in bed, worried that something inside might explode, and wondering if it was the end. I thought about my forthcoming novel that—if I didn’t survive—wouldn’t be released. I took comfort in knowing my husband’s family and friends would take care of him, and that he would take care of our cats.
All the while, my inner child was screaming, I’m going to die alone, but I wasn’t ready to listen. Sometimes five words are too much to unpack, so you rummage around, trying on other words that don’t quite fit.
The morning after that painful night, I told myself I was being dramatic. It was a dismissive judgment, letting my adoptive mother’s abuse continue through me. I see that now. Despite how well I think I’m doing overall, healing isn’t a straight line that exists in a vacuum. It’s only natural that when health and security are compromised, things might get out of whack. It’s important to have self-compassion then, too; to be ready to name and accept what occurred and get back on track.
That’s where I am now. And that’s why, when I listened to my inner voice say, I’m going to die alone, I let it sit heavy on my chest. Like a weighted blanket, it somehow brought comfort. I was allowing that scared, stifled voice to breathe. I inhaled her honesty and exhaled her pain.
A past therapist was big on the concept of mothering oneself—which was difficult for me to grasp. But now, I ask myself, What would you say to your child who came to you to share their fears? Suddenly, it’s clear. I’d tell them that life can be scary sometimes. I’d hold them and let them vent their vulnerabilities. Then I’d ask, How do you feel right this moment? Is there anything that might make you feel better?
I hold myself and let myself feel. I honor the validity of my deeper wounds. I started life alone, and fear I will end it alone. I’ve lost so many people and don’t want to lose any more. I ground myself and acknowledge I’m safe right this moment. The ones I hold dearest are safe right this moment. While it’s possible that someday I might die alone, I’m no longer a scared newborn left out in the cold. I remind myself that I’ve lived many years and been through many times that I thought were the end, and yet I’m still here. And then I realize I have people whose love lives inside me now—so when I die, I will never be truly alone.
During a crisis, we live moment to moment. It’s okay to be wherever you are, moving with the changing tides. Oftentimes, we try to be strong for each other. It’s important to look for the light and provide levity. But let’s not forget about wholeness. There can never be balance if we neglect our discomfort.
Take care of yourselves.