by JS LEE
Imagine you’re an infant or child left alone in a long, dark tunnel. Your voice cries out, but no one can hear you. You reach out a hand, desperate for the warmth of your mother. Muscles tense. Blood rushes to your head as you call for her again. She will hear you. She will return. Your entire being is in anguish, waiting for what never comes. You alternate between calming yourself down and roaring with every inch of your being. This goes on for hours, then days and then weeks, until you’re depleted of everything. You go quiet and numb. Someone comes along and calls you well behaved. They change your clothes, change your name, and take your picture. They poke and they prod and then house you with strangers. You hear all their cries and wish you could tell them it will all be okay. There’s something inside you that still clings to hope. It’s just temporary. You wait and you wait, until it’s your turn. They’re taking me to her, you think, by the tone of their voices, cheery and sweet. You’re put in a car or a train or a plane, and passed off to strangers who call you their own.
From this day forward, you’re not your own person. You become a character in these strangers’ story. They ask you, What’s wrong? But you don’t have the language to describe what you’re feeling. Every day you are theirs is another day you’re not who you were meant to be. You forget who that was, but you feel disconnected. When they treat you well, you feel guilty. When they treat you poorly, you think it’s your fault. They say they want to know why you’re sad but you know that they don’t. You bury your feelings. You hide to survive, swallowing yourself whole. In the pit of your stomach lives a small spark of the person you were. She is safe there, and everyone’s happy.
You don’t know who to be, but you know who they want you to be. They wrote this role for you. And you should be grateful. Grateful you’re not living in a past they can’t bear to acknowledge existed. Thankful for the things everyone else is allowed to take for granted. The message is clear: You’re not worthy. Everything you have is a gift with an I.O.U.—even if not what you wanted. You start to believe all their words as if they are true. Now that you have no self-worth left outside of how you make others feel, you comply. Sometimes it’s rewarded.
Strangers treat you as if you’re the star of a well-known fable. If you veer from the script, they become disappointed. They say, Hey, that’s not how this story goes. They’ve met another like you, so they know. They insist. What’s personal to you feels more personal to them and you don’t understand it. For a while, you try to explain but then you give up. It takes less energy to let them win and, besides, it’s the third time it happened this week. That tiny little spark of the person you were is disappointed in you now, too. It crushes your soul.
You become a great actor. No one knows the pain you are in, and that makes interacting with the world so much simpler. The world inside you, however, is starting to quake. You feel sick, but everyone says you look fine. They run tests to confirm the reality outside is everything that it should be. But you know. The temperature’s been steadily rising, and you’ve been adapting. Adapting to adoption. Living the fairytale twenty-four/seven. Performing. Your feet are so tired of dancing but you fear if you stop, you will die. Lights out. The end.
But, what if it’s a new beginning?
Another sleepless night doubled over in pain, something inside you burns. You don’t think you can take it. You want to cry out, but you know that it’s fruitless. Crying never worked. Curled up in a ball, you’re losing your mind. And then you remember. The spark.
Transformation is scary. It cracks you wide open beyond repair. You look like a monster, or so they say, with the excavated spark now twinkling in your eyes. They don’t recognize you. They liked you much better before. Sometimes you think you did, too. You look in the mirror and scare yourself. You have to learn how to BE all over again. You don’t know your own thoughts or how to accept how you feel. But something is vaguely familiar. You’ve done this before.
On an overcast day, you go wandering about. From the distance, you see a faint light. Then another. And another. You meet in the middle, shaking from the odd sensation of seeing one of your own. You thought you were the only one—like an alien dropped from the sky, left behind. But now there are more. They have similar sparks in their eyes. They share how, they too, once swallowed themselves whole, until the fire grew bigger and brighter. They know the same pain of being cracked open after so many years of containment. Together, you try to alert your brains to what your bodies remember. The hours and days and weeks of crying. Hearing the others wail in pain. Longing for the voice, scent, and milk of your mothers. The safety of her body before it went missing. The hope that she might come back. The shock of when she never does. How all of these things were supposed to be erased, but the body has a way of catching what drips from the mind and stores things in fragments.
Are you there? Do you know who you are? Can you feel that spark begging you to remember? Remember, she says. Don’t forget me.
Maybe I had it all wrong. Maybe it’s not who I once was, but a spark of my mother who put it there hoping someday I would find it.
This is not everyone’s adoption experience, but it’s mine.