The Flying Circus Inside My Head
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The Flying Circus Inside My Head

The mother who raised me was an addict. She and my father adopted me, but I’m not sure why. In 1962 when you got married, you started a family. Those were the rules. Never mind that my mother had already begun her dark slide into depression and addiction. The dual burdens that would haunt her psyche and mine for the formative years of our intertwined lives.

Now, as an adult, it is impossible for me to separate the effects of growing up adopted from the problems of being raised with addiction.

See one of Monty Python’s Flying Circus cartoons with my head in the center. The cartoon image springs to life and takes a can opener to me. Creak, creak, creak, and pops my head open like a Pez dispenser. Two hands come down into my brain and start rummaging around in the muck that is me. Two signs sit to the left and right – one says adoption, the other addiction. A hand pulls out one pile of goo and vacillates, wobbling between the two sides – which pile to put this in? Let’s go with adoption. Another scoop comes out, same routine, we’ll plop this mess onto the addiction slop. Lack of trust – glop. Abandonment – drop that over here. Fear of loss – squish. On it goes.

My brain bits now oozing all over, the only thing I can be certain of is that I’m not sure it matters. My inner being, that little girl – she just needs to heal herself now as an adult. I’m uncertain if there is value in sorting through it all to define which traits come from where. My job is to become whole again despite the trauma.

When I was little, I took ballet and gymnastics classes at the St. Claire Dance Studio. We had a practice room with bars, and in one section was a glass windowed lounge with folding chairs where our parents could watch us. I’d be dancing around, springing into the air in my best Tour Jete, and like all the other little girls, hope my mother was watching. Mine never was. She always sat there with her book, reading, not seeing. No matter what I did or how well, she never took the time to take in the scene, make eye contact, or give me that smile. She sat. Her head bowed down.

She cared more about books than she did about me. She cared more about her coping mechanisms than about anyone else.

When growing up, it was as if I had two mommies. One was the happy-faced mommy with her mask fully in place. She acted normal, engaged, smiled, and was fun to be around. Mommy number two was raging, crying, screaming at I-didn’t-know-what mommy. Or she wouldn’t get out of bed. I never knew from day to day, or even morning to night, which one would be waiting for me. She managed herself with prescription drugs and alcohol. Daily, mom swigged uppers, downers, and everything in-betweeners, capped off with drinks in the evening. But of course, as a child, I knew none of this.

By fifth grade, I was in soccer, a mixed co-ed team of gangly youngsters, and both of my parents went to the games every Saturday. My father at the sidelines cheered us on with the other parents. But my mom sat in the camp chair she would bring and read her book. After, my friends and I would pile into the back seat with my parents up front, and as we eagerly recounted the game’s events, mom wouldn’t even know what had happened – if we’d won or lost. My friends noted her odd behavior and asked why she bothered to come. I couldn’t answer because, from my seat, I couldn’t understand why she had adopted me.

Her love was missing – it wasn’t where I needed it to be. As an adopted child, you worry you are not good enough, that someone did not want you. Love, logic, or will cannot overcome that constant companion. We need our adoptive parents aware of these truths so much more than most people understand.

The universe tries to deliver gifts of love to each of us. But you must grasp those precious gems when they arrive. If you miss them, that love will skip past you like flat stones across the surface of a hard, still, lake. They ripple and disturb the surface but cannot be held onto and absorbed. Instead, those gifts will run at you across the universe and streak past. But eventually, that stone runs out of energy and sinks to the bottom. Unused, it dissolves – dead weight taking up space.

I became like that hard, still, lake. Those were my coping mechanisms.

Since no love was directed toward me from my mother, I anchored myself to others. I made friends easily and busied myself with their lives, a better substitute for mine, I was certain. For my mother, I made no room for her at all. As a typically rebellious teen, I directed nothing toward her but my pain. I couldn’t trust her with anything else.

I’ve heard it said that there are two primary emotions – anger and sadness – those are the strongest. What was coming out of me was anger, but what was lurking underneath was sadness. Grief.

Grief that I felt so completely unloved and alone inside despite looking like I was busy, popular, and fitting in well at school. Resentment that no matter what I did, I never felt safe. Not that someone would hurt me, but I could not let my pain show anywhere, ever. That did not fit the narrative that we were a happy, perfect little family.

As adoptees, we are told on one hand that our noble, suffering birth mother loved us so much that she gave us up for someone else to raise. We are also simultaneously told that we are chosen, special, and wanted by our parents. So then love gives you away, and love also wants you but, in my case, rejects you. That is just one epic head-screw if there ever was one.

When I was fifteen, my mother lifted herself up and began her journey to being clean and sober. When I was young, I hated her for her weakness, but the truth is that she was strong. I learned that she had her own mean-spirited, narcissistic alcoholic mother from whom she needed to heal.

As an adult, I know my addict mom wasn’t rejecting me and that she loved me in her own way very much. She just didn’t feel that she had anything to give. I believe this is true had I been her natural child or her adopted one. A different source, same outcome.

Reconciling those truths is one of the most important journeys we, as adoptees, need to trek. Our parents are as flawed and as messed up as anyone else’s. Our society must understand that adoption does not make a perfect family. It creates a human one. There are complexities and nuances to this that coexist while remaining contradictory. Like a crazy, misunderstood flying circus swinging away inside our heads.

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  • Oh my God sweetheart she sounded like her/my my mother. Not sure which was worse. Ours who didn’t attend or yours who was just there physically. Your descriptive language is wonderful. I am so impressed.

  • As adoptees, we do have to reconcile disparate truths. We have biological mothers who gave us up for whatever reason or reasons, biological fathers who may never know or never knew we even exist. We have flawed and human adopted parents who have their own childhood baggage to unpack and resolve as best as is possible. Love is hard and messy. Adoption is also. The beauty of of it comes when we open up and share. That is when the healing can start. For some, the process is short. For others, it is a long, arduous road that seems to go on forever. Thank you for being open and honest about jour journey on this road.