The Silent Witness

I'm sure you've heard the words, "History is only a matter of interpretation." As they emerged out of an unconscious place the words in my poem above spoke my interpretation of life, my personal myth as an adopted person. When they came through me some 14 years ago I had no real understanding of the intensity of my feelings in relation to my adoption and what I've come to feel and speak of as my original loss; that of my birth mother.

Whether adopted or not it would appear an intrinsic human need to acknowledge, to ritualise the important stages of transition encountered during our unique journey and life experiences: birth, naming, first day at school, pubescence, birthdays, marriage, death, etc. However for those of us impacted, in whatever way by adoption, not only is there no widely spoken shared understanding of our experience and more importantly our loss, but there is no societally acknowledged ritual (I haven't found one, instead I've created them), that enables us to acknowledge, understand, mourn and integrate that loss; and moving on from that encourages a celebration of the joys experienced within our adoptive families. It is my belief that un-mourned loss is the unspoken curse carried by all whose lives have been affected by adoption. I might add that I do not use the word curse lightly.

Thinking of writing about loss I found myself feeling afraid. Examining that fear, I felt it to be a fear of exposure; exposure to what, to my self, my vulnerability or is it the exposure of my loss not just to the world, but to myself? As I meditated on this fear, the word to emerge was - Judgement. I realised that no matter where or from whence the feeling of judgement came, it placed me again in what felt like a very tenuous position. The position, the 'place' of original loss which within the emotional memory of the baby I once was, meant psychic death. The talons of the fear that grip me, are a bodily reminder of my earliest experience of separation, loss and the possibility of not only psychic, but physical death.

I wondered if there were voices attached to my fear and I returned to the Scotland of my childhood and two dour strict authoritarian people - Great Aunt Jessie, Uncle Dan, - who made me feel that my very existence was a bother. "Get out of here you brown brute," the only words ever spoken to me by a man more accustomed to communicating with his dogs and sheep than with human beings. It wasn't until the mid 1980's on a trip back to Lewis, my island in the North Atlantic, that I discovered some of the reasons behind their behaviour, why my presence disturbed them so.

The great aunt and uncle whose coldness and denial made my childhood quite miserable, had in their youth - probably in the 1920's - had a child 'out of wedlock' and given her up for adoption. They had subsequently married, so in essence the child was 'given up' for nothing. Not really for nothing within that Presbyterian society, but in order to comply with the self-righteous, puritanical mindset that governed the life of everyone on that bleak and barren little island. As the adopted child of their beloved niece, I was the physical manifestation of both the island's collective and Dan and Jessie's worst nightmares, their guilt, as well as their own hidden unspoken sexuality and passion. I hated to be left with them, to be without my mother amidst that palpable denial. I am not suggesting for a moment that any of this behaviour was conscious, but somewhere they felt that if I and my individuality were denied, suppressed, discouraged, I wouldn't be such a visible, saw to their wounds. There was no physical or sexual abuse, nothing tangible to grip onto and no words, no language, no place for me, that child, to go to speak my experiences freely or to have them heard.

Although it occurred long before I had any (verbal) language for it, loss and I became attached. After all it was all that remained of both my birth mother and later, my adoptive mother - who died when I was fourteen. It became my closest and most constant companion. The truth was, loss became my Mother. As you might imagine, this attachment played itself out, perpetuated itself in my relationships. I was addicted to loss. Because I had to maintain the status quo - that I would ultimately be left alone - I of course chose partners, friends, relationships of all kinds whose intrinsic way of being would ensure my required outcome - LOSS. The intense impact of my early experience lived with me preventing me from integrating my body, my emotionality and my intellect. Yes, all these aspects functioned, but not together. I was caught in a bind - If I allowed myself to acknowledge, then everything might just crumble, I might disintegrate. Too young to have any language for my experience I couldn't 'articulate ' the psychic mark, but over the years, particularly at moments of stress, my body 'spoke' to me and the world.

Often I had asked myself - "what is worse than the loss of one's mother?" Repeatedly my inner voice responded, "the loss of one's child." A mother myself I recognise the flag of that truth as it resonates and continues to fly over me. Human children are all dependent upon their primary caregivers for longer than any other living creature on this Earth. What happens to the child and the mother when that intrinsic human need is denied? In more ways than we can ever imagine, grief, feelings of profound loss and often depression accompany that separation. To differing degrees we all experience these emotions when 'separating out' from our parents in the process of ongoing development. For the adopted child these events can reopen the original wound, a pain for which the adopted child often doesn't have a language or words.

Psychotherapist and Writer Alice Miller, felt that 'depression is the inability to grieve.' Just because the loss is disavowed: "I'm fine, I've been really lucky, I could have ended up in an orphanage, I'm really grateful, my adoptive parents love me very much;" or isn't spoken of at all, doesn't mean it goes away. Instead it appears uninvited at the most inauspicious moments impacting us repeatedly just like the Thirteenth fairy in the tale of Sleeping Beauty, until some kind of acknowledgement, grieving, mourning and re-awakening can take place.

The King 'forgot' to invite the Thirteenth Fairy to the christening party of his beautiful, long-awaited and much loved princess. Each fairy bestowed a gift upon the child: health, happiness, cleverness, etc, until the time came for the twelfth to speak. At that moment, the thirteenth, very angry and uninvited fairy, burst into the room. "You shall have my gift, although I wasn't invited to the christening." Turning to the baby she said, "when you are fifteen you shall prick your finger with a spindle and fall down dead." Fortunately the twelfth fairy who hadn't yet given her gift was able to relieve the intensity of the curse - instead of dying, the princess fell into a deep sleep. In her sleep she dreamed of being awakened by the kiss of a loved one. Mourning our loss can help us to cut down the thorny briars on the road to our re-awakening.

As a practicing therapist I have heard myself say to clients, "It isn't enough to understand your story at a conscious level, an inner bodily 'gnoing' is a crucial element of the understanding." I was reminded of this when along with the increasing clarity regarding my relationship to loss and a conscious working towards giving up my need for lack, came another bodily experience; one which I can't say was welcome - my hair began falling out. My (wisdom) body - the one holding those earliest memories, had to find its way to express the loss which had occurred before there was language for it. Reading this now you may think it all sounds too esoteric, exaggerated, extreme, but it is how I have come to speak and understand my experience. It is my personal truth. A lifetime of loss came to a head - quite literally.

Mourning can't take place until the loss is acknowledged, but how do we mourn something we've lost when more often than not and for myriad reasons: the original loss occurred not only pre-verbally, but pre-conceptually; it has no form other than symptoms. Then there is the fear of hurting someone, fear of rejection, plain old denial - our loss can't be acknowledged? Birth parents, adoptive parent/s and the children are locked into a psychic triangle, which they can do no more than bear silent witness to. Regardless of place and time, the beginning of each relationship in this complex triangle encompasses loss. The Mother who for whatever reason relinquishes her child believing it to be the 'best' situation for all concerned; the child who is adopted into another family not of his/her blood and the adoptive family who possibly are unable, or choose not, for a multitude of complex reasons to have their own children - all in their own way can't allow the adoption to be spoken of or if they do, it is not actually 'seen' or spoken of in its entirety. Even after their death, my personal desire not to hurt my parents, in reality my fear of their rejection, of again experiencing my original abandonment pervaded my life and prevented me from truly examining exactly what being adopted meant for me.

In a dream I heard the words, "What is the dream held within the emotional experience of the child?" I think for me the dream was to know that we can move beyond the loss, beyond that gap. I'd like to share with you a Wise Woman's gift I will always treasure.

"You know loss isn't the only legacy from your birth mother, Jan."

"Really, what else then?"

"She gave you breath."

With that gift there was an ending - and a beginning. Instead of focussing on the loss I can focus upon the breath and continuously bring myself back to it and express thanks. Yes, ritual, visualisation, therapy, studies and my ongoing work as a therapist have all played a part in my awareness and understanding, but Wise Friends, quiet moments and the simplest words are the greatest gifts to anyone on life's journey.

The Silent Witness has had life breathed into her.



Posted on 24 July 2006 in - Library - Family and Parenting - Grief and Loss

Jan Campbell-Thompson


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