The Price of Healing
Pam Cordano & Anne HefFron Write
Anne Heffron and I recently created an adoptee retreat. A dream for both of us. As an adoptee, I’ve attended and facilitated many non-adoptee retreats, and the little adoptee in me has always benefitted, but privately, because the retreats had nothing specifically to do with adoption. So to create a retreat centered on the healing of adoptees—Wow! How cool is that?!
Two things happened after Anne posted our retreat invitation on Facebook. First, a woman emailed me privately asking how I’ve healed enough to help other adoptees. Let me just say upfront that my adoption was complicated. I was born, neglected, starved and physically abused for 6 months before being adopted. A good Samaritan psychiatrist had me removed from my mother 3 times in 1965 before CPS was formed. He probably saved my life. Needless to say, I have a traumatized brain and have had a lot to overcome. By 6 months I had stopped crying and smiling, so it took a while to get my face and body unfrozen. But healing myself and others as much as possible is my passion, my life’s work. And I believe in it.
Second, several people posted that the retreat is expensive. I have sat with this feedback for two days. My response is, adoption is tremendously hard on us. And the cultural confusion of calling trauma a blessing twists the knife that’s already in our guts. Healing this double whammy is a big deal. And Healing is expensive. And Not Healing is more expensive. We have to find the right people to help us, the right modalities, and we have to stick with it over time. Paying money to heal is an investment in the whole self—the body, the quality of relationships, empowerment for the future. And finding where we want to do that is a calling. Like, this retreat will “call” you if it’s the right retreat and the right timing for you.
After my adoptive parents died 5 years ago, I had a really hard time, fell into a familiar pit of drinking alcohol, isolation and panic. I heard about an opportunity to go with a medical team to Ethiopia to help care for villagers who had no access to basic healthcare. I paid over $3,000 to do this, because I felt “called.” As an adoptee, it was helpful to be among others in the world who had almost nothing, who were hungry and had an average lifespan of only 42 years. My adoptee eyes needed to see destitution. To my astonishment, I experienced deep joy and generosity in the Ethiopians, which opened me to a deeper knowing of the inner strength we humans carry within us, despite the most dire circumstances.
So I believe in healing. And I wanted to write a more detailed response to the woman who asked what it takes. And I want to talk more about why it’s worth spending money on. I wrote this when I woke up this morning for all of us.
Adoptees, What Does it Take to Heal?
1. The Right People
We can’t heal on an island. We got hurt IN relationship, and we must heal IN relationship. This is one of the primary reasons we go to such lengths to find our biological families: We want to heal with their help. We want to find out in relationship that we are worthy, wanted, lovable and that we belong to something larger than ourselves. That our lives hold meaning. If we don’t find the Right People to help us, if we find the wrong people, whether they are biological families, therapists, partners or friends, we get hurt more.
How do we know who the Right People are? The Right People give us space for our whole experience. They don’t try to prematurely pressure us to pull it together. They are open to parts of us that they don’t understand firsthand. We can breathe when we are with them. We find out over time the other shoe isn’t going to drop. We learn they will navigate misunderstandings and conflicts with us. They are stable enough within themselves to be stable with us. Right People are essential in our healing.
2. A Calmer Nervous System
Traumatized brains and bodies are jacked up. They startle easily, don’t sleep well, have digestive issues and headaches. They get sick and injured easily. They dip into anxiety and depression and have a hard time coming out. They hurt. They are hard to live in, like a too-tight suit. They hear shark music when they are on land. They’re ready to get hurt around each corner.
Traditionally it’s “the mom” who, by soothing us as babies, teaches us in relationship to sooth ourselves, to regulate our stress. If our infancy is infused with trauma and chaos, we are so busy in survival mode that we don’t build the mother/baby inner soother. This is where the addictive relationship substitutes come in: Alcohol, cigarettes, pills, weed, social media, TV, shopping, work. All of these have a soothing function, though they are outside the realm of relationship and ultimately don’t build a healthy inner soother. They keep us dependent on an inanimate source outside ourselves, and they keep us stuck in our current state of functioning.
3. Healthy Habits
Building inner stability through healthy habits can feel impossible. That’s because the unhealthy habits are literally holding us together. They are our soothers. Without them, we fear we might truly lose it. To heal, bit by bit, we need to learn to find other ways to cope with our trauma, to lessen the grip on outside inanimate objects and patterns that keep us numb and stuck.
How do we start? Small steps like sleep hygiene, walks (any left/right/left/right exercise is soothing), and adding in food that is truly nourishing can help and start us moving in the direction of healing our traumatized systems.
A few years ago I started working with a psychiatrist who specializes in healing the brain. The first thing he wanted to do was calm my (adoptee) nervous system. He gave me medication to get me to sleep. He gave me anxiety pills for panic. Healing can only happen when we are in a calm state, when we start to feel safe. That’s the state of mind when new possibilities can reach us. Our trauma state acts like an electric fence, keeping healing change outside. We need to find help to settle ourselves.
4. Commitment, Investment, Money (AKA Courage)
The pursuit to heal is no joke. It takes, time, money, and persistence. The clients I’ve seen over the years, adopted or not, who really really want to heal are passionate about it; urgent about it, knowing that if they don’t heal, they will die; either really die or just succumb to a life of numbness and despair. These Heal or Die clients put therapy money above luxuries. They work more to afford help. They even take out loans. Sometimes they come in twice a week. They start to listen to their inner healing voice, the one that’s there under the trauma. Their inner potential for healing starts to unfold.
I’m one of these clients. My therapist charges $250/hour (ouch!), but it’s worth every dime. How do you put a price tag on changing the quality of your life, accessing your dreams? I also spent 5 years going quarterly to a retreat in Santa Barbara with an excellent teacher. It was incredibly expensive, but it opened doors. I found inner joy and fun again, not just from being rebellious and causing trouble, but the joy that comes from being safe in the moment with the Right People.
I still have issues, of course. I’m an adoptee, after all. I overreact, make parenting mistakes, hate my birthday, get stuck playing phone games, and I drink too much coffee and isolate on bad days. But overall, I have so much more access to joy and feeling like I want to be here. That my life is worthwhile and meaningful. That I have power to create the life I want.
People who really want to heal are willing to have their whole lives turned upside down if that’s what it takes. After all, isn’t that what adoptees are reeling from in the first place? Having our lives turned upside down with relatively no family or cultural witness? Healing can get messy before it gets better, like cleaning a garage or lancing an infection before sewing it back up. Healing can get ugly. Friendships can get lost, relationships can end. We might find out our biological families aren’t the Right People.
Healing is being willing to set out into uncharted waters with a glimmer of faith that it will be worth it. That the Right People, a calmer nervous system, and sustainable joy are possible for all of us. If you’re stuck in pain and isolation, I hope you’ll gather your courage and begin. The world needs us.
Pamela Cordano, MFT is a psychotherapist and adoptee who specializes in cultivating resilience and meaning with people facing illness and loss. Inspired by Viktor Frankl, she is passionate about the power of identifying and embodying what is meaningful, which allows for increased vitality and new possibilities. She leads weekly Meaning Groups in her private practice and facilitates workshops locally and internationally. www.pamelacordanomft.com
My way of handling pain or distress for most of my life was to turn away from everyone, dig a hole (or use the hole I dug which caused the distress in the first place) and bury myself in it.
This helped to reinforce my feeling of isolation and my belief that, at the end of the day, no one really had my back.
If you look up the definition of “a good life” I’m pretty sure you won’t find a picture of a woman in a self-dug hole turning her back to the world. It’s what I knew. And, for the first 50 or so years of my life it sort of worked.
And then something happened: I woke up to the fact that adoption had, in fact, affected almost everything about how I lived my life and I felt the pain of relinquishment and loss that I’d only felt in strange, unidentifiable ways before (nearly constant stomachache and headaches, the inability to stay married, stay in one place, stay in a job, be in my skin, etc. etc.) and I had no idea what to do next. It didn’t matter how deep I dug the hole or how long I stayed in it. I couldn’t feel okay.
I don’t know why this is, but time and time again when I hear people say they think they are at rock bottom, I get happy because I know the miracles are about to start. I know that rock bottom means you ain’t seen nothing yet. There is gold in that bottom, and, amazingly enough, light.
I had a writing teacher who told me every story is a variation of the story a stranger came to town. I think this is often part of the miracle of hitting bottom. A stranger comes to town. In AA, I guess it’s a higher power. In my life it was Kitty Stockett, author of The Help. (God or whoever is playing the game of us up in the sky is not subtle.) I get teary just typing her name. I just can’t believe it all happened.
What happened is that I had used all the money I did not have to go to a writer’s retreat in Montana. I learned nothing about writing I did not already know, and the promise that I would learn how to write my book if I went also fell flat, but what did happen was that I met a handful of inspirational and loving women who are still in my life, and I met Kitty Stockett who offered me her New York apartment if I ever wanted to take a week or two to myself and write there. At the time, I told her politely thank you but no thank you. I’d used all my resources to get to Montana and actually didn’t even have a book to write as that trip had made clear.
Actually, I’m not telling you the whole truth. Let me back up. Something else happened at the retreat. Each night a few people were chosen to read anything they’d written to the group. I found this time painful as people were so earnest, so hungry for an audience. All I could hear was love me love me love me as they read their stories, and I didn’t want to sound like that, so needy, so hopeful that my writing would validate my life. I decided to read something small and funny, something that would show I wasn’t trying to impress anyone. I would read a silly little story I wrote a few weeks earlier, a story I’d written on flashcards with stick-figure drawings. I figured I’d get some laughs and that would be that.
So I was a little surprised that after the first couple of cards, people drew closer. It started feeling like story hour in romper room as I read card after card and people reacted. At one point, the leader of the retreat said, Could you hand that card to Bill so Bill could read it? I looked at Bill and saw that he was crying. I handed him the card and he breathed his way through the reading. It was about identity. When I was done, many people were wiping away tears. I was flabbergasted. My body felt numb.
The story was the first thing I’d written about my birth mother and me. I had woken up one morning knowing in my body what it had felt like to be born and to have my mother disappear. It frightened me at the time, and I wanted to back away from the tears and fear but, for some reason, I convinced myself to stay with the imagined memory and I saw myself being born, saw myself being taken from her, saw myself grow up without her. And then I did the most radical thing I’d ever done. I let myself write about it. It felt as though I was breaking every law in the book, and I softened the story by drawing stick figures of me, my birth mother, my parents. I made it sort of jokey.
The day after I read my story to the group in Montana, Kitty offered me her apartment.
The reason I first skipped telling you about reading my story is because I don’t want you to say the promise made to me that I’d find out how to write my book if I gave all the money I had was fulfilled. I want you to have the same sense of what a scam I have without the knowing, as I do, that really it wasn’t a scam, that, really, giving all the money I had to go to that retreat was the best thing, aside from getting pregnant, that I’ve even done for myself. I don’t want to fully own just how expensive it was to follow my dreams, to take care of me. I want to say, Yeah, I paid all my money to go to a retreat, but it was taken from me. I don’t want to own the fact that I chose to go to that retreat, chose to hand over all my money, and benefitted mightily because of this choice. I also am avoiding laying claim to the story. To the fact that I not only lived it but had the courage to tell it. I even had my nephew record me reading it and I posted it on YouTube to make it real, to make it something I could not run from. Sometimes I forget I did this.
Better to play the victim than the true agent of change.
That is craziness. And I’m done with craziness, so this is what I’m going to tell you: I paid all the money I had to go on a writing retreat and it changed the course of my life and, aside from birthing my child, it was the most powerful choice I’d ever made. (Did I choose to birth my child? I most certainly did.)
The three months (!!!) I spent at Kitty’s apartment were amazing. It was like being in the most beautiful womb, and it was all mine. Virginia Woolf knew what she was talking about when she wrote A Room of One’s Own. You give a woman (anyone) a piece of THAT real estate (uh, man cave and…what for women? the kitchen, still?) and watch what happens. People THRIVE on room to breathe, room to grow, room to think, room to create.
If I could give what I got from both the retreat and from Kitty, I would. And so that is why I asked Pam Cordano if she would do a retreat with me. I figured if I found a beautiful space and someone with crazy-wild supportive, innovative, wall-busting ideas and therapeutic skills, maybe with my own intuitive approach to helping people hear their own voice and story, in four days we could create a whole lot of flipping magic.
And so we’re doing it and I’m over the moon. I’m so over the moon I’m touching other planets.
Going to New York and writing You Don’t Look Adopted wasn’t about the book. It was about writing the book so I could do this, the work I love most: getting people to tell their stories. It was what I was born to do. I did it with my mom, and now I will do it with you.
When I finally met my birth father, he said the thing that made him convinced he had to meet me was the video I’d posted on YouTube. He said to himself, I have to meet her, the one that wrote that story, the one that lived that story.
And so, because of my writing, the thing I was often afraid made me wrong and bad, I got to hug my birth father.
This feels like a miracle.
The story I wrote and read in Montana is here