Though it’s taken a good two months to do it, I’m finished with Patricia’s case study; this post may be considered a sort of post-game wrap-up, a terminal staffing of Patricia’s case. Although Patricia is a composite, she is a reliable composite of real clients. I never worked with a surrendering birth mother who wasn’t devastated afterward, who didn’t regret it, and who didn’t long for her lost baby every day thereafter. Though some turned to addictions to numb their pain and thus mask it, the pain was always there. Though Patricia runs, she can never run far enough away from what she has done.
I had several clients like Patricia, clients who would never have given their children up for adoption had they been healthy people, for when they gave up their babies they sealed themselves in a special kind of purgatory reserved for birth mothers. They made sure that they would be punished for the rest of their lives for being who they were, for the choices they had made.
By this, I don’t mean to say that no mother should ever outsource her parenting to another couple or that a birth mother’s pain must be eternal and unending. I am all in favor of adoption when parents won’t get their acts together or simply do not want to raise an accidental baby. Babies and small children get one childhood, and that childhood is short. If they don’t have healthy parents, children will be psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally maimed. All of us will pay the price. This is why, I think, the Old Testament states that the father’s sins are revisited by the third and fourth generations. In family therapy, when we do a genogram, we can see how patterns are, in fact, continued through three or four generations. Absent a healing, wounds are transmitted as surely as DNA. And I know for certain that every person alive is able to receive healing, able to be saved, eminently redeemable. I don’t mean to say that adoption is bad, that it causes an incurable wound.
What I do mean to say is that adoption and having one’s children removed to foster care occur as the result of a terrible fracture in the bones of a family. Breaks in relationship are symptoms. What caused the adoption or state intervention cannot possibly be a good thing. After having children themselves, even adult adoptees raised by the best possible adoptive parents will say that they can’t imagine giving their own child away. They say they would do whatever it takes to keep their children, and they do.
It’s Not About Adoption
But Patricia’s story is not merely about adoption. It would be easy to dismiss her study because adoption isn’t part of our lives. We’re not so wounded that we’ve cast away our own flesh and blood, we’ll say. We’re better off than that.
I think we should not be so hasty to pat ourselves on the back, because to whatever extent you or I were wounded, complexed, tied up in knots (as Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh would put it), to that extent we too need healing and we too have passed on our wounds to our children. You will always see it when your children grow up, find partners, marry, have children and careers. You’ll see it in their friendships or lack of them, their mishaps, the conflicts they have with others, in what they do with their success.
One of the best examples of applied case history I’ve written was in “Talisman,” where I showed how Amanda’s wound, “Trailer Trash,” manifested itself in her life despite her extensive efforts to do other than what her parents had done. In middle age, she is very much like her parents were. The addictions have been cleaned up and are socially acceptable, and the chaos she creates in her life is chaos in the name of Good (work, helping others, etc.), but the effects are the same. There is no peace, no place of security or safety in her household, no order, very little nurture, no time to slow down, no insight or wisdom, no true spirituality.
I could give you a hundred examples, for I’ve seen it in every life of every walking wounded I know, including in my own life. We do it until we’re free, as I wrote in “Talisman.” It can be as obvious as the adult child of the alcoholic marrying an alcoholic. It can be as subtle as the survivor of sexual abuse growing up and appearing to be the picture of mental health, yet choosing to raise her own children in a neighborhood where the highest number of registered sex offenders live within a square mile of her home. It can be as subtle as the social worker who rationalizes her inhuman work schedule by saying she’s doing necessary work, helping the needy, while ignoring the fact that her own children see her no more often than she saw her own parents, and are no more known by her as a mother than she was by her own largely emotionally (if not physically) absent mother.
The Good Enough Family
Sometimes people whose families looked good enough from the outside, and who had average or above-average opportunities but impoverished relationships fare the worst. Stan and Anita grew up in such families. Each had a high-functioning addict or personality-disordered parent; each parent divorced and remarried one or more times, using all the energy that should have been given to the children for the new romance. Each went to summer camp, lived in nice homes. They attended private schools and good universities, were members of fraternal societies and religious clubs. They were the pictures of success and ripe potential until they married. Then, though each continued to exhibit outward success–good careers, nice home, good cars–they and their marriage fell apart.
Like many upwardly mobile, intelligent young people, they sought good help and received it, spending thousands of hours and dollars on therapy. They improved and became better. But as soon as they decided to have children, they each compulsively began to re-create the very picture of disonnectedness and relational poverty with which they were raised. Like the sexual abuse survivor who moved to the nice town house in the midst of an area rife with sex offenders, they moved to a neighborhood surrounded by ghetto. In their one square mile radius were three halfway houses for addicts, nine bars, and numerous prostitutes and drug dealers. Their historic neighborhood was beautiful, but it was surrounded by a virtual war zone. They had chosen for their children a picture that was, in effect, exactly what had been given them by their own parents: the appearance of plenty surrounded by constant threats, impoverishment, and disconnectedness from intimate, supportive, and nurturing family relationships. They scorned the typical suburban neighborhoods their peers and family members chose because “normal” and “typical” had no appeal for their deepest, still impoverished selves. That part of themselves had not yet been called from the tomb; its stink was inevitable.
Unless a Grain of Wheat Falls Into the Ground and Dies
This is what we do. We get enough health to feel better, look better, and function better. But we do not heal the wound, because the wound is never healed until we die. We can die metaphorically, as Jesus and Buddha said we must, or we can die physically after living an entire lifetime unhealed and unwhole. But die we must. We know we’re not dead when we fight for our lives over things, when we cannot yield, when we just know we’re right and the other person is wrong, when we must have our own way.
I don’t believe in trying to stop people who are in the throes of a compulsion. Just as Liz tried to help Patricia become conscious to what she was doing to herself, and to how she was re-creating patterns, we can warn people. In fact, I believe that when we see others endangering themselves we’re spiritually obliged to try to warn them off. This is not easy to do in friendships or family relationships, and it’s not easy to do even when you’re a healer being paid to help others heal. But warn we must, with fear and trembling, looking to ourselves first lest we throw our own garbage onto our neighbor’s lawn. We must stop short of complusion in our insistence.
“If the unbelieving one wants to leave, let him leave,” Saint Paul wrote. If others must give in to their compulsions, then we must let them do it wholeheartedly until they are finished living their wounds. This is what Patricia did, and it’s what nearly every client does, at first. They do it at major milestones in the most reliable ways. Only a fortunate and stubborn few come back for more healing and eventually make it through to wholeness. This may be what Jesus meant when He said that the road to life was narrow, and few, very few, are those who are on it. The way to destruction is broad, and very, very many are on it. That’s what He said. He said we are statistically unlikely to avoid the wrong road.
I believe that one reason why Christians–and indeed all who live in religious communities–are taught to live in community and to avoid schisms is because it’s impossible to avoid schisms without dying to oneself. We all want our own way. We must have it. We cannot yield when under compulsion, when controlled by forces bigger to us than God. Even God yields. So it was that Saint Paul said, “All things are lawful to me, but I will not be controlled by anything.” When we see our children, our friends, ourselves compulsively enter marriages that others warn against, compulsively move away, compulsively insist that they will do this, do that, buy this, take that risk, and have their way, this is when we know that it is no longer love at work, but law. Love yields, suffers long, is patient and kind. Love can give the other person his turn first. There is no substitute for real love. Once you know it, you can never be fooled by a forgery.
The problem is that all too many people have never seen real love. They don’t know it, so they are fooled by forgeries. I’ve heard that when law enforcement agents are taught how to recognize counterfeit bills, they are given real bills to handle and smell first. Sadly, though, to the person who was raised with counterfeits, the counterfeit always feels right. Counterfeits feel more comfortable after you’ve lived with them for over 20 years. If even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light, we can be pretty sure that lesser compulsions will disguise themselves in pretty packages, too. They may seem and feel right; we may be able to get others to agree with us that what’s wrong is, in fact, right.
Before going ahead, though, we should ask what our healers, our shamans, our priests and confessors advise. Are peace and joy leading us forth, as the Prophet Isaiah said they would? Or are we like Patricia, determined to do what we must?