Updated: Feb 14, 2021
The US and many other western cultures celebrate rugged individualism. While I admit that there’s something that seems heroic about “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps,” it rarely, if ever, happens as such and should not be an expectation. When we see a successful person, irrespective of whether they were born rich or poor, we can safely assume that someone was there to help them succeed. In fact, it’s likely that many people provided important instrumental support. While my own story might seem to fit the narrative ‘poor kid does good,’ I only take partial credit for any achievements I’ve made. Each of “my successes” has been a group effort in some important way. I was merely the main beneficiary of these efforts.
I don’t think it should be controversial to say that we’re vitally connected to one another. Our connections extend beyond instrumental support. We are nodes in a system of mutuality interacting on multiple levels. This belief is not inspired by any sort of mysticism or spirituality. Neither is it a matter of poetic optimism. We don’t need to believe in or wish for these connections – they simply are. They’re in our corpus – the stuff we’re made of and that which is required for us to continue to exist. When network connections are missing or disrupted, when people are separated, there are predictable negative consequences. So, it’s a matter of practicality that I contemplate the implications. And since I'm interested in societal impacts on health and illness, that’s where I focus.
Our health and well-being are inextricably tied to one another through both biological and social networks (consider the nature/nurture distinction) and these networks are dynamic systems. Characteristic of dynamic systems, there is a high sensitivity to initial conditions followed by intermittent critical and sensitive periods. What I mean is that what happens early in life can and often does have unpredictably large effects later in life. Early life traumas during infancy for example, often have effects that grow exponentially in magnitude and intensity until they are further exacerbated by subsequent traumas (to which they are already highly susceptible). Also, characteristic of dynamic systems, these are prone to chaos and unpredictability by even the smallest disruptions. We rely on a social system that is highly unstable. It is also very consequential. For some of us, that instability threatens us as early as the gestational period.
For adoptees like me, particularly inter-ethnic and international adoptees, important social connections have been severed in deep and profound ways. These are facts of my life and I don’t share them to seek sympathy but rather, I attempt to warn the next person running this obstacle course.
The pain of adoption is the pain of separation. These separations typically occur at the borders of the social onion; in between rings – where one layer meets the next. My poor, minority, immigrant, unmarried mother was compelled to abandon me by societal forces of separation. She didn’t have the economic independence to keep me. She was a disempowered woman in a patriarchal world. Her unmarried pregnant status was stigmatized and vilified. She was a dehumanized ethnic minority. She was pariah in Christendom. She was othered as a foreigner and a person lacking command of the dominant language. I feel confident speculating that her womb was both life-nourishing and toxic to me. I developed within a stressed body with unhealthy levels of hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, oxytocin, and norepinephrine. The forces of separation in society made her body unbalanced if not outright sick from stress and that was my gestational environment. My life began as an embodiment of separation.
The forces of separation took advantage of my weakened defenses. Abandonment by my mother was my first and likely most consequential trauma, but the increased vulnerability left in its wake was amplified by further acts of separation. My adoptive parents were neglectful and sometimes abusive. I was pitied as an adoptee. I was devalued as a minority. I was too short. Not tough enough for a boy. I was considered incapable by my teachers. When I got older, I was profiled by the police and given little leniency for any infractions committed. In my youth, few people were there to reflect my value or nurture my potential. As many minorities learn later in life, it didn't matter how well I followed the rules or how much I achieved anyway - I was told to just go back to where I came from, which my detractors supposed was Mexico or perhaps Puerto Rico, depending on where I was in the country. The specifics didn't matter though, it was clear that I was supposed to believe that I didn't belong here, wherever I was. Of course, I didn't come from anywhere. There was nowhere to return. At least not anywhere that would welcome me home.
Forces of separation attempt to pry us apart in places of social vulnerability, often at the group level. Race, class, gender, sexual orientation, compliance to dominant religious and political practices, social identities and other socially constructed forces conceal their eroding effects with invisibility by establishing themselves as “normal.” There arises the ideology of rugged individualism. It blames the victim of separation for their vulnerability as if there was a way to exist outside the social corpus, outside the human network.
All of these efforts to separate us are profound for the abandoned, relinquished, adopted and those who age out of foster care. Our losses have been rendered invisible by the dominant social narrative. We have not suffered a loss but instead have been rescued by adoptive parents or by institutions. As a consequence, many of us suffer from relationship problems throughout life as we are almost instinctively over-reliant on restoring or replacing those vital social connections that have been taken from us. We are desperate to belong.
In what Nancy Verrier referred to as the “Primal Wound,” the early life trauma of infant abandonment leaves an indelible mark on the psyche of the child. Newer research in neurobiology and neuropsychology provides evidence that these traumatic experiences can and do affect the autonomic response of the central nervous system to perceived threat. For many of us, a dysregulated stress response isn’t therefore simply the manifestation of a poor cognitive stress management system; it is a prolonged biological response to a life-threatening event - an act of separation.
The body doesn’t require conscious awareness of a threat to initiate a protective sequence of events. In fact, an unhappy reality of my life with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) is that my central nervous system shuts my body down prior to my awareness of any threat in an act of self-preservation. This response in myself and others with CPTSD is often compared to a reptile freezing in place or a possum playing dead when confronted by a dangerous predator. While these creatures may run away when they see the opportunity, lending evidence to the conclusion that they are merely playing dead, I am not as fortunate as the lizard or possum in my body’s response. I cannot flee. Without any awareness of a triggering event or present danger, my vasovagal system disrupts digestion, slows my heart rate by half or more, causes me to sweat profusely through every pore of my body, become disoriented and confused, and ultimately lose consciousness. I lie incapacitated for several hours or more. It is terrifying. Polyvagal theory, formulated by Stephen W. Borges, helps me understand my own long-term trauma reaction. My animalistic defenses are triggered and the ancient reptilian mind takes over the body.
So, while we are programmed to make deep and meaningful social connections at many levels of family and society, there are countervailing forces that seek to disrupt or sever these connections. I’ll leave examination of these corrosive forces for another time. But the the powers of disunity are real and ever-present. And, they must be vigilantly monitored and kept in check. I think social order requires a healthy human network where forces of disunity are seen as a cancer on the social corpus. Forces of separation and disunity harm as they separate. We grieve for our lost connections.
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