You Must Deal with Your Grief

I am driving in a beat-up old jeep I love. It’s not mine but belongs to my college boyfriend. We are driving cross country in celebration of my graduation from college and stopping at national parks and state parks to camp. I am largely silent, hidden inside myself. The windows are open and we are leaving behind the majestic smoky mountains of Tennessee.

The wind is soft on my face and hair. I am hesitantly happy, reservedly joyful, modestly expecting of the adventure that lies ahead. My college boyfriend was one of the very few good and kind men I have known. He was never a danger to me and yet, even then I could not fully relax, I was still in flight.

Jay turns to me at some point and says gently “I think maybe your adopted mother had a greater impact on you than you know and at some point, you’ll need to deal with that,” sparking immediate anger and resistance within me.
I am silent, a hollowed-out monk of a girl who had chopped off all her hair and starved herself to a body weight of a mere 102 pounds. I wish I could go back to that girl and teach her how to open up to this kind man who I would come to have meaningful once-in-a-lifetime adventures with. Our friendship included the kind of intimacy poverty, hunger, and youthful boundless idealism affords. We visited monasteries, climbed mountains, house-sat in hidden land reserves in Colorado towns whose population comprised of a couple dozen people. On the fourth of July, we sat on top of the old green jeep that had kept us safe for so much adventure and watched the fireworks and families of a small town in the mountain outside of Boulder, Colorado. We would have many days like this.

I knew I should have been happy but still all I felt was anxiety, locked inside myself, hiding and running. Over a decade later I look back on those memories with immeasurable love. I wish I had kept those memories safe, that I had pictures or some way to ensure time won’t take them from me.

How brave and idealistic we were. How free and wild and untamed. I will always love those sweet innocent memories.

But, Jay was right. I had demons inside me that I did not have the tools, experience, or wisdom yet to confront. So, I hid and ran. I ran marathons, I ran away from that relationship numerous times. I always found that movement equated to safety from my years in foster care. That if you stay moving, you can’t be caught. But it was more than that. I was consumed with a deep well of grief that I could not and would not confront.

People often dispense advice on this sort of thing, as though the person running is choosing to do so. If I could have chosen, I would never have run from the kindness and connection I had found in my friendship with Jay. It wasn’t a choice. It was a compulsion that I lacked the tools to address buried under decades of trauma that I hadn’t even begun to grieve. Over a decade later, I finally understand what he meant. I finally hear him.

I was adopted when I was a pre-teen. This is a part of my life I don’t talk about often. It’s a part of my life I have run from but never could figure out how to face. Northern Maine was my homeland, a unique remote and rural Acadian culture that defined so much of my internal landscape, until it wasn’t. I was placed in a potential adoptive home, several states and a couple days drive away, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Adoption is supposed to be something positive. You’re raised in foster care to want it, to work toward it, to earn it. But my adoption was anxiety inducing and it scared me. This removal from my homeland on the Canadian border was one of the reasons. Removed from everything I had known and every system of protection that had raised me, I was placed in a new state and a new system. And this is where I became a teenager. My adoptive parents were lower-middle class, on their way to middle-middle class, if fortune allowed. It did not.

Within a couple years my adoptive parents were separated and divorced. I lived with my adoptive mother. The courts no longer checked up on me. I was alone. With her.

I won’t go into detail here about the abuse I endured at the hands of my adoptive mother, abuse no one else witnessed, whose legacy, now that she is deceased, I am sole inheritor. I was a prisoner of my mother. Our jail was a cold, volatile, and loveless tomb. At 17, I moved out. By the time I was 18, she had disowned me and passed away from breast cancer. I never grieved it. I just kept running. Running from that house, running from her voice in my head, running from the world I had known and lost more times than I could count.

When she died and left me to do the work of closure on my own, I ended up taking scissors and cutting my hair off. That was my only act of grief. Something inside me locked up. Something inside me pushed hard to work, to fight, to run, to prove her ghost wrong. But, never did it allow me to grieve those terrible years where I was kept captive by her, the one place she could put all her hatred and bitterness at a world that had failed to give her the life she had wanted.

In running, I was propelled by a desperate desire to succeed and to survive the obstacle course that only teenagers and young adults without parental support or guidance can understand. I faced the indifference of the world armed only with decades of trauma and my own sense of purpose. My mother had not given me a penny and my adopted father was no longer a truly active figure in my life, consumed by his own demons. So, as I ran toward the mountain and began hurtling myself toward the top in order to reach a place where survival was possible and homelessness a little further away, I shut down all unnecessary parts of myself. Even more so than I had in my previous life in those foster homes.

I don’t talk about this part of my life because it broke my heart and set me on a course of relentless hard work for decades. I began working fulltime at 14 and haven’t stopped except the occasional lull between jobs when I was with one partner or another. When does one have time to grieve?

But today, as I am facing a year anniversary of escaping my abusive ex-fiancé, who reminded me so strongly of my adopted mother, I know it finally time to begin the work of grieving. Grieving the loss of the last bit of my childhood, the loss of hope that love could be something unconditional rather than earned and grieving for the child I was who never got her happy ending and who had no choice but to hide inside herself all her life.

Unspent grief can haunt your life in unexpected ways. It can show up in relationships that mirror unresolved problems beyond just intimate relationships. Unspent grief can show up in work relationships, friendships, life patterns including sleeping and eating and basic daily functions. It does for me. It defines my life, this sadness inside me defines every molecule of my life.

This past week, when something didn’t go well at work, I spent days not sleeping. When I did sleep, I woke up covered in sweat in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep. The anxiety I feel in response to relatively benign disagreements isn’t a healthy response. It’s rooted in my unspent grief. In my fear of failure, my complicated relationship with authority, all because I am still running inside. Running away from the cage of victimhood that bound me and grew stronger throughout my childhood. When you’re running inside, your anxiety defines your responses and your ability to think clearly is hindered. You are still operating emotionally from a place similar to when it was you first began running.

So today, nearing the one-year anniversary of my escape from my ex-finance, so much like my former adopted mother, I begin the long road of grieving. Of feeling the pain I had denied in hopes of one day letting go of her ghost. It will be a long and hard road. But I am hopeful.