When I turned 29 last June, I decided to find out why birthdays were hard. Growing up Korean in an adoptive white family, I often felt out of place. As a child, I asked for a mint chocolate chip ice cream cake from Baskin Robbins for my birthdays. When it was time to blow out the candles, I closed my eyes and summoned by birth mother to come visit me.
My therapist told me about the ways that adoptees cope in order to lead normal lives. It was now obvious to me that birthdays reminded me of the loss I suffered on the day I was born. Year after year, I celebrated the day I was relinquished to a social worker by my birth parents. The thing is, birthdays are sad and they always will be. But they don’t define me.
Halfway into my 29th year I was progressing well in therapy. I was even toying with various 30th birthday ideas for June: a soirée with friends in Vegas, a getaway involving a shaman, a walkabout in Nova Scotia.
At a party in December, one of my adoptee friends suggested we check out a weekend retreat called “healing weekends” for adoptees run by a therapist. A few months later, we were on a bus headed an hour north of New York City.
We arrived on a blustery cold Friday night in February. After a spaghetti dinner six of us, all Korean adoptees, gathered in the living room for our first group session.
The therapist, who is a domestic adoptee, started off by explaining that we had suffered a trauma when we were separated from our natural mothers. As infants, we didn’t know what was happening, just that our mothers were suddenly gone.
A box of tissues materialized as one adoptee talked about feeling alone as a child, wishing that her birth mother would come and get her. All weekend long the tissue box was scooped up and passed around. I watched in awe as emotions long buried came to the surface.
I expressed my sadness over the life and relationships I was denied on the day I was born. I shared how birthdays were hard because they picked at a wound that resided deep inside of me.
“Birthdays are hard because they re-traumatize us,” the therapist said. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
The therapist read visualization prompts to facilitate encounters with the inner child. I enjoyed getting lost in my visualizations. In my favorite one we imagined a house, filled it with rooms, filled the rooms with things and planted a garden outside. I created a French Moroccan chateau with a courtyard as an inner sanctuary and a vegetable patch with chili peppers and salad greens. The house was painted sky-blue like the ones in a town I had once visited in Morocco.
In another exercise I climbed 10,000 steps to the top of a mountain and had an existential conversation about life with Luke Skywalker.
The harder visualizations were ones in which I visited myself as a child. I pictured her in my childhood bedroom wearing her favorite stretchy saddle pants and a pink top. She was her usual quiet, demure self. I gave her a reassuring hug. The therapist had us tell our inner children to draw their emotions. My child made big concentric circles while grasping all the markers in one hand. The others in the group reported that their children tore up the paper and stomped on the markers.
“Visit your inner child every day,” the therapist told us. “I like to do it when brushing my teeth every morning.”
That night I spread a sleeping bag over my bunk bed and dreamt that my inner child was hovering close to me emitting a blue halo of warmth. I awoke dripping with sweat. The heat was blasting at full strength from the ceiling vent inches from where I slept.
By Saturday afternoon I was spent. I took a walk around the neighborhood with three others. There were no sidewalks so we walked on the road. A woman in a hulking black SUV honked and shook her fist at us. I slept the rest of the afternoon.
That night the therapist asked us to write letters to our birth moms from our inner child. I looked down at my letter — written with my left hand so that it looked like a child’s scrawl. The others were crying softly. All weekend I had gorged on my emotions and now I felt full, sedated. The walls of the living room moved in closer with every hour giving me cabin fever. I closed my eyes and visualized being at home with my husband and dogs.
The next morning, we had a long breakfast and lingered over extra cups of coffee before heading back to the city.
I reflected on an analogy the therapist shared. He explained that if a child loses his mother to a car accident as an infant, people grieve for that child’s loss. However, when a child loses his birth mother and is adopted, no one grieves. Instead, adoptees are told to be happy about the fact that they were saved.
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