Saturday, January 20, 2024

Adoption Series: Lonely

Read Time: 3 minutes

Lonely and unable to ask why.

I could see my home across the way from where I was boarded. I longed to be there. I ached for my room, the yard with its fishpond, and the wonderful rockery I used as a stage for imaginary tales of heroes and damsels. I don’t remember longing to be with Mom or Dad. I just longed to be in my own place. A place where I felt I belonged.

I was in the third grade. It was my second year of being boarded with Mimi and the fourth of being boarded out during the school year.

Isolated, empty, and emotionally adrift, I was horribly lonely, yearning for social connection and understanding. Mimi’s house was dark and cold inside. I never understood why I was only allowed to be in the kitchen, the bathroom, and my upstairs bedroom, never the living room, where the big windows warmed and lit the room. I wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom during the night. Mimi gave me a bucket in case I needed to pee. Strange, confusing rules. Mimi didn’t talk much, aside from corrections or instructions.

A boy named Kenny also boarded there for a few weeks, but mostly I was alone.

Sometimes, the lonely feelings were like a heavy weight on my chest. A weight parred with a vague sense of emptiness as though I was hollow inside. I was utterly disconnected from anything familiar or comforting. Sometimes, I heard a humming sound I knew no one else could hear. It was only in my head.

Friends were not allowed to visit, although I don’t remember having any friends then. I must have had school friends. Maybe they just didn’t make an impression. Anyway, with no one to be close to, I was lost.

I knew that I was adopted. I’d know as long as I can remember. I think I somehow absorbed the assumption that part of being “special,” as Mom liked to say, meant I wasn’t to question how things were. Mom did say we mustn’t upset Dad. Somehow upsetting Dad was a part of it.

So, I didn’t ask. And it was only as I wrote this that I realized what the most obvious question even was. Six decades after being boarded out, I know what I could have asked.

“Mom, why can’t I go with you? Couldn’t I attend the school where you teach and live with you?”

Mom had taken a job teaching fourth grade in Olympia, not too far from Seattle but far enough that she needed to stay there during the week.

She’d gone back to work to cover our living expenses. Dad had suffered a mental health breakdown and was still recovering while I was boarded with Mimi. That much, I’d been told.

Ironically, all my adult life, I’ve asked lots of questions. I’ve used a questioning technique to negotiate deals and to develop professional relationships. I question friends and family as a part of my everyday conversational style. But as I examine my questioning a bit further, it comes to me that only recently have I become more comfortable asking deeply personal questions, especially of those closest to me.

I now think my hesitation––my internalized restriction goes back to those days when I was afraid to ask why I was left behind.

Mom and Dad are long gone. I never asked. But I think I know the answer now.

I am adopted; it was clear to me even then that being with mom and dad was conditional. And I learned that safety resides in staying on the surface of things. Even though I knew something was deeply wrong, not asking any questions was ingrained in me. I could have been abandoned altogether. That was the risk.

I was afraid that if I asked, I’d never be allowed back to a place where I felt safe.

Now, I know closeness requires us to be self-revealing, comfortable asking emotionally demanding questions, and honestly sharing what is really going on so we can understand each other.

And closeness keeps me from ever being that lonely again.


  • Kris says:

    Granted, we had our own monster to deal with,but I only remember you seeming sad or upset. Never saw you much, although we visited fairly often. You probably left before they built the one-story.

    • Ted says:

      Thanks, Kris, I was allowed to sleep in the guest bedroom of the one story house. They build that house and moved in while was away for the summer. Gave all my stuff away. Kenny got the multi-band radio that your Dad had given me. I was happy about that. Glad Kenny got something special out of the deal.

  • Bez says:

    Ted, so moving. I can relate to so much of this, although my own childhood traumas seem trivial by comparison (I hope this isn’t a contest). But having to normalize the not-normal because anything else is unsafe, the feelings of emptiness and all the rest, I totally get it. Oh man, that sounds tough. The sharing and questions take courage, and I’d say are worth it — keep telling, keep asking.

    • Ted says:

      Hi Bez, thanks for pointing out your comment on this story to me this morning.

      I’ve often thought that my trauma was not significant enough to complain about. And I thought that I needed to be a big boy and just shrug it off.

      As I got a bit more introspective, started writing and began to think about why I am the way I am I slowly came to the understanding that telling my story gave me access to myself through the reactions of others.

      When I write about growing up it opens up memories. Those memories have been closed to me most of my life. Writing seems to be a lever that gives me access.

      And I don’t believe trauma is something that can be compared from one person to another in any meaningful way.

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