Grappling with Guilt


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A friend reminded me recently that grief can be cyclical, or a chronic ache, or slowly dissipate. Rarely does it follow a neat and tidy progression through the five stages of grief.

In recent years I have been dealing with a great deal of grief, and I am, frankly, quite tired of sadness in all of its variety. The creeping, quiet form that leaves limbs heavy and mind full of thoughts that tease at the periphery all the way to the form that keeps one anchored in place, incapable of movement.

And then, there’s guilt.

I grew up with the proverbial Catholic version. Steeped in feelings of fear, obligation and deep remorse for every misstep. God help you(except that, really, child! God helps those who help themselves!) if you committed the most unforgivable of sins: airing your family’s dirty laundry, and saying one word of criticism against the church.

I think criticizing god was acceptable; but speak against the religion? Que horror!

After learning in my thirties that i am adopted, the mortal sin of criticizing adoption can be added to my ever expanding list of offenses.

I thought I was past feeling guilty and anxious over speaking about what I have experienced, and what I have learned.

Apparently, my body and brain are in disagreement. Since beginning to record interviews talking about how religion and other beliefs impact and inform the adoption narrative, my feelings of guilt have come back for a visit. Speaking publicly about the true outcome of my years as part of Christianity and as an adoptee deconstructing what it means to be adopted has been enough to remind my old friend, PTSD, that we haven’t been hanging out so much in recent years.

I find myself performing the same kinds of grounding exercises that have been useful in staving off panic attacks. Instead of five things that I hear, see, smell and feel, I ask myself questions like, Are you saying how you feel? Yes Is what you and your guests have said true? As far as I can reasonably know. What’s the worst thing that could happen (That’s a bad question to ask a person with an excellent imagination)? I ask guilt, what purpose do you serve? Why are you here?

In the book The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel A. Van der Kolk, M.D. are the following words:

Trauma affects the entire human organism-body, mind, and brain. In PTSD the body continues to defend against a threat that belongs to the past. Healing from PTSD means being able to terminate this continued stress mobilization and restore the entire organism to safety.

For years, I managed my trauma responses through avoidance. Avoid the triggers, avoid the response.

But avoidance is not a realistic option when dealing with adoption trauma. Not if you have walked away from the warm, fuzzy cocoon that allowed you to maintain your distance from reality. Not when that warm fuzzy cocoon begins to embrace the things that trigger you, blatantly dismisses what has harmed you, encourages you to perpetuate harm.

Not if you live in a culture that glorifies family severance as a moral good. This shit is everywhere.

So, I left. I started therapy that did not involve my church or my church leadership. I didn’t go to therapy to address either my religious or adoption trauma. Not initially. Those topics were taboo. The prohibition on speaking about the problems with Christianity and with the Adoption Narrative was woven deep into my bones.

I went to discuss being recently disabled, about a mentally ill family member, about other childhood traumas.

The church and adoption began to spoken about in brief flashes, as if I were testing the waters, to see if they would scald.

I let myself think that feelings of guilt were linear.

More fool, me. At least I can see the difficulty sleeping, the anxiety, the intrusive thoughts for what they are, and employ strategies to make them quiet again. Many of the threats are in the past. My non-existent church membership is not going to be getting revoked, after all. No church ladies are going to shun me by leaving empty chairs in a neat square around me on a Sunday morning, or worry about leaving their children with me for Sunday school( there was that time I told the kids that yes, dinosaurs were real).

I don’t know what the eventual outcome will be related to speaking up the way we have in recent podcasts. The hope is that people are provoked, yes. Provoked to think, not that this whole Christianity thing should be thrown out, but that the adoption narrative sure as hell should be. Provoked to think that modern therapy needs to address the trauma inherent in adoption in an honest, critical way. Provoked to re-examine beliefs about children as an entitlement and as a commodity to be exchanged.

Because we haven’t finished yet. We are likely to piss off a few more groups of people as we take on secular investment in adoption also. That great Church of Adoption welcomes all.

If we want to change the laws, we have to help people change the way they think about adoption, about being childless, about family preservation, about reproductive health and education, about affordable childcare and housing, about race and about tribal sovereignty.

About so many things.

There are so many wonderful people out there, fighting to make change. I wonder if they also struggle with guilt, with feelings of dread.

Well, okay. I know a lot of them do. A LOT. But they keep on going. They keep me going. I could type a long long list, but , hey, many of them are mentioned in earlier blog posts. Check out the ones that list blogs and books and podcasts, and browse the show notes for links. Take the time to check out their work.

What will I do with the guilt? The first step in fixing a problem is acknowledging that you have a problem. I see you, guilt. I will keep asking you questions, until you have nothing left to hide behind.

I will breathe. I will walk. I will paint. I will work. I will watch the green tulip leaves as they press their way through the dark, rich earth, and anticipate the bloom.

I will tell guilt to go fuck itself.

2 responses to “Grappling with Guilt”

  1. debyemm Avatar

    Quoted from and linked to this in my own blog today. I deeply appreciate your perspectives.


    1. andestanley Avatar

      Thank you! 💚


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