Recently, my therapist, who is also an adoptee, and I made a breakthrough discovery. We discovered that we are nowhere, that we lack the most basic of attachment experiences that would tether us to this world. We call this the Nothing Place.
This discovery is a lens that suddenly makes so much sense of my life. To exist in the Nothing Place is to live with a sense that everything and everyone is at a distance from me, and my only hope of bridging that divide is to adapt. To exist in the Nothing Place is to live with the haunting sensation that no one truly sees me, that no one even knows where I am, that I am hopelessly adrift and alone, unreachable. To exist in the Nothing Place is to live with the terror that, if I cease to adapt to the world, if I let go of the ceaseless effort of trying to enter other people’s worlds, I would simply fall into chaos, with no one to catch me, no one to hold on to me.
I think of one of the loves of my life, bicycle touring. I have travelled thousands of miles by bicycle, nearly always alone, camping at night, avoiding campgrounds, finding the most hidden and reclusive places to set up camp. I first started bicycle touring before the internet, before cell phones were popular, when it was still possible to drop off the map and get lost. Through bicycle touring, I found a way to embody my actual relationship to the world in the Nothing Place. I was as self-reliant as I could possibly be, I could disappear without anyone knowing where I was, I had no home but simply wandered, I was untethered to time or a schedule, I was responsive to no one and no one was responsive to me outside of fleeting contacts on the road. I felt most authentically myself this way, just passing through, not holding on to anything, with nothing or no one holding on to me. Simply adrift.
Another way that I experience the Nothing Place is as a sense of lack of traction in life, as if with every step, every accomplishment, I somehow keep returning to zero. As an untethered wanderer, I have lived in a great many places and done many different things, and yet so little seems to stick. When I leave a place or a community or a relationship, or an interest or activity, it’s gone. While superficially this may look like a lack of commitment or discipline or focus, beneath all of these is the reality of the Nothing Place. I am untethered to time, to people, to place. Life is a chaotic, ever-changing kaleidoscope of events that does not include me. Deep down, there is only zero, no forward movement.
On the surface, I excelled in graduate school. I quickly learned the rules and what was expected of me and how to perform. I maintained a stellar GPA but held myself aloof from other students, despite my hunger for connection. And the more I needed to bring myself into my work, to bring my authentic questions, concerns, and aspirations to the table and work with others, the more lost I felt. I hid behind performance as a way to adapt, to fit myself into a world I felt certain I didn’t belong. As adaptation ceased to be enough, I felt the familiar undercurrent of chaos sweeping me into itself, into untetheredness in the Nothing Place. I received my degrees but left school feeling alienated and demoralized, as if I was never really there in the first place. And in a sense, I wasn’t.
What difference does it make to name the Nothing Place? First, I feel a sense of relief. I always suspected that, in some fundamental way, I wasn’t on other people’s maps, no matter how hard I tried to join them in their own territory. Now, knowing where I am—without coordinates, nowhere—I can begin to shed the exhaustive and futile effort of adaptation. I can let go of the enormous pressure I put on myself, or feel from others, to fit in and reflect other people’s expectations, assumptions, and stories. And I can let go of expecting other people see me where I am. Unless they also inhabit the Nothing Place, other people cannot truly see me or join me in my territory.
And yet I must be seen.
The most hopeful difference naming the Nothing Place makes is the possibility that I can finally be seen and known where I actually am. When my therapist and I discovered the Nothing Place, we were astounded. We had been in the Nothing Place all our lives, yet never knew it because no one could name and mirror it for us until now. In the Nothing Place, we had not only been invisible to the world but in some sense invisible even to ourselves. Now we saw one another. We were home. We were nowhere. And our only hope now is to build a home where we actually are. Where to start?
After we named the Nothing Place, I felt an intense hunger for my therapist’s eyes. I felt so profoundly seen by her in a way that I never experienced before, and I couldn’t get enough. I needed her to see me. I needed to find myself in her gaze. To be deeply seen is to exist in the consciousness of another person. More simply, to be seen is to exist, and I was hungry for existence.
The Nothing Place is a way to describe the experience of a lack of shared consciousness, of seeing and being seen at depth. Ideally, we each come into the world, into our selves, into existence, through shared consciousness with our mother. For those of us who lack this primal experience of receiving self through shared consciousness, we remain adrift, not yet tethered to the world. The experience of being met where we are, in the Nothing Place, opens a door long closed, the possibility at last of shared consciousness, of finding ourselves and receiving ourselves through one another.
One of the surprising developments in my work with my therapist is how my body responds differently to her since we named the Nothing Place. My nervous system spontaneously relaxes in her presence in a new way. Whatever I may be thinking, my body already recognizes this experience of homecoming, of shared consciousness, and is changing, healing, because of it. Our bodies know. Our bodies know and respond when we are truly seen for who we are. As our bodies change, life changes. Seeing and being seen in the Nothing Place opens a whole new frontier of no longer being alone in our aloneness, an exciting adventure into uncharted territory.
A slightly edited version of this post appears in the Adoptee Voices June 2021 E-Zine, "In Between Places."