The other day I came to therapy heavy-hearted, anticipating enlisting my therapist’s help in sorting through the muck of dejection, discouragement, and the constant struggle to feel grounded and connected in the life I am actually living. She immediately resonated with what I shared, that I feel as if I am haunted by parallel lives, by what adoptee author Betty Jean Lifton referred to as “ghost kingdoms,” with the sense that my real self, my real life, must reside somewhere else, lost in the shuffle of these lives unlived. Setting the intention to write a memoir, and acting on this intention, brings this conflict of identity, of what is real versus unreal, into focus. The life I write about is my life, a planting of my flag in the ground of what actually happened, and in the relationships, circumstances, and choices that shape my life today. Strangely, this also feels like closing doors, dispelling the dreams of those young parts of me that have held out for so long for another kind of life—a life in which I wasn’t relinquished by my birth mother, or relinquished again by my first adoptive mother, or in which I was adopted by another family other than my second adopters. I also sense that these ghost kingdoms are more than mere fantasy but represent rupture points at which parts of me could not make the leap into a new identity, a new life, new relationships that erased the old, and so these parts remain adrift in what might have been. The losses, and the grief, are real.
At one point, as my therapist and I talked over Zoom, 175 miles distance between us as the crow flies, I looked out the window and marveled at a swallow perched on the deck railing. “Oh, a swallow!” I said abruptly, interrupting the flow of our conversation. I spoke this as a passing comment, intent on quickly returning to more serious matters, but she stopped me: “You know, I think this is the first time you’ve ever pointed out something in your environment.” Really? I thought about it. I’ve mentioned or asked about things in her environment, such as her dog, Bentley, but she’s probably right. When we meet, my focus tends to narrow into a kind of tunnel vision that blots out the world around me, or at least diminishes its significance.
“Can you show me?” she asks, insisting that this is important.
“Sure!” I turn my laptop around to show her the view out my window. The swallow had already flown away.
“That’s your view? Incredible!”
“Yeah. Oh, while we’re at it, I want to show you something else.” I spin my laptop around again to show her the candle I keep lit during our sessions, next to an icon of Mary, Undoer of Knots, whom I’ve christened Patron of Therapy and Therapists.
“Nice. Can I show you something?” She fingers her phone for a minute and then holds it up to the camera. “I found this picture online recently. This is me when I was twenty nine, with my birth mother, her husband, and my half siblings.”
“Wow, beautiful! That’s amazing.”
Soon we returned to the business of ‘doing therapy,’ but the whole ambience had changed. Instead of feeling contracted in some painful internal place where I was trying to pull my therapist in, I felt grounded, connected to her, connected to my environment and to hers. We continued to laugh together even as we delved into painful subjects. By the end of the session, in place of the gloom and withdrawal in which I began, I felt a sense of release, relief, even joy.
That evening, as I sat in meditation, still feeling the residue of our time together, I had the impression that something important had shifted. I let my attention come to rest in my heart and felt a sense of who my therapist is and my openness to her, to letting her in. I noticed a relaxation of a habitual vigilance, a reflexive fear that typically accompanies this openness of heart, toward her or toward anyone else. In a flash, I recognized what is often so hard for me to see: that she bears no concealed malice in her, no hidden contempt—she is not a Trojan horse filled with the horrors I knew as a child from those closest to me, as I secretly fear she must be! She is not a reflection of my past at all, in fact, but freshly herself: good and for my good, and part of the fabric of the goodness of this world. How could I not let this goodness in?
The ghost kingdoms that haunt me are inevitably inhabited by what I already know, by what I knew as a child. The child in me might longingly dream of loving care, but those dreams already contain the seeds of nightmares of cruelty, betrayal, and finally, total abandonment. In truth, the adoptive mothers who raised me assaulted me with their rage, hatred, and pain, abusing their power and my vulnerability before tossing me out of their lives. Their intermittent displays of kindness and care could not be trusted. No wonder my system still tends to fly into high alert when I receive nurturing attention! Even in dreams, no matter how intense the yearning to flee the nightmares of the past, the past always prevails.
But it doesn’t have to.
What my therapist helped me to see, in her gentle redirection, is that the nightmares that incite me to terror are not what is actually happening, no matter how real those nightmares may appear. As a child, I had to turn inward, seal myself up, hide away from the nightmarish circumstances in which I lived and in which I learned to survive. Now, in contrast, these nightmares continue to live inside of me, and I in them, while the goodness of the world beckons, inviting me to come out and play.
Ultimately, there is only one way out of a nightmare, out of seeing reflections of the past in all that I encounter, just as there is only one way to welcome the ghosts of the past, of the lives that might have been, home from their haunted domains:
Wake up. You are safe now.
Like a sun rising in a heart discovering its own capacity to love and be loved, to savor goodness, in reality and not in dreams:
Wake up. Taste the beauty around you.
Whether by way of a swallow perched on a railing, or the compassionate insight of a therapist, or laughter freely shared when we realize that, when we truly meet one another in the present, the shadows of the past can no longer imprison us:
Wake up. Come out and play. Come out and grieve, wail, rage, rejoice. Let loss be loss, love be love, joy be joy. Wake up to all of it. A feast awaits you.