All of that unexpectedly beautiful chaos has an affect on all of us. No matter what we do, it changes us. Sometimes the influence is good; sometimes not so much. People have been telling us for years that it's how we react and adapt to that chaos that makes all the difference, and they may be right. Whether or not we choose to listen to them probably affects them too. We influence them as well.
Today I want to write to you about a specific moment in the first chapter of my latest novel, Phoenix Morrow. Our main character, Phoenix (who later changes her name to Phoenix, so is referred to as Catherine at this point in the story), was orphaned at the age of three and spent the rest of her childhood in foster care. Her young life was filled with disappointment that forever shapes her. Below is an excerpt from Chapter One where Phoenix describes that time:
One of the biggest things I remember about growing up in foster care was that I always felt out of place. I never really belonged anywhere, no matter what building was referred to as my home. Little things like where I put my backpack after school became a big deal, because some of the foster parents would say, “Make sure you know where your stuff is. If you leave it here someday, it’s gone.” While that always stung, they were right. We both knew I was going to leave eventually.
It was hard never really having a home, especially knowing how tragically my old life had been taken from me. Sometimes I would think about my birth parents, though I never really knew what to feel when my brain landed there. When I was really little I used to cry for my Mom, never really understanding what was going on. As I got older my musings took on more of a “fuck ‘em” mentality. Things got confusing when I felt a little bit of both at the same time. I never knew what to do with that.
The second family, three years later, was the one that lived near the ocean. They said I “had trouble connecting with them”, and they were right. I had trouble connecting with everybody. The last thing I was about to do was let myself get burned again, so back into the system I went.
After the second adoption fell through, the social worker I was assigned to at the time sat me down in her office and told me to get my head out of my ass. I remember being shocked, largely because I assumed she really wasn’t allowed to talk to me like that.
With both of her hands on her desk, she leaned towards me and said, “Do you understand how heartbroken that family is right now? All they ever wanted was a daughter. They were looking for a teenager, which you need to know never happens, and they chose you. But you chose to be so difficult that they just couldn’t do it. And now where are you?”
I shot back, “If they wanted me so badly, they should have tried harder.”
The social worker just shook her head. “Catherine, they wanted so badly to love you, and you know what? They probably still do. But at some point, if you are ever going to connect with anyone, you’ve got to be willing to meet them halfway.”
In time I learned she was right. Looking back at those days, I’m sure that the decision to halt the adoption was gut wrenching for that family, but I imagine now that they did what they thought was best. I may not have been the right fit for that family, which probably means they weren’t the right fit for me. But still, I felt discarded. I had been returned like that ugly sweater no one wants at Christmas that you’re just glad the tags are still on.
The disappointment she felt after two failed adoptions helped mold Phoenix, and that element of the story was written very early in the process of writing this book. As many of you know, I tend to write completely out of order and then piece the scenes together at the end to create my complete first draft. However, the conversation with the social worker was one of the last things I wrote, inserted into one of the first. It was added after a dear friend went through a terrible ordeal, and watching her and her family go through it led me to add something to Phoenix's ordeal as well.
Reading this, my friend will know I'm speaking of her, and I'm sure our mutual friends will come here and know as well. That's okay. She has shown incredible bravery by sharing her own story, and I'm going to let her do that in her own words. Therefore, I am not going to mention her by name, at least here. Those of you who follow me on social media have seen me share some of her work. We've known each other since college, stood up in the bridal party at each other's weddings, and have been friends for over a decade. Friends like that become part of who you are. We may live in two different states now but we still keep in touch, and when her family is struggling my heart is with her instantly.
My friend was diagnosed with depression as a teenager, and it is something she has dealt with ever since. As with almost any other illnesses, she has experienced good periods and rough ones. She and her husband have a beautiful eight year old daughter, but one of the worst times in her life was the bout with postpartum depression when their little girl was very small. That was one of the times she has been hospitalized with depression, that very much is an illness that needs its stigma eradicated. It is an illness, not a weakness. The strength my friend is capable of, even when it's the strength to know when she really needs help, is awe-inspiring.
After their daughter's birth and everything that followed, they looked to adoption to expand their family. For years they filed paperwork, had references written (including by me), and waited as patiently as one can for the phone call that their son was coming. Just shy of three years old, a bouncing ball of toddler entered their home that was thrilled his arrival had finally come. As is the custom many times in situations like this, my friend and her husband were technically foster parents before the adoption was finalized, but that little boy was "their son" from the moment he walked through the door. They loved him so much.
With all of the joy came a lot of anxiety, and depression reared its ugly head again. After a series of panic attacks and another hospitalization, the gut-wrenching decision was made to return to a family of three. The love they have for that little boy will always be a part of them, but it was what was best for all.
Their experience and Phoenix's experience are very different, but I felt like I had to add the voice of the social worker to Phoenix's story as an homage to my friend. Phoenix felt discarded, but that has as much to do with her life and experiences leading up to that moment as it did with the failed adoption itself. However, Phoenix wasn't discarded. She may have felt that way, but it was the furthest thing from the truth. Those parents loved her more than anything, just like my friends loved their son. After watching my friends struggle with telling him goodbye, I knew that Phoenix needed to hear that she was worthy of love by one more voice.
In Phoenix's case, she wouldn't discover how worthy of love she was until much later, but she gets there in the end.
Life will affect your writing. That may sound scary, but let it. Let it. Your work will gain depth and texture that way.
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