Many Hands: An Adoptee’s Healing Journey

by Marcy Axness, Ph.D.

In the 12 years since writing Many Hands. . . , Marcy Axness went on to get her doctorate in early human development. An adjunct professor at Santa Barbara Graduate Institute, she writes and speaks internationally on adoption, attachment and parenting, and is a leading expert on prenatal and perinatal development. Dr. Axness has a counseling practice in the Los Angeles area specializing in fertility, pregnancy psychology, adoption and early parenting. Reach her at 818.366.7310, via her website at or by email at

"After some moments of this sobbing, the words began to come out of
my mouth, “Mommy doesn’t want me, Mommy doesn’t want me…"

-- The Author

I’ve often thought that my real healing began on the breezy morning when I watched my adoptive mother’s ashes sink into the endless blue of Maui’s friendly waves. Even as I sobbed the deepest of soul-shaking tears—had I ever cried so hard before?—I was puzzled, for these waves of grief were out of proportion to my rather detached, superficial relationship with my dead mother. We were cohabitants, friendly compatriots, occasional buddies, but never bonded mother and daughter, intimate, invested. Even as I wept convulsively, the part of me that always watched from afar wondered why. I wasn’t to find out for many years to come, for my body/mind/soul wasn’t about to let go of their driving secrets without a struggle, without a threat.

That threat came in the form of an 8 lb., 14 1/2 oz. bundle of unbridled needs and wants, born to my husband John and me when I was thirty, whom we named Ian. The experience of mothering relentlessly chipped away at the artificial self I had presented to the world—and myself—for 30 years. Mothering broke me open. My stolid fortresses of defense and control, my “Thing’s are perfect, I’m handling everything fine” persona that had thwarted a few earnest attempts at therapy over the years finally began to shred under the pumice of my son’s raw, baby neediness, his control-shattering toddler defiance, and the terrifying demands of intimacy that children innocently exact.

So I thought my real healing had come when I began to embrace that abandoned, neglected child inside me, and allow her to grieve. My few years of past therapy hadn’t been completely wasted, for it had given me an intellectual understanding of some of the realities of my childhood, and rolled back some of the denial one often embraces regarding family. My first therapist (whom I saw when I was twenty, because of intimacy and sexual problems with my boyfriend) explained to me, after a battery of standard psychological tests, that as a baby I felt completely on my own, “as if you sat up in your crib, looked around, and said ’I better take care of myself, because there’s no one else here for me.’ ”

I had always thought that I’d had a truly ideal and wonderfully interesting, if somewhat unconventional, childhood. My adoptive mother was a charismatic, energetic, powerfully attractive woman with exquisite taste in everything, and a keen business sense. Around the time of my adoption, at five days old, she was overseeing the construction of our custom home in Tiburon, across the Golden Gate from San Francisco. On the heels of that project, she opened a crafts gallery called Many Hands. She wasn’t home much, but there was always some caring housekeeper around to attend to me and do the cooking.

So what I was finally grieving at age 31 was what I’d never received in my adoptive home- the unconditional nurturing, the security, the predictability that children crave and thrive on. And these, in turn, were the things Ian was demanding that I provide him every hour of every day. Trying to meet his demands, I was drawing from an empty well, which awakened long-dormant feelings of hurt and loss and rage. One day when Ian was a few months old I said to John, “I feel like he’s sucking all the me out of me.” Actually, he was sucking the real me, terrified and raging, out of hiding.

While inside I struggled, outside I strained to present a status-quo face. I wore J. Crew, cooked nutritious meals, went to Mommy & Me, clenched my teeth, and tried to keep it together. I was living what Clarissa Pinkola Estes calls “the grinning depression”. So for awhile I thought that my real healing began on Ian’s first 4th of July, when, after nursing him and tucking him in for his morning nap, I drove up to a scenic overlook and screamed from my Saab at the panorama of Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and the carefree beach communities, “I HATE BEING A MOTHER!!!!” I had been psychically pummeled into letting go of the desperate facade that all was okay.

I had also slipped back into the anesthetic numbness of my infancy and childhood. I felt like Meryl Streep’s character in “Postcards From the Edge”, when she tells Gene Hackman, “I know I have the perfect life, I just can’t feel my life.” I had a wonderful husband, a beautiful son, a lovely home, great friends…but I somehow couldn’t connect with the experience of all that. I couldn’t inhabit it, feel it against my soul. I was skimming over the surface of life, for fear of the menacing undertow beneath. I wasn’t unhappy, but I wasn’t happy. My history was repeating itself, and I had enough consciousness to realize that this wasn’t how I wanted to live out my life.

New insights led to more therapy, this time for a molestation issue that had surfaced. As devastating as one might consider sexual molestation on the psyche of a very young girl, we were able to heal the wounds quite successfully—it was a clearly defined, encapsulated issue, which we were able to, in effect, pluck out like an orderly tumor. But what Johanna (my therapist) found to be much less accessible, much more resistant and ’slippery’, was the more pervasive, free-floating anger around my childhood. My grinning depression. I would sit there on her couch, and talk about how I was one of my mother’s accessories…and I would be smiling. I would recount how my mother neglected me in favor of her work and her hobbies…and I would be smiling. Johanna urged me to let it up and out, to hit a cushion, to yell the smile off my face. I couldn’t. The wall of shame, of propriety, of what good, acceptable girls do, was too tremendous to scale.

None of the issues that had been unveiled from my life to this point had been adoption-related, per se. The kind of neglect and abuse that I experienced go on in all kinds of families, usually in the name of love or guidance or God or money or, as is so often the case, my mother’s own untended wounds. Adoptees certainly don’t have a monopoly on non-malicious child abuse, and people hearing my story might tend to attribute my history of inner struggles solely to the unfortunate dynamics of my adoptive family. But I would invite them to learn, as I did, about the special kind of invisible trauma that is part of the adoptee’s legacy—and many non-adoptees as well—which builds their walls of defenses and control stronger, higher, deeper than most—almost impenetrable.

I’ve thought for a long time now that my real, true healing began on the day before my daughter was born, 3 1/2 years ago. I had to leave a concert at intermission because I was feeling so strange, something akin to nausea, but different. When we returned home, I walked straight through the house, not stopping to hug my son or chat with the babysitter. I closed our bedroom door behind me, stripped off my clothes and crawled into bed. I began to cry, then to sob, wrapped in my sheet in a fetal position. After some moments of this sobbing, the words began to come out of my mouth, “Mommy doesn’t want me, Mommy doesn’t want me…”

I knew exactly what it meant. While I’d barely ever considered my adoption, in terms of my emotional life, I was familiar with the concept of Erik Erikson’s that when one spends a lot of time with a child of any particular age, unresolved issues from one’s own childhood at that age tend to be awakened. After having nudged and prodded and stirred up the soup of my psyche with the trials of motherhood, and my year’s work with Johanna, this fetus I’d invited to grow under my heart—a budding girl-child—had secretly continued the unearthing process, which culminated in this spontaneous regression to my own pre-birth feelings.

A few months later I telephoned Annette Baran, who’d appeared in a television show I produced ten years earlier. I told her I wanted to do a documentary project on this intuitive notion of mine—was it crazy?—that adoptees enter the world already wounded.

Soon I was at my first AAC Conference, awash in epiphany, empathy, and community. Verrier, Lifton, Pavao, Severson—their soothing words of explanation, validation, and context corroborated my long-shunned reality, and flowed over me, through me, and deep down inside. I sighed the deep, relieved sigh that comes with being heard, being known, being acknowledged. I was not crazy, just appropriately grief-stricken by losses that had never been spoken of. I had endured a sort of “Gaslight” existence in a family that couldn’t speak the truth about much at all, and certainly not the painful truths about dead babies and broken wombs and mommies who couldn’t keep their daughters; a family who instead put smiles where weeping faces had a right to be.

Nancy Verrier’s work led me deep into pre- and peri-natal research, which continues as the field charts new territory. For the past 15 years, the work of people like Thomas Verny (The Secret Life of the Unborn Child) and David Chamberlain (Babies Remember Birth) has promoted a broadening understanding of how profoundly affected a person can be by the circumstances surrounding the pregnancy of his or her mother, and that mother’s attitudes and feelings toward her unborn child.

Profound revelations about the pre-natal trauma in adopted (and many other) people continue to accumulate in my files. First there was the idea of the primal wound, which I came to consider as being a continuum of separation, beginning months earlier in the womb of a mother who has emotionally detached from her baby. Then, I met and interviewed Dr. William Emerson, a pioneering psychologist who has been treating infants, children and adults for pre- and peri-natal trauma for twenty years, and has worked with hundreds of adoptees and their families. While I was focused on questioning him about the traumatizing effects of separation from the birthmother, and—as in my own case—several days of languishing in a hospital nursery, Dr. Emerson told me that he believes the greatest trauma to adoptees happens in the first trimester!

As incredulous as I was when he first said this, it soon made profound sense to me, as he explained the foundational traumas of being a mistaken conception, of having a mother who is disappointed—or worse—at the news of her pregnancy, and who psychically rejects the baby inside her, or even fantasizes about abortion. (These circumstances aren’t true of all adoptive pregnancies, but certainly the majority.) The message transmitted to that incipient being is that she shouldn’t exist, she doesn’t deserve to exist, her creator doesn’t want her to exist. Dr. Emerson believes that it is in those early weeks of intermingled genesis and rejection that the artificial self begins to form, out of sheer survival instinct. Everything he said resonated deeply within me, and helped make sense of the fact that my core issue goes beneath abandonment and rejection, to my basic feelings of unworthiness of existence.

The field of pre- and peri-natal psychology presumes a primal level of consciousness at conception, a notion that took me awhile to wrap my intellect around, but finally came to believe profoundly true. Because it wasn’t my intellect that was guiding me, but my gut experience.

I began working with a pre- and peri-natal therapist over a year ago, and have connected with the primal, disowned feelings that threatened to overwhelm me as a tiny, ego-less being—intense, smothering feelings about annihilation itself, which laid the foundation for my very psyche. There was the rage which threatened to consume me (rage at my birthmother for “throwing me away”, at my adoptive parents for not seeing, and easing, my deep pain, and at the world for letting this happen to me) the hopelessness and helplessness, and the nearly unbearable sadness and longing. It was this deep sorrow, unearthed for just a moment, that flowed in those tears so long ago when I buried my mother—my ache for the lost mother, the original one, and the stark realization, unspoken until all these years later, that “I never had a mother and I never will.”

I regard all of my past years and methods of addressing the traumas suffered in a neglectful, unhealthy home; all the methods of struggling to ’thaw’ my emotional coldness, soften in my intimate connections; all the various disciplines to plumb for my true essence, while shoring up my depleted physical energy, like trying to push a car with a flat tire uphill in gravel. If I worked very, very hard, kept my shoulder into it and never let up, I perhaps would see a little movement. But the moment I relaxed my attention, turned my consciousness to something else, like simply living, everything slipped back.

When I finally approached my issues within the various frameworks that incorporate acknowledgment of shaping prenatal trauma—including some other, body/mind approaches in conjunction with the pre- and peri-natal therapy—it was as if I inflated the tire, swept away the gravel, and drove into my life with the top down and the sun on my face. The relief I have experienced is distinct and profound, in contrast to the struggles of my past: I’m emotionally available, I’m able to focus outward rather than compelled to turn inward, I get to experience, in a connected way, the moments of my life, rather than feeling the need to control those moments, and thus remain apart from them. Most blessed of all, I experience my children as joyous gifts, rather than burdens. Those cosmic flashes we all occasionally get, of oneness with everything, of complete peace, of the feeling that all is right in this very moment—those moments have begun to fill up my life as rule rather than exception.

My husband says it’s the first time he’s seen a change in me that is tangible and demonstrable, rather than the subtle, subjective shifts I felt inside as I heaved away at the car in the gravel. There is nothing subtle about the work I’ve been doing this past year. When a primal feeling is triggered by a current circumstance (e.g., something that smacks of rejection, threat, or betrayal) and begins to push to the surface, my burned-in reflex is to unconsciously resist it, keep it tamped down. Over a couple of days I become increasingly taut, brittle, and irritable. The best barometer is how available I am for my children, and when I’m sitting on some feelings, I become emotionally inaccessible to them.

When I see Wendy (my therapist) in this state, she recognizes it as “needing to feel”. In an amazingly straightforward, non-hypnotic process that relies mainly on simple—but skillful—empathy, we go into the core feeling, and I allow it up and out, with the tears, the whines, the profanity that express those primal feelings of loss, longing, and even death, for threats of rejection feel like annihilation to a fetus.

There have been many times when I’ve walked into Wendy’s office feeling dismantled, manic, anxious, totally un-grounded; and I have emerged centered, peaceful, at ease, connected back to my life. I truly believe this work is nature’s Prozac; everything I have experienced has been about lifting the lid off of a lifelong depression, which some believe is caused by intense, deeply-held feelings seeking—and resisting—expression. And as bottomless as I despaired that my pit of dark feelings felt, I have tapered off from regular sessions, now only checking in occasionally with my therapist. Healing has taken place, undeniably.

So, as in the space/time continuum of quantum physics, my real, true healing was, and is, always beginning. The layers of denial slough off and the work deepens, as wounds open further to the balm of new insights and—most critically—skillful empathy. My journey back to the pain of the womb needed the prelude of some basic understandings about what had come later. It was a tracing backwards and inwards, beginning where the hurt was less, and going to where the agony lay, the agony woven into my marrow and my psyche.

Wendy once explained to me that you don’t get to get what you never got. You only get to feel how bad it feels, and that’s when you heal. “It’s already gone, it’s already lost, and the only thing that you can do in therapy to heal is feel the loss. There’s nothing to fill that hole—there’s no man, there’s no sex, there’s no drugs, there’s no house, there’s no money, because it’s already a loss. People hate that, because they want a therapist to fix it. But all you can do is bring them to that empty hole, and let them look in again, and scream at the emptiness.”

It took many years, and many hands to guide me to that empty hole, to help me find the strength to look in without turning away again, and to hold me while I quaked. It took many hands, along with my own, to deliver me my real, true life. Bless them all.

Marcy W. Axness' website, Quantum Parenting contains much interesting material about adoption issues as well as pre- and peri-natal psychology. Since 1994, Dr. Axness has conducted many workshops and made presentations on these and allied subjects.

Also on the Primal Psychotherapy Page read Dr. Axness' The Primal Wound: A Therapist Counsels Adoptive Parents

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