TW: Childhood Trauma, Adoption, PTSD, Mean Girls, Psychedelic Assisted Therapy
Mikey cringed when he heard the neighbor’s screen-door screech open, then slam closed, foretelling Gwendolyn’s inevitable arrival into his backyard. Reflexively he stood up and stepped back, hoping to shelter himself behind the tree to avoid her characteristically caustic presence. While her beauty and confidence were naturally attractive and worthy of a newly minted 9-year old’s first infatuation, the twelve-year-old Gwendolyn had fallen out of Mikey’s favor when two months before, on his actual birthday, she looked at him and said, “Hey Mikey! Your epidermis is showing!”
Confused and embarrassed, Mikey looked quickly down to see if the zipper on his trousers was left open. An unforgettable humiliation began to settle in just as the cackling started by Gwendolyn and her two friends. That distinctive irritant clawed at his heart long after they ran away. Mikey realized early she would be the bane of his existence: He had no idea.
It’s late March 1944 in Burlington, California. Although WWII provided plenty of chaos as a backdrop, so too did his father’s business travel and relocation for frequent job changes. This was the sixth home address Mikey had memorized for the four different schools he’d already attended in his short life; Mike welcomed the newfound sense of stability. The nuns at his new school appreciate his obedience and good grades, contributing to a welcomed respite from the chaos outside of school. Aside from the mean girl next door, the daughter of his parents’ best friends, life seemed like it was getting better.
Mikey had learned that when the shades on his home windows were drawn closed, he couldn’t come back in the house until dinner since this was Mother’s designated “alone time”. When her husband was away, she was not to be interrupted in the afternoons. This was one of those days, playing with his birthday truck under the tree in the backyard. That protocol would be broken, however, on this cool Spring afternoon when Gwendolyn, single-handedly, would shatter Mikey’s world.
Gwendolyn spotted Mikey behind the tree and marched right up to him, hands on hips, towering over the suspicious boy.
“Guess what? You’re adopted! Your parents aren’t even your real parents!” She loud whispered.
He had become accustomed to her teasing, but her voice and the tone this time were different. Mikey stared at her, his chin and stomach dropped in unison; then his toy truck dropped to the dirt. Mikey ran into his house, his heart racing, eyes brimming with tears, “Why did Gwendolyn say you’re not my mommy?”
Mother froze, dropping a casserole dish to shatter on the kitchen floor. All she could do was stare back at the frightened, confused boy. Mikey, tears now streaming, voice cracking, asked directly, “Am I adopted?”
Still frozen in her tracks, Mother stood like a statue. The silence reverberated, a sourceless echo deep from within. The dreadful sensation, more familiar than his own heartbeat, accompanied him to his room on that fateful day and would be Mikey’s constant companion until the final days of his life more than 75 years later.
At that moment Mikey realized everything was a lie. Instinctually he channeled his intellect and wit to counter the oppressive weight of this deep violation; not only had he been abandoned by his mother, but he had also been lied to by the only family he knew. He was neither good enough to keep, nor trusted enough to be told the truth.
Mikey found refuge in his intense focus on academics and the rigors of Catholicism, immersing himself fully to achieve accolades in order to dull the ubiquitous subtle cackling and reverberating silence. Pragmatically, he would come to see the reality of both his father’s absences and his mother’s “alone time” that ‘alcoholic bingeing’ was the only constancy in his home. Emotionally he understood he needed to be better than everyone else just to be accepted.
The sting of this moment never left his soul. Throughout a 30-year military career that included graduation near the top of his class at the U.S. Naval Academy, assignment as Commander of a nuclear-powered submarine, then later as Commodore of all submarine activity in a 50 million square mile operating area in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. He then spent another 15 years in the private sector further working to rid himself of this gnawing trauma.
As a parent of his own four children, this scabbed wound was silently poked each time a child fell ill or his family medical history was requested, reigniting the lingering concern that he had been abandoned because of some genetic disease, one that could be passed unknowingly on to his own progeny.
Like any upstanding parent, Mike strove to provide a better upbringing for his children than he had. He would rationalize his own “absence from home” during his Naval Career by virtue of a.) the regular paycheck that went directly to and for his family and b.) as well as the nobility of his profession. Nobody could argue this wasn’t a marked upgrade from his childhood. The existential clinging to his Catholic doctrine caused him great consternation as a young devout and military father of the 1950s and ’60s, specifically due to the ecumenical changes brought about by Vatican II and the social changes brought about by the Viet Nam anti-war protestors. It was a tough time for a young family man who relied on these specific structures to survive and be worthy.
When Mike’s oldest of four children, a son, married a protestant, became an alcoholic, and was diagnosed with cancer – he viewed them as not just a punishment for his son not carrying on his father’s faith, but also as a personal punishment for Mike; a punishment for simply not being good enough.
Mikey would fight this notion until the day he died at age 86.
I am that firstborn son.
The difficulty of our relationship cannot be overstated. I spent the first 35 years of my life trying to please/impress/earn his approval, including following in his footsteps to Annapolis. I never gave thought to the notion that his inability to confer acceptance stemmed from the untreated trauma of his own childhood. Everything I did was either for him or in spite of him. During this time Dad’s adoption was never discussed openly until a couple years before his death when a genealogist contacted my sister and claimed that we were related. As we discussed it more, dad, then nearly on his death bed, shared the harrowing account of the “mean girl next door” who spilled the beans on his adopted status.
Since then (over the next 28 years), I have immersed myself in hundreds of hours of therapy, self-help books, 12 Step Programs, anti-depressant and anti-anxiety meds, Outward Bound courses, Ayurvedic consultations, hypnotherapy, meditation practices, exercise, anxiety rehab, healers, Reiki practitioners, shamans, and people of the cloth. I even tried to reconnect with my Catholic roots by attending daily mass for nearly 9 months. While all of these practices served to both form me and prevent me from going over the edge, the answer to the problem of my paternal acceptance remained elusive.
That is until, Jamaica.
3 months before our 41st wedding anniversary, Leigh and I embarked on a weeklong retreat that includes psychedelic-assisted therapy at Mycomeditations in Jamaica. While the concept of using psychedelic-assisted therapy to treat treatment-resistant anxiety and depression is not new at all, it is recently new to me. The combination of my good faith efforts (see above) to address my anxiety and depression and the continued need for medication left me unsatisfied from a mental health standpoint and frankly exacerbated the “I’m not good enough to get better” baseline dynamic that my father endured throughout his lifetime. My personal experience with psychedelics was limited to ayahuasca (9 cups over 4 ceremonies) and one Bufo Alvarius ceremony were both quite helpful and positive as a therapeutic modality.
The Mycomeditations website emphasizes therapy over the ceremony, and the plant medicine of choice is psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in Magic Mushrooms. Our group had 12 guests and 8 guides/medical professionals. We would have three (3) psilocybin dosing sessions with reflection and integration days in between.
The night before the second dose we were informed that an inner child meditation would kick off the session the following day. We were encouraged to have a picture in our minds of ourselves as young children. I randomly (or so it seemed) picked age 9.
Following the meditation, on the way down to the dosing hut, I inexplicably declared to Leigh and two of the guides, “I’m going on a playdate with our 9-year-old grandson!”
I’m not sure where that came from. After taking the prescribed dose and settling down into a beach chair with an eye mask and noise-canceling headphones, I began envisioning playing with Levi, our eldest grandchild. Shooting hoops, tossing a football, using sticks to make art in the dirt; all the stuff we boys do.
Levi, as he sometimes does, would wander off in my mind’s eye. He likes to be alone to “think” and will take a break from playing to do just that. As the psilocybin began to take hold, I had the idea to summon my son, Levi’s dad, Chris at age 9. Shooting hoops, hanging out, the crazy fun of three 9-year-olds from different generations playing together was such a delightful trippy, treat.
Suddenly, from the upper right quadrant of my mind’s eye, I noticed the swinging gate that opened into another field. Earlier Levi had run out and come back through the gate a couple times. Then I heard his voice calling out, “Hey Guys! Let’s hang out with Mikey! He just found out his mother is dead!”
At first, I was confused. When I gazed in the direction of the swinging gate, a 9-year-old version of my father, Mikey, appeared. I immediately understood there was nothing random about the 9-year-old playdate. I then recalled in 2020 Dad had shared the story of the “mean girl next door”. As I made the connection, Dad looked in my direction and simply mouthed, “Thank you.”
The peculiar combination of angst and grief and compassion and empathy that came flooding out of me seemed unstoppable. If there was ever a time when I have cried for the ages, this was it. Literally. At some point, a counselor’s hand was resting on mine and remained there until I settled down and could contemplate, beyond the pain, the profound sense of intergenerational healing that had just occurred.
A little while later (now about 5 hours into the session), Bob Marley’s live version of “No Woman No Cry” came up on the playlist. You could not wipe the smile off my face as suddenly I found myself chilling and dancing with dad, all of my family and friends, and all of dad’s caretakers as we sang together in a mosh pit of Marley magic. “Everything’s gonna be alright!”
The concept of intergenerational epigenetic inheritance explains how trauma (i.e. finding out one is adopted) can be passed on to children and grandchildren; it also can act as a healing modality to heal this trauma with benefits that inure to not only ancestors but perhaps progeny as well. As I have retired after working 40 years to provide for my family financially, this direct experience of epigenetic healing has me now focused on further exploring this modality in order to provide for them, perhaps, metaphysically and emotionally..
My father died in August 2021. I don’t know how he would weigh in on all of this. In the last years of his life, I found him shockingly open-minded in some areas that did not comport with my observation and opinions of him while I was growing up. We had discussed my previous psychedelic-assisted therapy before he died, but I had not yet gotten to the point of this healing. I do believe the visual of a 4 generational playdate with his 9-year-old self, meeting up with his 9 year-old-son, his 9-year-old grandson, and his 9-year-old great-grandson would have been a soothing balm for his soul; it definitely would have made him smile. I am also certain by his “Thank you” from behind the swinging gate in my mind’s eye that he genuinely appreciated the healing experience from his own childhood trauma.
Never in all my years did I think there was something I could do to comfort my father for the trauma experienced in his childhood, yet there is no doubt in my mind the intergenerational healing that occurred affected not only his wounds but his parents’ wounds as well as those of my children and grandchildren. The theory goes that epigenetic healing can extend 7 generations back and 7 generations forward. And we’ve just begun.
The notion that my own untreated trauma could negatively affect my children and grandchildren’s physical and mental health is quite unsettling; especially if there’s something I can do about it. The redemptive hope that epigenetics may offer me a path to help my family heal is incredibly inspiring. I’m no stranger to enthusiastically pursuing areas of personal growth or self-exploration, but I had neither ‘fledgling psychonaut’ nor ‘aspiring epigeneticist’ on my own retirement Bingo Card. Yet, here I am. This truly feels like a legacy worth striving for.
WWW.VETS.ORG – Preventing suicide among veterans through Psychedelic Assisted Therapy for veterans suffering from TBI and PTSD
Book: It Didn’t Start With You: The Mystery of Inherited Trauma ~ Mark Wolynn
WWW.Mycomeditations.com – Where truly magical people make the magic happen in Treasure Bay, Jamaica