The Body of an Adoptee

photography by @palomakarver

photography by @palomakarver

By. Nica Selvaggio

I was beyond honored when For Women Who Roar asked me to be a regular contributor to the blog. But mostly I was afraid. Because I knew that in order to write for a magazine that is all about creating space for womxn to use their voices, I would have to learn how to access mine. I knew it would be difficult to be vulnerable on the page. However, I was not prepared for the gut punch the first prompt would deliver. One. Word. 


It has taken me decades- actually, my entire lifetime- to even begin to unravel my relationship with my body. 

A big part of me wanted to write about my body through the lens of academia and therapeutic orientation- Sexual Objectification Theory, Somatic Experiencing, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Queer Theory, and on and on and on. I’ve managed to spend my entire adult life seeking and finding language to intellectualize the experiences of pain and oppression that live in my skin. I even went so far as to specialize my areas of therapeutic expertise in the diagnostic lands of Eating Disorders and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Both of which represent the physical manifestation of emotional pain expressed in the body. Through the body.

I joke that I spend 85% of my time “functionally disassociated.” This is not a joke. My mind. My intellect. That is where I feel safe. That is where I retreat when the sensations of my body become so overwhelming that I don’t even make the conscious choice to escape. I just slip away. No one is the wiser. Call me an escape artist.

I learned very young as an adoptee that my body did not belong to me. The implicit memory of not belonging to myself is so deeply etched in my cells. It is alive in my viscera. And there is no way that writing through an academic lens could even get close to adequately expressing my relationship with my body. So instead, I have written you a story. So please take a deep breath now. And join me. Let me tell you.

The faint smell of urine. Buildings crammed into less space than they should be. Screeching wheels.  The tilt of the train car as it bends around the “loop” in downtown Chicago. I don’t notice any of this. All I can feel is the cold hard plastic of the seat cupping my tiny terrified 6-year-old body. I am always terrified. The woman sitting next to me, someone I have learned to call “mommy,” offers little solace. Even though she tries her best to comfort me. I am not easily soothed. I am a wild wisp of a thing. I don’t even know if you could call me human then. Some sort of creature resembling homosapien, but too feral to belong to the rest of the human race. My heart gallops faster and faster in my chest. My bones rattle in syncopation with the train. We are getting closer to her. That lady named Diane. The one from which I was born. 

A warm waft of air, thick with the stench of too many suffering bodies, smacks me in the face as the train car doors open. Somehow, there are steps taken. My feet moving without my consent. Somehow, the woman and I deboard the train. Somehow, we end up in a supervised courtroom. Two-way mirrored windows. Brown carpet. Fluorescent lights.  And a human with a mane of wild thick dark hair and bright blue eyes that match mine. Mommy. Is she?

The terror and confusion swirling in my belly explodes in a rush of heat on my skin. My knees turn red and hot. Acid churns. And I feel the uncontainable urge to simultaneously run towards her and away as fast as I can. I remain frozen instead. Sensing that whatever movement my body makes will have dire consequences. For either the woman who brought me here or the one with eyes like mine. There is no winning. My body is an object in a power struggle much greater than sum of this thing writhing between my teeth. This scream that just won’t come out.

I swallow. Bare my teeth in a smile. Approach with caution. Walk the tightrope of tension crackling between my birth mother and my foster mother. Try to please everyone. This is the only way to survive. The court supervisor remarks on what a calm and happy child I am. No one can see. The performance I orchestrate.

This is the moment I learn that my body does not belong to me. Forever a puppet in a battle that I did not choose. My consent never considered. Parental rights terminated. Diane declared “unfit.” What does that make me? My blood is “tainted” with her pain. My foster mother huffs with fear in the corner as Diane and I start to play with the plastic pet palace she has bought for me. Disdain coloring her already anxious face. The confusion returns. How can my foster mother love me and hate the place from which I came?

And so I must erase. Disassociation takes me away. And all that remains is my child body going through the motions. A puppet in a game. As long as I learn to control the terror and the rage and the pain forever swirling in this suit of flesh, blood, and bone. It works. Everyone is fooled. 

And just like that- it’s time to leave. Somehow, steps are taken. Somehow, my foster mother and I leave that courtroom. Somehow, I let her hold my tiny terrified hand. And leave behind Diane and vow to never bring her up again. Even though I yearn, and yearn, and yearn to be anywhere but that foster home. A genetic mismatch unwilling or unable to be acknowledged by the needs of the people who have taken me in. This is my burden to bear as an adoptee. My job is to please everyone but myself. My body is literally an object in a contract between the state and the ones who needed me to erase my DNA.

I’m almost thirty years old now and these bad habits remain. Like a software program running in the background controlling the way I relate. I make myself beautiful. Whatever it takes. Smile. Nod. Be soft. Be quiet. Be charming. Never too offensive. Make others feel good. Submit to the conditioning of what culture has taught me it takes to belong as a woman. Don’t let them see. All the strategies I learned to survive as an adoptee who never felt safe in acknowledging the pain beneath the strength that you see. 

If I could let that six-year-old speak. Go back to that courtroom before I learned the art of assimilation as safety. Before I lost contact with that wild feral sweet girl. Before I exited the train. And everything changed. Before that chasm formed between my body and my brain. I would say. 

I did not choose this. Nor did I want it. Nor am I grateful. 

I belong to myself. My body is my own. With desires and thoughts and impulses that have nothing to do with what you wish I would say. My life was not better because I got “saved.” This is not the story of adoption that people want to hear. And for the first time in my life, I don’t care. Because I’m finding my way. Severing myself from the needs and expectations projected upon my child body by a broken system that holds no space for the stories of the adoptees it claims to protect. And I have found that the only way for me to heal- to fully inhabit this body of mine- is to acknowledge these truths. Every word written comes from that place that was silenced so long ago. So. Please. Listen.

Signed- An Angry Adoptee

Grit. Depth. Shadow. Resilience. Pain. Hope. Healing. Writing is the portal through which Nica Selvaggio explores the intangible and visceral experiences of being human that are too often kept silent. The messy bits that are difficult to put words to. Never one to be accused of sugar coating, Nica brings raw honesty to her work, exploring themes such as grief, adoption, trauma, sexuality, race, relationships, gender dynamics, power, and voice. Poetry and essay are her medicines on days when it all seems like too much. In sharing her work, she hopes that you, the reader, can find bits of yourself and connect to the healing alchemy of storytelling. Nica’s offering in the pages of For Women Who Roar takes readers on a journey through the four elements found in nature as they relate to the saga of her four names. You can find more of her work on her Instagram @nicaselvaggio or her website