What does it mean to be in denial? We hear a lot about denial these day, as an explanation and as an accusation, but what is it really? Obviously, anyone who is in it doesn't know it, but how can we know who is and who isn't when we can't peer into another person's mind? When a birth mother says she's happy with her decision to relinquish her baby, is she being responsible or is she in denial? When an adoptee proclaims her delight at being adopted, is she truly grateful or is she in denial?
I know I risk being accused of projection or putting words in other people's mouths, but I'm going to chance it anyway, because I know what being in denial feels like. I've been there.
When you're in denial, you aren't lying to yourself; you actually believe that what you think is true. It's easy to lie to yourself--my marriage IS a good one, I'm NOT jealous of my best friend, getting fired IS the best thing that ever happened to me--but deep down, you know the truth. Being in denial is different.
Relinquishing my son for adoption in 1968, when he was three weeks old, was the hardest thing I've ever done, the hardest thing I will ever do. In many ways, losing a child to adoption is worse than if your child died. I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but think about it. Death is an ending that can be mourned. There are rituals that surround it to ease the pain, and sympathy pours in. The sympathy may be awkwardly expressed, but it is at least expected. Death can't be undone, so the loss is permanent and must be dealt with on those terms. They say time heals all wounds, because the mind can't tolerate the rending of loss forever. Either you recover and heal, or you go mad or die yourself.
Adoption is not a death; it is a parting. Most of us have the experience of parting from friends, from lovers, even from spouses, and we eventually recover and move on. But there is one parting from which recovery isn't possible: the loss of a child to adoption. The mother-infant bond is the strongest bond in nature (unless you're a reptile, and even some of them demonstrate maternal behavior). Our very survival as a species depends on it. When that bond is severed, the damage to mother and baby in incalculable and, I suggest, permanent. Because of the intractability of this specific kind of grief, the only way to try to integrate it is to go into denial, to shut that mental door and make sure it never opens. The experts call this "ambiguous loss." The parents of missing children experience it, as do the families of soldiers missing in action. We all know this. Yet as a society we remain in denial when it comes to adoption.
For years and years I was a believer in and supporter of adoption. I BELIEVED in adoption and adopted a baby from Vietnam myself in 1974. I subscribed to the Holt Adoption Agency's newsletter for many years, read many books that praised adoption, especially transracial adoption, and joined parent groups for families with adopted, foreign-born children. Whenever I saw another family with a child of a different race, I wanted to go up to them and say, "I am one of you." I believed I was "paying it forward" when I adopted my Vietnamese son. Someone had given my first son a home; now I was in a sense returning the favor.
It took a long time for me to recognize that I was in denial, and it didn't occur with a sudden epiphany, but if I try to isolate the moment when the light began to dawn it would have to be when I interviewed for a job at Guilford College many years ago. My interviewer was an English professor, probably about my age, and during our conversation he mentioned that he was adopted and had recently met his birth mother and seven siblings for the first time. He told me his mother was thrilled to meet him and had "suffered the tortures of the damned" ever since giving him up. I remember at that point getting up and closing his office door. I was about to confess something, and I didn't want anyone else to hear it. I told him I had given up a son for adoption myself. I confided that I had never stopped thinking about my son and that he, Prof. X, was one of the very few people I had even told about him. I only shared my story because he had shared his, and I wanted to assure him that his mother had indeed thought about him for all those years. "The tortures of the damned" kept running through my head after I left the interview. I didn't think I had experienced anything like that. I was OK, wasn't I? I remembered my son's birthdays, sure, but I didn't come unglued. I had three children whom I loved. I was divorced but felt emotionally fulfilled by my kids. Anything having to do with adoption always caught my eye, but I wasn't obsessed or anything.
Looking back now, I can see plainly enough just how deep in denial I was. I couldn't have survived otherwise, but the choices I made, including adopting myself, and the depression I endured indicate just how disturbed I really was.
It was my third husband who made it possible for me to finally come to terms with the most crucial event in my life, so after finding security and stability in our marriage, I was able to entertain the idea that it might be possible to find my son. When I asked him what he thought about my searching, he said, "Go for it." Having never told my raised children they had a brother, I knew my next step had to be to tell them, which I did right after Christmas in 2011. I won't try to summarize their reactions, but they were unanimously supportive. It only took a few weeks, and on January 26, 2012, I spoke with my son David for the first time.
I think the denial ended when I asked my husband what he thought about my searching. He tells me now that that was the first time I had even mentioned I'd given up a child. I was shocked when he said that. How could I not have told him? I must have, surely. He says I didn't, and I conclude that my denial was so deep I didn't even dredge up the truth for a man I loved and had committed the rest of my life to.
Coming out of the adoption fog is not easy. I may be stretching an analogy here, but it's rather like struggling not to drown. You're gulping for air and treading water like a maniac, which takes all your strength and focus, but you're managing to keep your head above water. Then you finally make it to shore, and the first deep gasps of pure air are like the elixir of life itself. You can't get enough, as you lie there panting, then the aftermath sets in. You begin to shake all over, you wet yourself and worse, you realize with horror that you nearly drowned and can't stop thinking about it. You have nightmares for weeks afterward. Would you say to that nearly drowned woman that she'd have been better off just to slip beneath the waves and let go? Or would you say that the shock and terror of being saved were worth it?
Denial is a way to cope with the unbearable. It is a blessed escape when no other escape is possible, but when the danger is past, it can become as debilitating as the event that caused it. When I hear a birth mother say she's happy with her decision and her child's life without her, I hear a mother in denial. When I hear an adoptee who, for whatever reasons, says he isn't interested in finding his birth mother or knowing his real family, I hear an individual in denial. I don't blame either the mother or the child. Denial is the best they can do at the moment. But I pray (or would, if I were the praying kind) that a day will come when they'll come out of the fog and realize how much better life can be when it's lived in openness and truth.