Saturday, October 25, 2014
Adoption reunion. Two little words; a vast, uncharted territory. I remember reading What To Expect When You're Expecting when I was pregnant with my two raised babies, and there were plenty of other books to get women prepared for the rigors of birth that I read too. I practiced Lamaze exercises and learned breathing techniques as I "rehearsed" for childbirth. The preparation didn't eliminate the pain, but it did help me at least know what would happen and give me ways of coping with it. I can't imagine giving birth without those preliminaries.
Finding the son I lost to adoption was a different sort of birth, the beginning of a new relationship that had virtually nothing to go on. The few days I spent in the hospital, when I was able to hold my son and feed him, were precious and irreplaceable, but a 44-year old man is not a tiny baby. How is a mother supposed to relate to a child she never knew? I had no idea. I was flying blind.
Two books were invaluable to me in early reunion: Primal Wound and Coming Home to Self, both by adoptive mother and therapist Nancy Verrier. The first helped me understand the trauma David and I had suffered as a result of our separation and its lasting consequences, the second gave me insight into the mind and heart of the adult adoptee. Both are essential to an understanding of adoption, but when it came to reunion I was a deer in the headlights.
I'd been warned. The wonderful women from SunflowerFirstMoms have been with me every step of the way, and without them I'd be even crazier than I am, without a doubt. Still, like childbirth, nothing can substitute for the lived experience. I had to go through my reunion, which would be like no other, in order to incorporate it into my self. Every reunion is unique, but the same cast of characters is involved every time. A mother and her child. This is what is happening with mine.
First Stage (early labor, if you will): One day it floated into my head that there was nothing stopping me from searching for my son. My parents were gone, my husband was understanding, my raised children were grown, and I was retired from teaching. The time seemed right, and I immediately took to the internet and began sending out feelers. A woman who seemed nice actually called me from Florida and offered her services as a searcher--for a hefty fee. I was willing to pay and had considered hiring a private investigator, but fortunately I stumbled upon N.Y. Liberty Angels and discovered that there are Search Angels who search for family members lost to adoption, and they charge nothing. I made contact, was assigned a Search Angel, and in no time at all, she came up with a name. "Look on Facebook, and see if he's there." I did, and he was, but he didn't get my message until three weeks later, when he finally went on Facebook to check his birthday greetings. He responded to my earlier email, "Hi, Mom. Call me." And the rest is history. I had found him and heard his voice. He was real, and he sounded amazing.
Second Stage: (still early labor). Hey, this is really happening. Those first flutters were indeed the harbinger of things to come. Now we're really into it. Frequent phone calls and long emails. "We can't talk on the phone every day," I told him. I didn't talk to my other kids that often. "Why not?" he replied. Why not, indeed? My husband was the soul of patience, watching TV in another room while David and I talked and talked and talked. We had so much to say, forty-four years' worth of living and wondering, while never imagining we'd ever be together. It was the euphoria of early love, when all thoughts turn toward the beloved like iron filings to the north pole. Everything still seemed unreal, or surreal, like a 3-D dream. I'd read about things that could go wrong in reunion--pullbacks, rejection, anger, the "roller coaster of reunion"--but that wasn't going to happen to us. We were going to prove the skeptics wrong. David was thrilled to be found, I was thrilled to have my son, and I couldn't imagine a greater happiness.
Third Stage (transition): If grief is a mountain, and the grief over losing a child to adoption is like a mountain that adds layers as the years go by, it is inevitable that at some point that mountain will fall on you and bury you alive. During the first few weeks, David emailed me photos of himself from the age of 3 weeks, when his adoptive parents first took him home, through his toddler and young childhood years, then into the teen years, and finally young adulthood. There's one picture of him at age six where he looks a lot like I did at that age. In fact, David looks more like me than any of my children. Saskia has my eyes, but she and Tanner take more after their dad's side of the family. It was like an electric shock when I saw David in person for the first time. He looked so much like me.
I poured over these pictures, arranged them in chronological order, and studied them so closely I memorized every detail, but gradually it became more and more difficult to look at them. Those precious images ground it into me that the child in them was lost to me forever. No matter how wonderful having David was now, there were 44 lost years that could never be recovered. I felt completely shut out of his life and could no longer maintain either the denial that had helped me endure or the joy of his discovery. I felt emotionally like those Chilean minors who were trapped underground for so long and as isolated as an island seen through the wrong end of a telescope. Sadness clung to me like a cobweb. I don't know how to describe feelings except through metaphor, yet no words can adequately capture what I felt. I wrote about it all as I lived through it, yet when I go back a re-read what I said, the emotion that I thought I was pouring onto the screen seems drained away. I went crazy with grief. The mountain crumbled, which meant it was breaking up and could one day be carted away, but I was stuck in the avalanche.
Post-partum (I'll end this strained analogy here): Mothers who have experienced post-partum depression--and I am one--know that for no apparent reason a time that is the highlight of your life can also be a descent into darkness. You have what you've wanted and thought about for nine months. You can look into your baby's face, smell her hair, and feel her warmth beating against you, and nothing has ever been as wonderful. But you feel like a peeled egg, with no protective layers. You are in a tunnel and everything seems to be coming at you from a great distance. These feelings have no reason behind them and are deeper than a mere mood. Even your own mind seems to be turning against you, and you are afraid to be alone.
I don't know how it is for other mothers reunited with their long-lost children, but my reunion was a time of both euphoria and despair. Perhaps the emotional upheaval of reunion triggers a hormonal response similar to that following a birth. Whatever is happening, it certainly takes over every part of you--physically, emotionally, psychologically. I felt as if I could barely be contained within my own skin, as if I desperately needed to escape my own body but was trapped. Sitting quietly was a torment, but movement brought little relief. I turned to friends, my therapist, and sometimes my kids, though I hated to pull them into what was consuming me. I thought about my son every moment of every day, and my obsession split me in two. I felt as if half of me were 700 miles away with my son, while the other half was in my comfortless home. I wanted to relax, but I was as tense and edgy as an unbroken horse new to the bridle. Everything became an effort, and I stopped writing my blog, saw only a couple of old friends, and found even the social interaction required by a visit to the supermarket an almost unbearable strain. My husband was patient, but I knew I was neglecting him, if only because I was so distracted. I felt completely out of control of my emotions and more than a little crazy.
My son was enduring his own emotional trials, compounded of shock, joy, and a feeling quite new to him: love. But for him, as for me, reunion unleashed torrents. Decades of the self-discipline adoptees exercise had left him isolated, lonely, and living on the surface of his life. Now that surface was broken, and he fell through to a new reality, overwhelming in its power and strangeness. To compress a long story into a manageable tale, he plunged deeper into his chronic alcoholism and suffered a nervous breakdown that led to hospitalizations and eventually AA and several stints in rehab. It's my belief that, just as post-partum depression is often a real consequence of childbirth, "adoptee syndrome" is a frequent response to adoption, reunion, and the inherent instability of the adoptee's life, no matter how "successful" the adoption might appear. A confused sense of self and identity, a feeling of worthlessness and a fear of abandonment, unfocussed anxiety and hyper-reactivity, and relationship difficulties have all been extensively documented in the adoption literature. Some adoptees in reunion cannot tolerate these extreme emotions and keep their distance from their mother, even though they are often more willing to engage with siblings or more distant family members. Denial is a powerful coping strategy, and while it's perhaps presumptuous of me to attribute denial, anger, or a feeling of incompleteness to individuals who stoutly deny them, I maintain that all adoptees must at some level experience the strain of knowing their identity is an assumed one, not who they really are.
It's been almost three years since that first phone call, and a lot of the reunion rubble has been cleared away. Just as I had to accept the loss of my son to adoption and still manage to live, I've learned to accept that I can never retrieve the past. I have mourned, incorporated the loss, and reached a place of acceptance that not so long ago I never expected to find. In many ways, the Kubler-Ross stages of grief apply to adoption loss and reunion as well. There is denial, anger, depression, and eventually acceptance, which must come if one is to move forward. But acceptance doesn't mean acquiescence.
When I gave birth to my daughter, my youngest child, I suffered post-partum depression for the first time. Why didn't anyone warn me about this, I wondered. I thought I must be crazy and was afraid to tell anyone, not even my then-husband. To this day I cannot listen to music that was popular in the weeks after my daughter's birth; it's too reminiscent of overwhelming emotions. Now I can recall that happy time and remember the joy rather than the craziness, but a song by Roger Whitaker will trigger a response I'd rather not feel. I believe it's important for mothers-of-loss who are in reunion with their children to let others know what this uncharted territory is like. Images in the media of the first face-to-face meeting of mother and child are heart-warming to be sure, but they gloss over what should never be forgotten. The mothers we celebrate with today would not be in this position if they'd been treated with as much compassion then as they are now. Reunion is Janus-faced, and we must not forget the tragic side to adoption, because every reunion, no matter how happy, is like every adoption, no matter how successful, infinitely more complicated than fleeting images of balloons and embraces. Without that knowledge, every mother and adoptee entering reunion will be flying blind.