Part II – How Could They Have Kept The Fact I Am Adopted From Me? How can I ever trust them, or myself, again?

(To read Part I of this post, visit Adoptees Ask at The Door Opener Magazine Online)

They have a “late discovery” of this truth through other means, for example as in your case by overhearing a conversation between relatives. Sometimes they may learn the truth by being taunted by other children: “My mom says you’re adopted! You weren’t even good enough for your real mother to keep you.” Sometimes the discovery is made after the death of the adoptive parents as a result of going through safe deposit boxes and estate documents. As DNA testing becomes more and more routine I believe we will increasingly find adoptees learning of their adoption because their DNA results prove it is impossible for them to be biologically related to their (adoptive) parents.

I want to let you know that every reaction you are having makes sense. It is not paranoid to wonder who else knew of your adoption because, certainly, many other people were involved in this conspiracy of silence. Your (adoptive) mother obviously did not go through a pregnancy with you, and this fact would have been noticed by all of her contemporaries. You have a right to know who else was aware of this information.

I anticipate you will need to address at least two levels of healing. The first is the healing work you need to do inside of yourself and your psyche. The second is in healing in relationship. You mentioned you have self-doubt and a hard time trusting yourself. I imagine that at least some of this is due to the fact that you were deceived by those closest to you in your formative years.  heartarrow2173123478_bff18fb3cc_z

As children, we develop our sense of confidence in our perception in large part by being validated by our caregivers. We have an experience like feeling sad, for example, because we feel tears in our eyes, heaviness in our hearts and our shoulders droop. Our parents or other caregivers notice this and respond congruently by reflecting our reality back to us. (“Oh, you’re crying and sad! Let me give you a hug and you can tell me what is wrong.”) Over time we learn to interpret our internal body sensations and develop trust that they are acceptable, and are giving us correct information about ourselves and the world. (“I’m sad because my cat died. That makes sense. Caring people will comfort me when I’m sad.”)

Problems arise when our internal sensations are giving us correct information but the people around us are not responding congruently. You mention you noticed physical differences between you and family members, and asked your sister about it. By joking and changing the subject, she reacted incongruently. The implied message back to you was, “Ignore your sensations: they are wrong or unimportant.” This is how self-doubt (doubt of one’s sensations, thoughts and experiences) is created.

One wonders how often your sensations or questions were similarly deflected. In most families it is normal to reminisce about the day a child was born. Did you ever ask did your mother how she felt when she was carrying you as a baby? Was childbirth discussed? Did your mother have a detailed story about your sister’s birth but nothing to say about yours? Or, worse, did she come up with a fabrication? Whose eyes do you (supposedly) have? How did your parents behave when you asked about your family medical history, so you could give it to your doctors? Each time you were lied to or your questions were deflected, your family member was incongruent with you and added to your self-doubt and confusion.

It sounds as if you haven’t yet told your sister or your parents that you have discovered you are adopted. I suggest you take some time and discuss this with a very trusted friend (someone who you know for sure has not kept this from you, perhaps a friend you met as an adult) or a therapist. Since you mentioned you have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I imagine you may already have a therapist. It is very important to be working with a therapist who understands issues surrounding the experience of being adopted.

One concern I have when you discuss this with your parents and sister is that they may try to justify their secret keeping. If they feel guilty that may cause them to pressure you, or cause you to pressure yourself, into accepting their justifications or apologies before you have had a chance to fully acknowledge and explore your own feelings. It is also possible they may become defensive and angry, and attempt to silence you. I suggest you take time and space to explore your own feelings and reactions before having to deal with theirs.

It is very common for adoptees to be asked to accept the “benevolent” or well-meaning intentions of others who withheld or controlled information about them. And once you have had time to accept and process your own feelings, you may well come to understand and even sympathize with their intentions. I caution you to be sure to proceed at your own pace and not prematurely substitute the thoughts or feelings of others for your own, true experience. I also believe that only at this later point will you be able to consider the matter of forgiveness. People are capable of terrible transgressions against each other, but also amazing openings of heart that allow us to forgive. That is something only you will be able to choose to do, and to know if and when the time is right.

Lastly, the fact is you now know are you are adopted. This means you have biological relatives somewhere in the world. How do you feel about that? You may at some point desire to know more about them or meet them. You might already feel that way. Given your parents secret keeping we would not be surprised if they may not be supportive of this desire. You will have to manage their reactions to your need to know more, or you can choose not to share your search with them. You’ve already mentioned a concern regarding your medical history which is a common concern of adoptees. That need alone may motivate you to seek more information.

Your right as an adoptee to know the truth about your origins is governed by the laws of the state in which you were adopted. State laws vary widely, with some guaranteeing you the right access to complete information about yourself. Others states still have restrictive laws dating from an era of stigma and shame about adoption. If you decide to discuss this with your parents, you may find they possess (and are willing to share) information that would assist you in searching. If not, you can start by exploring laws in the state in which you were born. Many resources are available to adoptees now on the internet and Facebook. A good start is the website of the American Adoption Congress and the Lost Daughters Blog, as well as Life…Adopted and DNA Detectives on Facebook.

Photo credit:  Edmund Chan via Flckr

About Karen Caffrey

I'm a psychotherapist in private practice in West Hartford, Connecticut. I enjoy helping people become more fulfilled and resilient, so they can lead better lives.
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7 Responses to Part II – How Could They Have Kept The Fact I Am Adopted From Me? How can I ever trust them, or myself, again?

  1. Jeff H. says:

    As a late-discovery-adoptee, I understand exactly the hurt and betrayal the woman in this article is experiencing. The day I found out I was adopted was a sorrow and grief that I still cannot find words for. When people ask me “What was it like finding out you were adopted at age 41?” the best I can do to explain it is to say “it is like being a guest at your own funeral.” Basically, you lost the life of the person you have always known. No one else can share the grief you experience both at that moment and over the years following discovery.

    I also have serious trust issues as a result of my adoption, and from my upbringing as well. Something just never seemed “right” with my adopted family. Not only did I feel like an outsider, I was indeed treated like an outsider. I realize that every person’s experience is different even within our LDA community. That said, I was never able to forgive my adoptive family for the lies and the betrayal of my trust.

    My parents and siblings (I am the youngest by 10-years) made it a practice to guilt and shame me daily as child. When the story of my adoption came out, my mother and sister employed the same approach of shame and guilt. I admit I resented it. For the next 5-years until her death during my mom’s weekly phone calls she would attempt to shame me into forgiving them for the betrayal while never seeing their manipulation of my truth. She would say things like. “I’m an old woman, how would you feel if I died tomorrow and you haven’t forgiven us for not telling you?” As Karen said above, they might try to pressure you into accepting their justifications before you have had time to fully become aware of your own feelings. It is also to be expected that they will become defensive and angry. All of the above happened in my LDA experience.

    It is very important to take all of the time and space you feel you need to look within before you decide on a reaction or how you will approach this with them. What works for me might not work for the woman in this article. In my example, I chose to never discuss my adoption discovery with anyone in my adoptive family. I have no regrets about this. While my mother tried to shame me into feeling guilt over their misconduct, I have none and furthermore, I never expect to ever have those feelings either.

  2. Jeff, your story illustrates the individual nature of each adoptee’s experience, while at the same time having the common themes of betrayal of trust, grief and anger. And particularly so for late discovery adoptees who were deprived of this essential truth about themselves. I am very glad you were able to buffer yourself from the shame your family directed at you, and not take it on as your own. Thank-you so much for sharing your experience with all of us.

  3. Tim Miller says:

    I found out at 40 my biological mother had breast cancer and that my father was my adoptive father was not my biological father. When confronted my mother and adoptive father would only tell me my bio dads name was Mike Smith and that he was born between 1950-1954. They chose to tell me nothing more. Ingot my OBC and contacted the man named on it. Not bio dad! Did 23&me no luck. Searched local yearbooks only. False leads due to bio dads common name. I also did ancestrydna. My mother and adoptive father knew I was doing all this work and expending these resources to search for my biological father. They remained silent.

    I learned from the man on my OBC that he had married my mother to keep her from aborting me. And that his father had their marriage annulled when my mother left him for my adoptive father.

    I then found a volunteer genetic geneaologist and within about 3 months I found my bio dad. I kept silent and didn’t let my mother know this detail. The day my bio dad put his ancestrydna sample in the mail. I called my mother and asked her questions about him. With just his name, highschool, and names of his parents she confirmed this was the right man. When asked why she couldn’t tell me what highschool he went to or the names of his parents. All she can say is “I don’t know”.

    I can’t have her around my children. What lies will she tell them? What truths will she keep from them??

    I’m so angry. It’s so painful. There are so few people I can discuss this with. I’ve tried two therapists and two different support groups. The therapists were worthless. They tried to help me cope without helping deal with or understand how I came to have these feelings. I just got so angry that it became a problem for me at home and at work. With therapy I felt more and more alienated as I realized I had these feelings and no one else around me did. I also came to realize at this time that if I told normal people they would just judge me and not understand.

    I remain lost, angry, and alienated with no understanding of how to move beyond this. Your post here has shown me more insight to my underlying feelings than years of work and help from professionals, groups and books.

    Keep these wonderfully insightful posts coming.

  4. Tim, I am so sorry that you were so deeply betrayed. Yours is a terribly painful example of how unhealed trauma and shame from one generation gets passed on to the next generation.

    It feels particularly egregious when your mother (and perhaps your adoptive father who might also have had the information?) had multiple opportunities to help you after the secret became known, but did not do so. I expect her answer of “I don’t know” is, however, truthful. Unprocessed trauma inhabits a place inside the psyche where people truly don’t know themselves. There is a stranger, in pain, living inside of them that they have chosen to ignore.

    We tend to think our trauma is ours alone and nobody has the right to make us face it. However, our unhealed trauma affects those around us and I do believe we have a responsibility to others to heal. You may find this column I wrote on the personal responsibility of birth mothers to heal relevant to your situation, even though (of course) you know your mother.

    On a final note, there is a private online support group for Late Discovery Adoptees that I can put you in touch with if you feel open to trying another community. Send me an email through the Contact page of this website and I will forward you their contact information. And perhaps keep seeking an adoptee-informed therapist. The best resource is often by word of mouth through your local adoptee support groups.

  5. Jeff H says:

    Tim, you have every right to be angry, as the trauma of being an LDA is very, very painful and life changing. Like you, I met with two therapists early on in my discovery (2007). The first one was a horrible mistake, as she was a birth mom who has serious issues as her daughter had rejected reunion. The second one I went to was sweet and kind, but had no practical experience with adult adoptees. I went about 5 years with no help, and it was a mistake, though at the time I was completely jobless with no coverage and couldn’t’ afford the luxury of counseling. Now, however, I finally found someone who gets it. The difference is, this therapist specializes in PTSD and trauma recovery.

    I have only been going for 6-months now, and have only just begun EMDR therapy as part of the treatments. So far I like it. Even though my therapist has no real experience with adoption, she does know trauma, and it is slowly making things better.

    I’m not sure how long it has been since you found out, Tim, but it has been 9 for me. Like you, I remain lost, angry, and struggle to move beyond this as well. Adopted folk have a lot on our plates, and being an LDA only compounds things even more. I found that none of my old college friends were in the least bit sympathetic to my discovery, and most criticized me for being upset and hurt. My a-family were like that, too. Fortunately I was able to connect with other adoptees and build lasting friendships there. In all honesty, though, I lack answers but I do share your dilemma.

  6. Lynn Grubb says:

    Thank you for this post, Karen. I imagine it will help many adoptees who have never located (myself included) an adoptee-competent therapist. Although I am not an LDA, the pain and trauma of my birth mother lying to me is still very real for me. She knows who my father is, yet refuses to tell me — even 10 years later she remains silent and in denial. Thankfully, a family member decided to help me get some answers. I am still awaiting DNA confirmation, but I am pretty certain I know who my father is. The sad thing is I know my birth mother will continue to deny it, even after I have DNA evidence! The secrets and lies are so frustrating and painful. I feel for what Tim and Jeff have had to endure, and I understand the struggle that others outside of the adoptee community fail to understand how painful not knowing our origins can be. Add secrets and lies on top of that along with dealing with everyone else in the family’s emotions, it just becomes too much. Thanks again for this.

  7. Lynn, it is so damaging when people lie to us particularly about something as critically important as our origins. I am glad you are seeking the truth for yourself. Yours is another story of how important it is to do our own healing work so as to not pass on our u healed trauma to others. Best of luck with your search, Karen

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