For the past 10 years, I've been a part of a spiritual community that both nurtures and inspires me. I have been an active volunteer in this congregation. I have felt strong connections to the people there. I married my husband in the sanctuary. A few years ago when asked in a meditation workshop to close my eyes and think of a place where I belonged, it was the building where this congregation gathers that came into my mind.
So why haven't I been there in several months?
There a few reasons. Part of it is a natural evolution. I had simply been there long enough that I needed to step back for a while and reevaluate my commitments. I needed to refresh my engagement, so to speak … to spend some time thinking how I might best contribute, in ways that were satisfying to me and of value to the congregation. I had reached a point where I was participating in some commitments with a less than joyful heart.
But there's another reason, too, and it's harder for me to explain.
I have been avoiding my community because I have a hidden pain, one that is hard for people to recognize or acknowledge. I've been struggling, but my struggle (though common to people of my "kind") is one that many people don't understand. I've even known it to make other people uncomfortable or angry. Other reactions have ranged from bafflement to outright denial of my feelings and experience.
You see, I am an adoptee. I was born in the 1960s to a teenage mother and placed for adoption at three weeks old. My adoptive parents were told that my separation from my biological mother would not affect me in any significant way, that I would experience my life "as if born to" them.
Unfortunately, things didn't quite work out that way. I do love my adoptive family, and I have never questioned their love for me, but I have also struggled my entire life with a variety of post-adoption issues, though I didn't always recognize them as such. One day, in my twenties, I collapsed in tears onto the floor of my apartment, overwhelmed with grief and mourning for the mother I was not supposed to miss. In my thirties I found my maternal biological family, learned how much biology had influenced who I am, and began the lifelong process of making sense of what it means to me a member of more than one family.
In my forties, I entered therapy, having finally recognized that certain fears and anxieties and relationship issues I had long battled (but rarely acknowledged) were rooted in the separation from my original family -- that event that wasn't supposed to affect me but did.
And I learned I was not alone. I found other adoptees and learned that many of them had experiences that mirrored my own.
But there are many people who know me in real life who don't know any of this about me, or who know only an abbreviated, sanitized version of it. Though I am open about sharing my story publicly on my blog and through other online forums, I don't usually share my adoptee pain offline. Why?
As my friend Deanna wrote in her recent blog post What Every Adoptee Needs More Than Anything, "I have learned most people seem to have strong views about adoption even if they've never been adopted." My adoption narrative, if I tell it truthfully, contradicts the view of adoption that many people hold and some hold very dear.
What has happened recently in my personal adoption journey is that I have entered a new phase of reunion. This summer, at age 45, I met my biological father for the first time and began the process of getting to know him, an experience that knocked me off kilter. Though this new development in my life has many positives (for example, it has allowed me to unlock new pieces of my identity and my understanding of self), it has also come with a kickback. None of this will surprise many other adoptees who have been through reunion.
We know that adoption reunion is intense. Participants often find themselves struggling with psychological regression to earlier emotional ages. We may find that reunion opens up a new wave of mourning for our losses -- losses that need to be processed like any others, even though we may simultaneously recognize gains as well. In short, we may be buffeted about by a whole range of conflicting emotions.
But how do I explain all this to non-adoptees? How do I respond when someone asks me how I am and I can neither answer "fine" nor summon the energy to explain all the complex, and little understood, reasons why I am not fine.
If I was dealing with a death or sickness or a divorce, it would have been different. I would only have to say a few words to make my situation understood. But in this case, I worried that I would need to educate others before they could provide the empathy I craved … and I just didn't have the energy.
I considered making myself a sign that said something along the lines of "Please don't expect too much of me. I can't really explain what's going on right now, but I am using every bit of energy I have just to hold it together." But instead I sought out other communities: online communities consisting of adoptees and others who already possessed an understanding of what I was experiencing.
And that helped. A lot. I'm feeling much stronger now, and I'm getting ready to re-enter my spiritual community. When I do I will be holding some new questions in my mind and heart. What are the hidden struggles that others may be carrying? What can I do to make sure that I myself am open to embracing whatever may be going on for another, without bringing my own preconceived notions to bear on their experience? How can I communicate empathy, even when the other doesn't know how to ask for it?
I don't claim to have the answers to all of these, but the questions themselves seem like a pretty good place to start.
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