Guest blog: Becoming your whole self as an adoptee
There was a baby screaming somewhere in the back of the restaurant. The baby seemed inconsolable; there was a lot of commotion, parents shushing her, the restaurant staff was flustered. I felt for the caretakers and I felt for the baby. The baby with the infant language of her own could not communicate with the desperate adults, but I’m sure everyone wanted a peaceful resolution. I thought how that baby was still just trying to figure out her place in the world, how it would take some time before a proper communication could be established, but how everyone around her was working hard to connect with her. Then I thought of myself as a baby when I first arrived at my new adopted home—a tiny human being already loaded with trauma of having been relinquished. I had only spent a mere two weeks in the world, but at that point, those two weeks were already filled with mystery that it would take me decades to solve.
As the baby in the restaurant, and, I’m sure every other baby in the world, I was a delight and terror to my adopted, sweet parents. As we all grew older together, we learned how to communicate and connect with each other. My household was the perfect American home—two siblings, a doting mom and a father who supported us and whom I could count on. We weren’t rich, but we were comfortable and lived contentedly in a nice home near a beautiful lake, in a beautiful neighborhood filled with other nice families.
In other words, my childhood was almost ideal, filled with love. As a child I’ve never felt the early abandonment per se, although I did feel quite alienated; I just didn’t know how to name it. There was always this strange sensation of not quite fitting in—later, I would describe this as feeling as if I was under a giant microscope. The world was watching me, watching my every move. I was shy and filled with shame that didn’t seem related to anything… but something happened in my life that confirmed my suspicion that I was different from others.
My adoption was not a secret, and it wasn’t anything I was specifically concerned with, until I turned six and revealed that I had been adopted to some friends. I didn’t think it was a big deal. I don’t remember thinking twice about sharing my “news”—I thought that was just a cool little fact about me, like when you tell your buddies you have a famous uncle in your family.
Unbeknownst to me, the revelation was to become one of the turning points in my life—my friends’ reactions were of shock and disbelief instead of acceptance and understanding. I don’t blame them today—we were all just kids. I didn’t understand the stigma that adoption carried; I didn’t understand that to them I was a kid who must have been unwanted at some point (given up!), that I was somehow tainted. It’s funny because until that moment I was under the impression that I was extra wanted, I was after all chosen by such lovely family. I dragged my friends home to have my mom confirm my disclosure—I was still misreading their reactions, I thought they were just upset with me because they thought I had lied to them about such a… cool thing. But once my mom cheerfully admitted that what I had told them was the truth and their reactions remained shocked, I understood that it was the information itself that created this chasm between us. We were different. I was different. And different was bad. How was I different? I was adopted. Suddenly, it was as if my entire world—the nice neighborhood, the loving family, the lake—turned out to be fake, a cardboard cut-out of real life. And although that’s not how I thought of those things back as a six-year-old, the feelings of uneasiness and shame were very real and the feeling of otherness stayed with me for decades.
At such young age, my identity was only just getting formed, but it became painfully obvious—as I look back now—that it was getting malformed. My attachments were to my adopted family and my community, but now that I convinced myself I was not exactly a part of my community—and my own family!—I had no choice but to grow up feeling alienated.
I didn’t share any of this with my parents because I didn’t even have the words for it. And they didn’t notice either—I remained my charming self, maybe always a little shy and maybe a little detached, but not an unhappy kid by any means. Not the kind of kid you’d worry about. They didn’t worry about me. I didn’t want them to worry, I didn’t want to disappoint them. They were my family and they were the only family I knew! Despite not quite feeling like myself, I didn’t know who my self was—I only knew how to be David, a boy I played my entire life.
My story of self-discovery is long and convoluted and it took years before I started piecing together my biological past and its legacy. It took decades and a few rude awakenings before I could stop denying the fact that I suffered from identity loss and that not all was well in David’s world. How did I get to that point? I had to face various truths, one of them being that I used substances (alcohol) to cope with the fact that I didn’t feel like I fit into the world. I started drinking as a teenager and by the time I was in my 40s, I was full-blown dependent on alcohol to help me cope with my emotions. It took a health crisis (a seizure) to finally snap me out of my denial, and that’s when I started to investigate my biological past. I needed to know why I was the way I was, if there was anything in my genetic makeup that made me susceptible to substances.
In later years, in sobriety, I connected my early childhood trauma (of having been relinquished and adopted and later shamed about it) to my struggles with substances, but in the beginning, it was the more urgent practical need to find out my medical history. I’ve found out that my biological mother had also suffered from substance use disorder, and that my father possibly did as well. I’ve learned about half-siblings. I’ve uncovered secrets. Suddenly there was no hiding from the truth. The truth was that a lot of my reality had been false—I had a whole load of undiscovered history and legacy and ancestry that held the answers to who I truly was. I’ve said before it was like shaking a kaleidoscope and having all the pieces fall apart and then come together again to form a different picture. Same pieces, but an image that was nothing like what it was before.
The beginnings of my self-discovery as an adoptee were not easy. I tried, unsuccessfully, to ignore some of the information (quite literally, I put the box with my records away on the shelf and didn’t look at it for a long time) but a question kept coming back to haunt me: Who Am I? I had to find out.
I got sober from alcohol, I became honest with my own family (my wife and my children) about my addiction, and then I had to start becoming honest with myself about everything else. I realized that my feelings of disconnect and lost identity were related to my refusal to let my own story evolve, get bigger.
Today, for me attachment to other human beings and my own identity are all about pursuing and finding reality. My connection to the rest of the world means that I have to work diligently to be increasingly aware about the world. It’s about overcoming the imprinted false truth, and that old resulting shame, it’s knowing that my relinquishment and adoption not as “something that is wrong with me” but something that is a part of me that I have to accept and embrace. It’s about identifying the unconscious influence of my false-narrative-defined experiences that have been relived and re-experienced and inform every perception I have (because through repeated reinforcement they became part of my neurological functioning). Today, I can no longer let false truths define my thinking and attitudes and emotions dictate my future until I know how to correct them. Only when I am aware of my history—biological, ancestral, and my history as a child—can I truly understand myself and who I am individually and in relationship to others. It is only when I am honest to the core that I can form healthy attachments to others.
A baby crying in a restaurant is crying because she has become socially aware and she wants something from the people around her. She has no words and her only way of communicating her needs is through showing her distress, showing her helplessness. We all come into this world helpless and in need of connection. And so many of us adoptees struggle with finding it, unsure even why we feel it keeps eluding us. But I am here to tell you that it is possible to find it, that self-discovery is a beautiful thing—although it’s not easy for so many of us—and nothing feels better than feeling like you belong in this world and all of us have the right to feel connected and a part of it.
David B. Bohl, relinquishee and author of the memoir Parallel Universes: The Story of Rebirth, is an independent addiction consultant. His story offers hope to those struggling with the reality of everyday life who may seek to escape through substances or numbing behaviors. Contact David and learn more about his work at Beacon Confidential.