BIO: Kevin Engle is a retired addictions counselor whose professional life was spent as a therapist working at one of the premiere inpatient treatment facilities in the nation. He currently lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and is active in the adoption community. He spends his free time reading, writing, and walking his dog, Perry.
HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE ADOPTED?
What follows is my “truth” as I see it today.
I don’t mean to suggest that my “truth,” or my story changes, but rather, as my insight grows, I can share more of it as I become more aware, and more of the fog lifts. This “story” doesn’t really contain much at all about my experience with reunion as I am finding that reality to be to new for me to write about in any meaningful way. There, the fog is still lifting and the subject is still quite emotionally confusing. Some of you will have read parts of this before, as I have shared pieces of my story as stand alone posts previously. For those of you that I bore, I apologize, but this is the first time that I have tried to share my “truth” as a hopefully meaningful whole.
There’s a cliché about failing relationships that goes like this… “there’s his side, her side, and what really happened.” That’s sort of what trying to make sense of my natural mother’s life is forcing me to do, compare the various stories told by her families and try to discern, “what really happened.”
This hasn’t been as difficult as one might think, you see, I’m not comparing the stories of the ex-husbands or others with obvious axes to grind, I’m talking with my family, both sides of my family, my “real” family, and there, there is agreement. I won’t go into the details, but my mother is, to put it as diplomatically as I can, troubled.
Her childhood, being raised in “foster care” on a Mennonite farm, was an experience shared by three of her seven children in their turn, and their experiences of life on the farm, unlike those reported by my natural mother, were good ones, but this isn’t my mother’s story, or my brother’s and sister’s stories, it’s mine.
I was adopted at eight months old, and went to live as the only child of a college professor, and a school teacher. I have no information about where I might have spent that first eight months, but from what I know about my mother’s circumstances, it wasn’t with her.
I don’t remember ever being told for the first time that I was adopted, it was just something that I had always known. What I do remember is the story, the one about how my “real” mother loved me so much, that knowing she wouldn’t be able to give me the type of life that I deserved, chose instead to give me up for adoption, and that my adoptive parents then in turn chose me to be their son, that I was special, and that I “came from good stock.” For what it’s worth, I believe that that is a horrible story to tell a child.
While I know that my parents meant well, what I took away from that story was the belief that love equaled being given away, and that since my adoptive parents chose me—I envisioned being picked out from among a group of babies, sort of like when we went to the dog breeder to get my first puppy—they could “unchoose” me if I didn’t do whatever it was that I was expected to do as their son. In short, I grew up believing that being loved was a pan-scale type of arrangement where love was contingent on good behavior.
My adoptive father was an intelligent, compassionate, and caring man, whose commitment to my well being I never had reason to question, yet question it I did, all the time. In retrospect, I was a tester of relationships. I was always, after about the fourth grade, testing others to see if their love had limits. My father passed this test, by dying before “finals,” when I was nineteen. My adoptive mother, by virtue of her own issues, did not.
For much of my life I was unaware of this pattern, but I always acted as if all love was conditional. When ever anyone said that they loved me, I thought to myself, sometimes unconsciously, “Will they still love me when I do this, or say that, or act out?”
Over time, I developed a variation on this theme.
As an adoptee, my trust issues ran the gamut from not trusting at all, to trusting to much and to easily.
I don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg, but I would go through a period of time where I trusted no one at all and then shift, to suddenly trusting someone with my whole life story. Not surprisingly, this would tend to scare individuals away—to much information to soon—giving me a reason, at least to my way of thinking, for swinging back to the other pole, where I trusted no one.
What was really happening, I believe, was my acting out my unconscious search for someone to accept and nurture my inner child. I wasn’t developing relationships, I was trying to take hostages!
The whole problem with “tests” is that there is always another level to take them to. I had to find my own sense of belonging within myself. I had to stop expecting others to prove their love for me by passing my tests. Eventually, as I continued to raise the stakes, we reached a point where they failed my impossible last test.
What I have learned over the years is that the kind of acceptance and nurturing I was searching for could come from within me. I needed to learn that I could be my own inner child’s guardian and protector. I needed to learn how to be comfortable in my own skin. It was only then that I began to develop healthier relationships with others.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not “fixed,” I still go back and forth with trust, but the swings aren’t as extreme as they once were, and I no longer feel compelled to act on them blindly.
That all said, the root issue for me is fear – the fear of the unknown, the fear of rejection, and the fear of being deeply, deeply, hurt. Emotionally, I become that small child who had no idea what was happening to him when he suddenly found himself in a new “home,” where no one, and nothing was familiar.
I have written before that I believe we stay as sick as our secrets, so, in the interest of full disclosure, here is what was once my biggest secret. For much of my life I lived in a dark, dark, place filled with despair and self-loathing, feeling less than and wanting to die.
For a long time—ever since I was an adolescent in fact—I believed that “life sucks, and then you die.” This “world view,” which had its roots in the fact of my adoption and growing up in an abusive home, led me to wonder, over and over, how the people that I saw around me seemingly handled simply living from day to day, but I kept my inner world a secret.
I tried to act as if everything was alright with me.
I tried to mimic the lives of those I thought seemed happy with their lot in life, but to no avail.
I kept my inner world a secret.
Over time, I tried relationships, I tried sexual promiscuity, I tried marriages, I tried new jobs, I tried new cities, I tried over-achieving, I tried under-achieving, I tried drugs and alcohol, I tried religion, but always, I kept my secret. Finally, at 27, having collected a whole slew of new secrets to stuff down into my inner world, profoundly depressed, feeling hopeless and helpless, I tried suicide for the first time.
For me, adoption, and how it was handled, or rather how it was not handled, by both my adopted parents, and myself, became a breeding ground for mental illness.
Finally, after years of trying to handle my inner world all by myself, I surrendered, and honestly asked for help. I shared my secrets for the first time with other adoptees, and was amazed to find that I wasn’t rejected out of hand. I shared my story and my truth for the first time and found acceptance and support. In a very real way, my truth has set me free.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not “cured.” In my opinion, when you have adoption related trauma, and add to it an abusive parent, you have a recipe for a lifelong struggle to find “connectedness” in the world in which you live. To this day, in spite of years of working on this issue with therapists and in groups, I still struggle with relationships and trust.
In the beginning, self-awareness as it related to being an adoptee sucked.
I knew I had problems, but I didn’t know what to do about them. I began sharing my story, my truth, with others, and slowly, things began to make sense for me. I read the stories of other adoptees, and related them to my own experiences. I read about adoption in general, not from the adopters perspective, although there is a place for that, but from the perspective of fellow adoptees and natural mothers. It helped a lot.
Perhaps most importantly, I began to share my pain and confusion, and that helped to lessen my load.
When I first began looking at what my childhood and adult life was really like, at an emotional level, I became so angry that it scared me. I needed the help of knowledgeable and caring others to allow me to begin expressing my feelings in a healthy way. I needed to learn that feelings weren’t facts, and that experiencing my own feelings—some of which I had been holding inside since I was a small, small, child—wasn’t going to kill me. I’m not kidding, the little boy that still lives within me thought he would die if he stopped protecting himself from his feelings.
Acceptance was the key for me. Acceptance that my life, in spite of my being adopted, and in spite of all my warts, was good and had meaning for me.
The process of healing from adoption related trauma for me has been like peeling the skin off an onion – there seems to always be yet another layer, and tears are often involved.
n gaining a better understanding of—better insight into—myself as being someone who experiences adoption trauma, it has helped me to think of my trauma as something that has a will to live, a will to maintain the status quo, and a desire to continue to keep me sick. My trauma has, in its own way, “talked” to me ever since I was a child. First, it repeated the messages it heard from others, then it convinced me to tell myself these same messages.
It wasn’t that bad.
You’re just ungrateful.
Nobody will understand.
Your childhood was wonderful, what’s wrong with you?
Nobody wanted you.
You’re unloved and unlovable.
You never did live up to your potential.
It’s never going to get any better.
Nobody can be trusted.
Don’t ever let anyone know how you really feel, better yet, don’t feel.
These messages, and others like them, overwhelmed the child in me and became my secret inner voice, always waiting for the opportunity to speak up and remind me of what I really came to believe about myself. No wonder I lived in a dark world of depression and self-loathing. No wonder I reached the conclusion that “life sucks and then you die.”
Today, while I can, at times, still hear the voice of trauma, I’m no longer ruled by it.
I share with others, on an ongoing basis, parts of my truth, and the process of my recovery, and in so doing, I help myself.
I read about others experiences with adoption trauma, and in so doing, I help myself.
Thank you all for reading this, and a special thanks to those of you who choose to share with me, parts of your truth, you help me more than you can ever know.
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