Since participating in the television SBS Insight program Babies without Borders on 28 March, 2006, I’ve had a lot of stimulating dialogue with adoptees, adoptive parents, and others involved and we have shared some interesting thoughts which I thought I’d write down.
One issue that came out strongly after the program was how I came across and what side of the fence I sit on. Many have mistakenly labelled me an “anti-adoption” supporter. At first I felt angry of how dare people judge me based on a couple of comments made on a program that really only glazed over the surface of such complex issues. Then I thought about why people would have this impression of me. I guess unless I’m out there yelling out about how amazingly grateful I am that I have been adopted and how much I love my family, people assume that what I haven’t said means I’m not happy about being adopted or that I don’t agree with adoption. This is not the case. I guess those who don’t know me would not know I have a close relationship with my adoptive parents and family and over the past 2 years this relationship has evolved to the point where they have shared with me their views on the topic. I have also invested in undergoing significant work on myself in the past 6 years to move through the areas of adoption and loss that were key to being able to find my peace within. I’ve also questioned why I should have to justify my position to people I don’t know.
I have always aimed to help educate people about the journey adoptees go through based on my own experience and stories other adoptees share that have recurring themes. I am not here to tell adoptive parents they have not done a good job or did the wrong thing in adopting. Likewise, I am not here to pass judgement of any adoptee’s journey or views of adoption. I simply speak up because I see a lack of understanding in our society of the issues adoptees face at various times through their lives and I try to provide a glimmer of insight and understanding so that others may be better equipped with supporting adoptees.
I also feel that people who feel the need to judge me to be “anti” or “pro” adoption do so with little understanding of how complex the issues are. For me to be “anti” adoption, I would have to invalidate my whole life experience. I love my life, I’ve loved the opportunities I’ve had, I love my family. How could one ever expect me to view my life as being anything but an overall amazing and depth creating experience? Even though I’ve gone through some rough experiences in life which I have shared at various times, I have chosen to turn those experiences into positive outcomes. I also only ever shared this information with best intentions to ensure we raise awareness to prevent scenarios that could be avoided with a little knowledge.
To be “pro” adoption, I would have to ignore the cases like Galliano in the USA whereby Cambodian children have had their lives ripped apart by people who have nothing else but their own self interest involved. It is the obvious cases of child trafficking and neglect or harm that compel me to stand up and say, this is wrong and we should be careful in how it’s done. I would also have to ignore the stories some adoptees share with me where there has been an obvious lack of care from their families which could have been prevented had there been more effective methods for screening potential adoptive parents. I do believe the system in Australia, although it needs to be consistent across States and Territories, appears to be one of the best in the world. Our Government departments seem to truly represent and ensure the BEST interests of the child – which is so vital given the child cannot speak for itself at that point, and there is such a demand for children which could so easily lead to corruption and child trafficking. There is a place for stringent policies and screening but at the same time, need to be fair and just across Australia.
I must admit, the most difficult question I was asked (with no pre-emptive warning for the entire program) was whether, on balance, it was a good or bad thing for me to be adopted. How does one explain in 2 minutes on national television the complexity of how adoption has impacted my life and that you can’t really answer a question like this with a straight black or white answer? Of course I’m grateful. I’ve had a great life with wonderful opportunities. I’ve got an amazing family who have provided me with excellent values. They have led by example to show that life is about jumping in and learning how to swim even if you fear you could drown, to move past one’s mistakes and learn from them, to embrace people around us and give where we can, to understand we view life from our limited experiences and culture but to remain open to learning about other’s. And on the other hand, I still don’t have what most people take for granted – a birth date, a birth place, a mother’s name, a history of a family, someone I look like, understanding the language or culture I was born into. Also, the self image I had whilst growing up – of feeling ugly, of feeling I didn’t fit in, of feeling like I couldn’t connect to people or trust that they would be there forever, etc. So on balance, there were good and bad things in being adopted, just as there are for most things in life and what I tried to say was, it’s not as easy as putting one or the other label to it.
I want to share something I wrote in response to an adoptee who watched the program and asked me about what I did to get through my “black hole” and how did I know when I got through?
I coined the term the “black hole” in my story in The Color of Difference to describe how I felt growing up with gaps in my beginnings that I would never know which made me feel empty and hollow inside and unable to integrate my beginnings with my life then. Key was not being able to begin to find any information, given I had no adoption papers until the Australian government processed my naturalisation and adoption at the age of 17 due to having only a Vietnamese passport as the only evidence to suggest I had been born in Vietnam somewhere.
How did I begin to integrate the fragmented parts of what made up my concept of who I was? Key was starting ICASN i.e., turning my emotional energy into a positive activity and using my experience to help others in a similar situation. I found giving to others was very helpful for healing my self. An important lesson I did have to learn on the way was to give only what I was capable of, knowing the difference and not feeling bad for what I couldn’t give. Also, the validation of experience and feelings in meeting other adoptees who identified with my life experience and telling my story to social workers at DoCS (to ensure it would be useful learning to not repeat the mistakes made in adoption processes 20 plus years ago) was vital to dealing with my “black hole”.
Second was the personal work I did approximately two years ago in counselling with an amazingly gifted psychologist and Reiki master. I did work that I believe is crucial to heal that “primal wound” that Nancy Verrier describes so well. It is work based on the emotional-feeling connection to body rather than cognitive or talking therapy that keeps one in their head rather than being with the true emotional feeling and identifying it with a place in the body. Prior to doing this type of therapy, I saw how my mind so easily tricked me into thinking the problems were caused by others and not me. When I became aware of this, I learnt how body memories do not lie and that sitting still with the feeling, identified by a sensation in my body, showed me what was on the other side of fear, pain, and grief. Connecting to my body and feelings were significant to helping me integrate the fragmented parts of myself that had been the consequence of abandonment/ loss and termed the “primal wound”. It was also key to help me finally grieve and heal the pain I had been running away from for so many years.
Running away from the pain had led to pushing away from intimate relationships, family relationships, and friendships. I’d seen the same cycles happening over and again until I couldn’t deny anymore that I had real issues to deal with if I wanted a happy and connected life with significant others. I know many other adoptees relate to and describe this as “sabotaging” behaviour. I went through these cycles until I realised I had to make the commitment to be true to myself and not run away anymore.
One of the huge insights I gained was to understand and know my birth mother has not left me because I carry her within me. She is the fabric that makes up who I am. I have not lost her. She lives in me and I am a part of her. I had never quite grasped this concept before but it was the end result of sitting through my grief and loss to see what lay on the other side. Before this therapy, I’d felt the feelings were so overwhelming that I’d drown, so I had been too afraid to go there.
Based on my experience, I believe getting through the black hole is a journey many adoptees need to make and my way may not be the way for others. But at the end of the day, I believe to integrate our fragmented past with our lives today and deal with the feelings of loss and pain (resulting from having lost our beginnings and the significant others from that time), requires a huge commitment to be honest within, to be dedicated to deal with the pain, no matter how frightening and difficult it is. We must tread the path we fear the most.
Some of the measures for me of when that black hole no longer existed were:
- when I could engage fully in an intimate relationship without rejecting or withdrawing many times that seemed outside my control.
- when I could date and consider marry someone from my racial background and be proud to look and belong with that racial background.
- when I could talk about adoption with it’s full complexity and not feel ashamed or guilty for hurting my adoptive parents or family if I talked about the truth of how it was for me.
- when I could honestly talk and share my vulnerabilities with my adoptive mum and have the ability to connect with her without transferring the anger and pain I use to have subconsciously towards a “mother figure”, until I learnt to deal with my primal wound and loss of mother-connection.
- when I could be truly proud of how I look and know without doubt that I am loved for who I am.
- when I could experience “love” without fear that it would easily slip away or wasn’t real.
- when I could cry because a loved one had passed away but was able to acknowledge the depth of my grief was because I was reliving my original loss of birth mother and not having the chance to know her or feel her love i.e., understand the loss triggered and amplified my original loss.
- when I could cry or be overwhelmed with emotion when a new child is born for I understand the pain of having been given up when we were like this new child
- when I could be totally honest about my feelings and not judge them but just accept this is a real true me and no-one can take away my feelings or make me feel bad for having them.
I believe the integration of ourselves as adoptees i.e., filling the black hole, occurs when we can accept our full range of emotions and embrace them, soothe them like a child and validate their existence. Sink into them and allow it to be ok and see what happens if we stop running away from the feelings but trust they are telling us something honest about our vulnerability and loss. This, I believe is why so many of us wish so much that “others” (our adoptive parent, our significant other) could do this for us or be there to help make it “go away”, when really, it’s what we can only do for ourselves. That’s why I truly believe that love isn’t enough from our adoptive families because eventually, it’s what we adoptees have to do for ourselves. The journey out of the black hole is possible but can only be done by the adoptee themselves. It’s our gift to ourselves and allows us then to “live the life we chose” instead of “living the life chosen for us”.
It really is an interesting question to ask “how do we know when we adoptees are really “healed”? Like for an alcoholic, perhaps it would be when he/she has gone to AA and can be around alcohol or in tough life situations without having to drink again. But for adoptees, I think it’s all about how well we can learn to connect to other people and “remain” connected. From my experience, our initial abandonment/loss seems to damage this ability the most. The most significant part is that we lose “connection” even with ourselves and that’s where this black hole comes into play. It’s the parts of ourselves we don’t even know we’re missing but feel an emptiness to and we wonder what it’s all about. We wander around in darkness trying to find those missing parts to put ourselves back together again i.e., the eternal search for wholeness. Maybe we’re not alone in this search as I suspect many people from all walks of life look for the same thing, however, I think as adoptees we have added complexities to our life and we inevitably question more why we were saved, what is the meaning to our lives, and how do we make any sense of it.
It is only after the insights I gained from exploring within from my beginnings that I found answers that give me peace.