The Recovery Process, Post-reunion

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Personal Adoption Stories

The Recovery Process, Post-reunion


by Kate Neal
Every adopted child wonders about his birth origin at some time in his life. (To prevent confusion, the adoptee will be referred to as "he" and the birthmother as "she") He may speculate about his unknown past with either fantasy, fear or envy. At some point he will make the decision whether or not to search for his birthmother. Major factors in this decision will be his own personality and stage of emotional development, the degree of support of his adoptive parents, and the amount of information and resources available to him. At every stage throughout the search-reunion- recovery process, there are decisions and choices to be made. It is important for an adoptee at the onset of his quest to expect the unexpected and to equip himself to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of the journey ahead. My own search to find my birthmother, to answer questions that had been with me for 23 years, and to complete a circle which had been left open by the circumstances of my birth, has given me numerous perspectives on the whole search-reunion- recovery process.

There is one truly important perspective: Once the decision has been made to search and the major obstacles standing in every adoptee's way have been overcome, the work is not yet over! Indeed, much of the pain, but paradoxically also much of the opportunity for growth and gratification comes after the reunion. In the process of searching, an adoptee has to confront his own feelings of being "rejected" by his birthmother. Often, before the search process, an adoptee may tend to react to life situations with anger and fear of rejection. These feelings may undergo a transformation once the actual reunion occurs. In my case, for example, when I heard my birthmother's story, and learned the circumstances of her situation and the reasons she gave me up, I reached a new perspective -- I was not rejected because I was inadequate or because of who I was, but because of the circumstances in her life. Divorced, nearing middle age, with two teenage sons to nurture and support, and a strong commitment to her artist's lifestyle, I realized the last thing my birthmother could cope with at that point was a newborn infant. As a woman I understood, appreciated, and was sympathetic to her decisions and the emotional turmoil which she had to endure. And, when at last the whole story as told to me by my birthmother, it became an incredible opportunity for growth and adjustment.

As I learned to understand, the maternal reunion brings on a flood of conflicting emotions: The shock of facing reality and subsequent denial; anger; a tendency to trivialize or bargain away the impact of the experience; and periods of sadness and depression. These emotions, I came to realize, are stages of the reunion-recovery process; and when they have been experienced and worked through, their resolution will be in the acceptance of the birthmother's new role in one's life. The fantasies will be turned to reality and the fears will be confronted and the adoptee will be ready to get on with life.There will be, of course, individual differences regarding the stages, with variations in intensity and duration; some may overlap and occasionally one will be skipped. But they are recognizable, and will serve to mark the adoptee's coming to maturity.

THE FIVE STAGES OF THE REUNION-RECOVERY PROCESS
(Adapted from the five stages of grief developed in Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' work, Death and Dying. McMillen, N.Y. 1969)

Shock and Denial: The First Stage
Although I was thrilled at the "success" of my long and frustrating search -- after all, I had found my birthmother and had spent an intense month-long visit with her and then gone on to visit my birth grandmother -- I returned to resume my life after these visits as if nothing had happened at all. Little did I know what powerful emotions were churning inside me. When such a momentous change happens in anyone's life, it is often accompanied by an urge to deny that any response is expected, or any adjustment to a new reality is needed.After a few months of ignoring the importance of this big change in my life, I began to get flashes of strong feelings about my search and reunion.

Anger and Guilt: The Second Stage
Soon after I returned from meeting my birthmother, I began to feel immense anger about a number of things related to the reunion. I felt angry that I had ever allowed myself to feel rejected by my birthmother. I felt angry about how my birthmother had arrived at her decision to give me up for adoption. I asked myself, "How dare she feel sad that she "gave me up" for adoption when it was her choice and decision to "give me up in the first place!" I also felt upset that some questions I had were left unanswered. I had no other way to find these answers and didn't know what to do with these emotions. I felt guilty about feeling angry or sad or frustrated about any of this. I felt guilty that my adoptive parents had to experience any discomfort and pain surrounding my need to know more about my birthmother and myself. Anger, often accompanied by guilt, is a familiar feeling to an adoptee intent on coming to terms with his past. As adults, our patterns of behavior and ways of handling these powerful emotions have often become ingrained. The roots of the anger and the overlapping layers of guilt, frustration, confusion, and more anger may be hard to untangle. This is where the help of a good therapist may become necessary. I did not feel the need for therapy until long after the reunion visits were over. I knew, however, that I would not be able to really get on with life until I sorted out these anger and guilt issues and put them to rest.

Bargaining Away the Impact of Reality: The Third Stage
My first response to all the anger and guilt that had been dredged up was to pretend that I didn't have them. When I could not do this any longer, I bargained with myself to allow a certain amount of time to have these feelings after which I was going to shelve "this birthmother issue" and move on with my life. I decided I would take the next three months during which I would recopy my journals from the reunion visits and organize my birthfamily photo album, and that this "work" would "get it all out of my system."As it turned out, I found I couldn't rationalize away the strong impact that the reunion actually had on my life. In fact, I came to a point when I was experiencing a lot of sadness and depression about the reunion the longer I thought about it all. I thought I was supposed to feel happy and complete, no one had told me that I'd still be feeling all this! My "schedule" hadn't worked. My bargaining had been no good.

Sadness and Depression" The Fourth Stage
Ironically, once I began to "let" myself feel very sad and depressed, I realized that I would be able to put the whole reunion to rest. By "allowing" myself to fully experience the pain and acknowledge the very real feelings of loss, I knew I would come out feeling stronger and more whole in the end. Somehow the depth of the feelings I had during the next six months are hard to describe. I felt sad thinking about how my birthmother suffered the loss of a child in her life. I felt devastated to realize she was the kind of person she was and not as I had imagined her. I grieved about the kind of life she could have had but did not. I felt frustrated and upset knowing I might never find the answers to the questions still unanswered by my birthfamily. I also grieved for my adoptive mother, especially about any pain I may have caused her by completing the reunion. Lastly, I was sad for the little girl inside me that once felt so very rejected by my birthmother. But the very fact that I had finally allowed myself to identify these feelings and recognize them as a real and valid response to my situation, meant I was well on my way to accepting the tremendous change that had occurred in my life -- a change that was irreversible.

Acceptance: The Fifth and Final Stage
After a full year had passed since my reunion with my birthmother, I felt I knew a lot more about myself and about my birthmother. I had become aware of her weaknesses and problems, as well as her strengths and achievements, and I accepted the consequences of the choices she had made in her life and could now live with them. The places she will have in my life and I will have in hers were clarified for us after much discussion and, at times, tensions or silences. Consequently, I now can accept our relationship on a level of intimacy that I know we both can handle. I accept that my birthmother cannot fulfill the image of the woman I wanted or wished her to be. I am at peace with unanswered questions. I accept and am secure about what my adoptive parents offer and give to me. They give to me not because I am their adopted child, but because I am ME! With the integration of the birthmother reunion into my life and the new acceptance of myself as a whole, integrated person, many other related issues were resolved. One of them was my own future as a mother. Until I went through the entire reunion-recovery process, I could not even contemplate having a family of my own.

Though I completed the search and reunion over seven years ago, the self-discovery and honest acceptance of myself and my birthmother have enabled me to become a better mother to my two children. This fact alone has made the whole painful process immensely worthwhile.There are many adoptees who may never get to the point of a face-to-face meeting with their birthmother. But even when an actual reunion with the birthmother never takes place, the adoptee may still be challenged with the task of working through the stages of the recovery process. For example, my brother, also adopted, located his birthmother, but she was not at all receptive to having any kind of contact with him whatsoever. Even though this was as far as he could take his search, and no reunion was ever made (nor ever will be), he still had to go through the process of accepting that his birthmother had no interest. He had to come to terms with the limited information he had about his birthfamily. He had to come to terms with the place his birthmother would have in his life and he in hers. After pretending that it had no effect on him, my brother began to feel angry that she wanted nothing to do with him. After thinking of various ways to gain her interest and trying many ways to contact her (while still protecting her privacy), he decided that "enough was enough" and that her desire for continued privacy needed to be respected. He felt very sad and depressed that this was as far as he would be able to go. Finally, he accepted her disinterest and realized that the best thing for both of them would be to accept the situation as it was and move on with other life tasks. His "farewell" to his birthmother was a long, autobiographical letter of assurance to put to rest any lingering concern she might still have about his well-being. ConclusionWhen an adoptee finishes this reunion-recovery process, which may take several years, he can begin to integrate the feelings and thoughts stirred up by the upheaval of the reunion. Part of this includes giving the old feelings of rejection less power over his present life and diffusing the anger once buried and now exposed. Eventually he learns to understand and accept what gifts birthparents and his adoptive parents have given him.

For an adoptee who has completed the reunion-recovery process, it is no longer a question of choosing or rejecting the gifts of one family over another. The gifts of genetics, both the talents and the troubles, and the sense of continuity in the birthfamily tree are the result of the difficult and painful struggle that the adoptee has chosen to experience. At the same time the adoptee has the unique experience of being loved and cared for by the adoptive family who provide the sense of security, structure, acceptance, and stability. Once I knew what part of me was "nature" (my genetic heritage) and what was "nurture" ( the environment provided by my adoptive parents), then I discovered the strength and essence of who I really am.

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