Category Archives: Adoptee

Q&A: Adopted Reality, where adoption and mental illness meet

The word “bipolar” has called my attention twice in recent years. The first was during the time Roger and I  were waiting to adopt our second child (“Meaghan’s Baby“), and the second was this past winter when I read Laura Dennis’ memoir, Adopted Reality. Knowing her story makes me wonder how accurate were the ideas I had about bipolar disorder all those years ago.

I again present my friend Laura, a mom to two small children, a trained dancer, an adoptee-in-reunion, and an author. Laura is a busy busy person. Besides revising her first book, writing at her own blog, Expat (Adoptee) Mommy, and at Lost Daughters, she has also been compiling and editing the soon-to-be-released book, Adoption Reunion Conclusions (to which I am a contributor), which will be available later this year.

Laura has generously answered a bunch of questions about being an adoptee, about mental illness, about writing. Read on, and see information at the bottom about a giveaway of her book.

Laura Dennis, author

You know now that your parents meant well when they told you “Your birth mother loved you enough to give you up. And now we love you.” How did that well-intentioned phrase come across to a small child, and what effects did it have?

The subtext was apparent from an early age: Yes, my adoptive parents love me, but they, too, could give me up. And so I resigned myself to be the perfect adoptee, the one who “has no issues with being adopted.” I was overcompensating to make 100% sure I was loveable.

The second edition of your memoir is about to be released. What changes have you made?

Adopted Reality by Laura DennisThe second edition of Adopted Reality includes more insights about my recovery. It’s funny, Lori. I am still processing, even as I outline, write and publish. I thought I was “over” my breakdown; normal enough to write a book about it, even.

The reality is that in the first edition I glossed over the gory details of my recovery. It’s hard to think about, even 10+ years later. It’s hard to remember being out of the mental hospital and not completely sane, barely functioning and yet completely determined to prove my lucidity.

Sense of Self

In various parts of your book, you show how disconnected you were from your body. You could go with little food or sleep for long periods. You didn’t miss a dance performance despite the pain of putting on your costume over second degree burns. When your birth mother asked you, at first meeting, what you felt like eating, you couldn’t grasp that concept of feeling like something. What causes may be at the root of this non-bodiment you experienced?

Wow. I love this question. And it especially resonates with me because I know how deeply you yourself have connected your physicality with your emotional and psychological well-being. So I’m going to get a little philosophical here …

Disembodiment or feelings of “non-bodiment,” are often connected in psychological terms with disassociation. Disassociating, or detaching from real-life experiences can be a coping mechanism. On one hand it allowed me to “dance through” excruciating pain, set it aside and detach from it.

But that’s the rub with denial and disassociation, and coping mechanisms in general, isn’t it? Unless you recognize them as such, they tend to come back to bite you. Later, in my delusional state (which I did not realize I was delusional–likely the biggest problem), I took this non-bodiment much, much further. I believed I was bionic — not human after all. In that state, I was inadvertently led to self-harm. I was so detached; I didn’t even feel physical pain, and I wasn’t aware that I’d hurt myself.

Freud and Jung would have a field day with this — connecting my divided sense-of-self with my tendency towards dissociation. In fact, I talk more about the root causes of my breakdown, and specifically this feeling of disembodiment in the second edition.

In many ways, the coping mechanism of “non-bodiment” went into overdrive. Accompanying the guilt I had over searching and having this amazing reunion, I felt I wasn’t grateful enough to my adoptive parents. My divided sense-of-self — adoptive vs. biological person — combined with the not eating and not sleeping. It was a perfect storm, leading my mind to kind of collapse in on itself and enter a paranoid delusion.

Recovery and post-adoption issues

Have there been any adoption issues that have impacted your marriage or the way you parent your children?

I wrote about my recovery in Adopted Reality, but the memoir pretty much ends in the year 2003. In the ensuing ten years, I’ve done a lot and maintained my sanity. The funny thing is, throughout the therapy I received following my bipolar episode, no one … no one asked me about having been adopted. Potentially unaddressed post-adoption issues did not come into play.

Having said that, I’m still working through my post-adoption issues. That’s not to say that every adoptee goes through the same things. It’s just that so many seemingly mild “issues” were not examined in my childhood and young adulthood. It compounded, and now, sorting it all out is an arduous task.

So, to answer your question, yes, my post-adoption issues do impact my marriage and my children. Attachment, fear of rejection, those are big ones in my marriage. Projecting my own fears onto my non-adopted children … these are things I’m still sorting out. I actually wrote about how I recently explained my adoptedness to my five-year-old.

Laura Dennis was adopted in New Jersey, raised in Maryland, and learned how to be a (sane) person in California. A professionally trained dancer, Laura also worked as sales director for a biotech startup. With two children under the age of three, in 2010 she and her husband sought to simplify their lifestyle and escaped to his hometown, Belgrade, Serbia. While the children learned Serbian in their cozy preschool, Laura recovered from sleep deprivation and wrote Adopted Reality, a Memoir, available on Amazon. She currently blogs at Expat (Adoptee) Mommy. Connect with her on twitter @LauraDennisCA, or email laura@adoptedrealitymemoir.com.

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Laura is giving away an ebook of Adopted Reality to a random commenter. Leave a comment by May 9, 2013 and make sure I’m able to reach you. The winner will be announced here and Laura will attempt to contact that person by May 12.

“Real” in Adoption and how it Splits our Babies

This post originally appeared on CreatingAFamily.org.

Remember that Sesame Street segment, “One of these Things is Not Like the Other”? Can you pick which one of the four questions is out of place? And more importantly, why it is the misfit of the bunch?

  • Which ice cream do you love most, Casey — strawberry or chocolate?
  • Which is your favorite sports team, Jamie — the Broncos or the Patriots?
  • Which is your favorite pop singer, Riley — Bruno Mars or One Direction?
  • Which set of parents are your real ones, Payton — your birth parents or your adoptive parents?

As you can surmise from the title of this post, the fourth option gets the ding-ding-ding.The first three have numerous options not mentioned — there’s also mint chocolate chip and peppermint ice creams, the Cubs and the Jazz, Rihanna and fun., plus countless other flavors, teams, singers. It’s only the last one that is a dual option — just two choices —  winner and a loser.

And it’s only the last one that can split a child in two in a way that choosing strawberry over chocolate simply can’t.

If you’ve done much adoption reading, you’ve probably sought out posts by adult adoptees. Some adoptees claim they identify exclusively with their birth parents, saying that they never felt like they fit in with their adoptive family. Others explain that their “real” parents were the ones who raised them, changed the diapers, kissed the boo-boos, showed up at the games/performances/events.

Neither answer is right or wrong. What’s wrong is asking the question in the first place. Often, it’s not the parents asking; rather it’s society-at-large wanting a definitive answer to the age-old question of Nature vs Nurture.

Posing the question or asking for a ranking comes from an Either/Or paradigm that splits the baby/child/tween/teen/adult in two. It’s dualistic, starkly black and white, pitting a winner against a loser. Either we are the real parents or they are. Either we can legitimately claim the child or they can. While the baby in the King Solomon story was threatened with being sliced by a literal sword, adoptees are faced with a figurative sword splitting their hearts, their loyalties, their psyches, their identities. This happens anytime the adults around them operate from the Either/Or paradigm.

So what is an alternative?

Parents in adoption who want to avoid splitting the baby must make a subtle (and not difficult) shift into Both/And thinking.

Adoption creates a split between a child’s biology and biography. Openness is an effective way to heal that split. That’s the premise of the book I’ve written with my daughter’s first mom,  The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole. Openness, referring to not only contact but also to the mindset in which we parent, shifts us into a Both/And paradigm, in which we move from duality toward unity. We multiply instead of divide. We offer to our children wholeness rather than fracture. We encourage them to claim all pieces of themselves, those from biology and those from biography. We enable our children to be claimed by both of their clans.

And we resolve in ourselves any need to be The One. That often-unconscious drive that influences our adoption relationships is more about us and not at all about our child.

My friend Torrejon, an adult adoptee whom I met on an adoption forum that’s committed to Adoptee Rights, turns the “which mom is your REAL mom” question on end. I had asked her about adoptee math, about how to ensure that adding the biology half and the biography half would end up equalling a whole person:

Not half and half…both things. The two parts are not mutually exclusive nor inclusive. Not 1+1=0…but rather 1+1=1. However, adoptees could end up with a 0 if they are divided into exclusive halves:  ½ + ½ = 0

I’ve got two kids. I’m not half a mother to one, and half a mother to the other; I’m a full mother to both of them. That doesn’t mean I’m two halves…or two people. I’m simply a mom with two kids. So, by extension, I prefer to think of myself as existing fully in my two families — my birth family AND my adoptive family. BOTH.

Isn’t it enlightening how Torrejon reverses the generations to make her point? By splitting the parent between the children we can see the ridiculousness of splitting the child between the parents.

We would have no problem allowing Casey to have a scoop of strawberry today and a scoop of chocolate tomorrow. It would be no trouble if Jamie cheered for the hometown baseball team in June and the hometown basketball team in November. We wouldn’t feel challenged if Riley had both Bruno Mars and fun. in the same playlist.

Likewise, let’s allow — encourage — our children to expand their hearts so big that they can encompass all the people with whom they identify, whom they have an innate need to claim and be claimed by. Doing so need not take away from  us — it merely adds to our children.

What have you done (or might you do) to shift from Either/Or thinking to Both/And thinking? What ideas do you have to avoid “splitting the baby”?

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Last week Executive Director Dawn Davenport and I talked about openness in adoption via podcast. To summarize our BlogTalk Radio interview, Dawn wrote her post, My #1 Secret Tip for a Successful Open Adoption, adding to the vast resources of CreatingAFamily.org.

Q&A: Quest to raise awareness about adoptee rights

Her memoir’s subtitle is An Adoptee’s Quest for her Origins, but in talking with Anne Bauer, I know that the another reason she wrote The Sound of Hope was to “get people to realize how damaging it is to make adoptees feel guilty when they want to know about their origins,” as she said to me in an email.

We have wrapped up the book tour, but we are fortunate to have Anne answering the questions that members of the book club posed to her.

Sound of Hope adoptee memoirAre you still an active champion for the rights of adopted persons, specifically original birth certificates and open records?

Yes! I keep in contact with NJCARE (NJ Coalition for Adoption Reform & Education) which is a grass roots organization that supports honesty in adoption through educational outreach and legislative advocacy. This group keeps many adopted individuals and first-mothers informed about upcoming bills and involve us in letter writing campaigns in support of the bills trying to be passed. The latest bill is the Adoptee Birthright Bill which would allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates. This bill was finally passed in NJ last year but Governor Christie (who coincidentally has an adopted sister) conditionally vetoed the Adoptees’ Birthright bill. Right now this bill is in limbo in NJ while thousands of adult adopted individuals wait patiently to obtain their own information.

In 2009, I appeared on a television talk show called “RealTalk.” There was a panel of four people including me, representing the adoptees, a birth mother, a social worker and a lawyer who was advocating keeping records sealed. It was an interesting experience and it felt good to voice my opinion. However, these opportunities to appear on network television are few because the general public doesn’t seem to demand attention to the plight of adult adopted people. This could be the result of many people assuming that all adopted adults can access their own information. Education about the need for adoption reform needs to be publicized to those not within the adoption mosaic. There are too many false assumptions and prejudices still circulating which need to be addressed in order to have legislators approve new laws.

You wrote The Sound of Hope in 2008. You share in your memoir, “The day I realized I has two mothers I was cut in half.” and “The bruises and scratches weren’t visible. They resided inside the heart. These injuries hurt the most and take the longest to heal.” How has your healing journey progressed since the writing your story?

Writing this memoir has been such a tremendous healing experience. So many memories and feelings were brought to the surface as I wrote each chapter of my life. I never realized how much stuff I actually went through at such an early age and saw that I had pushed a lot of my feelings down deep inside. Bringing up these memories actually forced me to face these issues head on. As I recollected my childhood, scenes were brought back to the forefront of my mind and I spent time analyzing possible intentions on the parts of everyone involved. I tried to get into my family member’s shoes and did my best to see the situation from their perspective.

This process was extremely healing because I came to understand that everyone in my family truly loved me. Although they disregarded my feelings over and over, I feel the reason for this was them being so absorbed in their own unresolved problems such as the hidden grief from infertility, stresses of working full-time and having to deal with an alcoholic in the family. When it came to dealing with the fact that they had adopted children, they had no ongoing counseling available to them at the time and they truly didn’t know that it was in the best interest of the child to talk about adoption in a positive light.

Since writing this memoir, I no longer get teary-eyed when I think about how lonely I felt when nobody supported me with my search or the highly emotional day when I first met my first-mother. These two experiences were the hardest for me to face at the time. I find myself now looking back on those memories –even the one about whom I could invite to my own wedding — with a smile on my face, and now consider these past experiences valuable lessons in life for all parties involved.

Do you find that your experience of being an adopted person has impacted your parenting? I think of the passage where you share, “The difficulties lie on the inside, deep beneath the outer layers-where the heart and soul reside.”

I definitely think my experience as an adopted individual has greatly impacted my parenting style. I have made it a point to be completely open and honest in regards to all family matters with my children. I keep the information at the level of their age and their ability to understand the issue, and I make it a point to never gloss over any problems that may be happening within the family. Because they are always in the loop, I never have to worry that they may overhear something that they shouldn’t know about because we do not keep secrets.

I also am an avid genealogist and have involved my children with the research. Documenting the family lines fosters a sense of belonging, and finally being able to obtain my original family history has been a project of ours for the past decade. This is one of the reasons why I am so adamant about obtaining my original birth certificate. There is no accessible paper trail linking me to my biological family, and if a future relative of mine decides to trace the genealogy, they would believe that I was in fact born to my adoptive parents. My future generations should also know their true heritage and be able to accurately trace their own lineage as well.

How did your family members respond to your book, and how supportive were they of you writing it? This must be a peril of writing a memoir: how do you be true to your observations of a person but also aware of their reactions to your observations? It’s an interesting boundary to define.

Everybody in my family knew I was writing and publishing my memoir because I was required to have everyone sign a release form so I could tell their part in my story. Sadly, nobody has mentioned the memoir to me since except my first-mother and my adoptive father. My Dad was not surprised about how he was portrayed and has since apologized profusely to me and my brothers for his treatment of us over the years. I know without a doubt that he never intended to hurt any of us. He has his own demons from his childhood to deal with and these unresolved issues come out in bursts of rage in his daily life. My first-mother told me she was sorry that she never tried to find me sooner and offered that she was willing to go to counseling or whatever it was that I needed in order to heal from the experience. Writing this memoir was healing and since then I have felt whole and complete.

My mother died three years before I published the memoir and I honestly do not think she would have been happy about me broadcasting to the world about family problems. I’m sure my cousin Maggie has read it but no comments have been made. As for Sara, I cannot say whether she has read the memoir. My first-mother has a copy and I am sure she offered it to Sara but there has been no mention about it. As for my brothers, I do not know if they read my memoir. I told them both about it and gave them the information when it was released but neither has acknowledged the subject nor wanted to talk about it since signing the release form. They know it’s there and someday maybe they will be ready to read it.

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That’s a wrap for the book discussion of Anne Bauer’s The Sound of Hope: An Adoptee’s Quest for Her Origins. Should you wish to know more about adoptee rights, being raised in a closed adoption, or any of the other topics mentioned here, read Anne’s book.