Strangers by Adoption
Kevin D. Engle
I am Frankenstein:
created, not born.
I am Edward Scissorhands:
functioning but not quite finished.
I am the Incredible Shrinking Man:
with a disease no one can name.
I am the android from the Twilight Zone:
my behavior programmed into my circuits.
I am adopted: the freak whose motives will always be misunderstood
the earthling with an alien disease
the monster created by acts of mankind, not acts of God
the unhuman mandated by law to fill the place of a real human who could not be here.
The above untitled anonymous poem is from Betty Jean Lifton’s book, “Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness.” It sums up how it felt to me to live in the fog of adoption.
I was born to, and brought up by, strangers. A stranger by happenstance in the case of my natural mother, who had no room in her young life for any of those who would become her seven children—we cramped her style—and strangers of circumstance when it came to the caregivers that I knew during my brief time in foster care, and finally, strangers of choice for my adoptive parents, who took a nine month old child, and his trauma, into their home, sight unseen.
Adopted as a toddler, and raised, as the only child of a university professor, and a kindergarten teacher, in a very real way, I was lucky. I am in contact with the siblings in two of my natural mother’s four families, and based on what I have learned from them, things could have been much worse for me… I could have been kept by my mother.
Unlike many of my fellow adoptees, when, on June 13, 1956, I was delivered to my adoptive parents, by representatives of Family and Children’s Service of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the agency saw to it that I came with typewritten instructions, and a picture, sort of like an owner’s manual.
Breakfast: Baby eats a large dish of cereal – not thin – likes Gerber’s Baby Cereal best. Then has a bottle of milk.
Lunch: Baby gets a full bottle of milk and a little fruit or strained vegetables.
Supper: Baby gets a jar of soup or vegetable, plus a jar of fruit. Then has a bottle of milk.
Baby gets orange juice any time. Drinks regular homogenized milk warmed only enough to take the chill off.
Baby gets up between 7 and 8, is up until noon. Goes to bed at noon and sleeps 1 or 1 ½ hours. Goes to bed at 7 or 8 in the evening.
And there you have it, everything that the state saw fit to pass along to my new parents. Apparently, for nine months, I was known to them only as “Baby.” Luckily, the state didn’t raise me during that first nine months, and I had been placed in foster care. My caregiver also sent a handwritten note that was indicative of a somewhat more personal approach.
Is accustomed to go to church but has not been left in nursery. Has been held and it is important for a while this should continue.
Is used to high chair and teeter babe – Will probably relax in playpen.
Will have to look at size of suits.
Uses bottles now – no cup. Will bring along.
Has had all three shots.
Is held for his bottle – is quite important at this time to continue – eats other foods in high chair – but watch him.
Sleeps in shirt and diaper now – will have to get up and check if he throws off the covers and if he is sweating – ask Dr.
Has been outdoors for short periods of time – ask Dr.
This is the only information I have about my life before adoption.
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 into the impact that adoption has had in my life grows, I can share more, as I become more aware, and more of the fog of adoption lifts.
I’m not certain that there is such a thing as a good adoptive experience or a healthy adoptive family. That said, I do believe that my adoptive parents, for the most part, tried their best to see that my needs were met. They just didn’t have a clue as to what my needs really were.
I don’t remember 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, a story that was repeated every time I questioned my origins. 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 I deserved, chose instead to give me up for adoption, and that my adoptive parents in turn, chose me to be their son, and that I was special, and 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 adoptive parents meant well, what I took away from that story was the belief that love equaled being given away, and that since my 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 live up to their expectations. In short, I grew up believing that being loved was a pan-scale type of arrangement where not only was love contingent on good behavior, it also meant separation and abandonment.
What I remember the most clearly about my mother, my “adoptive” mother, was the back of her hand. Although I didn’t know it at the time—I thought everyone’s home life was like mine—I grew up experiencing physical and emotional abuse on a regular basis. When I first sought help as an adult, for what I was to learn were my own issues with adoption related trauma, I needed to have it explained to me that when an adult back-handed a small child, that was abuse. I just thought everyone was raised that way.
My mother and I were strangers. As a child, and later as an adult, I wanted nothing to do with either her, or her large extended family, from whom I first heard the phrase, “blood is thicker than water.” In all fairness though, except for the abuse, I need to own my part in what was to become a failed relationship. I don’t know who rejected who first, but I believe today that my rejection of my adopted mother no doubt played a role in her rejection of me.
You see, while my adoptive mother wanted a child, and all that that meant for a childless family in the 1950s, all I wanted was my mother, my “real” mother, or, failing that, I likely wanted the next best thing, the “mother” that I had spent the first nine months of my life with in foster care. In a very real way, I had three mothers, and the only one that mattered to me, the one in whose body I grew, had never been available.
I don’t believe that I ever bonded with my adoptive mother, or any other adult females when I was a child for that matter. I wanted nothing to do with hugs and kisses, in fact, I remember angrily yelling at my mother, “don’t touch me,” as I jerked away from her when she was trying to introduce me to one of her teaching colleagues. I wasn’t even four years old yet and I was vocal in my rejection, both in private, as well as public. That yell got me back-handed when we were finally alone in the car on the way home.
Not only did I have my own classic issues with the primal wound/adoption related trauma, but my mother never dealt effectively with her own issues related to adoption and infertility. We were personalities in collision. She had the expectation that I would be the perfect little loving child, and I, for my part reacted from a place of fear, fear of rejection and abandonment, a fear that I handled by rejecting any adult females who attempted to connect with me before I could be rejected once again. I remember running from aunts and my grandmothers when I was expected to either hug, or kiss them, and I certainly ran from my mother.
My mother’s answer to this state of affairs was to retreat into her religion, a conservative, evangelical belief system that taught that if you were having problems in your life, it obviously meant that you weren’t “right with God.” I believe that this world view resulted in my mother living with perpetual feelings of guilt related to what was to become our toxic relationship. I became a living reminder to her of what she saw as her own failure, and she was to become an angry, bitter, depressed, and vindictive woman.
My adoptive father, on the other hand, while he had his faults, was an intelligent, compassionate, and caring man, whose commitment to my wellbeing I never had reason to question. It was my father’s lap that I remember climbing onto when I wanted to be close to someone or needed comforting. I have a photograph of him swinging me up into the air, and I remember him having me ride on his knee as he sat, with his legs crossed, bouncing me up and down as I shrieked with laughter. I learned my love of classical music from him as every night he played records while I fell asleep. My nightly favorite for a long time (I must have driven him near mad), was Rossini’s William Tell overture, although I knew it as the Lone Ranger song. My father is the one who read to me when I was a little boy, and it is from him that I learned to love both reading and writing. I practically worshiped my father, yet, I never told him that I loved him as I was afraid that that love would not be returned.
As an adoptee, my trust issues ran the gamut from not trusting at all, to trusting too much and too easily. I don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg, but I would go through times 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 people away, too much information too soon, giving me a reason, at least to my way of thinking, for swinging back to the other pole, where I trusted no one.
For much of my life I was unaware of this pattern, but I always acted as if all love was conditional. Whenever anyone said that they loved me, I thought to myself, will they still love me when I do this, or say that, or act out? Then, I tested those in my life, pushing them to their limits, and beyond, all in a futile effort to have them prove their love for me.
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 taking hostages!
You see, I didn’t just drink and take drugs as a way to escape, I also took people, and sex became the yardstick that I used to measure a woman’s love for me, as well as being how I measured my own self-worth, such as it was. You see, to my way of thinking at the time, if I could convince the most attractive woman in the room to have sex with me then I must be alright as a person. The problem with this test was that I felt so badly about myself internally, that when my partner of the moment agreed to sleep with me, and we made love, in my mind, all that had happened (don’t get me wrong, I loved the sensual closeness of a torrid physical relationship), was that my partner had demonstrated just what a poor judge of character she really was, and I was off to find my next hostage. What I ended up being was what I call serially monogamous, and all the while still feeling like I was worthless.
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 would always reach a point where they would fail my impossible last test, and I would once again be alone.
What I have learned over the years is that the kind of acceptance and nurturing I was searching for could come only 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, when he looked around for the first time, no one and nothing was familiar.
I’ve heard fear, the letters F. E. A. R., described as an acronym meaning “False Evidence Appearing Real,” or, in a less healthy, and cruder, interpretation, “Fuck Everything And Run.” For much of my life, it was this latter approach that I took to the issue of fear. I ran from commitments, relationships, and marriages. I ran from jobs, careers, and responsibilities. I even ran from coast to coast, moving multiple times during the course of my life.
As an adult, my social connections to others were both strained and superficial, at best. I lived my life, had I been able to be honest with myself, with a pervasive fear of relationships, while at the same time subconsciously craving the emotional closeness that I witnessed in others. My fear of abandonment, and the unresolved belief that I was somehow personally responsible, at my core, for the rejections that I had experienced in my life, resulted in my keeping others at bay by only connecting at an intellectual level. I was alone in my own head, lonely in my own heart, and judged myself to be less than, and “unlovable.”
For much of my life, I kept secret the fact that lived in a dark, dark, place filled with fear, 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 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 inner world a secret. Finally, at 27, having collected a whole slew of new secrets to stuff down into my soul, profoundly depressed, feeling hopeless and helpless, I tried suicide for the first time.
For me, relinquishment, adoption, and how these issues were handled, or rather how they were not handled, by both my adopted parents, and by myself, became a breeding ground for mental illness.
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 adopter’s 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, confusion, and fear, 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.
In gaining a better insight and understanding of myself as 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, “spoken” 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 different. You’re unloved and unlovable. You were special, but 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, the voice of the primal wound, I’m no longer ruled by it.
I read about others experiences with adoption trauma, and in so doing, I help to heal myself.
But perhaps most importantly, I share with others, on an ongoing basis, parts of my truth, and the process of my recovery, and in so doing, I also help to heal myself.
Being adopted can be likened to a coin, it has two sides.
For me, living in the fog of adoption, before starting the recovery process, was like living life half a second out of sync with reality. Relationships were, for the most part, forced, unnatural, and superficial, after all, how could I share my true self with another when I wasn’t even certain who I was? How could I love another when for so long I felt “unlovable” myself? How could I find peace in a world where I had no beginning and no history?
Stepping out of the fog has, I believe, turned the present reality of my adopted life into a journey of discovery, a long walk down a pathway of endless possibilities.
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.
Kevin’s Email: firstname.lastname@example.org