I have long debated the merits of sharing this part of my story, as well as how much is or isn’t appropriate to share. I ultimately decided this is arguably the most important piece, so it would be extremely misleading to omit this huge part of the puzzle.
I have no intention of opening up about this in an effort to portray myself as “poor, wounded Whitney.” In fact, the fear of that perception has kept me quiet on this topic for quite awhile. I have long moved past the feelings described in this post and the previous two. I share about this time in my life because I have been so encouraged to see the progress made throughout my counseling journey. There was hope; a light at the end of the tunnel! The difficult things I experienced were not specific to just me; I believe a lot of adoptees can identify with these types of emotions. We just don’t tend to talk about them. I’ve decided to trust our readership to read this series with the true spirit and intent behind which it was written. You have proven to be so trustworthy thus far and we consider that a real gift. Thank you for being wonderful beyond anything we could have ever anticipated.
I also decided to proceed with sharing as much as possible because, as I was going through this entire process, I could not find any place, anywhere discussing these hugely important ideas and experiences, despite my endless hours of scouring the Internet. It added to my despair, making me feel all alone in the world, like no one else had ever experienced what I was going through. It made me feel truly crazy. I am now a firm believer that it doesn’t have to be this way! There are people and resources that exist to help and support, if we only speak out and make them available to those in need. Therefore, I hope the openness with which I share serves to help others along on their journeys. I also hope that it might inspire others to share the good and bad, happy and sad parts of their stories, too.
That said, here are some of the major things I was up against in the long, difficult fight against myself throughout my counseling journey:
This is pretty obviously my #1. My pride almost killed me. It took me so long to swallow my pride, get over the self-inflated idea I had of myself and my “strong, independent woman-ness” and ask for help, the pit of despair almost swallowed me alive. Feminists are probably going to string me up for this, but I take some issue with the “who run the world,” “all the women independent,” Beyoncé-type thinking that has become so prevalent lately. Are women strong and amazing? Obviously! But I think along with these ideas come a lot of unnecessary pressures. A lot of thoughts creep in like, “I can/should handle things myself and I don’t need to ask for help.” Or false ideas about what weakness actually looks like. Seeking help is the best thing I have ever done for myself, but it was very difficult to get past the societal pressures I felt to be self-sufficient. I felt like going to counseling was an admission of failure. I felt very much less-than.
If pride is the obvious #1, perfectionism is my obvious #2. They sort of go hand-in-hand. I have a strong (albeit, not-scientifically-proven) belief that this a deep adoptee issue that many of us have to wrestle with. It would be impossible to number the times I told Kristi things like, “I just feel like I have to work so hard to keep up this facade, to wear this mask. Like everything is fine and I am happy and have everything under control. But I don’t feel that way at all. Everything is totally the opposite of fine. I am very unhappy. Nothing is under control!” Looking back, this was a huge self-imposed prison I had locked myself into. No one was telling me that I needed to have things under control. No one would have faulted me for not having a big happy smile on 200% of the time. This was a dumb, unnecessary expectation I’d picked up somewhere along the way, and the weight of that ball + chain was absolutely back-breaking.
This was a huge, ugly, 3-headed monster for me. I wrestled and struggled and scraped and fought with this for a long, long time. It was 3-fold:
- I was a “lucky adoptee.”
I had enjoyed a very happy, very “normal” childhood with my adoptive family. I had completed a very successful birth family search quite easily. I was embracing the opportunity to get to know them and start to grow these amazing relationships with family members. I did not have the right to feel anything but grateful and overjoyed. How dare I feel sad or angry or anything but overwhelming happiness? The guilt and shame of this thinking weighed on me like a ton of bricks.
- I was being a “bad” Christian.
Raised in the church and always an active member, I was pretty shielded from a lot of the hurts of the world. When everything happened with my birth family reunion, my whole world was rocked and I felt like I had no firm foundation under my feet. I had no clue how to deal with it. Among my many various emotions, I was so angry at God. I was so hurt that He had allowed me to feel such deep pain. I was so furious that He had “abandoned” me in my darkest hour. Of course, then I felt guilty for feeling all of these “negative” emotions, which made it all the worse. I wasn’t saying any of these things or acknowledging these ideas, but deep down, these things were all raging inside of me. Until my counseling with Kristi. One of my greatest “a-ha!” moments came in the session when she pushed me to put these feelings into words for the first time. She looked me in the eye and said, “Do you think that these feelings are too great for Him to handle? That He will stop being God because you are upset with Him?” It wrecked me. I eventually screamed at Him like a toddler throwing a temper tantrum. “How could you put me through this?,” I wailed. “How could you leave me all alone?” Once I got honest with myself and with God, I was able to move on. He became the only thing I could rely on. The Church has come a good ways in their thinking on this, but there is still a long way to go. We must allow space for these “negative” feelings. We must encourage counseling and healthy emotional growth. We must help bring people out of their shame and not push them further into guilt.
- I was desiring and pursuing a relationship with my birth family. How must that make my adoptive family really feel?
My family was always so supportive throughout my entire birth family search and reunion. I really think that they were happier than I was about the whole thing. But I allowed thoughts to creep in and saddle me with guilt. “I don’t want them to think I have been unhappy. I don’t want to seem ungrateful.” I was thinking in black-or-white, all-or-nothing. (See below for more on this.) Again, Kristi brought me back to reality. “If, in fact, they are feeling badly about this (they had never said anything or shown any indication they felt this way), what can you do about it? Do you have control over their emotions? You cannot take on the responsibility for how other people feel.” It was a jolt. I felt like I had permission to be freed from this (again) self-imposed guilt I’d been carrying.
This was the big “emotional” hurdle for me. One of my first homework assignments for Kristi was to make a list of all the things I felt sad about. Things I hadn’t ever named or allowed myself to validate. Things I felt deep grief about, but had never allowed myself to mourn. It was a long list. At the very top was, “Loss of language (to speak with my Korean family)” and “Loss of 20+ years with my birth family.” Holy cow. Those are huge, legitimate things to be sad about! But I had stifled the difficult feelings and tried to put on my happy face. Once I wrote all of this down and actually saw the multiple pages of things I had come up with, I felt much less crazy. Kristi asked, “Would you fault anyone else for feeling sad about these things you’ve written?” Obviously not. Any normal person would feel sad about these things. She raised her eyebrows at me, “Then why are you holding yourself to a different set of rules?” Ohhhhhh….I suddenly got it. My grieving phase took a very, very long time. I had 20+ years of feelings to finally let out. Sometimes I thought I would never stop crying. I told Kristi that. “Trust me,” she said, “It won’t feel like this forever.” She was right.
I will discuss this in much more detail in a subsequent blog post, but my time in Korea really messed with my head. Before moving abroad, I had been a very (perhaps too) confident person. I didn’t even hear criticism, it just went in one ear and out the other. (I had also been very fortunate to not grow up around many bullies.) I took for granted the individuality allowed within the U.S. You can dress however you want, style your hair however you want, do your makeup (or just not wear any makeup) however you want. I have never experienced such shock as when I stepped off the plane in Korea and literally everyone looked exactly the same. There was very much a “norm” there and if you didn’t fit in that mold, you were weird. The Koreans also had no filter so I often heard things like, “Your skin is really bad” or “Your hair needs a lot of work” or “You must wear a lot more makeup” or “Your clothes are terrible.” Ummm…ouch! By the time I came back to the States 14 months later, I thought of myself as lower than a piece of dog poo. I was ugly and worthless and certainly unworthy of being loved.
Black and White Thinking
I’d estimate the most repetitive phrase in my counseling to be, “So where’s the middle ground here? Is there room for any grey? Because what you’re saying is very black and white. All or nothing.” Kristi was constantly having to check me. She’d ask me things like, “And what would be the worst case scenario?” or “What would happen if….” Once she framed it that way, I realized that I was being pretty over-dramatic. The world would probably not end and my parents would probably not disown me and I would probably not die alone if I, for instance, allowed myself to feel sad occasionally, or God forbid, allowed other people who cared for me to know that I was feeling sad. I realized this black-and-white thinking was a major thing for me. I thought of almost every situation in terms of all or nothing, when in fact, a much more realistic outcome would be somewhere in the middle.
This looong post has been just a tip of the iceberg and many of these concepts and ideas will come up in later blogs.
Can any of you relate with the hurdles described above? What are some other common adoptee issues that we’ve left out?
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