The Recovery Process, Post-reunion

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.

Conclusion

When 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.