The above photo was taken during the first few days in Korea that I got to spend with my Omma, upon finally reuniting with her in 2009...34 years after she relinquished me in 1975.
It's the kind of picture that everyone wants to see, because it's the type of picture that makes everyone feel so warm and happy and good about adoption. But it's exactly this kind of photo that can be so misleading, because it tells of only a single moment. It leaves out all the heartache and pain and sorrow that preceded the reunion and all that will follow in the years to come after the reunion.
The more I meet and interact with adult adoptees, and in particular adult adoptees in reunion, the more I have begun to recognize a common experience among us. I have started calling this experience “adoption reunion dissonance.”
This dissonance causes intense psychological distress and conflict.
It is basically the disparity that adoptees in reunion experience between how others perceive our stories and how we experience our realities post-reunion. (Adoptees not in reunion as well as our original mothers and fathers also experience this kind of dissonance, but being that I am an adoptee in reunion I will focus on the perspective from a reunited adoptee’s experience.)
Those who see and hear our stories no doubt cannot help but romanticize our adoptions and our reunions. Our adoptions and reunions have become modern day fairy tales in the minds of the uninformed masses. They cannot help but romanticize our stories because of the still dominant narrative in adoption culture (despite years of adult adoptees challenging this narrative) that idealizes, almost idolizes, the act of adoption.
Folks watch our adoption reunion stories and their eyes well with tears, their heartstrings are pulled, and yet they completely miss the point. Rather than take the tears they cry and the heartache they feel to understand the profound grief, loss, despair, confusion, turmoil that adoptees experience, they walk away from our stories telling themselves and demanding of us that we are the “lucky ones.” They insist that we have been saved by adoption and now via reunion we are finally made whole. So, ultimately, any pain or harm becomes null allowing for adoption to remain the unquestionable hero.
It’s the happy ending everyone wants.
But it’s not a happy ending for adoptees in reunion. While everyone is telling us how happy and at peace, how resolved and complete, how healed and whole we now feel, we are experiencing quite the opposite. While I do not presume to speak for all, I know without a doubt I do speak for some. And I most definitely speak for myself.
And although I have experienced happiness and peace, resolution and completion, healing and wholeness at certain points post-reunion. I have experienced equally, if not more, despair and chaos, irresolution and emptiness, suffering and division.
This can be a grave dissonance, a harmful incongruence for the adoptee--constantly managing others’ perceptions of us as “living a fairy tale,” while we experience very real psychological suffering and conflict that can be mind-numbing and isolating to the point that we wish we were never born.
People treat us like cute little characters in a Disney film, while in the privacy of our own minds and homes we are adults experiencing a depth of grief and turmoil that few can grasp.
People watch our stories and tell us, You are so lucky you’re adopted...You are so blessed to be reunited...You get the best of both worlds...You have a beautiful story...You must feel so loved...You can be whole now...You have found peace...
Stop. Please. Just stop.
Stop telling us how we are supposed to feel. Stop twisting our stories to be pleasing to you. Stop euphemizing our very real pain, our irretrievable losses, our irreconcilable dissonance.
Our stories are not a Hallmark card. Our stories are not fairy tales. Our very real, raw lives are not for you to box up in a nice, clean package.
After reunion, life gets all the more complicated. Reunion is only the beginning. It is not the end. Challenges we never anticipated overtake us. Emotions we never knew we could feel engulf us. Confusion that we thought had been tamed begins to flail and kick so hard it knocks us unconscious.
Even in the most “ideal” of circumstances, reunion precipitates complex pain and new grief. It surfaces emotions that can swallow you up until you see nothing but darkness.
Reunion does not bring closure.
Rather it’s like a wrecking ball that demolishes the life you thought you had so carefully, protectively, meticulously constructed into an infinity of rubble that you slowly realize you will never be able to piece back together.
Instead, you stand there amidst the ruins having to make decision after decision as to whether you will rebuild from the ground up or just walk away from it all, because the reconstruction process is far more daunting and overwhelming, relentless and eternal than you ever anticipated.
And then, before you know what’s happening, you yourself begin to crack and fall to pieces until you are nothing but dust being carried away irretrievably to unspeakable places that you never knew existed, that you cannot perceive, that you will never be able to find or see.
Adoption reunion is a constant process of contradiction and agreement, adapting and standing firm, separation and mergence, pain and joy, suffering and healing. It never gets easy, but rather it just becomes a new painful “normal” that you must learn to accept lest you lose your mind completely. You adjust to living in limbo. You adjust to managing the disparities, the feelings of guilt, disloyalty, betrayal, division. You learn to survive and perhaps thrive at times, but not because you are living a dream or a fairy tale or a happy ending, but because you are learning to overcome despite being adopted and in reunion.
There’s never a point at which you arrive unless it’s arriving at one destination to get to the next.
But when we make this journey and it feels to us like we are crawling our way to Mount Mordor with the burden of the ring weighing around our necks as though it was the weight of all the world while everyone around us thinks we are strolling through some far off exotic land full of beauty and bliss--this dissonance is crushing and maddening. You start to feel like you are nothing but crazy.
But we are not crazy.
What’s crazy is that we live in a world so full of hedonistic myopia and ignorant sanctimony that it would tell us that we are fools to grieve and weep over all that we have lost and all that we continue to lose despite every painstaking effort we make to find ourselves and reclaim the ones who have always been ours.
Dealing with adoption reunion dissonance is exhausting, burdensome, and painful. It can make the process of assembling an identity incredibly daunting and confusing for adoptees. It can also stunt, hinder, or slow our ability to heal and cope healthfully. It assaults us with feelings of confusion, guilt, despair.
And the annoying, frustrating part is that it doesn’t have to be this way. If only people would choose to accept that adoption, search, and reunion are lifetime processes fraught with complex emotions from which an adoptee cannot simply “move on,” that have no right or wrong way, and are not fairy tales with unequivocally happy endings.
And yet, unfortunately, the foundation on which adoption has been built in America ironically supports and holds up this destructive dissonance in which the very ones most directly affected by adoption are expected to feel and behave in ways that contradict our realities. Being stretched, almost torn in two from the competing narratives and expectations. And our realities again break apart as we are frequently accused of being fabricators, melodramatic, selfish, ungrateful.
But I will never give up. No matter how many times I have to pick up the rubble. No matter how many times I have to cry and wail and rip out my heart. I know this process will never end. I am ultimately starting to accept this hard truth...
Knowing that the end is not to arrive but rather to feel, to know, to find the truth--and in this particular context, to embrace the whole truth about adoption and all of its complexities and uncertainties--that ultimately our stories are not modern day fairy tales. They never have been, and they never will be.
Our stories are our lives.
And they belong--not to you to judge and to scrutinize--but they belong to us.
And to us alone.