Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Anniversary: A Guest Post by Karen Goldner

It was ten years ago this past March when I got the call that my sister had died. It was relatively early in the morning, around 7:00 am. That was my first indication that it was bad news. Nobody ever calls at 7:00 am with good news.

“Are you sitting down? You had better sit down, “ my sister-in-law Jenifer said. “There’s been an accident. Cristi is dead.”

I was shocked and confused to hear my sister, who was 14 months younger than me, was dead.  I was very upset to hear this news, but the predominant emotion I felt was confusion.  Cristi was my full biological sister, but I had only known her for about 15 years. I was adopted as an infant in a traditional closed era adoption in 1966.  I met Cristi during my reunion with my birth family in 1988. I did not know how I was supposed to feel about her death.  In my head, I thought, “I should  be really sad about this,” so I pretended I was. Don’t get me wrong, on one level, I was sad. She was young, she had two young children, it was a tragedy. But she wasn’t really my sister. She was someone I met 15 years ago. I had little in common with her, except genes. We were not close at all.

Like most adoptees, I had spent an entire lifetime denying my feelings. When you are adopted you have to deny your feelings in order to survive. It becomes a way of life. You deny your feelings, repress you feelings, stuff your feelings, medicate your feelings. You do whatever you can to try and make them go away. You learn that expressing your feelings, or actually feeling your feelings, can destroy you.

When you are told you should be grateful, and that you are lucky for having been adopted, you tend to doubt everything.  In your heart, in your gut, you know something unspeakably terrible has happened to you. But no one will say it. No one ever says,  “I’m so sorry you couldn’t stay with your mother. There is nothing worse that could ever happen to you.”  Instead, you are told that she loved you, that you were chosen and you are special.  You are told you should be glad.   Listening to your feelings gets you in a lot of trouble. If you listen to your feelings, you will come apart.

As a child, this ability to deny your feelings benefits you. It helps you survive a situation that is completely out of control. But when you get older, it becomes a hindrance.  It makes it virtually impossible to know yourself, to know what your truly feel. Your feelings are still there, but so mixed up in a murky, camouflaged morass, they are indistinguishable.

So I went to the funeral  home and pretended I was devastated.  I cried, I hugged people who were genuinely devastated, and pretended like I was one of them. That part was fairly easy.  Since my reunion with my birth family 15 years earlier, I had plenty of experience pretending like I was one of them. I sat around a table at the funeral home with my birth mother, my brother, and Cristi’s husband trying to help decide what the obituary should say.  All the while thinking to myself, “what the hell am I doing here?  Why am I being included in this?  I don’t belong here. I hardly knew her.”  But I never said that out loud.  I ignored my feelings in order to fit in. Part of me felt so grateful to be included in the process.  It felt like a privilege to finally be part of this family I had been banished from decades earlier.

Three days later, when I returned home from Cristi’s funeral, my then-husband met me at the door and said, “You had better sit down. Your brother just called. Your father died.”   My adoptive father, whom I had just been to Arizona to visit two weeks earlier, had dropped dead from a stroke at the age of 79.  

The feelings came fast and hard this time.   There was clarity, and it tore through me. There was no ambiguity.  I dropped to the floor and sobbed.

The truth is, I was not close to my adoptive father, either. He was a good person, well-liked, but not a very good father. He was aloof, distant, unengaged,  and often seemed uncaring. But the pain I felt was real, it was genuine, and I didn’t have to pretend.

 Ironically, one of the things that I remember most clearly about his funeral was my adoptive mother telling me not to cry.  I was getting ready to leave, saying goodbye to her before getting on a plane for Michigan. I couldn’t stop crying and was worried about leaving her there alone, without my father.  She patted me on the shoulder and said “Oh now, don’t cry.”

I thought ‘Jesus Christ, if I am not even allowed to cry now, when my father has died, will there ever be a time when it is ok for me to cry?’  But guess what?   Just like every other time in my life when she told me to stop crying, I did. Good little adoptee that I was, I denied my feelings and I stopped crying.

That time in my life was pivotal. It was very complicated and many things were changing, but most of all me. I had two young daughters, and my marriage was disintegrating. I was trying to leave my agency job and start a private practice as a clinical social worker. But it was just a year or two after that when I decided to stop having contact with my birth family.  I was tired of pretending I fit in when I didn’t.  I had already spent a lifetime doing that with my adoptive family, and it was too much to bear. Seeing them altogether with their shared memories, and their genetic bond I could never be privy to.  I couldn’t take it. It was excruciating.   I always felt so sad after being with them for holidays and birthdays.  The guilt and shame that erupted in me after these visits were crippling.  After one visit in particular, my husband asked, “If you were not biologically related to these people, would you have anything to do with them?”

“Absolutely not,” I replied with certainty.

“Then don’t, “ he said.  

“That’s really an option?”  I asked.

“Of course it is.”

 In my mind, choosing who was in my family had never been an option.  When you are adopted, the right to choose who you call family is stripped from you.  You take what you get, and pretend to be grateful. The luxury of choosing who is in your family, and who is not, was reserved for birth parents and adoptive parents, not for the children jettisoned in between them.

Those beliefs have changed too. As part of my adoption journey, I had an epiphany last year. I read a post someone had written on one of the online adoptee support groups I participate in. It basically said; I did not ask to be adopted, nor did I want to be adopted.  The whole thing did not work out very well for me at all.  I do not owe anybody anything.


It was as though my blinders had been removed. I suddenly realized that I no longer had to try and painfully navigate my very complicated relationship with my adoptive mother. I have always felt like I owed her something because she took me in and raised me. I had no choice but to put up with her narcissism and callousness. I had to tolerate her cold self-centeredness, her manipulation and emotional  abuse. All my life I have desperately struggled to try and fit with her, and beaten the hell out of myself because I didn’t.  I would never have chosen to have a casual friendship with a person like my adoptive mother, much less chosen her to parent me. I don’t even like her.

If I had been given a choice, I would have chosen to stay with my real mother, with my real father, with my real family, my clan. Who wouldn’t choose that?   I had no choice at the time, but I do have a choice now.

I am becoming very careful about who is part of my family. It is a select and exclusive few. The requirements for membership are simple. You must truly love, appreciate and unconditionally accept me for exactly who I am, not who you need me to be. Authenticity and genuineness are required. Trust is a must.