Sunday, January 1, 2017

Am I Blood or Am I Water?

By DavisP
Male, 1940's adoptee, Searched for biological parents and  found graves.  In reunion with half-brothers.

I had a much-loved grandmother who often talked of family and had a favorite saying “Blood is thicker than water”. I can hear her saying it now. I never had the courage to ask her - “Am I blood or am I water?” I was afraid that I could not stand the answer.

I cannot remember a time that I did not know that I was adopted. While there was some talk about my being adopted, it was mostly being told the story of the night I came to my adoptive family. Oddly enough the story was more about my older brother, who was their bio-child. My dad was a doctor and my adoption was privately arranged by a doctor friend who delivered me. He, also, delivered me to my parents. He arrived with his own son, about three and me. I was put into a bassinet to sleep. His son was standing peering at me with his hand on the bassinet that I was sleeping in. My a-brother, nearly three, awoke from a nap. He didn’t say a word but pushed the other boy away and then took a look at me. End of story.

When I was told this story as a child it somehow felt comforting. Slowly as I aged it dawned on me that there was nothing about being excited on my arrival or loving - it seems my brother was the focus, really. It felt more like ownership than kinship. There was always an uncomfortable feeling associated with talking about my being adopted that made it hard for me to explore what it really meant or understand or express feelings associated with it.

If asked as a child and even as an adult up to the age of 50, I would have denied that being adopted had affected me. Such is the power of our subconscious mind. Anything too painful to endure must be hidden from us until we are strong enough to deal with it.

From the time I was born until the time that I went to my adoptive family was relatively short - about a week. I doubt that this time interval can ever be much shorter than that. But the damage was already done in that short space. I will try to describe the process that I have gone through coming to that conclusion. It has taken me almost 25 years.

I was told repeatedly that I was such a good baby - that I never cried and slept all night from the very start. (More about this latter)

As a child, I was very withdrawn and shy. I wanted to be a part of the crowd and at the same time sought out independence. This is certainly not unique to adoptees, except for the extent. From my vantage point today, I can see that I was driven by shame.

From the time when I was a small child of maybe 5 or so my hands would peel. The skin would just come off; they were red, raw, cracked, bloody, and sore. I was taken to doctors, given lotions, I slept with cotton gloves loaded with lotion and the end result was my hands peeled. This went on until I was 50.

As a teen I never dated or attended the school proms and such. I thought I was extremely shy - but I think now that I was really consumed by shame.

Shame can be a healthy emotion. It tells us when we have violated our own standards. We can recover from this type of shame by realizing that we can be a good person even if we make a mistake. The shame I am talking about is sometimes called toxic shame. Toxic shame is the belief that we are the mistake - not that we made a mistake. It is pretty hard to recover from that belief.

Somewhere early in my life the shame was too much to carry and I pushed it into my subconscious. In its place I put on a facade of superiority as a coping mechanism. It was what allowed me to survive. Not a particularly healthy coping mechanism, however.

I must have chosen this coping mechanism because it was too painful to believe I was a mistake.

Outwardly, I was successful. I earned both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Physics. I married and we have three kids and two grandsons and about to have a great granddaughter. I was hired by a large Aerospace Engineering company and worked for them for 40 years. I was successful - growing in responsibility and pay. I loved working and worked on some amazing projects: The Apollo Lunar Program, the Space Shuttle, several classified programs, an Australian program that took us there for a couple of years.

So what is the problem? The problem is my inner world. I never met an addiction I didn’t like: sex, food, alcohol, smoking, work, etc. Anything that helped me not to feel, I would use. I still don’t know how I avoided drugs, as I was in college in the 60s.

The belief that - I am a mistake, led me to isolate by not letting people get too close to me - after all if they saw me then, of course, they would leave. It affected my marriage, my work and my everyday social life. I felt I had to be better than, just to be good enough. I tried not to be seen.

I always felt that I could not depend on anyone. It is still difficult for me to ask for help. I was unable to feel worthy, or loved. Without the feedback of my feelings, I was more a computer than a human. I worked on classified programs which was great because I didn’t have to talk about it. Socially, I had few friends and hated most social gatherings.

When I was 50, my coping mechanisms began to fail, my life was not working, my marriage was struggling and we began counseling. My counselor had experience with adoptees and asked that I look into my adoption issues. I did not believe that I had any adoption issues and rather brazenly said “I'm willing to look under that rock but I don't believe there's any snakes there”. In a sense I was correct there were no snakes there were bloody dragons.

Beginning to Recover

There came a day that I was at work. I had a large office. The door was closed and I was having what felt like a breakdown. I was having all these feelings - I was crying and I did not know what was going on. I called my counselor and very patiently I was told what the feelings were, the sadness and hurt, the fear and anger. That was the start of my reconnecting my mind and my body. As I began to allow my feelings to come up and be felt in my body, my hands stop peeling. Today only under severe distress where I am just unable to process the emotions do my hands peel. It seems that emotions must come out and they can come out healthily, as we experience them naturally, or they can come out as disease.

As soon as I began to feel, I felt overwhelming hurt and sadness. It was pervasive; however, there was a particular sadness around my birth. I didn’t know what to do with this. Of course, I have no memories of this time so what was this sadness. Obviously it had to do with being relinquished/adopted, but what could I do? The hurt I felt lasted nearly a year. I had a huge pent up vat of hurt that I needed to process and let go. The sadness around my birth continued.

Healing is a path. It is not about arriving at a destination, it is about living life day to day. I am on a path.

After 50 years of denying that I was affected by relinquishment/adoption, I was seeing the effects it had on my life everywhere I looked. We call this awakening - defogging. I read adoptee literature: Primal Wound, Journey of the Adopted Self, There is an old saying “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. The teachers are always there, but to us, the students, we are only able to hear what we are ready for - and we hear only what we are strong enough to hear. 

Search and Reunion

I began to search for my birth family. My dermatologist wrote a letter saying I needed to know my family medical history. This was used to have my adoption records opened. I found my mother and father’s names. My mother’s name was rather common and I got nowhere with my search. My father’s name was very unusual and easily traced. He had died. I went to talk to people who knew him. The information from them and other information I obtained latter, raised doubt that he was my father.

After about ten years the state of Texas graciously allowed adoptees to have their original birth certificate (OBC) IF they knew their parents names. When I got my OBC it had my mother’s social security number on it. This was unusual for 1941. With her social security number it took less than a day to find that she had died about the time I started searching. I requested a death certificate and found I had two half-brothers. Making the call to announce myself was scary and emotional. They grew up in an alcoholic home and have their own set of problems. We have a somewhat tentative relationship. But we do talk some.

Twenty-four years after I started searching, DNA testing and genealogy proved that the man named in my court records was indeed my father. I have no picture of him. I do have a picture of his half-brother. I have not found any living relative on my father’s side.

I did not get what I wanted and hoped for from searching. Even so, I’m very glad that I did. Knowing my family story is grounding.

Continuing Recovery from Relinquishment/Adoption

I joined and worked with a local adoption group in Austin, Texas for awhile. It is called Adoption Knowledge Affiliates (Also Known As). It is a triad group. I had a need to hear other’s experiences and to express my own. I was moved by hearing other’s stories and when I told my story, it was gratifying to see that others understood. I eventually became a director of that organization. When I moved from Austin, I knew I would need to find another way to connect.

I, also, joined Al-Anon and attended regularly for about 15 years. There is alcoholism in my families, but even if there hadn’t been I needed to hear their message: Keep the focus on yourself, One day at a time, There but for the grace of god go I, Clean my side of the street, Make amends . . . I learned so much from this experience, most importantly, the only person I can change is me.

I slowly became aware that there were times that all reason left my mind; during these times I was driven by some feeling/belief that was so primeval that I could not easily express it. I would have the need to hide or be consumed in shame. The very fact that I had needs was shameful. I have written about these feelings/beliefs elsewhere:

“Feelings hurt. Don’t”
“I am a mistake.”
“If you see me then you will throw me away.”
“I am not lovable.”

These four statements were somehow driving me and yet I didn’t know how.

About four years ago I joined an online adoptee support group. It has greatly enhanced my own recovery.

Again hearing other’s stories was touching me deeply. Some I related to immediately. Others at first I thought “I’m glad I didn’t experience that” only to come to see that indeed I had - I just had not been aware. And then there are some truly horrific stories of abuse that makes me weep. The results were I felt less alone, my experiences were not unique. Telling my stories and having my experiences accepted and validated has been an incredible experience of healing.

For the first time in my life I felt like I was accepted by people who really knew me.

Finding the Primal Wound

I have been obsessive in trying to understand just what has caused my dysfunction - what gave such power to the four beliefs.

Paul Sunderland’s video (Remembered not Recalled) 

on relinquished/adopted Developmental PTSD was the first major breakthrough for me. The idea that trauma causes brain changes that can persist for years is powerful. An adoptee’s brain is changed by the Primal Wound we received.

A year or so ago I read a book called the Body Keeps Score by Bessel van der Kock... One of the things he said was that trauma often causes a disassociation between body and mind. This was so validating. I had no memory of trauma, but certainly knew that I had disassociated. It seemed trauma was the key - the Primal Wound was real.

Then I came across the book Healing Developmental Trauma - How Early Trauma affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image and the Capacity for Relationship by Heller and LaPierre:

This book talks of five core needs and corresponding five adaptive survival styles that are the results from an infant not bonding securely to their mother; Not bonding causes some or all of the five core needs not to be met. The following table from the book shows the impacts on the child.

The Connection Survival StyleDisconnected from physical and emotional self
Difficulty relating to others
The Attunement Survival StyleDifficulty knowing what we need
Feeling our needs do not deserve to be met
The Trust Survival Style Feeling we cannot depend on anyone but ourselves
Feeling we have to always be in control 
The Autonomy Survival StyleFeeling burdened and pressured
Difficulty setting limits and saying no directly
The Love-Sexuality Survival StyleDifficulty integrating heart and sexuality
Self-esteem based on looks and performance

Heller Phd, Laurence; Lapierre, Aline Psyd (2012-09-25). Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship (Kindle Locations 183-187). North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.

I have the full set. Every one of “Core Difficulties” is present in me. My self-esteem is not based on looks, but it certainly has been on performance.

While I experienced the primal wound, I was able to bond somewhat with my adoptive mother and father. If I had not, I would not have been able to function nearly as well as I have. The primal wound had caused my brain to change - bonding with my adoptive family could not undo these changes, but did give me some foundation to build on.

Primal Wound Reinforced

Having experienced this primal wound”, there were a series of life experiences that reinforced the beliefs I had formed.

Earlier I mentioned that I was a good baby. I slept through the night and never cried. I never cried because I had given up. I had learned that my needs were not going to be taken care of and it was no use asking. What “I was a good baby” really meant is that I knew my needs didn’t matter - so don’t ask.

I was born one day before Pearl Harbor and the entrance of the United States into WWII. My father was already in the army aircorp and was immediately sent for additional training before being sent to Britain. . When I was about three months my mom took my older brother and went to visit my dad for a week. I stayed with her sister who was told verbally “Feed him a tall can of milk at feeding - he probably won’t finish it.” Unfortunately, what my aunt heard was “Feed him a small can of milk”. When my mother got back my aunt said “He would get so excited when he saw the bottle and would drain it dry, but he never cried.”

Both of these incidents were told to me over and over throughout my life by my a-mom. Of course, I have no direct memory of them. As I began to defog my interpretation of these events changed. They have evolved from nice quaint family stories and feeling a touch of pride, to feeling uneasy about the stories and not wanting to hear them, and finally to deep sadness, hurt and anger.

My earliest memory is being lost on a beach in California. I was about three. I remember walking along the shore looking at the buildings that were just past the beach area. I was trying to match them to what I had seen when we first arrived at the beach. A three year old who is not crying (a child’s way to ask for help) but trying to figure it out for himself. - It means I didn’t trust that anyone cared - I didn’t think I could call for help. I felt I was on my own at three.

My brother, who was a bio-child and was two and a-half years older than I, was abusive. I was used as a punching bag and should I fight back then I was beaten. I asked my parents for help, but effective help was never given. I learned again that I was not important. My needs and wants did not matter.

When I was about 11 my parents separated and then divorced. Any child, who has experienced their parents’ divorce, knows how traumatic this is. For me it was another major abandonment. It was a year before I could even mention it to my best friend - such deep shame. I didn’t feel like I caused it, but I did feel it was up to me to fix the damage. I did not believe that I could depend on anyone else.

All of these incidents reinforced or added to my deeply held beliefs that I am a mistake and my needs are not important. The very fact that I have needs is shameful because I am not deserving.

Releasing Shame.

I have known people that had serious medical issues and did not know why or what was going on. There was relief when they got a diagnosis. Nothing had changed, but at least they knew what they were dealing with. I feel just the same way. It has been crazy making not understanding or knowing.

Since I have understood the source of my deep sadness and shame, I have been going through a process of releasing the shame. I acknowledge how it has affected me and let it go with a statement that it is not my shame. As I write this - it sounds hokey, but it goes pretty much that way. I feel lighter and freer. I am learning how to be.

I lived in my mind for the majority of my life. I’m finding that my body is wiser than I knew. It was not by chance that my hands peeled. Our hands are how we feed ourselves, how we work, basic to how we live. Was my body trying to get my attention? Was my body trying to slough off the shame? I think so. In a very real sense, my hands have been the bellwether of my recovery.

I am still on my path of recovery from relinquishment/adoption and if I am lucky and work at it then I will be for the rest of my life. Change does not come automatically with understanding. I have much work to become the person I want to be. I still have the full set of core difficulties. Some may be lesser than they were, but they are still there and may always be there to some extent.

So, am I Blood or Am I Water? . . .

A word to Adoptive Parents and those considering Adoption:

You will find many adoptees that state that they are not affected by being adopted. I was one for fifty years. I hope my story has shown that you cannot trust this claim no matter how sincere the adoptee is. We cannot state that we are not affected because we have never experienced not being adopted. Likewise, non-adopted people cannot experience what it is like to be adopted. It is unlikely that an adopted person can come through without deep wounds.

Adopting a child is a lifelong commitment. It is okay to want a child, just don’t let your needs to have a child be primary over the child’s needs. The child needs to bond with their natural mother. If you want to help the child then help the natural family keep the child. It is astounding to me that we, as a society, know that you should not take puppies at too young an age because it affects their development. And yet we routinely take human children from their mothers and fathers at birth and then do nothing to help them.

Your child is not a blank slate. We know our mother, know her smell, how she sounds, how her heart beats, what her voice sounds like, … You can and should do your best to bond with your child, but cannot, no matter how you try, prevent the child from being wounded. Your child will have suffered severe trauma.

In any case when you adopt you have several tasks:
  • The normal responsibilities of caring for any child that all parents have. 
  • Encouraging the child to talk about their feelings about being adopted. Make it known that it is okay to do so. This is much harder than it sounds.
  • Capturing and protecting the child’s identity and heritage while it is available. This is the responsibility of both the natural family and the adoptive family. The child can then have this information when the time comes. Not doing so is cruel. 
  • Your child will want to know about their family. This will be difficult because they don’t want to hurt you and may say otherwise. Do not be afraid, just as you can love more than one child, your child can love more than one set of parents. Our need to connect with our natural family is not a reflection on you in any manner. It is a basic human need. Please don’t make us chose. 
  • Maybe, you can help your child know whether they are blood or water. 

We can take the truth - it is the lies that inflict further damage. The truth may hurt, but that can be dealt with. The secret/locked OBCs, the pretending that we are biological, and heaven forbid, not telling us that we are adopted; - these actions are not honest nor are they loving. Any secret will be interpreted as hiding something bad.

You cannot protect your child from all the hurt that will happen, but be aware of innocent remarks that an adopted child will pick up on. These are the “Am I blood or am I water?” moments. These types of experiences are not uncommon.

Here is a small sample of events that occur throughout our lives:
  • the school genealogy assignment 
  • Hearing the adoptive family history and wondering about our own. 
  • Wanting to know more about our natural family and feeling that it is not worth how uncomfortable it makes everyone.
  • The doctor visits where we are asked for family history 
  • Not having a physical resemblance to our adoptive family. (When we are able to look at those around us and see a resemblance, we inherently know that we belong. Without that genetic mirroring we never have a deep feeling of belonging) 
  • Being an asterisk on someone’s genealogy tree, but our children are not welcome. 
  • There not being any genealogy tree where our kids are accepted, with the exception of the one that begins with me.

Being an adoptive parent is not easy. You may have to deal with the rage of an adoptee and though you may not be responsible for any of that rage, you are the person present so you will be the target of that rage. The stories of adoptees that are re-homed are examples of epically failed adoptions. Adoptive parents that were unwilling to look at what might happen. The result is the adoptee experiences yet another abandonment. The bottom line - being an adoptee’s parent is much harder than being a biological parent.

You must help your child heal the trauma - this is no small task and I wish I could provide guidance on how this can be done. There is a reason that adoptees are over-represented in suicide attempts, addiction treatment centers, mass-murders. We have experienced severe trauma and are hurting. We hide it well, but that only makes your job harder. Unfortunately, society does not want to see this side of adoption.

Should you chose to adopt, I wish you wisdom, strength, and a loving heart.


  1. There are so many lines written on your blog that I have spoken again and again and again. It's uncanny how much I can relate to. I actually said "No fucking way!" out loud in a coffee shop when I read that you had started going to Al-Anon to help recover. I did the exact same thing.
    I had begun to feel like I wasn't even a person, like I couldn't be alone because I didn't even exist. I was so stuck in a loop of the past, and the future seemed alien and disturbing. I disassociated constantly. Going to Al-Anon felt like the only way to reaffirm that I was real, to acknowledge that I even had my own thoughts and feelings...
    I also cannot remember a time when I didn't know I was adopted and my mother can't remember telling me... which is somehow more chilling to me. It's as if it was the first thing I knew about existence. I also felt for most of my life that adoption mattered very little. When I was little, I poured over the little information I had about my parents, but there was only so much to know... and it was just a story, as real as Harry Potter. Those people were lost to me, untouchable, two dimensional. I outgrew them like any other fairy tale.
    For almost two years, I've been been in contact with my biological parents. It ripped my world apart. I'm only just now starting to feel remotely normal again. It took so long. I ended up being hospitalized for planning my own death. I'd always been a lonely child but my isolation seemed entirely sealed once I met them. I started reading Betty Jean Lifton obsessively, underlining nearly every other passage in Lost and Found and Journey of the Adopted Child. I would show them to my biological mother and father hoping they at least would understand, but they couldn't. I felt insane.
    I've only know begun to find some semblance of peace. But it took me nearly taking my own life. I don't mean to overwhelm you with my life story, but I can't tell you how validating it is to see someone else echo my words, words that no one else has ever understood unless they were adopted.
    I can't thank you enough.
    You talk a lot about shame in your book. Brene Brown is a scholar, research professor and social worker, and she has written a great deal about shame. She doesn't touch on adoption specifically but I've found her incredibly helpful.
    I am wishing you so very well. I hope you have found communities that make you feel heard and seen. Thank you for this blog. Thank you so much.

  2. Sarah,
    First, I apologize for the very slow response. Thank you for your thoughtful response. Hearing that we are not alone - that others feel like we do and struggle with the same things is very validating. And talking with other adoptees is so helpful - finally there are people who understand.

    I invite you to join us on our forum. I think you would like being there.

  3. I to am adopted. I see the mention of Blood or Water. My Adoption was a rough ride, it started at age 6. You are right in your claims that a child needs to be accepted as a child for life! I have actually written a book and published it to Kindle. The book is called My Life. I decided to share my adoption journey so others would be able to see that they are not alone.
    Thank you for your post! So enlightening!

  4. I am an adoptee that had attempted suicide at a young age. I shared my feelings with my adoptive narscistic mother who told me it wasn't real she just didn't want to hear it. She wanted a trophy did to show off. I could never make that woman happy. She also tried to turn my birth mother against me. Abortion would have been a better life for me

    1. It is astounding how many of us had narcissistic mothers. We need to be with other adoptees. Only they can understand how deeply we have been affected. Please join us on our forum. It can be scary telling our story and doing so is healing.

    2. It is astounding how many of us had narcissistic mothers. We need to be with other adoptees. Only they can understand how deeply we have been affected. Please join us on our forum. It can be scary telling our story and doing so is healing.

    3. Narcissistic people can't see another person's point of view (nor do they care, they are only interested in their own perspective and needs). Having this type of personality characteristic would make it easier to take a baby and not see the child's perspective or the mother's. or that of any of the family members left behind. So, the skewing toward narcissism among people who adopt makes sense.

  5. As I read these stories, I scream cried like a wounded animal. My friend, also an adoptee provided me with this link. I stared at it for hours,thinking how could the stories of strangers possibly help? But as I read, it was as if I am reading about myself. The sense if being a mistake,unworthy, of shame,low self esteem, not belonging anywhere. A family you are not really a part of. Am I blood or am I water? I remember the stories. My mother told me how I never cried, clung to her like a monkey. There is a picture of me tightly gripping her shirt, I saw the fear in my eyes, but to her, it meant I needed her. All I see is a terrified baby. I was in foster care for 6 weeks before adoption. She said that there was still afterbirth in my ears when they took me home. She said that she thought I may have been abused there. Funny, since she was emotionally and physically abusive. One of my strongest memories is of her telling me that I was adopted and could be given back. I just turned,51, I've been physically deteriorating. Like my body is giving up. I was diagnosed at 35 with bi polar disorder,depression ptsd and anxiety. When I was taken to therapy, sometime in the 70's the therapist said I was just a bad,ungrateful child. My sister and I are 7 years apart,she first,the natural child and the golden one. In a recent doctors visit for issues I with my arms he told me I have a very old fracture in my left arm. I have never broken a bone. Two months ago,I had surgery and have been unable to work. I am homeless and have lost what little I had. I was a single parent, without any emotional support from my family or her father. My sisters success thrown in my face, though she has a husband. Throughout my life my mother would call every one she knew to tell them I was awful child I was. There were endless notebooks filled with her disappointment in me. My father was a good man,but raised on the sanctity of marriage. He tried to be the buffer,but my mother threatened divorce. So he stopped. When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer,she refused to care for him. I did. When she died,she left my sister everything. I reached out to my sister a few weeks ago, after 5 years for help, what I got was a lecture on how inconsiderate it is of me not asking about her family. Her husband had shoulder surgery and hasn't worked in 6 months, she is their sole support. Her children are long since grown, and her life style has been blessed. If she is scraping, it is in style. How rude of me to bother her with my homelessness when she is going through such a tough time. I thought there must be something wrong with me. There has to be. Why else would people treat me this way? So I tried harder. I've attempted suicide twice and recently spent time on 2 legal 2000 holds when I was looking for help. I didn't get any,just locked up. I have been thinking of ways to end my life, even this day,but seeing this has allowed me to feel less alone and not just crazy. I have abandonment issues. I obsess. I give myself away to make others happy and they are happy to take and still say it's not enough. I think they can sense that I believe them. I feel powerless and hopeless. I too wear it on my skin. Rashes. My desire is that I could someday I feel like a whole,real person. But I try to resist hoping for anything. The references to al anon stunned me. The last doc who evaluated me for release identified me as an adult child of an alcoholic though I did not mention it. My dad,but as I loved him deeply and saw him as the good parent, I didn't think it was a problem. So I blew it off and didn't go. I think I might. I was also afraid to mention wanting to find or know my birth parents. I have is a piece of paper with their physical descriptions and supposed nationalities. I think part of me is afraid. What if they're worse or already dead. Or they still won't want to know me. I don't think I can take that. I thank you all for your stories, they may help me go on a little longer.

  6. Black Sheep and Unknown,
    I have found that it is extremely important to me to be with other adoptees and to hear their stories and to tell mine. We grew up isolated and we need to have the company of other people who have experienced what we have. I invite you to join us on our forum.
    I hope to see you there.

    1. Thank you. I will be there. All these years I've taken solace in music and in my own head. I needed this so much and was unaware. It is such a blessing.

    2. Thank you. I will be there. All these years I've taken solace in music and in my own head. I needed this so much and was unaware. It is such a blessing.

  7. SummerHill,
    I agree with your comments on Narcissistic people. On our forum we have a very powerful thread on Narcissistic A-moms. There is not much research, but there is at least one study that concluded that the rate of Narcissistic A-moms is higher than expected. Hope you join us in our forum.