What a question! Who am I? I used to have no idea. For most of my time here on earth, I have been living a double life. I was hiding parts of myself that I didn’t even know were hidden. Yet on the surface, nothing seemed amiss. And then, at the age of 45—after a medical emergency—everything fell apart and I was suddenly faced with… myself. Unfortunately, having been in hiding for so long I didn’t recognize this new self, or the potential I had to heal and come out of hiding. The potential to allow all the parts of myself to coexist in a way that was not confusing, or worse, destructive. The potential to be able to finally answer the question: “Who am I?” with authenticity
But let’s backtrack a bit. In the beginning, I am a newborn, and my mother has to relinquish me because she lives in a society that would discriminate against an unwed, young woman with a baby and because there’s no father to help either. Suddenly and immediately, I don’t have parents. I don’t even have a name! On my adoption papers, I am registered as “Baby Boy Bender,” an eerily apt last name that I won’t get to hold on to but that is already hinting at something about me.
I am adopted into a nice upper-middle-class family, and I am a great baby, sometimes a little shy and too unsure of himself, but overall, a happy kid. My adoptive mother and father love me and provide for me and two of my siblings—one adopted, one biological—the best they can. There are toys and good food, vacations, and sailing. In family photographs, we are often laughing, with maybe one exception—a portrait of me as a 6-year-old staring off into the distance. By then I already know that there was something terribly wrong with me. And it is confirmed years later when another photograph confirms what I’d known all along as there’s me as a 15-year-old staring off into the distance.
I’d found my inherent flaw as a six-year-old when I revealed to a group of friends that I was adopted. Their faces registered shock and disgust, not awe. I’d always known I was adopted up until that point. I considered that a cool, unique fact about myself; my parents were never secretive about it. But there I was, learning that the world was going to judge me for things I had absolutely no control over.
What does judgment do to a person? It makes them feel shame.
I immediately felt that shame and it had plagued me for years, like a shadow that would not disappear no matter how much light I’d tried to shed on it. The photographs of me at 6 and 15, staring into the horizon, are photographs of a boy who was ashamed of who he was—even though he had no idea who he was! Some days I had an almost palpable feeling that I was living under a giant microscope; that everyone was watching me and they all had some kind of instruction manual that I was lacking. It seemed most people knew how to be around each other, most were feeling safe; they were making connections, and most of them were at ease. My almost constant state was that of unease.
My adoptive parents, albeit devoted and loving, didn’t pick up on my distress; they didn’t ask me questions, and they didn’t bring me to people to talk to—but why would they in the first place? I was good at hiding—I was becoming a pro at hiding. And if you were to ask them how things were, they would probably tell you that adopting Baby B. was a great success and that I was thriving. Admitting that there was something wrong would mean failure; it would mean that the adoption and their wishes to have a family were a mistake.
As a teenager, I discovered alcohol which turned out to be an amazing social lubricant—that allowed me to go from shy and quiet to suddenly gregarious and the life of a party. It was easy. No more unease! And, best of all, it allowed me to make connections with people. I became popular, I had a wonderful girlfriend, great educational prospects, and eventually a lucrative career. I had a house, a wife, and two children. The feelings of shame haven’t disappeared, but I was able to mask them so much better with alcohol—it was a cure for all my woes! What I didn’t know was that this “healing” elixir was also poisoning me—me and the very connections I was making.
Eventually, everything fell apart. And I had to find a new way to live—as a sober but still fragmented person. I recovered from alcohol but it wasn’t until I recovered those other fragments of myself that I became truly whole. It is not a coincidence that I’ve found true recovery after I had to address all of my biological and psychological mysteries: the seizure I suffered, the substance use, and finally, my own developmental trauma that stemmed from having been relinquished. In order to live, I had to figure out how to put all of the fragments together, eventually learning about the young woman who gave me up at birth, who herself had died from substance use disorder-related causes. My biological father is also no longer alive. But I have many half-siblings, half-nieces, and nephews. And I am still making new connections. And I’m making peace with those parts that were hidden and those I didn’t know how to address before.
Today, I work with people who will understand what I’ve just described—a community of other relinquishees, adoptees, and also those who struggle with addiction—not because their story is the same as mine, but because their feelings are. I am especially devoted to the intersection of addiction and relinquishment/ adoption. I write, and I speak publicly about issues unique to people like myself. I help others find connections that aid them in their own healing, and this is incredibly meaningful to me as I did not have the support I needed when navigating my own challenges.
This is why the existence of a virtual support group was so special to me—a much-needed group that I’ve helped to build and facilitate for the past two years called Adoptee Paths to Recovery. The feedback I’ve received over time was that having a community like that provides not only a place for people to make connections, but it has also helped them feel safe, heard, and validated. Where before so many of us had been living that sort of double life I’ve talked about—feeling shame and confusion, anger and pain—with support groups that assist people in investigating that intersection between addiction and separation from family, they no longer have to hide and can live authentically and healthily.
To me, healing, recovery, and thriving are about expansion. When I first entered the adoption community years ago, I attended mainly adoptee-only spaces in search of safety and validation. And that has served me well, as it provided me with the support and opportunity to continue to explore the impact of relinquishment in my life and across my lifespan. Since that time, I’ve been honored to have been given opportunities to network throughout the greater adoption community whereby I engage with relinquishees, adoptees, foster alumni, donor-conceived persons, those with misattributed parentage, birth mothers and fathers, foster parents, relative/kinship parents, adoptive parents, and adoption child welfare and out-of-home organizations and professionals. This has been part of my expansion.
With that expansion comes a need to move to a virtual support group for all those in the constellation. So today, I am letting you all know that I’m collaborating on a new group with Celia Center for all members of the adoption community experiencing and/or being exposed to addiction. It is called the Addiction and Adoption Constellation Support Group, and we will meet every other Tuesday at 5:30 pm PST/8:30 PM EST beginning on January 10, 2023. Registration is required, and you can find a link to that here.
Disclaimer: This article provides a framework for setting boundaries in an adoptee and birthmother or birthfather reunion. So, both parties decide together how the relationship will be and have set goals and expectations entering into the reunion with empathy, understanding and compassion, have an open mind, and respect they will have different narratives entering the reunion. You can’t contract behavior but you can create respectful experiences.
Why do 70% of adoption reunions break down?
Because there’s no roadmap.
The 5 agreements:
Everyone has been victimized.
Everyone has experienced loss.
Each person’s loss incomparable.
Everyone will make mistakes.
Practice forgiveness over, and over and over again.
THE 8 PACTS
GET TO KNOW EACH OTHER: Try to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes before thinking you know why something happened. Respect each other’s experience. We don’t assume we know the other person’s story. Get to know the person first, not focus only on the answers.
ASK PERMISSION: Ask each other permission before sharing important adoption information, regarding photos, letters or birth documents to build trust and control. Respect each other’s emotional bandwidth and emotional vulnerabilities. Write questions down to provide to each other, only answer what you feel comfortable with. As you grow stronger, you can answer more in-depth questions. Ask each other permission first before inviting more people into the relationship.
CREATE LEVEL OF CONTACT: Neither party has the right to control the contact. You get to negotiate the relationship together. It will be hard, but it’s worth it. Ask each other the following questions: How do we connect after reunion? What do we feel comfortable with phone, Facetime, text, email, letters? How about on birthdays and holidays? Gifts or no gifts?
SHARE YOUR STORIES: Provide space for each other to share your individual stories. The retelling can feel re-traumatizing especially for mothers. Use I statements when sharing each other’s pain towards the other “I feel…. I want… because….” Refrain from blaming to lessen re-shaming. No one’s pain is worse than the other.
BE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR OWN HEALING: You are not responsible for each other’s wounds. You are self-responsible for your own emotional and psychological pain. You can’t fill each other’s voids. You will regress to the age of relinquishment. It’s ok to attend therapy separately and together at times, and join support groups. You can’t rescue each other from their pain.
RESPECT THE RELATIONSHIP: Commit to the relationship, do not abandon each other or threaten each other. Because both the birthmother and adoptee are fearful of losing each other again. Ghosting is another form of betrayal. Stay in communication, hold regard together that this relationship matters. Take your time.
SHARING WITH OTHERS: Secrets don’t help people, they hurt. Plan together how or when to tell extended family members of your reunion. Come “out of the fog” to support each other if the fear is being “found out”. If you want to have relationships with extended family members- ask each other permission to do so.
RECOGNITION OF YOUR TRUST TREE: Respect the loved ones closest to you, and the other relationships on your trust tree.
Adoption is not the end of the process; it is, in fact, the beginning of one! Post-adoption care and services play an integral role in making any adoption successful.
Being personally acquainted with the situation, I had long recognized the importance of high-quality post-adoption and foster care services to ensure permanency, stability, and well-being for children. But that’s not all; certain other aspects demand our attention.
Post-adoption services help address sensitive aspects such as trauma (young children, adults, and even parents can suffer from it), loss, separation, sense of familiarity or belonging, etc. Such services can also help children and their families address their specific needs and help family members strengthen their bond and deepen their attachment to sustain the relationship.
Previously for many years, post-adoption services were only viewed as services provided after the legalization (finalized process) of the adoption – and in some cases, only for very short intervals.
However, now adoption professionals and families have recognized that a comprehensive continuum of multiple forms of support that vary in intensity levels is necessary to ensure well-being, long-term stability, and true permanency for adopted children and the families.
Post-adoption services are a vital support to the families raising the children in cases where they suffer from severe emotional, behavioral, or psychological challenges. With the help of support groups and sessions offered at the Celia Center, families can remain committed and effective. Our services help parents nurture children while catering to their special needs. As well as providing adoption competent therapy to children, teens and parents offered at Yoffe Therapy.
“There is evidence of a strong relationship between providing support to adoptive families as a matter of course or in the form of preventive services and positive outcomes in terms of the health, well-being, and stability of the family (Groze 1996a; Smith & Howard 1994)”
At Celia Center, we work to serve the goal of:
Support understanding of adoption by removing confusions surrounding the adoption process.
Improve parenting skills so they are able to deal with their new family dynamics.
Help parents and children cope with their traumas associated with adoption or foster care.
Improve child functioning.
Bridging gaps between the relational bands.
Prevention of adoption disruptions.
The importance of post-adoption services and support groups can be viewed in a survey of parents receiving post-adoption services. 80% of the respondents reported betterment in their households. Some excerpts from the survey are as followed:
“Research has shown that adoptive families’ needs are multidimensional and may arise at each developmental stage for the family and the adopted person. From a program development perspective, the research makes clear the need for flexible programming that permits families to return for services when needed and does not limit the extent to which they may receive services.”
“Adoptive families have a need for an array of education, support and therapeutic community services. And they need to be able to access this array episodically. This mix of services must be provided by service providers and therapists with an adoption-competent knowledge base and core values, who can see child and family strength amidst complex circumstances and concerning diagnoses.”
“For moral, social, and economic reasons, it is in the public interest to assure that families remain intact and strong. The pendulum has swung and society again recognizes the importance of strong family systems in combating society’s ills. Adoption support and preservation services help build strong foundations for families created by adoption. By developing and implementing these services, families involved in adoption, service providers and policy makers are assuring adopted children of every opportunity to become useful, productive citizens.”
Some concepts behind the support groups of Celia Center are:
Respite care and child care
Services for children and parents, including groups of people from every age group
Support services including support groups and informal contact with other similar families
Celia Center was not my goal as I started, but it eventually became one. As I kept progressing, it became the highlight of my life as I could see my efforts bringing positive results.
Being a foster child myself who also went through adoption, I was aware of the miseries one can experience in this process. These were not the miseries that life caused me but the miseries which developed from my detachment from the world.
We need to realize that there is a ‘need to heal.’ There is a need to break the ice for the people who never get the chance to speak about how they feel. Even when they do speak, they are either shut down or not understood. They are received in a way that pushes them deeper into their shells, where they develop several traumas and social dilemmas.
To heal is to recover, to be at peace. It means to overcome the inner demons holding you back from moving forward. To heal is to set one’s soul and mind at peace. Healing cannot be achieved overnight. You have to go through a process, or sometimes a series of processes, to reach that state of mind where you are no longer bothered by what used to haunt you.
In order to heal, you need to stand tall in front of your fears and deal with them. You need to be reminded that you are loved, cared for, valued, and that you cannot be suppressed any longer. In order to heal, we need to break the chains of quietness, desolation, and life of fears. We need to come out clean to the greener side of life. The journey to healing could be challenging, but it’s not impossible.
People who have been through traumatizing events tend to experience heavy emotional burdens. It’s as if, over the years, the time has chipped away a significant part of them. This fear and struggle, if nurtured over a longer period, breed physical and mental disorders. These diseases devour the person slowly and gradually, leaving behind nothing but a hollow shell.
I can understand that after going through severe trauma in your life, it is difficult to grow from it. But for how long? For how long are you going to sit in that dark room? For how long are you going to absorb the pain? We have all experienced one of those dreaded days where you don’t want to get out of your bed. You just lie down, contemplating life and past events – it’s relatable.
Speak up! Talk about the things that are bothering you. Don’t just sit there taking it all in. Don’t empathize with your misery. Be the master of your senses; don’t let anyone else control it or take hold of it. Healing is the process that will lead you toward recovery. Eventually, you will be able to break through the chains of depression, fear, and anxiety, and breathe freely once again!
When we don’t talk about these things, they grow bigger inside us. If they are not dealt with at the right time and with the right guidance, they explode in the form of anger, violence, traumas, and other such issues. To understand this better, consider a human being like a spring.
You keep pressing and pressing the spring so it will absorb all the pressure and reduce in size (getting oppressed), but when you reach the contraction limit, it will pop up. The spring will jump up even higher using the energy that compressed it, directed in the opposite direction. The same is with human feelings and emotions.
Don’t let your stored emotions burst into some kind of retaliation or anger. Don’t let it corrode your body and soul from inside. Don’t live with your fears. Value the life that you have been granted, and make the most of it by making it better every day. Believe in the power of healing, and believe that in observing your struggle you will surely be rewarded with something great.
For a free mental health consultation please visit Yoffe Therapy an adoption competent mental health center in the state of California.
 “Research on Postadoption Services: Implications for Practice, Program Development, and Policy” in The Postadoption Experience p. 295.
 “Perspectives on the Need for Adoption-Competent Mental Health Services,” Casey Family Services, October 2003, p. 72.
 “Adoption Support and Preservation Services: A Public Interest,” Spaulding for Children, revised May 2005
In 2021 Founder of Celia Center, Jeanette Yoffe, created an animation to help children understand What is Foster Care, by explaining what happens behind the scenes in a court of law, and how social workers and judges make decisions to provide for the health, safety, and well-being of the child while supporting their families with their case plan, and showing the process by which a child is placed into a foster home.
Don’t try to fix the pain in foster care. It’s painful and they need your attention, listening ear, and empathy.
Get comfortable with initiating the conversation about foster care.
Don’t lie to a child about the past or a birth family member. Do not paint the parent in a negative light.
Share information in a developmentally age appropriate way. Omissions are okay until age 12, then by adolescence all information is best to be shared.
Allow anger to be expressed toward a birth family member without joining in.
Consider asking questions instead of telling. “Do you have questions? What do you remember? ” “Do you have any questions, thoughts or concerns about your birth family?” “Do you wonder about them? Now that you are older, I bet you have questions. Would you like to talk about that?”
It is highly encouraged a parent tells the story with a foster care competent therapist for support to relay the information.
If the child refuses or resists the conversation, they are not ready, try again later.
ASK PERMISSION FIRST before relaying information, so they feel a sense of mastery and control!
If the child expresses worry over the birthmother, speculating that she is dead, reassure the child that the birthmother is probably healthy and safe.
It is also important to reassure the child that the birthmother will not attempt to reclaim the child if there is fear—a common fear of children who were abused.
Even if children are not verbally expressing their thoughts and feelings, they are actively thinking about their adoption/reason for placement. This is normal for all children.
Relay the information, ANSWERING THEIR QUESTIONS in doses at a time. Observe-Watch-Listen then respond with: “How do you feel about this? “What are your thoughts about this?”
Depending upon their circumstance which led to foster care, help them understand the why anyone can… have mental illness or abuse or abandon their child, without relating it to their story. So they understand context first.
Only give as much information as the child wants, answer only the question they have asked, no further details, this will come later and can be added to the question box.
Place emphasis on the circumstance which led to being removed from their family of origin. Take the blame off of themselves.
“Adoption is a lifelong process for all involved. Helping a child understand their adoption story, supports healthy identity development, healthy esteem, and above all encourages compassion for all of their families.” Jeanette Yoffe M.F.T.