The Parallel Universe of… Who am I? by David B. Bohl

The Parallel Universe of… Who am I? by David B. Bohl

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. 

RSVP for the next group HERE

We will of course work to ensure that a welcoming and safe place is created for all. 

We hope you’re able to join us. 

Warm Regards,

David B. Bohl, M.A., C.S.A.C., M.A.C.

David’s Monograph Relinquishment and Addiction
David’s Memoir Parallel Universe

Roadmap to Reunion: 8 PACTS | National Adoption Conference

Roadmap to Reunion: 8 PACTS | National Adoption Conference

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.

This framework has 40 years of research speaking with birth parents and adoptees!

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 is incomparable.

Everyone will make mistakes.

Practice forgiveness over, and over and over again.

 

THE 8 PACTS OF REUNION

  1. 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.

     

  2. 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.

     

  3. 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.

     

  4. 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.

     

  5. 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.

     

  6. 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.

     

  7. 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.

     

  8. RECOGNITION OF YOUR TRUST TREE: Respect the loved ones closest to you, and the other relationships on your trust tree.

E =  What is your expectation?

M = What is your motivation?

B = Make room to Breathe

R =  Respect

A = Accept

C =  Choose to be present and available

E = Embrace the experience