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.
David B. Bohl, M.A., C.S.A.C., M.A.C.
David’s Monograph Relinquishment and Addiction
David’s Memoir Parallel Universe