Even though I gained a loving family through adoption, the loss of my biological mother after birth would affect me in unexpected ways as a child all the way through adulthood. Over the years I’ve learned the importance of acknowledging and honoring that loss so it doesn’t overshadow everything else.
Being adopted is all I’ve ever known. I was a week old when I was picked up at the hospital by the lawyer my parents had hired to handle my adoption. He drove me to the county I would be raised in to meet them. From that day on they became my parents, my family.
There wasn’t ever I time I didn’t know I was adopted, which didn’t seem like a big deal to me. It was just a word. I was Denita Stevens, daughter of David and Barbara Stevens, not just on my birth certificate, but in every other way.
As a child I can’t say I felt different, I had no frame of reference. However, I did have feelings and reactions that, in hindsight, were shaped by being abandoned at birth by the first person I was connected to in life. I would become very upset when friends or family would leave. I couldn’t stand being left alone. Goodbyes were hard and something I still have a hard time with.
Whenever I’d get in trouble, which was quite often since I’ve always been determined to do things my way, I’d have what is now known as panic attacks. Time outs were unbearable. I preferred discipline that didn’t involve me being alone.
Watching movies or reading stories when a child or animal was separated from their mother was painful. I empathized with their loss so profoundly. It broke my heart. I still can’t even think about “Bambi” without feeling a pain in my chest and becoming teary eyed.
What I didn’t understand back then is that I was grieving the loss of my birth mother. While I loved my parents with all my heart and they loved me and showed that love every single day, there was a part of me that was inexplicably sad.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I also became angry. While I had a good life with my family, I was hurt because the person who was supposed to want me didn’t. We didn’t know much about my birth mother other than she chose to give me up since she wasn’t able or willing to raise me. She had kept my biological sister, who was born five years before me, and her parents had been raising her when she became pregnant with me. They weren’t willing to raise another child, which left me wondering why me? Why didn’t my biological family want me too? What was wrong with me?
I didn’t know much about her or my biological father and I wanted to know more about where I came from. Since my adoption was closed and my records were sealed, finding information was challenging. Through talking about my adoption at work, Mom discovered one of her employees had known my birth mother when they were younger.
She shared what she knew about my mother and gave me some old photos of her and my sister. I wept when I saw them. For the first time in my life I looked like someone. I had my mother’s eyes and smile. My sister looked just like me. She didn’t have any photos of my father, but she did say I looked like him, more so than my mother. I had his long, dark hair and olive complexion. The hardest part of finding out who he was learning he had died a few months before I was born. I’d never have the chance to meet him.
Knowing where I came from was a double-edged sword. Finding answers wasn’t the solace I had hoped for. It wasn’t the fairy tale I had envisioned growing up where anything was possible. It was a reality that wasn’t pretty. My feelings about them and myself became even more complicated and confusing at a time when I was still trying to figure out who I was and wanted to be. Was I destined to become just like them eventually despite being raised differently in a stable, loving home with opportunities I never would have had if I hadn’t been adopted? Would I too become a mother who couldn’t raise my own child?
My emotional turmoil became even more of an issue after I was raped by a stranger when I was sixteen. The trauma was overwhelming. I became disconnected and even more unsure about who I was. When I was eighteen I went to a therapist to learn how to cope with what had happened. She dismissed my trauma completely and focused solely on me being adopted, but not in a helpful way. She told me I should be grateful my family adopted me and appreciate the life they had given me. We didn’t discuss how adoption had affected me nor did she have an interest in doing so.
I took what she said to heart and tried to be grateful if only in thought. I wanted it to be that simple, but it wasn’t. I stopped looking for my birth mother and started to believe that maybe she was right. My life was continuing to spiral out of control, but I was in denial that trauma was something I needed to work through and that I also needed to address how I felt about being adopted. I had done quite a bit a research about mental health and some about adoption, but I didn’t see the correlation even though I found evidence to contrary in various studies. I was different. I was the exception. My only problem was that I was raped and I needed to let that go somehow.
I could accept I inherited a propensity for depression and anxiety from one or both of my birth parents, which was backed up by psychiatrists and therapists I went to. I wanted to believe that. I wanted to believe I was only affected by their genetics and not their choices. Facing how I felt about being left alone at that hospital at birth was more than I could bear, but I felt it deep inside of me.
That feeling of abandonment was triggered every time someone close to me died, a friendship ended or when a boyfriend broke up with me. I would always think “everyone always leaves me.” I would become that little girl who was heartbroken and felt all alone. Even as an adult when relationships have ended I not only grieve the loss of that person, I think about how my mother left me too.
Over the years I talked about being adopted in therapy in an effort to stop being so angry and hurt by the choice my birth mother made before I was even born. It’s not something I wanted to carry with me. She chose to let me go, so why couldn’t I choose to let go of how I felt? I felt haunted by a person I never met.
I made the most progress when I worked with a therapist who did Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. The main objective was to heal and get relief from the debilitating symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) I had from being raped, which I did, but she also helped me work through some of my feelings about being adopted.
However, I learned those feelings, albeit less intense, were still a part of me when I became a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for foster children. After I started working on my first case, every visit, conversation and report I wrote triggered how I felt about my own adoption. Being directly involved in helping the child become permanently placed was rewarding, but it was also an emotional roller coaster. I realized it wouldn’t be healthy for me to continue being a CASA once the child’s case was closed.
During my time as a CASA I was also helping my parents adopt my nine-year-old cousin who had been living with them since she was three months old. I felt conflicted. Bringing her into the family permanently meant I wasn’t the only one of my parents’ five children who was adopted. Unlike me, she was a blood relative, which made me sad and feel like an outsider.
As I grew older I became even more bothered by not looking like my parents or siblings, especially as my brother and sister started having children who looked just like them. I might not have dwelled on it as much had people not asked why I didn’t look anything like my blonde hair, blue eyed brother and sister. I did have dark hair and eyes like Dad and my other sister, but I didn’t have the same facial features. I obsessed over not having the Stevens nose like my brother and sisters, because to me that meant connection and belonging. My breakthrough moment was when my therapist suggested that if it really was important I could get a nose job. I didn’t want to do that, so I started exploring new ways to connect and belong.
It wasn’t an easy or finite process, but it worked. I shifted my attention on nurturing relationships with my family, which was more important than looking like them. I no longer see myself as the adopted daughter or sister, with the emphasis on where I came. My adoption doesn’t define me, but it is just as much a part of me as I am a part of my family.