I always wonder how much to divulge of a personal nature on my blog. Sometimes, I think I go a little too far and later regret it. This may be one of those times, but here goes. As I have expressed before, one of the things I’ve struggled with the most as an adoptee is identity. I was adopted during an era when adoptive parents were discouraged from talking to their children about their own adoption. What little my adoptive parents did share with me was related to their own experience– in other words their joy in adopting me, never any information about my birthfamily or birth heritage. Growing up, I was extremely shy and painfully insecure. To what degree adoption vs. personality played a role in that, I’m not sure. As I got older, my adoptive parents did not see through the smokescreen of rebellious behavior to the identity confusion I struggled with and offered little emotional support. The happily ever after bubble burst somewhere around pre-adolescence. My adoptive mother exasperated it all by becoming more authoritarian while my father remained mostly passive. I became extremely fearful of her angry antics. This did very little to foster any sense of self and largely crippled the growth of independence. Instead it lead to a passivity in my character and a fear of anger that to this day make me cringe. I was inept at displaying emotion, and bonding with others was difficult. Those who did not know me well perceived me as aloof.
Around my mid-twenties, I moved to CA to pursue a career in acting, a passion I’d had since college. I was full of zeal at the prospect of becoming an actress, but terribly naive. The zeal quickly deflated as I realized the difficulty in getting past an audition and securing an actual part. It had been much easier in Florida. With the lack of social support and a few crazy roommates along the way, I quickly became depressed. That’s when I moved to Orange Co. with some friends from college. One day, I was approached by a very friendly young woman who invited me to dinner. I was a little surprised at her friendliness, but happily accepted. When I showed up to dinner, I found myself in the midst of a group of college girls. What I didn’t know was that they were holding a bible talk after dinner. That totally freaked me out, and I left promptly hoping to never see them again. The young woman for weeks called me to invite me to her church. One Sunday, I accepted for no other reason than to prevent her from calling me anymore. The service was held at the Shrine Auditorium in L.A. I was shocked at how many people were there and how loud everyone was. We went to a music club afterwards where a band performed and members of the church congregated. This appealed to me because I loved music. The next week, I found myself in a series of bible studies led by a woman whose goal was to help me become a Christian. Soon after, I did. I was elated. I found the emotional and social support I longed for. I had a relationship with God. It was almost too good to be true. In fact, it was. The fairy tale became a nightmare as I took on a greater role within the church as a leader in the singles ministry.
For the next 14 years of my life, I endured psychological abuse at the hand of many of the church’s leaders. The church itself was a hierarchy. The top leader exerted power from above through complete control of the church and its leaders. No one questioned his authority. It was all for the purpose of growing the church and making as many disciples as possible. I remember the first leaders meeting that I went to with my boyfriend at the time, who’s now my husband. We had begun a Vietnamese ministry, and my boyfriend was being considered to lead a mission team to Vietnam to build a church there. I resisted strongly to having any part of this ministry, as I felt about as Vietnamese as the man in the moon, but was pressured and felt guilty about not co-leading with my boyfriend. At this meeting, the region leader asked for specific information that helped predict future growth or decline in membership. When I was asked how many bible studies I was in and how many predictions for baptisms I wanted to make, I was beyond perplexed. I had no idea what that meant and no one bothered to tell me. So I made a guess. Of course, none of my predictions came through the following week. What I quickly learned was that if your predictions failed, there was something wrong with you and your leadership. You were in some type of sin or not taking enough initiative as a leader. Soon our particular region went through a change in leaders, which happened ever so often. This group of leaders was particularly harsh. Because of my passive and quiet nature, the women’s region leader saw fit to put me through leadership boot camp via verbal rebukes, intimidation, and pressure tactics. For a woman who already had identity issues, this was extremely painful and fear inducing, which caused me to feel even more insecure about myself. I was called “vanilla” because I lacked personality. I was rebuked for bad planning when the church planned a luncheon after service and we ran out of food. I did not compare to my boyfriend who was baptizing people left and right. This particular leader called me at work one afternoon to rebuke me over the phone on my lack of bible studies. After hanging up, I went into the bathroom and cried. I just never measured up. This went on for years. What strikes me now is that I never stood up for myself, nor did anyone else.
Eventually, my boyfriend and I got married. Three years later, I became pregnant. We were working for the church at that time, paid ministry leaders. It was the worst year of my life. The higher up in leadership you were, the more subject to scrutiny and abuse you became. I dreaded every week going to those leaders meetings. The insecurity among all the leaders at our level was thick. Who would receive a rebuke this week? Who would be singled out? I hoped and prayed that it wouldn’t be me. I continued to receive comments from other leaders on my “vanilla personality” and lack of friendship building skills with other women in our sector. It was hard for me to feel any sense of identity because we were all forced to conform. We had one collective identity, and anything outside of that was quickly squashed. I was miserable.
Finally, our daughter arrived. I had a difficult delivery, and our daughter had a rather traumatic entry into this world. It took me several months afterward to regain my strength. It was worth it as they say, as the birth of our daughter was truly my saving grace. I cannot tell you how much having a baby changed my life. She became my everything and the one thing that kept me going. Other women in our sector noticed a difference in my personality. I’d become more genuine, more loving, softer. I had never experienced that kind of love before– the kind of love a mother feels for her child. I understood how much God loved me. Lexie was a fussy baby, and I often worried about leaving her with another member from the church as I went off to leaders meetings. I wonder if some of it had to do with the stress that I felt. A year after going on staff at the church, my husband and I were asked to step out. We obviously had not measured up. I have never been more relieved than I was at that moment.
Years later, another leader in the church stood up to the top leader, and the top leader and his wife were forced to step down. He and his wife eventually left the church to build another of their own. My husband and I very soon afterwards decided to move to Arizona, which was highly disapproved by the leaders above us. It was after moving here that I began to get in touch with and heal from all of the trauma caused by the church. I went through several stages during this period– depression, anger, grief. I felt invisible for a long time, but I was heading toward recovery. I went back to school and became a music therapist. Slowly, my self esteem grew and I began to build a stronger sense of self. I look back on that period in the church as a time of growth, even though it was quite painful. It forced me to gain a sense of responsibility and independence that I’d never had before. It’s given me a deeper sense of compassion for people. I know that the leaders who abused me were themselves being abused by leaders above them. In many ways, although you might think the opposite to be true, I learned to serve others. Of course, the light that shone the brightest then still beams the brightest today– my daughter, who continues to teach me how to love. Of all of her many virtues, her ability to extend grace towards others even when they disappoint or hurt her amazes me. Grace always wins.
Why do I share all of this? First, I had some discussions with someone recently that stirred up some painful memories that I thought had been laid to rest. Second, if I had had a stronger sense of self and identity, perhaps I would have been bolder and confronted some of those abusive leaders or just left. Lastly, I urge adoptive parents to take seriously the huge responsibility given to you in guiding and shaping your adopted child’s identity, self-esteem, and general well-being in a positive way. Whether your child takes interest in his/her cultural roots and identity at one stage or not doesn’t mean that it will remain that way forever. We all question who we are at different points in our lives. Adoptees’ feelings and thoughts about adoption change with time and life experience. Foster open communication with them about their adoption. Adoption is not a happily ever after fairy tale. It is a traumatic event for the adoptee no matter how loving and supportive you are, especially in those first few years of adjustment– even if your child seems well-adjusted. I don’t want to pathologize adoption, but as an adoptee, I feel it only right to talk about such critical issues. Adoptive parents today are certainly more aware of some of the challenges that present in transracial adoption. This is a good thing. Let’s keep things moving in that direction.
After 40-something years of struggling with identity, I am at peace with who I am. I have learned to say what I think, even though it still feels uncomfortable at times. Reuniting with my birthfamily brought me back to my cultural roots. I can’t imagine never having met them in this lifetime. I don’t carry around any malice towards those who hurt me. On the contrary, I feel sad about the aftermath that followed many of them, as well as other members of the church. I’m stronger as a result of all that’s happened, and that’s what counts. I realize now that God is much more gracious than I ever made Him out to be, and grace always wins.