I was thinking about the movie The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman, where Hoffman’s young character, Benjamin, gets some advice about career upon his graduation (“One Word: Plastics”). This is a famous scene because it illustrates beautifully the great disconnect between generations and a general disconnect between people. I’ve witnessed similar scenes and I have been a part of that kind of a scene myself more than a few times. There were always some well-meaning grownups trying to give me advice as a young adult. The disconnect in The Graduate is funny but it is also depressing—I can testify to feeling depressed myself whenever I’d find myself in a similar position.
But this is not limited to just graduation years. I’ve gone through many situations where I had to pretend to be grateful to someone or when I had to pretend to appreciate misguided advice. Whether an overeager old-timer in AA telling me I needed god in order to stay sober, or someone suggesting I needed to buy time shares to enjoy my summers—the idea is the same: an expectation of gratitude for unsolicited advice. I think this a universally irritating phenomenon, but to relinquishees it can be especially grating. Why? Well, because we’ve been taught all our lives to feel grateful for something that was entirely out of control and something that for many of us was traumatic. Yes, many of us ended up in loving, caring families who wanted nothing but the best for us. And yes, many of us were given another chance at a better life, but the burden of having to be grateful for something that to many of us still feels like grief is just adding to all the pressure that we feel already.
I always had the impression that I needed to be grateful for the opportunity that I was given as adoptive child. If it wasn’t for adoption, I would’ve possibly lived in poverty with a parent who was not well mentally or otherwise stable, and who could not care for me. But it was so hard to feel thankful in those moments where I felt anything but joy over my situation. It was impossible to feel thankful when I was struggling with depression and anxiety that I was not allowed to show. After all, showing depression or anxiety would mean that I was not grateful! It took almost physical effort to be me in those moments where I would catch myself actively being ungrateful and trying to correct myself to feel a certain way. And as most of us know, forcing yourself to feel a certain way is an almost impossible task.
What I really value now is the ability to be honest. I can finally acknowledge that although my situation seemed perfect, it was far from it and I don’t need to have any guilt about it. I know it’s possible to feel both obliged and resentful at the same time. My adoptive parents might’ve not done anything wrong (and they too had to play the grateful game having found a baby), but just being who we were required that I felt the enormous pressure to appreciate what happened to me. And when I think about it sometimes, it is almost as if relinquishees are encouraged to be appreciating of their… trauma. What I am grateful for today is being able to say those things because they are taboo to say it and we need to normalize them in order to destigmatize them. I am grateful for having been adopted into a loving caring family… but I am a lot more grateful today for being able to talk about how traumatizing and difficult that was.