I met 29-year-old Melanie at an adoption event that she attended with her adoptive parents. We met in a social setting, and I shared that I worked with families and people who struggled with trauma—that would often result in addiction—but especially trauma related to relinquishment, separation from family or origin, and adoption. Our conversation was social, but we quickly established that unique understanding that many adoptees/ relinquishees and their families share. Melanie talked about how she was at the time reconnecting with her biological mother and how her parents have always been supportive of her various searches for identity. Both the parents and Melanie were self-deprecating about Melanie’s search, but as it often is with jokes—and especially dark ones—there’s usually a grain of truth in them.
As for Melanie’s quest—whether it was writing poetry or getting into fashion, becoming a painter and even a restaurant owner—she talked about how she’s been trying to find her place in life and some kind of a deeper meaning for so long that she no longer had any idea who she was at all. She observed that, ironically enough, the one sure identity was that of an adoptee but that still left her feeling confused and lost. As she disclosed, she had always felt empty and like there was “an invisible, bottomless hole inside her” she needed to fill so she tried on all those artistic and otherwise pursuits to try to situate herself in life. If she could become a famous poet, then she would be a Poet, if she owned a restaurant, then she could be a Restaurant Owner, and so on. Melanie’s parents talked about Melanie not getting along with her various therapists or rather “jumping” from a therapist to a therapist, similarly to how she unsuccessfully tried different careers. Something about Melanie’s situation reminded me of addiction, specifically, that search for belonging, for not knowing how to be in life and for not having been born with the proper “instruction manual.” These, of course, are also issues that are common for relinquishees and adoptees.
I reconnected with Melanie and her adoptive parents a few months later in a professional setting after she had yet another “episode” of Identity Search and fired yet another therapist. We then met in a family setting, and then separately, with me and the parents and then me with Melanie.
During our initial talk, Melanie revealed that her adoptive parents put a lot of pressure on her even though they seemed sweet and easygoing about it all. They had money so they were able to fund Melanie’s various pursuits, but she believed she could sense some resentment and exasperation on their part. Whether that was true or not, was not my place to say but I suggested that Melanie speak with a therapist I knew and trusted who had worked with adoptees and relinquishees, and especially with people who were sometimes too enmeshed with their adoptive parents. I also suggested a therapist for the whole family who would collaborate with Melanie’s therapist and me as I managed the case. Once everyone was on board, we were able to do some groundwork.
I also put Melanie in touch with a career coach who was highly specialized in working with people who weren’t quite sure what path to take—especially later on in life. I knew that the therapist also worked with a few adoptees who had a tendency to move from a job to job so she would be sensitive to Melanie’s specific challenges.
Melanie found these sessions most helpful and, although she didn’t stick with her individual therapist, she continued to attend the sessions with her adoptive parents. During check-in interviews, I learned that the parents seemed to have a much better understanding of Melanie’s particular struggle and how she believed herself to be inadequate in their eyes. Melanie was able to share some of those feelings as well in a safe setting after a few therapy sessions. Because she was also in the process of reconnecting with her birth mother, we were very careful to address that issue as well as not to disrupt Melanie’s fragile healing process which has begun and was going well.
Melanie decided to continue with her fashion-design pursuits and enrolled herself in a school of design. We agreed on quarterly check-ins for a year as I offered ongoing support and managed their case. The family continued to attend the sessions together and, although there were some obstacles with reconnecting with the biological mother, Melanie pursued her goal this time and did not succumb to “switching identities” as she called it. She was very excited about becoming an Interior Decorator and seemed to really thrive. Because of Melanie’s history I offered another year of check-ins—I wanted to see her succeed beyond school and believed she could with her progress. We continue working together and I believe Melanie is a success story; it is a real pleasure seeing her thrive and feel proud of her accomplishments.
Read the other case studies in this series here: