I was relinquished at birth, then adopted into a new family at the age of one-week old. I entered this world without the safety net of a biological family and with only a last name and my adoption records sealed (until I requested them while trying to uncover the mystery of who “Baby Boy Bender” was and where he came from). But I didn’t start out as feeling ashamed of my origins–in fact I always knew that I was adopted and I felt a strange excitement about it; enough excitement that I decided to share it with my friends at the age of six. It didn’t go over well, my peers were horrified at my revelation and didn’t want to believe me. They insisted on asking my mom if what I had revealed was true and I had to go through a double humiliation that day, seeing my own naivety about it and then seeing my happy open-hearted mom trying to explain to them that this was a good thing while their faces showed disgust and their postures remained hostile, their little bodies ready to bolt to make it all stop. I knew she meant well, but at some point I understood that it was best if she’d stop talking; I felt an enormous degree of relief when my friends finally left. I couldn’t explain what was making me so upset, I didn’t even have the right words for that at my age. But I knew right away that I learned something important, something that informed my life from then on.
It was their negative reaction that taught me that important and terrible lesson–there was something wrong with me and I had no idea until it was so blatantly pointed out. Up until that moment, I existed in the world with all the innocence and curiosity a young child can have, not worried about the fact that I differed from those other children because I didn’t think my difference mattered or that there was something wrong with it. I struggled with my identity since that time and entered teenage years and adulthood unsure of myself and very much feeling like an outcast.
As an adult I used alcohol to help me cope with those feelings of inferiority, because for a few blissful moments I was able to stave away those feelings as I numbed myself with substances. The road to recovery was difficult, but it was rewarding – and today I consider myself whole and no longer ashamed of my existence. But I have often wondered what it is that made my shame grow so spectacularly, and I think of Brene’ Brown’s analogy of a petri-dish where she says shame needs three things to grow: secrecy, silence and judgment. My beginnings were a perfect example of such petri-dish: at the age of six I learned that I needed to be secretive, that I needed to shut up, or I would risk judgment. If I didn’t tell people what was going on with me, I would be able to avoid judgment; if I stayed quiet and kept my secret there would be no reason for me to worry about being seen as different, the way it was reflected in my friends’ shocked expressions. Those maladaptive ways of coping with what troubled me created an ideal petri-dish of my own, ready for more future shame to fester–addiction is rooted in shame, and people drink or use drugs to forget that they are ashamed – and the vicious circle is created.
Brown argues that shame cannot thrive when empathy is present. And I agree. It is empathy and support that allowed me to get over my shame and that restored me to myself. As supportive and as empathetic my family was, it wasn’t until I entered recovery that we all understood what the antidote to my shame was and how to best cultivate it. Having the ability to tell my story and to be heard and accepted was instrumental in how I started to think of myself–as someone worthy of telling a story. It was through being listened to that I learned to build trust, and that I understood the importance of trust in regaining my identity. When I first told my friends about being adopted I was not listened to. I shared my story with people who couldn’t and wouldn’t understand it for what it was–they were children and probably raised by people who didn’t bother with nuance, I don’t know. It was important for me to be able to retell my story over and over later on, to let it fall onto deserving ears and hear it echoed from the mouths of trusted supporters and later my loved ones who cared for me.
There are many steps to recovery, and many of them are difficult and require courage and risk (learning to trust again is a risk for traumatized persons), but if you or your loved one are in the position where they want to rebuild and face their shame, start with telling your story to someone you know will show you empathy. And if you don’t have those kinds of people around you yet, write it down in a journal or in the notes app on your phone or even in an email to yourself, just get it out to break the circle of secrecy and give yourself a chance to rebuild.