Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Adoptee Identity: When Bad News is Good

There is always a flip side: a more positive view of what at first seems repulsive.

Those unflattering photos of my birthmother (see previous post for details) led to the discovery that not only was she an ordinary (not fantasy) woman who has struggled with addictions to alcohol and men, it appears that my extended line of kin is distinguished by its excessive enjoyment of liquor. Ditto my birthfather. After all, she met him in a seedy bar.

Not exactly the kind of information to jump up and down about.

Then again, it's the whole enchilada. The inside story. The skinny. The what's what. The lowdown. Or, in the parlance of politics, intelligence. And what, ideally, do we do with intelligence? We process it and take action or change course or do whatever is necessary.

Without access to our history, as painful as it may be, what are we? Deprived. Half-people. We are denied the opportunity to reframe and rethink ourselves. How can we "individuate" when we don't know what we're trying to separate from? In adoloscence and young adulthood, we break away from our parents in order to find ourselves, but we are only achieving partial independence. The mysterious past still has its hold, admitted, denied or repressed. It's still there. The great unknown.

We know gasoline is gasoline because it's composed primarily of hydrocarbons. How can we know who we are when we don't know what we're made of?

Take for example my adoptive dad. His father died a street bum on Skid Row in Los Angeles, leaving my dad with a festering narcissistic wound so big that it never healed. But my adoptive dad made a choice. He says it to this day, as if he were still a teenager and his father still a young man. "I don't want to end up like my dad." A single glass of wine is all it takes for my adoptive father to begin shaking his head and pushing away the glass. Another sip may lead to ruin. He is terrified of this prospect. That alcoholism is a disease that runs in his genes and he must resist its terrible pull. For this I respect my adoptive dad. After suffering abuse at the hands of a boozed-up monster, he could have chosen to drown his memories but instead opted for a life of sobriety and hard work.

But he had a choice. He had information.

What has this new knowledge done for me?

When I was stressed and upset the other day, I may have opted to open a bottle of that lovely Grenache-Shiraz and pour myself a glass. Instead, I had the words, "I don't want to end up like my mother," running in my head and instead chose to climb into bed early and read The Dogs of Riga by Manning Henkell (excellent Swedish police procedural-bleak!-page turners!) and woke up early the next morning, refreshed.

A bit of an overreaction? Maybe. But I suspect I might have been able to make better, more mindful choices in the past. And that's the good news. The flip side to some unpleasant genetic information. Without our backstory, we are are stripped of our right to healthy development.


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7:56 PM  
Blogger LeRoy Dissing said...

Nina...a good post and I agree with what you said. Knowing what your parents were/are does give you choices. In some ways, we will always be like them but in so many others, we can choose a different path - one not traveled perhaps. We can be trail blazers! :)

9:15 PM  
Anonymous daughterof2women said...

It is all about knowing your ancestoral stories - stories that tend to repeat themselves in subsequent generations. If you know the stories then you tend to have more control over what part of the stories you want to keep and what part of the stories you don't want to repeat. Knowledge is so empowering!

10:08 PM  
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