Full show notes: http://www.adopteeson.com/listen/101
Episode Transcription by Fayelle Ewuakye. Find her on Twitter at @FayelleEwuakye
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Haley - You’re listening to Adoptees On, the podcast where adoptees discuss the adoption experience. I’m your host, Haley Radke, and this is a special episode in our Healing Series, where I interview therapists who are also adoptees themselves, so they know from personal experience what it feels like to be an adoptee. Today we are revisiting When Reunions Fail, with Pam Cordano. This time we are talking about how to cope. Let’s listen in.
Haley - I’m so pleased to welcome back, to Adoptees On, Pam Cordano, welcome Pam!
Pam - Thanks Haley! Hi everybody!
Haley - I am so excited to have you back, always love our conversations. Even though today’s gonna be, I think a hard topic. But so many of us have experienced, oh my gosh, reunion breakdown and secondary rejection and just like, the pain, the pain of it all. Yeah. You wanna talk to us about that?
Pam - Yeah, I mean I sure have.
Haley - Me too, me too, just so everybody knows, we’ve both experienced it.
Pam - So I think the pain, especially when it first happens, the pain of secondary adoptee rejection is so deep, that I don’t even know that we have a word for it in English or in any language. I don’t even think that it’s understood. For me, it wasn’t understood until it happened. And I just wanna give you a quick story about both sides of my first family and how it affected me. So when I was 28, I was perfectly healthy my whole life as far as I, you know, physically healthy. And my first mom was mentally ill and made many suicide attempts. And I was in the car with her, visiting her, and I said to her, can you just give me 5 years? And I think I said, 3 or 5, I think I said 5. Of staying alive and not trying to kill yourself, so I could just know that I can have you for 5 years? And she said, I cannot promise you that. And that was the moment that something broke between us because I couldn’t afford to hang in there when she kept making suicide attempts. So the pain I felt was utterly overwhelming, like I didn’t, I remember I was sobbing in the car. And I was just sobbing, sobbing in this deep way, almost how a child might sob. And I had a feeling of like a sickness that came over me, like a grief kind of sickness. I was thinking like, the word soul pain might make sense. But the thing that happened is, I didn’t know how to process it. And I’m not saying this to scare anybody, but I got an autoimmune disease like 6 months later. I just, in my mind, I can’t help but link these two things. And I can’t help but feel that the pain of her not being willing to hang in there with me, she’s still alive by the way. But the pain of her not being able to hang, promise me a few years, I couldn’t metabolize it in my body, and an autoimmune disease is when the body attacks itself. I don’t know how literal that is, but symbolically, that’s what it felt like was happening, if that makes sense. I didn’t know what to do with the pain, it was too big. It was too big.
Haley - Well, now you’re really like, speaking to me because I just got diagnosed with an autoimmune disease myself. Interesting.
Pam - Yeah.
Haley - These are just—
Pam - I think a lot of adoptees do, what do you think Haley?
Haley - I think so too! This is just anecdotal, right? I haven’t seen like a study where it’s like, oh, adoptees have, everyone has autoimmune disorders.
Pam - Someone study that.
Haley - Yeah, get on that. Send us a link so we can join your research study.
Pam - I think the stress though, I mean there are links with studies with links between stress and other illnesses and how our immune system functions. And I think that the stress of a secondary rejection is off the charts. Yeah.
Haley - Oh man, but just that, the description of soul pain like, wow. That’s so apt, I don’t know. It's just like, it is. It’s really, really difficult. And it’s almost like, there’s varying degrees of this too. I had secondary rejection but I didn't know it yet. Like the last email I got was kind of like, you know, you’ve said some really negative things about my family and let’s reschedule this kind of another time, whatever. And then I never heard another word. So I didn't know that was gonna be the last word. So for me, it was way more gradually realizing like, oh, that was the last word.
Pam - Ouch.
Haley - Yeah. But, and it’s different for everyone, you have this moment with your first mom in the car, some people it’s like, they don’t even hear back from sending a hopeful contact letter. Or they get a letter back but it’s from a lawyer.
Pam - Ugh.
Haley - Cease and desist nonsense. Or oh gosh, one lady just messaged me a few days ago and said that, she phoned and just heard the harshest words ever, like from her first mom. Basically you’re ruining my life by contacting me, et cetera.
Pam - That’s so cold.
Haley - Yeah, exactly. So that pain is real and then what happens next for us?
Pam - I think we go into, we get totally physically and emotionally destabilized and we go into a chaos inside. And it’s really hard. We’ve talked about this before, but there’s no cultural mirror so we’re walking around feeling like socked in the gut. And brokenhearted and just, out of our minds with grief. And then, but we’re supposed to go to work or function or take care of our kids or do whatever we’re supposed to do. And we don’t have a tangible thing to say, like we can’t say oh, someone in my family died or we don’t have any excuse that makes sense to the culture. So it can be very lonely to feel that kind of pain and not have people understand it. I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday who’s a therapist and she’s an adoptee, and we were making some jokes. And I make jokes when I get in too much pain, so this is where that came from. So I was making a joke and I said something like, you know, to the culture it’s like saying yeah, I went to a Madonna concert and I didn’t even get to meet her and they’re like yeah, so what, big deal. It’s like we already have parents to the world. So okay, you didn't meant this stranger, so what? It’s not that big of a deal. You know? You don’t even know this person. Like it has nothing to do with you. And that’s all true, it doesn’t have anything to do with us when someone rejects us before they’ve even met us, but still, it’s to us, it’s soul pain. And it’s very, in my case, it’s been very physical. Like I felt really sick to my stomach with grief and pain. For days and weeks.
Haley - And I love that you mentioned it. Like, just that people don’t recognize it and you can't call in, you can’t call in with, I got a letter from a lawyer. Like, that’s not an excuse to not go to work.
Pam - Right, right.
Haley - Yeah.
Pam - There’s no excuse really. Or it doesn’t fit anywhere one anyone’s map who doesn’t understand it like we do. So that’s really hard. I had a rejection just in 2017 also, and I was, I remember the exact date of it. And I was, in a little beach house. And it was when I realized that it was really over with this other side of my family. And I did this really weird thing, it’s not that weird. But I did this weird thing where I needed to do something to not just collapse and I think my fear was, I could just collapse and give up. Like there’s something that took all the wind out of my sails. Don’t you think that’s a common way we feel when there’s rejection, like it takes the wind out of our sails?
Haley - Yeah.
Pam - Like it just, like what’s the point? It can be a very dark, very dark place.
Haley - Yeah, totally.
Pam - Even dangerous, like if people have this and they're feeling suicidal, they should really get support and talk to the community and just get the help they need. Because it’s tough. But the thing I did was, I'm not, I don’t have a strong upper body. And I’m in my 50s, so I made this deal to myself that every day I was gonna do 10 pushups until I could do 30 pushups. And, ‘cause it was on the 30th of the month that this whole rejection happened. And I thought, I’m gonna go towards strength, physical strength instead of collapsing into nothingness. And so I started doing pushups every day but then I hurt myself so then I had to stop.
Haley - Oh no!
Pam - But it was just this mental, like I cannot, I can't let this ruin my, I can’t let this take me out. I you know, I needed to do something symbolic, so I did pushups.
Haley - Well, perfect. Okay, so let’s put that on our list, coping tools.
Pam - Pushups.
Haley - Pushups! And maybe if you, you pick the number of pushups based on the day that you get the letter or the horrible phone call. Okay, what else can we do?
Pam - Well I think at first, I think it’s like being in a horrible car accident. And that’s the feeling. And I think we just need very basic self-care. Like drink water, walk around. Like just don’t sit in one place or just don’t stay in bed all day. Walk around, get some fresh air, breathe, call a friend, call someone you can talk with about this, or if there isn’t anybody, get on your site and post something about it. But just do these basic things to kind of keep your body moving. So that you’re not just collapsed if possible.
Haley - You’re saying these like, very basic things and I'm like, we like literally have to give ourselves permission that acknowledge that this is a big deal. I know you just said that, but I’m like, I don’t know, that’s hitting me for some reason.
Pam - Yeah.
Haley - It’s a big deal. So of course you have to remind yourself to like, not lay on the couch and just give up.
Pam - Right. I mean I think it’s okay, actually, to lie on a couch or go to bed for 2 days. But I think that, I don’t know, for me, I feel things really physically. So, the car accident thing, or feeling like I got a brain injury by the rejection, it feels super physical to me. So the simple act for me of just drinking 4 ounces of water and breathing a couple of times is like a big deal in the face of that kind of pain. It’s like a death. It’s like a death just happened. And so, that’s what people have trouble with after a death happens, is just basic, grieving, drinking water, trying to get some sleep, trying to connect.
Haley - And now I’m thinking of someone like me, or some, who I didn’t actually know it was the end. Or someone that was just like waiting for the answer that’s, it’s just not gonna come, you’re just not gonna get an answer back. And you don’t have like the moment of awareness. Or maybe the moment does come at some point, I don’t know.
Pam - Yeah that’s kind of another, it’s like another terrible flavor to it, where’s this realization creeping in and it’s sort of horrifying but you can’t quite believe it but then you, you know, more and more it seems like that’s the only possibility. That it’s a rejection. So are you asking, what to do about that?
Haley - Well, I guess, I don’t know what I’m asking. I guess it’s almost like a little bit of a different spin on it, because I don’t remember having a moment where I'm like, oh, she’s really never gonna talk to me again. Ever.
Pam - Yeah.
Haley - You know, and in some ways, I just posted about this on my Instagram stories on the Adoptees On account. Just a few days ago, like, it would be easier if she just said that to me. Like, I’m never gonna talk to you again. Because then I would have that moment and then I could start grieving. But there’s still like this little hope like, oh maybe my letter got lost in the mail and maybe they're still gonna respond to me even though it’s been a couple years.
Pam - Right. It’s kind of a crazy making, isn’t there, that goes with all of that.
Haley - Yeah.
Pam - I think that what’s so hard about this, is that many of us have our identities wrapped up in the reunion and so when there’s rejection, it literally changes, sometimes on a dime, and other times gradually, our sense of ourselves. And that’s terrifying. Like, we think we’re in, or we think we’re worthy to be in, or we think we’re possibly gonna be wanted or belong and then we find out we’re not in some way, either gradually or suddenly. And it changes our whole sense of the world. I mean it’s horrible, it’s just, it’s shocking, it’s like going into shock. And the world seems different, once it becomes really clear. And so it’s something that we can’t really rid of the pain, it’s more like we have to over time, learn to live with it. Because it’s like with the grief of a person to death, it’s really truly a loss that we register, deeply. We just, but we can’t learn to live with it suddenly. We have to go through these horrible days and weeks of feeling terrible, I think.
Haley - Yeah, so then we go back to those things that you said, just like drinking water, like those kinds of things. And then what happens sort of after that? What are some things to take care of ourselves?
Pam - Well after the shock kind of starts to wear down, wear away, we find that we’re going in and out of pain, it’s not like the pain is there so constantly. It might be there when we’re by ourselves or when we’re not doing something, but then if we go out with friends or we’re watching a good movie, we might forget the pain for a few minutes. And then you know, we’re going in and out of the pain. And so it’s good when that starts to happen, because we have some relief in more moments. And then more and more and more. And then it’s more like we’re not living so much in the pain, but the pain still comes because of triggers or holidays or reminders. And so it just, it shifts over time. But I think the next phase would be going in and out of pain. And it’s good to be aware of that, like oh I just spent 15 minutes or maybe 2 hours not really even thinking about it. And that starts to happen later, and that’s because you know, we are resilient creatures. So we have that going for us, even if our families don’t want us, we’re still human and we’re really resilient and we have that in us. So our systems are trying to work it out through dreams and our thoughts and we’re trying to work it out.
Haley - Isn’t there just a piece of this that, it’s just so nice to know that, even this is so hard, we’re just having normal responses to something that’s so hard. And it’s almost like the piece that’s the most challenging, is something we’ve talked about before, like that society doesn’t recognize that this pain is valid. And I don’t know, just talking about this with you, it’s almost just like, we’re just normalizing that this is hard and you’re just gonna feel hard things and it’s okay.
Pam - Right and it’s okay because yeah, there’s another side that can get lived into with time and with support. And with help. So that’s where it later can become, I mean I’m living proof that it can become okay later. And I know people for whom it’s become good later as well with time. Like the friend I was talking with, she never met her first mom, she was rejected before she ever met her in kind of a horrible way. So, yeah, but you’re right, there’s nothing abnormal about us feeling soul pain and sickness from secondary rejection. I mean what else are we gonna feel? I mean it’s, but we just don’t have words and language for this, we should make up our own special language to describe it. You know?
Haley - Will I have to censor? Like, get the beeps out?
Pam - I remember singing, this is not about my first mom, but just family people that I’m not in touch with anymore. But I remember singing Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead. And pretending I was happy.
Haley - Oh that’s perfect.
Pam - And also like, and I mean I’m saying this from years out. But there is some little part of me, and this is kinda what people say after a breakup. But like, there’s this little part of me that is really glad I don’t have to put on a false self and try really hard to be liked and kept by people I don’t even really feel that connected with. So there’s a little bit of relief there also, but that’s certainly is not what I felt when this thing happened. you know, I felt sick for, I felt sick in my heart and my stomach for weeks. And then less, less, less, less, less. And it can still happen, it can still come with triggers. I’m just saying, for me, I’m first family free. There’s a new language, first family free. FFF, triple F, first family free. And so I can say that I don’t have to worry, what am I gonna get them for Christmas, what am I gonna, oh when are their birthdays, am I doing it right, you know, oh should I not have said that thing? I better start taking kickboxing so I can get my rage out so they won’t even know I have it, you know, I don’t have to worry about those things anymore. I’m living light. So I'm being a little bit facetious, but I, I mean, there is a bit of relief later, later, later, later for me.
Haley - Yeah. Yeah.
Pam - It isn’t what I would have wanted, but it is there.
Haley - Okay, so how about, I want you to assess this if this is healthy or not. Hypothetically speaking, I mean, this could be anyone talking about this. So you kinda internet stalk to see what’s happening with them. Just hypothetically. Would you say that is, are you just trying to dig up pain or that’s okay, ‘cause you’re curious, you wanna make sure that your first family free, that’s a good thing, I don’t know. What are your thoughts on that?
Pam - I think that if it’s a clear cut rejection case, I mean, it's reasonable for a hypothetical person to do that. It’s normal, it’s like stalking an ex or something, that’s normal. But if I were somebody’s guardian angel, I would say don’t do it. Because here’s my thing. I do not want to have anything other than a whole hearted connection with people in my life, I need my connections to be utterly mutually wholehearted. I can’t do half hearted anymore. So I just would, it makes my heart hurt for the thought of this hypothetical person, you know, who’s been rejected to go that direction. It’s like the food isn’t there, you know, the food is in other relationships not necessarily biological but that are wholehearted. That’s where we’re gonna get fed. And so if I were somebody’s guardian angel, I would just say no, let’s not do it. Let’s go for a walk, let’s watch a TV show, let’s call so and so, let’s write a story, let’s read a book, let’s go get a puppy, let’s do something else. But let’s not, and that’s why I blocked my family because I didn’t trust myself and I didn’t wanna get hurt from the part of me that would be driving that whole thing of stalking. So I don’t wanna know, I don’t wanna know the parties I'm missing, I don’t wanna see how happy they all look without me, I just don’t wanna see it. It’s just too painful.
Haley - Okay! That makes sense.
Pam - So I'm all about yeah, first family free, and wholehearted relationships only. That’s my deal.
Haley - Yeah, yeah. That does make sense. Okay, anything else that you see people who are in a similar situations to us, do that you’d be like, no don’t do that.
Pam - Again, I'm gonna compare this to an ex. It’s like, there’s a period of time where it’s normal to be circling around that pain and that breakup. But at some point, we’ve gotta move on. And that means building our life on something other than the rejection, and other than the first family. And other than the lineage that we came from. We have to find something else to build our lives around. So we have the power to choose where we focus, you know, our minds go all over the place. Our minds are thinking thoughts constantly and most of them are negative and scary thoughts from our default network in our brains. But we do have the power to put our attention in other places.
Haley - Can you walk us through that? This happens often, right? We think about, what if she changed her mind and does wanna get back in touch with me? Or like, should I write her a letter? Or just focusing on what I don’t have, what I’m missing. How do I, what do I actually do in the moment to not do that anymore?
Pam - Okay I’ll tell you exactly what to do in the moment. But first I just wanna say that if there is an ambivalence going on, like inside of an adoptee or in the first family, maybe it’s something that could get worked out over time. Maybe in some cases there is a possibility for things to get better and go from lukewarm to really warm. But for those of us that know it’s just over, it’s not gonna happen, you know, unless something, a miracle happens, then it’s natural to find yourself spinning around about these things, our minds just drift there. Our minds do that, our minds drift to painful and frightening areas, that’s what our minds do. So here’s what to do, here’s a little recipe. Okay? So let’s say you’re sitting on the couch, and you’re not here anymore, you’re back there trying to fix this problem. So you’re imagining some scenario like you just said. So I would literally stand up and get your body moving, because it’s really hard to change our state of mind when we’re sitting down. So I would get up off the couch, move around and walk around the house. And the second thing is I would get into my eyes, and I would look at something that’s right there in front of me, and that’s forcing my focus to go from first family to something that’s something that’s actually right in front of me. And then I would try to bring my curiosity in like, ask questions, like oh, I wonder who made that painting. Wonder what they were thinking or feeling when they made that painting. And I’m trying to just get myself invested in this current moment and not back there with the first family. And then I would try to find something else for me to do. Like hey, let’s go duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh. I would, you know, I talk to myself like that, I say let’s. Let’s duh, duh, duh. ‘Cause I’m talking from the adult to the little kid that doesn’t always do healthy things. But yeah, I would get up, get in your eyes, get curious, ask some questions about something right in front of you, and then do something. Call somebody, but throw your attention into something else, your segue into something else. And that changes your brain. Because to sit there and just be stewing or reliving conversations or planning revenge fantasies or whatever we do, what I do, I know. It’s extremely painful and it gets me into a really bad mood, like if I just, if I just go there, if I'm playing a film game and I’m sitting there reviewing a conversation or that kind of state of mind, I’m gonna get into a big funk. And then it’s gonna be harder, the more I do it and the longer I stay there, it’s gonna be harder and harder to get myself out of it. So that’s why, when I’m thinking clearly, I get up, walk around, get in my eyes, get curious, ask questions about what’s right in front of me, and then go do something. And it’s like changing the channel on the tv. Like why would we watch a horrible show about our first families who’ve rejected us? Let’s change the channel and watch Friends or something. You know?
Haley - That’s perfect, that’s great. Okay, is there anything else, any other strategies or ideas for things for us to do when we’re in the middle of just, the coping section after rejection?
Pam - I would just try to, like you were saying earlier, I would try not to minimize it. I think that the pain of rejection, of secondary rejection is so awful that, it’s just so overwhelming and like a sickness. And I would try to avoid telling yourself that you should feel differently than you do. Like if you’re just in the worst pain ever, like you said, that’s fair. That’s reasonable. That’s normal behavior to an abnormal situation. So, and then for people who are religious or even like spiritual, like praying for help. Like just come kind of entity bigger than us. I’m not personally religious, they’ve even done studies on prayer, it doesn’t have to be prayer to a god if you’re not religious. But any kind of asking something higher than us, for some support or help, like I’ve prayed to trees before. Like I’ve been out in nature and in a ton of pain and just been, hey will you please send me some love for a minute. Just anything bigger than myself to try to sooth my soul. Because I'm in so much pain. I think asking for help to the universe is, to God, is something that we do when we’re in that amount of pain.
Haley - Wow, thank you for your thoughts on that. And I, I just think it’s so good for us to be having these conversations because they're so many adopted people in this position and they feel like, wrong for feeling so hurt. But it’s so like, of course you feel hurt. And I’m really sorry that there’s so many of us in that position.
Pam - Yeah, yeah. It’s the culture that doesn’t, that makes us feel crazy, it’s not us.
Haley - It’s not you. It’s not you.
Pam - It’s not you.
Haley - Pam, can you tell us where we can connect with you? And what kind of other stuff you got going on?
Pam - Yeah, so the best way is through my email which is email@example.com. And yeah, I’m just really enjoying my therapy practice, I’m doing some Skyping cooking sessions with people out of state. Ann and I are still doing retreats, we’re doing part 2 this year. I’m doing some adoptee speaking stuff and I’m bringing women on the community to Santiago in Spain for a healing journey and that’s a mixture of adoptees and people who have recovered from cancer and are rebuilding their sense of identity in their lives. So we’re going this September and it’s almost full but if you have an interest, we have some amazing adoptees who are coming this September and I’d be happy to share the information about it, it’s a 10 day trip.
Haley - Amazing opportunity, so exciting.
Pam - Yeah.
Haley - Thank you! Thanks so much for your wisdom and sharing that with us today.
Haley - If you’re listening when I have just released this, there’s only one month left until the American Adoption Congress Conference in Washington D.C., and I would love to have you join me there. I’d love to meet you in person, I am so excited about the keynote speech I’m making. Adoptee voices are so important to me, and so I’m absolutely passionate about talking about that more and more. I mean I do it every week so obviously. And I’m also presenting with Katrina Palmer and we are gonna be talking about secondary rejection. So, very similar topic to what Pam and I talk about today, except Katrina and I are gonna be talking about our personal experiences and how we have moved through this secondary rejection process and I think it’s gonna be very impactful. So I would love to have you join us for that. You can find more info in the show notes on how to register. Or just google American Adoption Congress and you can find the conference information right on their website. As always a giant thank you to my monthly supporters, I couldn’t do this show without you. If you would like to join with them, you can go to AdopteesOn.com/partner for all the details. Thanks so much for listening, let’s talk again next Friday.