99 [Healing Series] When Reunion Fails - Identity with Pamela Cordano, MFT


Full show notes: http://www.adopteeson.com/listen/99

Episode Transcription by Fayelle Ewuakye. Find her on Twitter at @FayelleEwuakye

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(intro music)

You are 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 tackle one reunion’s fail. Let’s listen in.

(upbeat music)

Haley - I am so pleased to welcome back to the podcast, Pam Cordano, welcome Pam!

Pam – Thank you, hi everybody.

Haley - I am really excited to pick your brain because I have, I asked our listeners some of the things that they really want to hear about and one of the big topics was actually, it’s really sad really, it’s reunion fails. And it’s so common. You know, right? There’s so many of us hurting and we search and everything just kind of blows up. But before we do the reunion fails, another little topic that people were mentioning sort of in hushed whispers were like, okay but I also feel guilty that I have a good reunion. So why don't you just talk to us just a bit about that. Because it’s like, survivor’s guilt? I don't know, is that a bad comparison?

Pam - Well no, it’s a good comparison. I saw that on your thread and I even responded to it. And yeah, it’s so sad that people would feel positive reunion guilt and it makes sense of course, but the thing that’s the saddest about to me is that we already feel, many of us feel like we’re outsiders our whole lives. And then to have a good experience and even potentially feel like an outsider among adoptees is super sad. So I'm sure that there’s a lot of, the potential for jealousy, from other people envy and jealousy, because we all want to have a good reunion. So when people have a great reunion and we see it and we hear about it, for those of us who don't who either have a failed reunion or just a lukewarm reunion, it can just remind us of what we don't have. And so people can have their stomachs clenched as they see this happy mom and child on Facebook or whatever. But I mean, so it makes sense. But I think that the people who have positive reunions, really show us how high the bar can be when reunion goes well and when first mom or first dad or sibling wholeheartedly takes us in and treats us as if we are family. And loves us. And so I know for me, it’s been helpful to see positive reunions because it shows me what I don't have if that makes sense.

Haley - And you don't feel, like, left out or do you? I mean, I guess there’s that, I don't know, this feeling like you’re flaunting happiness in other people’s faces.

Pam - Yeah.

Haley - Maybe that’s just like adoptee land, because we don't have any problem putting up pictures of our happy family activities on Instagram or whatever. But there’s something about putting up a reunion picture when you know that your friend over here is just walking out and has been rejected.

Pam - Yeah, I mean, it’s hard because I think that part of a thread that runs through this whole topic is that this whole time there’s a little part of us, like a young part of us, and then there’s also this hopefully older part of us, at the same time. And so hopefully, like the older parts of us can really be happy for each other when we all have different things that the other ones don't have. But it’s the little part of us that’s so brokenhearted and I mean, even possibly feeling destroyed by the reunion rejection that can just have a really hard time bearing the sight of someone else having a happy reunion. But I mean, I'm an idealistic person, so when I saw that thread on your page I thought to myself, what would I want so much is for all of us, is a community to be big enough for each other that we can just really embrace everybody’s experiences. Good, bad, ugly, and take care of our own hurting inner children that need support and get hurt when we just get any reminder of what we don't have.

Haley – So I think maybe a good way to turn that is like, if someone is feeling, if our post brings up feelings for someone else, it’s also an opportunity for them to do some healing work.

Pam - Right. Yeah, that’s right. Because it isn't really the posts we see, it’s the pain we’re carrying inside of us all the time. I mean, if we have had a bad reunion, we’re carrying that pain all the time and yeah, anything good we see from a happy, positive long term reunion, to a hallmark card, or a movie. Anything can remind us of what we don't have. So yeah, that pain is in us already. And I wouldn’t want people to, I personally wouldn’t want anyone to feel like they have to play small just to make the rest of us comfortable. I feel like, positive reunions are real. And gosh, good for them, you know? And if they can’t bring it to us, where can they bring it where people will understand how important it is?

Haley - Okay, I love that, thank you. Gives us a little bit of permission to be a little bit more open, I think.

Pam - Yeah, yeah.

Haley – Okay, we’re gonna move ahead on the scale. And I had one of my monthly supporters, called her reunion tepid. And I’m inferring from that, there’s a scale of reunion where you’re wholeheartedly welcomed as you said to you don't hear anything or you get the door slam or the letter from the lawyer, or you’re in reunion for a bit and then they’re like, I don't wanna know you anymore. To the like, oh it’s so great that you found us and that’s it, here’s your medical history and I’ll send you a Christmas card? I don't know. Somewhere on that scale.

Pam - Well, you might be invited to one family reunion, but not all of them.

Haley - Oh yeah!

Pam - And you won’t be mentioned in the obituary.

Haley - You got like one foot in, that’s it.

Pam – Yeah. You’re a partial family member. Or a—

Haley – Or you have the asterisk!

Pam - Yeah, yeah. A scale of reunions.

Haley - So just, I mean, talk to us about that a little bit. That also feels like, a super painful place to be. I haven’t had that happen, but I can imagine like, you probably want more or is it easier if you just get the door slam or you close the door then? I don't know.

Pam - I just don't think any of it’s easy. I mean, I haven’t experienced the positive reunion, but I just don't think any of it, I mean, I did have a good reunion with my first mother for 10 years, well it was not good for 10 years, but it was good for like a few days and then it was difficult for 10 years. But I just think in some ways, the cards are stacked against us and what I mean is that, again with the little part of us, and then the adult part of us. I mean, we go into reunion. If we have dreams of finally finding our people and finding our roots and belonging to a family and in a real way that feels real, the way that it is for other people, the stakes are really high for us. I mean I know for me, the stakes were high. I thought that, I found my first mom when I was 25 and I thought that finding her was gonna solve my problems. I believed she would love me and that once I was in her, basking in her love, my whole life would straighten out and make sense. So I think the stakes are high and that I don't know, everybody feels this way, but the people I’ve spoken with have felt like they really want a lot, I mean a ton, like it’s a lifeline, out of the reunion. And what’s hard is that we also want our biological families to like us and love us and trust us and not think that we’re crazy or that we’re gonna try to steal their money or that we’re gonna ruin things for them. So a lot of times we’re on our best behavior and we’re not really being our full selves, we’re being like a false self. Just to try to preserve the connection. And I know I did that, I was trying to be good and not bad. But that’s really hard because then it still feels really tenuous. So I don't know if you relate to this Haley, or not. I just think however it might look on the surface, whether it looks warm and inviting or whether it looks tepid or whether it looks rejecting, there’s a lot inside of us adoptees that’s complicated. Like however much we’re bringing our real selves to the table and saying, this is really, really essential for me, that this goes well. Like my life depends on how well this goes or if we have room in the relationship to talk about our pain and our experiences or our anger. Or if we’re more just trying to morph around the family and fit in and be likeable and not be rejected. Do you know what I mean?

Haley - Yeah, of course.

Pam - So yeah, it’s like a circus going on inside of us.

Haley - Yep.

Pam – And then, there’s just so many variables, that’s what I’m trying to say. So tepid, you know, tepid sounds kind of unpleasant and something’s going wrong, right? Like either the adoptee’s not feeling comfortable or safe to bring his or her whole self to the table or there’s just a lukewarm reception that’s more factual and here’s your health history and you only get to come in the crack of the door but not really, really come in the door.

Haley - And there is probably a first family thinking that same way too, right? We maybe don't wanna show them the full picture, ‘cause all families have the drama and the stuff and especially ones that have relinquished and the secrets. And you know? So it’s a whole thing. Okay, thank you, I appreciate your thoughts on that. And now I really wanna focus the rest of our time on reunions that have just totally failed and so that’s whatever, secondary rejection, one of us, either side have closed the door. That is like, heart wrenching pain and then we shift to, well who am I then? Like, how do I find myself again when you’ve been counting on reunion to like give you back a piece of your identity to find answers? And I think it’s just like, it can create an existential crisis in us, right?

Pam - Yeah, because we’re not like other people. Other people find their sense of identity through a biological lineage of people. And we see our faces in other people’s faces and we hear about all the ancestors that came before us and all of the traditions and the locations and that’s how we know who we are. And so, we already don't have that when we’re adopted and then when we find out that we’re not gonna get to be part of that lineage or they’re not gonna have access to us or however the rejection goes, we don't get to find our identity there in the lineage. So we have to find it, our identity in a new way, in a way that’s unusual and that other people just wouldn’t even understand because they don't even that burden and even have to think about that, you know?

Haley - Right! Yeah, you just are who you are! And you can look at your mirrors and you have all those shared history and customs and rituals and all of those things that are just, you just grow up with.

Pam - Right, so I had a client a few years ago who was an adoptee. And she had failed reunions with her first families and she came into my office and she announced, I am a child of the universe. And I really felt helped by her saying that even though I was the therapist and she was the client, it was like, I love the language. Like, I am a child of the universe. And even though my reunion hadn’t completely failed at that point, I really related to that. And I think that, that’s a way to think about a different kind of identity that’s not through lineage but that we are still alive and we’re still part of this universe and we have to find another way to be us, whatever that might mean.

Haley - Yeah, I was just thinking, you know, for those of us who are fortunate enough to have built families of our own, and we’re kind of starting over. And then, but there’s other people that don't have that either and they’re maybe a single person and I'm just thinking of that image of cut off at the roots then. And then plus you have no branches and plus, then you were hoping for more and then you don't even know what kind of tree you are. And all of those extra layers but also going back to being a parent you know, you also don't want your identity to be rooted in just like, oh I say I’m Griffin’s mom. Or, you know, there has to be something that is just me. Like, who’s Haley? And what am I here for? And I think any time we put hope for identity in somebody else, it’s gonna spell disaster at some point down the line.

Pam – Right and I think with failed reunions, there can be a phase of identity where it’s like, well I’m not them, I’m not them, I’m not them. But that doesn’t really say who we are yet it’s just a, I think there’s a period of time where it’s like, okay, I’m not them. They’re not really, they’re not my family, I mean they’re my biological family, but they’re not the family that I belong to in any kind of emotional or even spiritual way. It hasn’t worked, it’s failed, so I have to find something else. But first for me, it was just like, okay I’m not them.

Haley - Well I remember it was so painful. So, so painful to have the door shut on me. And I remember thinking about all the, any negative qualities I had observed because then I was like, oh I am not any of those things. ‘Cause I, it was so painful, I wanted to distance myself from like possibly having those qualities too.

Pam – Me too, I mean, there were foods I had eaten with my first family that I wouldn’t wanna eat after things broke up. And it was painful. It was like a giant breakup. Well, it was worse than a giant breakup. But it was like that, I had an aversion to anything like them. So I think that might be a normal phase of identity is just, the disillusionment, that it is I’m not them, for me even sort of to figure out, well then who am I if not them?

Haley - Right, yeah. And then I imagine some people may just go back to their adoptive family and have, really be like, this is it. This is where I belong and take on some of those, you know, heritage things more as like, okay, this is really part of me. But yet not all of us have that.

Pam - Yeah, I think that the drive to be part of a family is so deep in us that, to not feel part of a family is so excruciating that yeah, that we might be willing to go back and say okay, fine I’ll do that, I’ll belong to that organization I don't really like or I’ll play along, just to be part of a family, with the adoptive family. I didn’t really do that either. But I would, I could see why. If I had had a different kind of adoptive family, I might have done that. I might have said, okay now I belong back with you guys. Just to ease the pain.

Haley - And there’s nothing wrong with it.

Pam - It’s like going back to a different ex, like going back to an ex.

Haley - Right? There’s nothing wrong that. Like, you get to choose, that’s the thing. You wanna feel like you belong somewhere but who else gets to choose? I mean I guess anybody can choose family, like family you choose. When we talk about friends like that. Oh you’re the family I choose. I really have a probably with that because of my situation. But yeah, it’s, there’s nothing wrong with that I guess.

Pam - I’m thinking of this thing I saw on the internet yesterday that I’m not sure if this is gonna make sense at first. But it was this thread talking about true orphans. And I think that they were talking about when they were talking about true orphans, it was like orphans who had truly lost both of their parents to death and so that was why they were then adopted. Like a true orphan. And so I did this thing I always do, where I got my dictionary out and I was just like looking up this definition. Like what literally is an orphan? And you know, I just, I’m not saying this to sound dramatic. I really am just saying this more of a grounded way. I actually think all of us were orphaned because we were estranged from our first parents. So we have that experience of being orphaned in us no matter what. And then that experience, it just can’t be replaced by adoption. We’ve talked about this before. So when we have a failed reunion, we’re back to that orphan piece, I believe. And we can call it whatever we want to, but I’m just using the word orphan to just, I don't know, I relate to it I guess. And it’s just, the pain of it is so incredibly deep that yeah, we may be really angry at our first families and not eat the food like I did, or just stay away from them in every way. I blocked mine on Facebook, I just couldn’t bear to even be near them once it failed. And then what you said about, some people might go back to their adoptive families, and try to find a different place in the home that they had never maybe wanted before. Just to not feel that gaping hole inside, that gaping orphan hole. At some point, I mean I think we kind of have to, to get more and more healthy, we have to be with the enormity of the pain of not being part of that original family and I think it takes time. And we can go through different phases of kind of flailing and grasping until we kind of just let the pain be what it is and learn how to live side by side with it. Where it doesn’t necessarily take over us anymore but it’s just there, like a companion, you know and maybe it becomes even something. I say companion as a friendly word but, it can become something other than what it starts off as.

Haley - It’s like a grieving process right? Just another grieving process, yeah. So can you give some advice to someone who maybe is in that? And is like, really leaning into that feeling of who am I, where do I find my identity? What are some things that they could do?

Pam – It’s hard to answer that question because our paths are all so different. Like if somebody were to stay for years in the anger stage, I could understand that. Especially as a younger person. Like, when I was in my 20s or 30s, I was much more inclined to just live in an angry place. I can still be that way. But I don't like it as much as I used to like it. But you know, just being really bitter and cynical and you know, like that. And I don't think that’s a great way to live, but I think sometimes we don't know what else to do besides being like that. And of course, yeah, sure, going to therapy could help. Making friends with people who have more of a sense of, who are more inclined toward growth and even optimism can be good for us if we’re stuck in that kind of bitter place. I also think that a false self is a danger. I guess I’m talking about dangers. Like I think it can be dangerous thinking, well if my family now has rejected me twice, I better really be on my best behavior out in public. And never let anybody see anything wrong with me or be a perfectionist because it’s just so dangerous out there in the world of relationships and family. So that could be another trap a person falls into. So I think that what helps is, the same thing that helps with grief, it’s finding people who understand and I think that’s where the communities like the one you have created are helpful because we have people we can talk to who are different flavors of our experience and who have room to hear us and listen and understand and care. And I think that connecting with people who understand is helpful, you know? On one of our adoptee retreats last year, there was, we do a thing at the last day where we give each other imaginary gifts. And they're really awesome because they can be really anything. And there was this one woman who gave another adoptee who had a failed reunion, this amazing gift. And the gift was, to go back 20 generations and to be sitting at a dinner table with the best relatives from more than 20 generations ago in her biological family and they would tell her all the stories of their strengths and their victories and their attributes and all the things that are infused in her DNA that have carried into her life. And she just got to eat dinner with them and hear it all from her distant ancestors. And I thought that was such a beautiful wish that this woman gave, this other woman in the group. And for someone to understand that would be a gift that would be meaningful to us, it takes an adoptee pretty much to get that. So I think finding people to connect with is the biggest thing to do.

Haley - For sure. And oh, that’s, what a beautiful picture of like, I mean you could do that for yourself. Like you could write yourself a letter from you know, one of your ancestors and even if it’s not true. You could still tell yourself, these are things that we've passed down to you and you could picture the good qualities that you wanna have. And claim them for yourself.

Pam - Yeah, and I think that it could be more than one ancestor, it could be, I would think at least 20 ancestors that tell us things about ourselves. And it’s not, it’s make believe but it’s also, it speaks to that child part of us that is still in concrete thinking and doesn’t really understand why this would happen twice. And you know these people, 20 generations ago, are innocent. I mean, they’re not the ones that relinquished us or rejected us again and so it’s good to go back to innocent people and it’s kind of like a spiritual exercise. Because we’re transcending time to do it.

Haley - Yeah, like I was thinking the word make believe but it’s almost also like, you know how you can write intentions and those types of things to help you focus in on positives and, or your goals or whatever, we can say all the buzz words. But there’s just something so beautifully reframing and healing for an adopted person who feels like now their roots are completely inaccessible. But just, I don't know, I’m really stuck on this. It’s just such a powerful idea. I love that, I wish I could have been in the room for that one.

Pam - Well now we’re all in the room.

Haley - We’re all in the room.

Pam - You have heard, right, that our bodies don't know the difference between imagery and reality? Do you know that?

Haley - No.

Pam - Okay, I wasn’t sure if anyone had talked about this before on your show, but if everybody right now imagines a fat juicy lemon. You pick it from a lemon tree. And you cut it open with a knife and you pick up half of it and you bring it to your mouth and you squeeze drops of lemon in your mouth, many people’s mouth will actually water even though it’s just an image. And so there’s a lot of power that imagery has for helping us actually feel things that are not really happening. So it is a nice way that the older part of us can soothe the younger part of us through imagery and a sense of belonging to the lineage. Even though current time, we don't.

Haley - So there’s ways that we can sort of give ourselves that even if it’s been taken away?

Pam - Yeah.

Haley - Okay, do you have any final thoughts on this, this whole like, secondary rejection, reunion breakdown, and identity piece?

Pam – Well, I have two hopeful things to say that are important to me that I use for myself since I’ve had full on secondary rejection, that I’m a child of the universe. And one is, that you know, we humans, we are still human even if we’ve been rejected, we’re still human. So humans are really built to be resilient and we have it in us to handle incredible devastation and stress and broken heartedness and our ancestors have been doing it for so long. So I know that, I tell myself that, I tell myself that inside of me I have the capacity because I’m a human to be extremely resilient, I’m built that way. So that’s one thing that I tell myself. Another thing I tell myself is that we, I, have the capacity to hold a contradiction in my heart. Like my heart is big enough to hold a contradiction. So it didn't feel comfortable to feel hatred or to wish harm upon, or to feel mostly hatred toward anyone in my first family. And so I had to hold those really angry and hurt, and furious and hurt and at the same time, they're humans and they have their own reasons for whatever they do and all that stuff. So I used to, when it was really fresh, I used to send them like loving kindness thoughts. Like, you might have heard the meditation, may you be happy, may you be safe and free from danger. May you be healthy and strong in your body, may you have ease, something like that. And I used to just make myself wish them well because I didn't want my heart to be closed on top of secondary rejection. Like I didn’t want to walk around with this anger and bitterness in me. I wanted to live into the idea that I have the right to be my full self, whatever that might mean. But I'm not gonna be my full self if I’m organizing my identity around being hurt and angry and bitter about the secondary rejection. So it took, it takes work I think to move out of that resentment and move into a more open hearted way.

Haley - But I bet it feels better.

Pam - To be open hearted? Or to be angry?

Haley - Yeah.

Pam - Oh, oh, yeah, I’m probably still doing it. It’s sort of a, I think it’s an up or down kind of thing, it’s not like you do it and it’s gone. You know, then holidays come and you don't get a card with them begging you back. Now you feel it all over again, you know?

Haley - Wait, I’m not the only one waiting for that? Okay.

Pam - Yeah, where’s my card? Where’s my, oops, I didn’t mean that. That was the other kid that was given that option.

Haley - Oh my gosh, okay. Well, so good, thanks so much for those thoughts. And I think there’s a lot of explore here. You know, this is a huge conversation and I’d love to hear more from everyone. Like, what you have done to explore what is your identity. Who are you in the wake of secondary rejection? So come find us on social media and tell us about it. Pam, where can we find you online?

Pam - Yeah, you can find me at my email address which is pcordano@comcast.net.

Haley - And we can find out more about your adoptee retreats and what else do you have going on?

Pam - Yeah I’ve been doing some one on one therapy/coaching with adoptees in different parts of the country. And that’s been really fun. And I was able to go to Ohio and do a speaking thing at a little workshop and that was really great. And then I’m taking groups of women on the Community de Santiago in Spain and this coming September, we have, I think it’s 4 adoptees who are already signed up and a birth mom, first mom. And then some other women who are, have had cancer and now they’re trying to figure out what it’s like to not be fighting for their lives again. And so I actually privately think we all have a lot in common. You know? There’s something about the life and death thing. Yeah, so, I have the Community de Santiago in the fall.

Haley - Oh beautiful. Okay, so if we want more info on that, we can just send you an email!

Pam - That’s right.

Haley – Awesome, thank you so much for your time today, I really appreciated your thoughts on this topic.

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Haley - Okay friend, if you are listening when this episode is just been released into the world, then you will know that this was episode 99. And next week is the 100th episode of Adoptees On. Which is, so exciting, I cannot believe I reached that milestone. So make sure you’re subscribed to this show so you don't miss next week’s episode. I promise, promise, that it is a good one. The other exciting thing I wanted to let you know is that I’m gonna be speaking at the American Adoption Congress Conference, say that 10 times fast. That is the 10th time I’ve recorded that sentence or that phrase. In April, and I would love to see you there. So I’m gonna be speaking, sharing about the value of adoptee voices which of course, is a huge passion of mine. And I’m also gonna be presenting with a friend of the show that you guys have heard from before, Katrina Palmer and we’re gonna be presenting about secondary rejection. So the very topic that Pam and I covered today, Katrina and I are gonna share from our personal experience of secondary rejection from our first mothers. And I think it’s gonna be a really powerful hour. So I’m really, really looking forward to that and meeting some of you in person! Can’t wait. So you can find a link to registration in the show notes, and also if you just search American Adoption Congress online, it’ll take you right to their website and they have all the conference info right there. Looking forward to that and it’s in Washington D.C., I’ve never been. And apparently it’s peak cherry blossom season right when it’s happening. So very excited about that, especially because it is very cold right now while I’m recording this in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. And the last thing I need to say, is a giant thank you to my monthly Patreon supporters and if you think this podcast is valuable and want it to continue, go to adopteeson.com/partner and sign up as a monthly supporter to help continue this work and sharing adoptee voices in the world. This podcast will always be free and so this is a way that we can support other adoptees who maybe don't have access to therapy or an in person support group. So if you’re able, I would really love to have you as a partner. Adoptees.com/partner has all the details. Thank you so much for listening and let’s talk again next Friday when I celebrate with you, 100 episodes! Yay!

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