Emotional Turmoil Psychological Breakdown
It is difficult to describe my search in a way that does justice to the emotional gravity and psychological tension that is the experience. When an adoptee searches, it is not ‘a search’, but The Search. If successful, you will be awarded the secret to the meaning of life.
You might recall that when making my decision whether or not to search for my biological mother, I began furiously researching adoption reunions. (If you missed it, you can read Part 1 of my reunion story in full here). My research had two purposes:
- to help me make whether or not to search; and
- so I could work out how a search is actually done.
I wanted to know all the nitty gritty details. The logistics. The feelings. Did other people want to search? What did they feel like during and after the search? Did their birth mother want to see them? Did she remember them? What did they say? What did she say? Did they connect/bond/hate each other? What was the moment like when they saw their mother? What was it like to see someone who looks like you? Did they get all the answers they craved? Did they feel more complete? Was the story too sad to bear? What, why, when. And how. How did they find their mother.
Getting started / Getting nowhere
I had two friends who had previously found their birth mothers – I got in contact with both of them to talk about it. One friend had told me briefly about her reunion after the fact, but I did not know many details. Her search sounded a very simple process. I was happily surprised and excited to hear it was such a straightforward thing to do. I found it difficult to keep hold of logic that told me her process was not necessarily going to be my experience.
When I called the NSW Government’s adoptee services, I realised that the simple process that existed for my friend existed specifically as she was South Korean. Australia and South Korea have a special and streamlined search and reunion process. No such luck process existed for Sri Lankan-Australian adoptees. The woman I spoke with sounded caring, but I realised she was clutching at straws when she suggested she send me paperwork so I could list myself on an Australian contact register obviously created for domestic adoptees and their families.
Sometime during this period, I found the Benevolent Society’s Post-Adoption Research Centre (PARC) online and when I had free time late at night, I emailed them asking for search and reunion information. Morning time, a few hours later, I received a nice and helpful email from a counsellor at PARC and we exchanged a few emails about search and reunion in Sri Lanka. There was not a lot of information, but any information was useful, and the kindness of the counsellor was great reinforcement to keep going with the search.
I cannot remember now whether it was PARC or the NSW Government that told me to contact the International Social Service (ISS), a non-government organisation that assists with international adoptee’s searches and reunions. Whilst the staff at the ISS seemed to genuinely want to help me, they had no reliable contact in Sri Lanka and warned me that searches through their existing SL contact had been ongoing for years with no result. They offered to send my information to their contact, but suggested that I try every other avenue first.
Research and I are good friends. Research has always been a huge part of my jobs, I spent years at uni doing research, I am naturally research-oriented and it has also been documented that we adoptees tend to do a lot of research so we can feel we have a sense of control over a situation. So you could say that I am no stranger to research; in fact, it most definitely soothes me. But this time, research, in some ways, did not soothe me. It became abundantly clear that there was very little online about Sri Lankan adoptees generally, and consequently, very little about Sri Lankan adoptee family reunions.
It is around this time that I began to curse the fact that I was adopted internationally. I had read so many stories about adoptees and birth families that had relied upon Facebook and Google to reunite. I belong to Gen Y. I won’t lie. Of course I tried Google in desperation. Google’s ‘no result’ response was hard to take for someone who belongs to a generation where instant access to information has been, almost, a lifelong norm. My husband and I are infamous renowned for cross-checking everything on the internet. Once when I drank too much at a party, my husband decided the best way to care for me was to Google, ‘How to look after a drunk person’. We are those people with iPhones attached to everything and 5 computers in the house operating attached to everything. Google giving me no answers? It was unheard of, and even that small event made me feel more isolated in the search and made me think how much better and easier it would be if I was a domestic adoptee.
My awareness of how easy it can be to locate someone within Australia was not mere hearsay, but my own first-hand experience. As a lawyer in training, I had volunteered with a Government-funded legal centre, assisting people who were experiencing social disadvantage with their legal matters. I met a client who wanted to reunite with his estranged son. Although not technically a legal matter, due to the man’s circumstances, I said I would help him find his son. I did manage to locate the son’s details and I then helped the father to prepare a letter to his son with the hope of re-establishing contact between them. I do not know whether they reunited or not, but The Search; that part was easy.
But for me, as an intercountry adoptee, I had to step back and think, how would I do the search? How to do it from Australia? My research only told me about domestic searches – Australian adoptees searching for Australian birth mothers, American birth mothers searching for American adoptees. The Australian Government had no information for intercountry adoptees. What if it was not even possible to find my mother in Sri lanka, not possible to have a definitive answer to whether she wanted to reunite, not possible to know if she was alive…or not?
Whether she looked like me or not.
Remembered me or not.
Keeping busy waiting
It would have been easy to give up, or get tired, and I can understand why someone would do that. But I like to keep busy and, perhaps it is a defence mechanism, that I like to pour my energies into trying to make something work rather than facing the worst. (For psychology fans, it is called sublimation).
A close family friend was making enquiries with a friend of hers in Sri Lanka who might have been able to assist. This was my main search avenue, but it was simply unknown whether their friend could take on the search. He was not a ‘professional searcher’. There had been some communication problems, technology and language barriers. I waited to hear his response.
I knew of a potential ‘searcher’ who was connected to the agency from which I had been adopted. After visiting the agency’s website and seeing that that person was still conducting searches in Sri Lanka, I sent an email. Then, I waited.
I am terrible not that good at waiting and doing nothing, so with the help of my Gen Y friends Google, Facebook and other social media, I kept looking for more people who conducted searches and reunions in Sri Lanka. I eventually found two people on line – both looked reputable. I got in contact with one of them. I tried to contact some of the reunited adoptees, but had no success. I did receive a reply from one person who conducted searches, saying they were travelling and would respond to me on their return. So. I waited some more.
I awaited every response, every email. Time seemed like a black hole. I had responsibilities in my life, but I found it hard to concentrate on anything but my inbox.
More research led me to a group of Sri Lankan professionals and philanthropists who had formed an organisation to help Sri Lankan adoptees reunite with their families. Many of the (few) articles about reunions that I was able to locate talked about searches facilitated by this group. However, the group’s website no longer existed. I searched Facebook. Their page seemed unmonitored with no recent activity. I found one of the coordinators on Facebook and tried to contact him personally to see if the organisation was still conducting searches.
When I had no more emails to send and nothing to do but wait some more, I heard from my friend with news that her friend in Sri Lanka wanted to look at my documents and see whether he thought he had enough information to try and find my mother. I sent my documents to him. Everything that might be useful. My two Sri Lankan birth certificates (Sinhala and English), my adoption order, my mother’s affidavit, the handwritten notes that came with my adoption file.
I had already been through those documents with a fine tooth comb. There were errors. For example, the spelling of my mother’s name, one time ‘nayake’ another time ‘nayaka’. Back then, I knew nothing about Sinhala and nothing about transcribing Sinhala words and names into English letters…So I thought these were mistakes. On my birth certificate, my mother’s name was given in the form of an ‘alias’. It was, along the lines of ‘smith mary alias mary thompson’. I presumed that the alias came to be because I was illegitimate and she was using another name at the time of my adoption. Yet I wondered, if my mother was going to create an alias, why would she list it on an official document like my birth certificate? (It seemed bizarre, and of course there was no ‘alias’ in the usual sense of the word as used by native English speakers…but more about that later). I knew those documents inside out. I was ready for answers to which I never before expected to be privy. But it was all so complicated. I did not even understand my mother’s name.
What happens after we die?
I had always been told that my mother was very poor, was likely dead, that my birth brought her so much shame that she would never want to see me. Not only was there no point searching for her, but it was never even considered an option. People said that it was likely she had kept my birth a secret and then gone on to marry, never telling her husband about me. So, came the conclusion, sometimes voiced by other people, sometimes in my head, that she would NOT want to see me…that she couldn’t see me because of her husband.
On the other side, I also had secrecy. I did not want anyone to know I was searching. The information that I was searching was strictly on a need to know basis. I am generally not someone who shares information easily or widely, even when I would be considered ‘close’ to someone. This information was like information in a vault with 50 locks and 10 security combinations. I told very few people. I was too scared of what they would say, what I would say, what they thought, what I thought, of anyone guessing the importance the search had to me.
Fear of even facing the reality that I was searching and what would happen if I did not follow the footsteps of the adoptees who were able to reunite in the few, scarce articles that I had found. For fear is hard to control and sometimes it is easier not to take it on. I believed I wanted to believe that I would be fine even if my mother did not want to see me. I wanted to believe that it was cultural, social; that I could understand a rejection.
However this tiny atom of authentic emotion grew into an inkling, and, in turn, into a seed and then into my truth – that if my mother did not want to see me, I would understand the reasoning, but I would be extremely hurt and upset. Once my mind had reconfigured itself to see that meeting my mother – seeing someone who looked like me, knowing how big I was when I was born, discovering my ancestry, knowing, in essence, the Secret of Me – was possible for me just like it was for everyone else in the world…it was difficult to shut down.
The only thing to which I can compare not knowing your own biological parents is our struggle with the knowledge of the meaning of life and our purpose of life – is there one? And of life and death and what happens after we die. My whole life was a mystery. Like life and death and the purpose of life, I could try to find reason in it, but I could not solve it with any certainty and was therefore, from an early age, required to accept uncertainty, keep some sort of faith in the system and LeT iT Go. I could not know the things that other people took for granted. I had thought that adoption was simply part of my life about which nothing could be done or understood, and so, had to be ignored. No one had ever spoken to me about whether I would like to find my Sri Lankan family or not or how I felt about them, other than strangers asking whether I had met them. I had never been able to form feelings about reuniting with them, other than, of course, to say they were dead and that I had no right to find them since I would disturb their lives.
After I had my son, as those who have read the first part of my reunion story will recall, I first realised that this shame thing, it might be socially and culturally real, but it might also be half the story. I saw the connection between mother and child and I thought, “How did a mother avoid that bond?” Sure some mothers might and surely do, but maybe, maybe my mother wanted to know that I was ok. I was still outwardly saying, and on the surface of my feelings propagating, that she would refuse to meet me. I pre-prepared myself for her rejection. Devastated, shattered and broken were words I could not say aloud, except to my husband. But what he said to me was that I should wait and see. He said, “You never know.” He said, “You’re really nice…maybe she is really nice…and maybe she has married someone who is also really nice. Let’s wait and see”. It seemed like the most straightforward and sensible thing in the mess of complexity and I liked it. I wished that he was right. I tried to take on his patient and calm demeanour. But anyone who knows us knows that I can’t pull that off. So, I wished he was right and I kept bouncing off the walls like I usually do. (I call it passionate. Other people call it something else).
While I was so up and down, the friend of my friend had looked at my documents. There were many emails back and forth about the logistics of the search. I appreciated being kept up to date. I clung to every bit of news. Then, an email arrived saying that he would travel outside Colombo, to the Ratnapura district, where I was born and where my mother’s family lived at the time of my birth. He would go there next week.
What would you say to your mother if you only had one chance in your life to communicate with her? I figured that, since this might be my one and only chance, I had to send her a message. I asked them to tell her that I said thank you and that I was happy and healthy. I thought it would give her peace, maybe. But later I realised, ‘happy and healthy’ was not quite right. It is difficult to know if something has escaped you, if your only experience is a life absent such a thing. The idea that everything would come down to a conversation between two people next week was unbearable. It is the only word I can use to describe it. Would I know the meaning of life and death?
Or would I get rejected after having finally found the courage, freedom and self-awareness to admit to myself that I actually needed my birth mother?