Saturday, 13 July 2013

Building a House on Sand

Like the tree that puts roots deep into the clay,
 Each of us needs the anchor of belonging

In order to bend with the storms

And continue toward the light.
John O’Donohue

The foundations for our development are laid down very early in our life. A safe, secure and consistently supportive childhood form building blocks of trust, self value, and confidence in life. When a child is taken from mother and clan, at birth or later, the impact is like an earthquake upon that child’s foundation. The degree of damage is further compounded by lack of understanding and compassionate aid after the devastation.

I looked like a ‘well adjusted’ adoptee...meaning that I had adapted suitably to my new conditions.     I was intelligent, did well at school, was independent, capable and composed. This concealment carried through into adulthood where I could blend and impress in social situations, be articulate and very well presented. I could keep it together in all kinds of complicated situations and hold myself with poise. Yet underneath it all I lacked self esteem, was anxious and hyper-vigilant. I could be in emotional chaos and no-one could detect it. Like many adoptees, under the edict of being ‘lucky to be chosen and should therefore be grateful’, I have had years of covering up my pain, suppressing my feelings and being what was expected of me. I had to co-operate with the spurious picture perfect presentation of the happy adoptive family, pretending to be no different from a biologically connected family. As a master of disguise, I had no anchoring in a sense of self and place; instead I was a counterfeit extension to a family that I felt no connection too.

Building a House on Sand is a metaphor for endeavouring to build a life without the solid and secure foundation of connection and belonging. A building is only as strong as its foundation. It is a primal imperative to know one’s biological origins and ancestry which is the basis for the formation of one’s sense of identity and place in the world. 

My adopted brother, who is in his mid fifties, has fallen and recovered countless times throughout his life. When I asked him to tell me something about his life as an adoptee he said ‘I have been down and out, on the streets, no money, no home, but I have always managed to climb back up and rebuild. I seem to have great resilience...friends have remarked on this. It’s all dependent on the foundation. If the foundation is weak the building will fall down. This is a good metaphor for my life so far’.

A friend of mine, also adopted, told me of the recurrent feeling of his foundation crumbling, falling into a sense of numbness, of no substance, and worthlessness. This fall into an emotional abyss would occur within the context of a significant relationship when he would lose his sense of connection to that person, and himself, in a critical moment where he felt there ‘wasn’t enough me’ to sustain the relationship.

In their book The Psychology of Adoption, Drs. David Brodinsky and Marshall Schecter say that ‘connectedness’ to an adopted person is like water to a person in the desert’.

When I look back at my childhood my main memory is of the pervading anguish of not belonging, and feeling disconnected. These feelings were compounded by the isolation of not being able to express my anxiety to anyone. It didn’t matter how much ‘love’ was being bestowed on me or how much material support I had, the absence of emotional support undermined my potential for a happy childhood. Beneath the facade of the well adjusted, acquiescent adoptee was an unhappy withdrawn child, living with a constant terror of being discovered as the flawed substitute for my adopted mother’s real daughter. I felt like an empty charade with no substance.

When I was a child I would stand in front of my big dressing table mirror and stare at my reflection.       I was searching for something...for some sense of myself. Who was the person in the mirror? I felt no relationship to her. It was a very strange feeling, a scary feeling. I would turn my back on the mirror and then quickly turn around again to see if I could trick the reflection and catch it unawares. The image in the mirror seemed to take on a life of its own and I would run out of my room in fright.

A sense of connection and belonging is something that non-adopted people take for granted. A lack of mirroring within one’s family clan and the absence of genetic history and markers creates what feels like a hole in the soul that can insidiously affect a person throughout their life and set them on a path of searching for the missing piece of themselves.
The happy-ever-after myth of an adopted or anonymous donor conceived child thriving on the abundance of love and security provided by her parents dismisses the essential elements of connection and belonging in a human life. Disguised by a child’s ability to adapt and develop a coping personality, the silent and invisible pain of disconnection can hauntingly undermine a person’s potential for intimacy and happiness into adulthood.

Shining Light on Adoption is about repairing the damage to our foundation and rebuilding a life beyond past wounds into a firm future of our own design.


  1. G'day Rebakah, this is Henry Hübers, Deborahs husband.
    Not so much a comment but a question. Have your children read your book,blog,website??
    Information coming out of you is eloquent and balanced. The people i believe that are going to benefit and be of interest to are the ones closest
    to you/adoptee.
    It will give understanding to them and hopefully have a 'ohhh' experience, filling in the reasons for adoptees apparent habits/behaviour.
    Myself i will be starting my degree next year in social science "psychotherapy". i want to help men understand that being vulnerable is key to being HUMAN.
    With every possible flaw in our nature we have an equal and opposite asset.
    Problem shared is a problem halved.
    Look forward to reading your book/journey.
    Break a finger!!!

  2. Thank you Henry, and all the best with your Degree. I agree with you that vulnerability is key in being human and creating intimacy. I have written a chapter on this in my book because it is a big issue for many adoptees.
    Thanks again for taking the time to comment.