Coming Out – Again and Again

The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma – Judith Lewis Herman, M.D.

Thorn seemed concerned in her recent comment to me that I might not understand what she was trying to convey in relating my coming out to her own partners issues with coming out as a lesbian.

I can assure Thorn that I did understand (largely due to the fact I read her blog and converse with her elsewhere).  I often cite the parallels of coming out as a gay person and coming out as a mother who surrendered/abandoned/relinquished/insert your own politically correct word here.

I agree with Thorn’s sentiments entirely and even her suggestions on handling the challenge (NB: I have not come out yet with fiance’s sons).  Yet I find I want to clarify or reiterate something and note how coming out as a mother traumatized by adoption is slightly different from coming out as a gay person. There is a double whammy effect to coming out as a mother.

When I out myself, there are at a minimum two major challenges at hand. Challenge number one, that is similar to gay outing, is the sharing of the knowledge it self and dealing with possible repercussions. It is blurting out my scarlet letter status and then waiting for backlash.  It is preparing myself for possible judgment and maybe doing battle with public stereotypes. It is listening to the ignorance that is perpetuated by adoption media and myths. (As in how fabulous my daughter went to such a good college cuz like, you know, she could never have done that if she had been raised by me.) It is arming myself against Catholic or conservative views and preparing to debate how for me, surrendering my child, was not a selfless act but rather an act of self-destruction encouraged by many. Had I been attempting to kill myself, I would have been stopped. Since I was only giving away my first born child to strangers, I was given the go ahead.

While I am preparing myself for the standard outing (which I am pretty good at handling), I am simultaneously battling challenge number two – reigniting my trauma (this part I rather suck at handling).

It is difficult to explain but at times like that I am two people. I am the frightened, pregnant, seventeen year old girl with hormones raging through her body. I am that girl filled with fear and sadness and anger and shame and guilt. I am also, at that same time, my present day self. It is a battle of wills. The seventeen year old me wants to run and hide and fights against the 42 year old me.  (DON’T LET THEM DO THAT TO ME AGAIN. DON’T LET THEM TAKE MY BABY) While I battle the stereotypes noted above, my mind is assaulted with flashbacks of maternity homes and giving birth alone. It is remembering all the lies that were told to me to coerce and intimidate me into signing a single sheet of paper and forever change my life path and that of my daughters. This often toxic combination of intellect and emotion can cripple me and render me speechless. At best it leaves me in a puddle of tears.

This is where I believe (Thorn and others are welcome to correct me if I am wrong) the coming out is different. I became a mother traumatized by adoption with the help of others. I was not born gay. I did not know for years I was gay and decide to come out. I did not become pregnant and carry my child to term (when abortion was indeed an option) to have her given away to strangers. I did not live most of my life knowing I would lose my first born child. While the act coming out for gays may be traumatizing, my situation is reversed. My trauma act caused my need to come out.

In her book, Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman states that psychological trauma is an affliction of the powerless. At the moment of trauma, the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force (parents, church, agency workers, doctors, hopeful adoptive parents who deserve the child the mother does not). Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary symptoms of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning. Herman notes a few experiences increase the likelihood of harm. I have excerpted a few below.

1. Being taken by surprise (as in being surprised by pregnancy, surprised your boyfriend left you, surprised your parents sent you away to live with strangers)

2. Being trapped (as in a maternity home)

3. Being at the point of exhaustion (as in after labor and then asked hours later by that overwhelming force to sign a document and give away your child)

4. Being physically violated or injured (as in having poor medical care that you “deserved” because you got pregnant or in having your vagina sewn up incorrectly following delivery to insure you “won’t do that again”)

When I “come out” all the feelings above do too. In summary, when I “out” myself I out not only my status but my trauma. I am not sure that gay’s have the same challenges in this regard.

Do they? 

I encourage dialogue.

7 Thoughts.

  1. You’re right that for a person like me, coming out is fairly low-risk situation. To some extent, talking about my history of mental illness or being a rape survivor is probably more analogous, and those are both things I’ve been willing to be “out” about when there’s at least some perception that it’s at minimum impolite to do so.

    But actually what you made me think about is that I’m probably being a little unkind to my partner in pushing her to come out, because she’s clearly having the same kind of trauma response you do. I do think she gets better every time she tells someone and she agrees that it’s good for her, but it definitely triggers her trauma memories of being shunned overnight after having been quite popular, almost being voted off her sports team, having her college scholarship and thus her whole future thrown into jeopardy — because she was gay and had a girlfriend. And so while she’s quite comfortable being gay and having a girlfriend now, even all these years later she can’t always talk about it without feeling that same sense of panic and dread.

    I guess the other point I’d make is that disclosure has gotten easier on Lee in large part because the culture has changed since the late 70s. Being gay doesn’t have such a stigma to it (though I do think our adoption sort of gets a pass because we’re focusing on older black boys with special needs; I don’t have any actual evidence but I think some people would be less positive if we were in the “healthy infant” camp) because so many people have come out and changed the dominant perception. And that’s the great role I think outness plays, what it does for others even as it has the potential to hurt you as the out one. That’s one great thing I think you and other birth/firstmoms in the blogosphere are doing, creating a presence that should personalize things and keep people from judging because they know an actual example of the group they’d otherwise misjudge. But as a culture, we aren’t yet at a turning point (I don’t think) in adoption awareness, and ironically that’s going to be a harder fight in some ways than the gay rights one has been.

  2. I too think that it might be a person by person issue.

    I have a friend that is now VERY out as being gay – but had a really hard time earlier in life because of traumas that occurred as a result of coming out. He was kicked out of his home as a teenager, had no relationship with his father from that point forward, a strained relationship with his Mother, and began a traumatic journey that has impacted him to this day.

    Though I don’t wish to speak for him, or others, I think he would identify with some of the experiences you mentioned increase the likelihood of harm.

    He moved from the midwest to Southern California, and is thriving out here. Most of the time he seems free from the traumas that plagued him, but I do see them behind his eyes still…..

    As a first Mom? I’m nowhere near as out as he is. I can count on two hands the number of people I know in real life that know about my daughter – and only one of them isn’t directly tied to the adoption community or industry.

    Part of what strikes me is that I don’t feel like there is a safe place for me to go. My friend came to Los Angeles, spent time in San Fransisco, went to places seeking out those that would be understanding. Folks that would accept him for who he is. Places where he could live his life “out” and not have to hold that panic.

    I don’t know where that place for first Mothers is.

    I live in liberal Los Angeles, and I don’t know where I can go and not be afraid.

    • PS Sorry for going a little off topic there – I can tend to ramble at times…..

  3. Thorn and TGM – Thanks. Very interesting thought provoking comments. TGM – Your reference to where do moms goes for safety touched me. I dont know either. You reminded me of a time where the moms on my group list wanted/needed a private list (our list is combined moms and adoptees) and I and another mom set one up. The adoptees on the list got very upset with us (it trigggered their abandonment issues presumably) and basically we shut down our own needs for theirs. Again I wonder how any relationshipo can improve when only the needs of one side matter? You prompted another post for me. Will write in a day or so.

    • It was prompting me to write a post about it – because I don’t think I really thought about it until my fingers started making the words come….I don’t know that it’s a post I’m ready to write yet, so I look forward to hearing your thoughts on those things.

  4. And Thorn – I totally agree. Recall I quoted Amandar Bearse in a previous post. Her words (that I slighltly edited by the parenthetical) were directed to coming out as gay. The most important political step […] is to come out of the closet. It’s been proven that it is easier to hate us and to fear us if you can’t see us.” – Amanda Bearse quotes but it definitely applies to first moms as well.

    As long as we dont exist, we allow others to shun us, shame us and hide us, they can hate us (and that “us” includes our own children) We are not human. We are not real. We are merely a means to someones ends for a child they cannot have on their own. We are dehumanized. Once we are out of the shadows, once we are real, people tend to have their own WTF moments and feel differently (well, some people). We become human.

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