After nine months forming a symbiotic relationship in the womb of his mother, John (name withheld) was born blue in the face with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. It was 1971 in the Hawkes Bay.
He was then wrapped up, and “left in [his] misery to be cared for by hospital shift workers for three weeks before [his] adopted parents – a very button-downed, strictly religious, quite unimaginative, very straight and unadventurous family” – chose him, he says.
“It was a very different time back then. Hospital wards in the sixties and seventies would have children lined up and potential families would walk through and say ‘I like the look of that baby’ before they would pick their new child.”
Adoptees are often broken people, he says, who spend their lives trying to recover from the trauma of the primal wound – the immediate severed relationship with their mothers.
John didn’t have a particularly happy childhood, he says. His parents, who “fought like cats and dogs”, separated when he was 11.
“Looking back, it was another form of rejection. At that point in my life I was the odd one out and there were arguments as to who would take me. If I didn’t behave, threats were made that I would become a ward of the state. That was very incredibly difficult, especially heading into puberty and adolescence.”
Aside from the dysfunctional relationship of his adopted parents, John felt his family were always very different to him, in both temperament and personality. He was the youngest of three children; his two older sisters were his adopted parents’ biological children.
Taking illegitimate children home and making them your own was something that socially conscious people did in those days, he says.
“If you are a person who reads a pamphlet and believe everything you hear, you think everything will be fine. Meanwhile attachment theory was in its infancy. It is of course quite a bit more complex than that.
“For all intents and purposes you would think I would feel completely a part of my family but I didn’t really have that sense.
“They are different people. I wanted something more to be there but there really isn’t. I’ve kind of accepted that now. Where it’s difficult is actually talking about those feelings with them and being shut down. I was told not to be stupid, that I was treated exactly the same and I had no right having those feelings.”
John dropped out of school and was living on the streets by the age of 15. Drugs, for him, filled the void, he says. When he reached the legal age to find his birth parents at age 20, he decided against it. It was the fear of being rejected again, he says.
After years of living a transient life overseas, he came back to New Zealand in 2009 and sought rehabilitation services, which just happened to be at the same hospital where he was born, he says.
“I guess what I’m saying is that start to life really screws adopted people up, (screws with your sense of self) and in my case I’ve essentially spent my entire life recovering from that particular form of scarring.”
While he was recovering, he decided to find his birth family three years ago. He found he had a number of siblings but his mother had died after a life of drug abuse in 1981.
“It was very difficult. On an intellectual level I couldn’t understand why I was reacting in such a way towards someone I didn’t know but on an emotional level I was devastated,” he says. “Shedding tears over slabs of granite in a cemetery wasn’t the reunion I had hoped for.”
Otherwise, his family has a pretty colourful history. There were lots of deviants who were into vices, be it gambling, addiction or crime, he says. “Funnily enough, my adopted family were quite straight but I was quite deviant so it was a bit of a relief to hear I came from a long line of misfits. I was lucky enough to come out of it the other side, my mother not so.”
Even when John met his family, there was still a sense of disconnect, he says. “You expect or at least long for that ‘click’ or that connection. I’ve never felt that. I’ve always been unsentimental that way.
“I’ve tried to do the whole ‘it hasn’t affected me’, but for me the last few years have been getting over that denial and recognising how messed up I was. I’m not going to be a victim to that stuff or my childhood. Hand in hand, this stuff did muck me up. I still do feel that sense of alienation quite strongly. I’m a lone wolf and I’m very wary, so I keep a distance – possibly due to a fear of being rejected. It’s almost second nature to be deflective.”
His experiences aren’t all negative. He’s not confined to a specific identity and is very open-minded as a result. What’s more, adopted people are very resilient, he says.
“I went from being on the streets and sniffing solvents to getting through university by myself. That early thrust into the world taught me to hit the ground running. It’s really crucial to know your identity and where you come from. In my case I inherited unhelpful traits but they’re my traits nonetheless. I’m colourful and interesting and I’ve had an interesting life with all my exploits.”
Gaining a bachelor of arts in sociology and political science, John now works in policy around alcohol and drug abuse. He also has two children – an 11-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son – who he is very close with.
As for the way forward, John thinks there needs to be more recognition afforded to the complexities adoptees and families of adopted people face.
Open adoption is a lot better now but the legislation hasn’t caught up. Judgement and negative assumptions around adoption needs to be addressed, he says.
“Sure a mother might not be in a place to support their child at that time, but they decided to give you life and offer you a stable home environment by giving you away. There shouldn’t be any judgement.
“It needs to be recognised that adoption isn’t a smooth kind of process. Families and individuals are very complex. You can put all your efforts and energy into a child and they’ll be totally different. That whole process is amplified with adoptees.
“I don’t know how you can address this stuff with legislation. But any legislation that encourages dialogue, transparency and puts mechanisms in place that allow adopted people to find their identity can only be a positive thing.