The Ugly Duckling is about a cygnet who feels abused and isolated from his adopted Duck family. He eventually has a happy reunion as a transformed swan with his ‘natural’ Swan family. As an adoptee, when I read this story, it wasn’t the pain of the abuse or the despair of the outcast ‘duckling’ that resonated with me. It was the confusion he felt at believing for his whole life he was a duck, when in actual fact he was a swan. How do you know who you are?
My friend Sophia Gubb, is a transgendered woman. She describes gender dysphoria in her blog as a strong disassociation with her reflection in the mirror. That her image is “like a mirage, feels alien, unreal, and very very distant.” It’s when you simply don’t recognise who you are because the person staring back at you is the ‘wrong’ sex; for Sophia, her external sex (man) used not to match up to her internal gender (woman). She was in the wrong body.
The first time I read her post, I recognised the feeling. But I was what they call a cisgendered female, in a female body…so how on earth did I recognise it? To those unfamiliar with the term, I am what most people call a ‘regular’ woman (the kind portrayed in most Hollywood stereotypes). There is no conflict with my internal and external genders and thus theoretically no way for me to recognise the feeling of dysphoria. And yet I did.
I am not transgender. But I am like the duckling, adopted.
It is only coming to light now, how impactful the separation of a child from their biological family can be to the development of a child’s identity. My adoptive mother has dark eyes and dark hair and what she calls a roman nose. My adoptive father was Greek and had much the same colouring. I have fair skin and blue eyes with a turned up nose and freckles. I share very few of the biologically based characteristics or even personality traits of my parents.
When I look at myself in the mirror, I’m not quite sure who is staring back. It’s me of course. But who is me?
Of course you don’t talk about such things, because you cannot even be aware that this dysphoria does not exist in others. But through my conscious development work to ‘discover’ the real me, I have gone through exercises which involve looking in the mirror and talking to myself, in order to practise self-love and self-acceptance.
When I look at myself, I find it incredibly difficult to say ‘My name is Louisa’ because it feels like I am talking about someone else. Louisa wasn’t my birth name. But it’s a part I’ve been acting for almost 39 years.
I’ve searched everywhere on the web to find this phenomenon. When you type in identity dysphoria, you get hits on disassociative identity disorder which is a multiple personality mental disorder. It’s not that. Many searches later, I found something which resembled what I felt. It’s part of a group of identity problems called geneological bewilderment.
Knowledge of and definite relationship to his genealogy is … necessary for a child to build up his complete body image and world picture. It is an inalienable and entitled right of every person. There is an urge, a call, in everybody to follow and fulfill the tradition of his family, race, nation, and the religious community into which he was born.
H. J. Sants
I believe that a lot of knowledge can be filled in as an adult when you search for your natural parents (if you are lucky enough to be able to). But there is one aspect of identity which will never be properly resolved, just lived with and adapted to, because it happens during your childhood.
I look like no-one I know…not even me.
When I was a child, I felt my face with my fingers and tried to recognise it. I couldn’t. I was like a blind person trying to feel my way through the world. Even now when I look at a photo or in a mirror, I can’t believe that this is what I look like to others.
When I first met my natural mother, I touched her skin. It was my skin manifest in another person. When I spoke to other adoptees, they mentioned that adoptees always looked in other people’s eyes… hunting for a mirror.
It’s a privilege that people raised with their biological families cannot begin to comprehend.
This phenomenon has severe implications on artificial insemination, egg donation and traditional surrogacy – in fact in any situation where a child grows up and forms their identity without a biological mirror. The absence of any of your traits manifest in any other person around you, makes you feel like an alien. Because in fact, you are.
Like all events in life, you have the choice of what to do with it and how to feel about it.
On one hand you might be immensely insecure but this in itself gives a platform to immense growth and happiness (if you can see it that way). You might feel incredibly liberated already. There is no pattern to mimic, no one who has gone before. No path forged and no genetic imperative to follow. Of course, usually this is not something you realise as a child. You will try to mimic your parents, or the people you call your parents because you are innately programmed to do so. And as an adoptee you are unconsciously searching for anything that resembles the natural imprinting that most take for granted.
I hate milk, speak french fluently and strived to be a singer (even though 12 years of singing in a choir proved I couldn’t). My adopted mother carries those traits. I define myself as half Greek (even though by blood I am not) because my father is. I am also, like him an MBA graduate in finance and economics.
Of course these things in themselves prove nothing to people who have not experienced this. After all everyone emulates their parents to a certain degree.
But to those who know, our journey to form an identity is made up of a thousand artificial imprints. We are the ugly ducklings who try to mirror the parents and role models we’ve been given. Some of us, like me, break free. We adoptees have the potential to be more ‘free’ than anyone else and I consider it a gift.
But it can also be a curse. Because others carry on their whole lives trying desperately to be ducks and they have no way of knowing, that they are really swans.
Alas black swan with your forlorn eyes.
I see through your tears beyond your disguise.
I see the white swan you long to be.
I compare your unrecognized pain to the likes of me.
I see the longing the wants and desire.
I see the truth that made us both liars.
I see your darkness,
I see your pain.
I see your yearning to belong again.
Fear not black swan dont hold back those tears.
Let the sorrow roll for all the lost years