Today I’m thinking about my stepson, who five years ago on this day took his own life. If you were to ask me why he did it, I would want to blurt out, “Because he was adopted.” But I don’t know for sure whether or not he had an underlying mental illness that contributed to his state of mind. I don’t know if he had a genetic predisposition toward depression, or even dangerous behavior. I don’t know at all what he might have endured during his first four years of life in Korea or whether these early years altered his mind irrevocably, regardless of his adoption experience.
I don’t know the answer to why he did it. Still, I suspect adoption played a role in the hopelessness he felt about his life.
I call him my stepson, though the term doesn’t quite fit comfortably. I had no role in raising him. He was in his mid-twenties when we met, and he was only five years younger than me. The word “stepson” is the easiest way to explain that he is the son of my husband. But, it also reflects the position my husband’s son assigned to me in his life. He called and sent me cards on Mother’s Day. He asked me for motherly advice. He questioned me about his father, in the hopes of understanding him better. He wanted me to explain him to his dad.
I became a bridge of sorts, I suppose, because of also being adopted. I understood why he felt like he couldn’t ever fit in anywhere, why he was drifting through his life. At the time though, all I knew and all I had to share with him was my own experience. I was not part of any adoptee community. I did not have a single adoptee friend. During the time he was still alive, I reunited with my birth parents, but I did so in a vacuum of sorts, without much external support. I had no where to direct him for help because I didn’t have anywhere to go myself. I was not good at asking for help. He was worse.
My stepson’s death triggered an urge inside of me to stop the insanity of denying the role adoption has played in my own life, to begin to speak honestly and openly about what it really feels like to live as an adopted person. This silence many of us feel we must maintain needs to end. I know this now.
Some reading this–particularly other adoptees–may wonder, then, why it’s taken me so long to write publicly about my stepson. I don’t think it’s possible for me to explain how much guilt I carry over his death, or how much guilt my husband also carries. It’s too easy to throw blame around when reality is so very complicated. I have done this myself. I know that my husband is not innocent in this, but I can’t throw daggers at him because I love him too much. I need to help him process this reality without being destroyed by it.
I know I am, likewise, not innocent in this. For five years, I’ve rolled around in the mess of all the things I could have done that I didn’t do and all the things I did that were the absolute wrong things. I knew how my stepson felt and I understood at a primal level why he felt that way. Yet, I was abominably ineffective at helping him. The son my husband and I conceived together was just about to turn seven at this time five years ago. Our daughter was only two. Their brother is gone.
The worst thing we could do now is not talk about it.