Adoption and Trauma

“For me, being an adoptee is like getting into a horrible car accident and surviving with devastating injuries. But instead of anybody acknowledging the trauma of the accident, they tell you that you should feel lucky. Even if the injuries never stop hurting, never quite heal. Even if the injuries make it impossible to feel comfortable in everyday life.

So I learned not to talk about it. Even though my bones ached.”

-Excerpt from Please Don’t Tell Me I Was Lucky to be Adopted


Recently, through helping individuals with trauma histories and by reading blog posts/articles of other adoptees (and/or adoptive parents), I have come to recognize that my experiences, both internal and external, are not isolated to just me. Rather, they’re shared by many adoptees. For example, reading this post on parenting kiddos who sabotage big days made me realize that my trepidation towards holidays (including birthdays) isn’t because I’m somehow weird or scrooge-like, but because of the realization that Big Days trigger Big Feelings. (Cue also portions about shame/unworthiness, anxiety that results from exiting the predictable routine, and regret/sadness…basically, all of it.) Those feelings are so large that it takes an enormous amount of energy just to get through the day. And then another surplus of energy is needed in order to continue to keep the Big Feelings at bay after the holidays, because unfortunately, denial doesn’t equal elimination.

All of that said, it has taken me an enormous amount of time to recognize that adoption is a traumatic life experience that should be understood as such. While this is partly attributable to being an incredibly stubborn perfectionist, I believe that it’s largely because of the pervasive narrative of The Adoptee. Namely, that which states that ‘adoption is a good thing,’ as the author of the excerpt above points out. This isn’t to say that adoption doesn’t have its benefits– as it certainly does– rather that individuals are so enamored with the “good” to be had, that the detrimental effects to an adoptee’s well-being are far too often overlooked.

That’s why reading the above article was so powerful for me. It was like reading my own narrative, thereby providing validation for feelings, experiences and thought processes that have penetrated so deeply into the core of my being that escaping them is no longer an option. Instead, it’s a matter of understanding how to live with them.

However, unfortunately, this process is neither easy nor simple. I wish there were a way to use this understanding, this knowledge of shared experiences, as a way to anchor myself to the present. But the truth is, more often than not, I feel the disconnection that the author describes:

Adoptees and our children, despite being connected to each other, can still feel alone, without extended families or roots or anybody who looks like us. There is that inescapable feeling that many of us, ourselves and our kids, have: that we could, at any moment, just float away into the ether because we have nothing to hold on to.

Here is another passage from an adoptee who has also done a good job of capturing what this disconnection feels like:

I lived both through failures and successes, attempting to fill the emptiness inside. But the emptiness was always there, the feeling of being alone and disconnected from everything and everyone around remained. No amount of colorblind love, education, unique experiences, new friends and well-meaning “acceptance” could ever make it go away.

I think about this a lot, not just during moments when I’m feeling particularly down, but in life’s everyday moments. It reminds me of a picture that I would often draw when I was younger. It was a picture of an astronaut floating in space, surrounded only by blackness and random debris, with Earth out of focus (well, tiny) in the background.

To this day, the symbolically existential image of the untethered astronaut is the image that constantly accompanies threatens me. It both defines and limits my narrative, reminding me that, it may be true that no amount of love and acceptance can overcome the feeling of “being the only person in the world you know you’re related to.”

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