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.”

“Home”

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” -The Great Gatsby

After a series of dreams that plunged into the depths my subconscious, I awoke with a deep sense of gratitude for all of the factors in my life that have shaped who and where I am today. The good, the bad, the terrible…all of these experiences have come full circle and have ultimately led me “home.”

And for that I am immeasurably grateful.

I’m at the 1-year anniversary of my trip to South Korea. Being the big milestone, nostalgic person that I am, I’ve spent a lot of energy reflecting on what this means. What have I learned? How have I grown? Have I healed?

I’ve attempted to answered all of those big questions that I’ve struggled with, largely through conversations with people that I love and by reading. The academic side of me required that I read as much I could find about adoption, ranging from reunion stories to memoirs to lengthy, dry peer-reviewed articles.

What I found helped me validate my feelings and finally make sense of my experience. As a result, I have finally begun to accept myself just as I am.

There’s a wide breadth of research about the trauma that babies separated from their mothers experience. Perhaps the most famous is Harry F. Harlow’s experiments with monkeys and surrogate mothers, in which he found that those with surrogate mothers from birth had stronger bonds, which weakened in proportion to the duration of the delay. This is corroborated by research by Dr. John Bolby which found that the mental health of children who have been separated from their mothers is severely damaged, influenced by “the quality of the substitute mothering experience, and the length of delay in providing an adequate substitute, and the number of such substitutes during the first three years of life.”

We have to wonder how the baby’s subjective self was reacting to these multiple dislocations and whether it was able to consolidate a cohesive core self by six months, like other babies.

Looking at my own experience, I went from my mother to an orphanage to an adoptive family (in a completely new cultural context), all within a 5-month period. It’s a series of attachment, separation and adjustment that is true for all adopted children, however how children respond to this trauma and stress varies. For those who are met with loving families and healthy relationships, the effects of this unstable period are reversible, while those who do not experience these healthy environments are often plagued with issues of abandonment, attachment and identity. 

I recently read through an old notebook filled with my schoolwork from grade school and found a story that I had typed when I was ten. It was titled “My Life” and was primarily the origin story I had been told: “I thank my brother. He’s mostly the reason I’m here today. Why? He wanted a baby sister to play with so he kept on begging my parents to get one. Finally they decided that they were going to get one. My mom wanted a girl. So they decided to adopt one from South Korea. They picked me up [at the airport].”

Reading this 16 years later, I was surprised that my adoptive parents never tried to alter this narrative that is analogous to a child begging for a toy at the toy store.

Growing up with no origin story, many adoptees are forced to disavow reality and often carry around fantasies about their heroic mother or father coming to their rescue. Nightmares are also common, as this mythic fantasy merges with reality (having to choose between two sets of parents). Subsequently, they struggle with existential questions about who they are and how to define “reality,” perhaps more deeply than those who have a reflection of themselves mirrored back to them everyday.

Those who know their mothers cannot imagine what it is like not to know the woman who brought you into the world. What it is like to be forbidden by law to see her face, hear her voice, know her name. No one can imagine it because it is unimaginable.

Additionally, many adoptees feel unlovable deep down in the core of their being. This can easily happen when your first sense of self is as someone who has been abandoned and unwanted by your own flesh and blood. Relationships with family members and friends can seem tenuous because you are constantly afraid of being deserted and abandoned again. This silent fear can manifest in a variety of ways.

As attachment problems, trust issues and difficulties with intimate relationships. As low self-esteem. As shame. As depression. As loneliness. As a quest for an authentic identity. As a perfectionist, afraid of making any mistake or error. It is manifested in the way many adoptees carefully suppress all emotions except for gratitude and the way in which large chunks of childhood are repressed and lost.

Adopted children, who get the message that not only were they chosen, but they were chosen to be the light of their parents’ lives, often do not feel entitled to express any negative feelings, such as grief or anger at being cut off from their origins. Some become so successful at splitting off their feelings and keeping up a cheerful facade that they do not even know when they are angry.

Perhaps the most prevalent theme among adoptees is the search for “home.”

From the moment they are separated from their birth mothers, all adoptees are consciously or unconsciously in search of some place, perched somewhere between conception and birth, that could be called Home.

This has certainly been true in my own life, as evidenced by the strong desire I had last year to find my birth parents. When I reflect on my search, and the ensuing disappointment, what I was really searching for was “home”– unconditional love, acceptance and a sense of belonging. So much so, that life without these things didn’t make sense or seem worth it. 

The word home is virtually impossible to translate into other tongues, we are told by the classicist Bartlett Giamatti.  It is not a concept, not a place, but a state of mind where self-definition starts. It is origins. We can see the search for Home as a universal quest, but for the adopted person it is also a literal one. It is a quest for the beginning of one’s narrative; for the lost mother; for unconditional love; for meaning; for the recovery of lost time; for a coherent sense of self; for security; for form and structure; for grounding and centering.

A few months ago I was reading a blog about a friend who was able to reunite with her birth parents. As I scanned through the pictures of her and her biological family, I felt happy for her, while at the same time having no emotional desire for that. I recognized that the people in the photos were still mere strangers, disconnected by language and culture.

They don’t know each other’s past, what the other struggles with, or their likes or dislikes.
They can’t decipher what various facial expressions mean or communicate with gestures.
They haven’t been with each other throughout the good times or the bad times.
They haven’t experienced life together.

As I recognized all of these things, I felt an overwhelming contentedness and joy for the family I have found, neither biological nor adoptive, but the family I chose. These are the people who I feel an unexplainable connectedness to, people who I get” and am “gotten” by, who I love and am loved by. So, a year later, I have finally found home and it is largely due to the search for my biological parents and willingness to finally explore my adoption.

Each time an adopted child wonders whose tummy she was in, what her mother looked like, why she was given up; each time he has a fantasy or a dream, looks on the street for someone who looks like him, the adoptee has taken a small step on the journey toward Home.

Life

Earlier today I was prompted to write about a moment from childhood. It was a time to reminisce and to reflect, but while other people were carefully crafting their narrative, I was left alone with my thoughts. I tried in vain to think of something, anything, to write about, but to no avail. I’ve long known that I’ve repressed most of my childhood, as I have very few memories (and even fewer fond ones), but I was surprised when I was assaulted with the realization that I’m equally good at blocking out life. In my attempt to numb the pain, I’ve numbed the joy, as well as the experience of being alive. Essentially, I’ve shut myself down to the moments that make life worth living.

Joseph Campbell is often quoted for saying, “I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.” He’s right, and for a long time this resonated deep within me. But now…it just doesn’t, even though I still believe it.

My experience of being alive isn’t very fulfilling right now and I find myself with a strange detachment toward it.

“I Like Adoption.”

One of the latest viral videos is titled “I Like Adoption” (not your typical viral video). I first saw this yesterday at 5:57 am and was unable to go back to sleep. Not because of the warm, cuddly, “faith in human restored” feelings that seem to be sweeping everyone off their feet, but by anger. In fact, I was far angrier than I’ve been in a long time and actually longed to hit something. Instead, I shoved down my feelings and tried to forget about it. However, the anger remained. This anger clouded the my day and successfully made me grumpy for a good part of the day. (I suspect that this isn’t the typical reaction to the video.)

When I awoke this morning, I noticed that many of my friends were sharing the video and commenting on how “beautiful” and “loving” it was. One of my really good friends shared it with the caption of “a-freaking-mazing.”

I threw up in my mouth a little.
My anger returned with a vengeance.

To be fair, the video is actually really beautiful. It’s a story of a family who has adopted kids from all over the world, many of which have abnormalities (like no arms or legs). Obviously, what they do is laudable. You can practically feel the love that the family shares. I have mad respect for them and wish that more people were as loving and passionate as they are.

So what is it that makes my heart race and muscles tense in anger? The father’s narration, particularly these two lines:

“When you’re adopted your parents looked down on the whole world and picked you. You think that they don’t really know the gravity of them being rescued or saved…”

Although these (bold) statements may be true for their family, they’re not true for the majority of adopted children. In fact, these generalizations are complete and utter bullshit. (Actually, it’s how to be an asshole parent.) It’s this kind of speech that perpetuates the misinformed and ignorant ways that many speak about adoption. (Oh hey, thanks Christian propaganda.)

Biological children are never presented with a narrative where they should be thankful for being born, however adopted kids are constantly told this– constantly told that we should be “thankful” for being adopted. Not only can this alienate adoptees, but it can also make them feel like “less” of a child, family member and person, and more like a commodity– a mere object purchased for the pleasure of others. It’s like we’re in debt to our adopted parents, a debt that can never be repaid, consequently leading to feelings of guilt, shame and inadequateness.

Part of me wants to point fingers and blame someone for the pervasiveness of this kind of speech, but then I’m reminded that the majority of people will never understand this because they’ll never know what it’s like.

They’ll never have to wonder what it’s like to have an original birth certificate, one that’s forever sealed from them. Nor will they ever know what it feels like to have a whole history completely hidden and forbidden from them. They’ll never have to wonder who their parents are or if they have siblings. Nor will they ever have the heartbreaking experience of walking down the street and wondering “are any of these people related to me?”  They’ll never have to wonder if anyone else knows about their existence.

This ignorance is completely understandable because most people will never think about these types of things since it’s so unnatural to them (that’s a good exercise in empathy), however it is not acceptable to continue to allow individuals (like the father in the video) to perpetuate the way individuals talk about adoption. It discounts the experience of many adoptees and affirms their deep seeded feelings of unworthiness.

The adoption community needs to come together to allow people to see the complexity involved in even the most idealistic adoptions.

Successful Reunions

I just finished reading a post about one of the girls from the trip who successfully found their birth mother…and father (who was thought to be deceased)…and siblings. Twisting the knife, I reread this post by another individual who was reunited with her birth mother. It seems as if there have been a lot of reunions and looking back, five out of the eighteen people were reunited with their birth families. That’s close to 30%, which is pretty high.

Although I am deeply happy for these people, hearing about these reunions fills me with a longing that I realize will never be filled, no matter how hard I try; it’s completely out of my control.

I would give anything to know my birth parents.
Anything.

Someday

Happy National Adoption month?

In America, the month of November is celebrated as National Adoption Month. This has been celebrated since 2000 and is a month to recognize children who are waiting to be adopted, children who have been adopted, and all of the caregivers involved. It’s a month where individuals can share their stories and shed light on the positive and negative consequences of adoption.

In an ideal world, it would be a month to critically examine and re-write the laws that deeply affect adoptees and their birth parents. (It would be nice to have an original birth certificate, rather than one that has been fabricated to accompany a new, entirely different narrative.) But, we are still a long way away from this, so individuals are left on their own to obtain their personal histories and weave together some sort of a beginning, similar to a big bang.

Earlier this week, I read this story about a transgender woman who was able to secretly copy down her information while her social worker left the room. (I’m still kicking myself for becoming paralyzed and losing my chance at doing something similar while in Korea.) She tracked down her mother, with the help of the local authorities, and what followed was one of the most beautiful, touching reunion stories that I’ve ever read.

Reading this reignited my determination to obtain information* about my birth parents. I’ve promised myself that someday, I will return to Korea and will do whatever it takes to have the information that rightfully belongs to me, and I won’t leave until I succeed.

Has anyone else had any luck with receiving any of their information?

*Information would be enough for now. As a fairly responsible human being, I would never walk up to my birth parents and wreck their lives (aka: tell everyone I’m their daughter).