I hope that this stirs compassion and the beginning of an understanding of what an adoptee’s “hero’s journey” entails, and where it begins.
“Adoption Loss is the only trauma in the world where the victims are expected by the whole of society to be grateful.” -The late adoption scholar and activist Reverend Keith C. Griffith.
“Adoptees have experienced more loss than most people, over an entire lifetime, ever will.”
I wrote this in response to a newspaper column that really elucidated how societally misunderstood adoption is. I edited my response for this post. The author basically wrote that adoptees believe they are unlovable, which is why they have problems in relationships. The reality is far more complex. Adoption is often justified from the contextual perspective of birth parents’ inability to provide a stable home: since there are children who need homes, and loving people who are unable to have biological children of their own, adoption is an amazing solution. Although it can be, adoption is also isolating, traumatic and has lifelong, far reaching consequences on the adoptee that are too often overshadowed by the cultural perception of the non-adopted 98%, which is the culture the adopted themselves adopt and try to fit into. These include: attachment issues, a sense of safety, severe disassociation, difficulty trusting others/ extreme defensive mechanisms. The problem is that these behavioral consequences are the result of a very real trauma that is not addressed/ is invisible from the moment they are born and lose their primary attachment to the birth mother. We know that unresolved trauma wreaks havoc on mental health, yet this is baseline existence for many adoptees.
For me, the grief I experienced from my adoptive mother dying opened up a way to understand the grief of losing my birth mother. For me, working through the trauma of sexual assault helped me understand how to heal the trauma of adoption. These experiences are mine, and shared by so many with similar stories, but the words I share below would never have been formed if I wasn’t surrounded by a family that I love and that loves me, and that I’m glad I am a part of. I may have ran from it all if I didn’t have yoga and my dog tethering me to solid ground and one location. I wouldn’t have known what I was missing, on a deep level, if I hadn’t found real love and lost it because I hadn’t spent time finding “me” within my traumatic history. Yes, there is grief, and disassociation, and confusion. But my God, there is wonder and joy, love, and healing, too.
The adopted population accounts for 2% of the total population, and yet 30-35% of teen-aged inpatients at mental health/ residential treatment facilities are adopted. Rates of suicide are 4x higher among adopted vs nonadopted youth. To contrast, war veterans have a rate of suicide that is 1.5x higher than those who have never served. If we framed veterans with PTSD the same way that some view adoptees (if they consider what adoption is at all): Do those veterans have PTSD because they believe they’re unlovable? Or is it because they went through something that overwhelmed their nervous system? The statistics point to the fact that there is something beyond a “belief” of being unlovable.
As a society we are beginning to understand trauma, and discuss it openly. War veterans are no longer shell-shocked: they have PTSD. The #metoo movement created solidarity among sexual assault survivors and confirmed the emotional impact of sexual violence. There is a marked contrast of the before and after of veterans and women because they have family and friends who knew the before, and see how they have changed in the aftermath. There have been studies done that show how important touch and attachment are for infants, and the impact the lack of it has on premature babies as they grow older. The physiological/ emotional developmental issues that premature babies and babies who spend their infancy in the hospital have are similar to the issues that children who were adopted have. Remembering Harlow’s arguably unethical experiments with newborn monkeys and surrogate mothers lead to the understanding that similar principles often apply to the adopted population.
Adoption in itself is trauma. Losing your birth mother at a time before you have words and thoughts to comprehend death is tragic. As a newborn, your first feeling may be loss, isolation, or grief. You are not born into a celebratory hospital room. You are not engulfed with love. Your vision, so new, does not see eyes that reflect your image, eyes that look at you with unconditional love that say, “You are safe. You are mine. I love you and I will protect you and care for you; if you feel uncertain, find home in my arms, and reassurance in my eyes!” You are born into sorrow, and shame, and loss, and you can feel it dripping in the air you breathe- the same way you feel love at a wedding, or grief at a funeral. You never find home in your mother’s arms and every hug afterwards is instinctually impermanent, probably not even felt. There is no first embrace, no introduction to safety. No routine or predictable path home to your newly painted nursery, from the hospital bed to the wheelchair, from the carseat into your crib, in the arms of your mom and dad. You are a baby. It is heartbreaking.
There is so much grief, and there is shame for having that grief. There is so much expectation from outsiders for an adoptee to be grateful and so little visibility around the primary wound. Most people have their birth parents until well into their 40s and 50s. That loss fundamentally changes you, yet most don’t experience that loss, grief and therefore compassion until they are grown adults. The adopted need that compassion, and space held sacred for that loss, but it is overshadowed by the appearance of things. You were a baby, so it doesn’t matter? You are lucky to be adopted and you seem well-liked, so all that happened before is inconsequential? You have a roof over your head and parents who love you, so I don’t understand why you feel like something is wrong? Everyone goes through hard times, get over it? Most adoptees don’t even know the mess of confusion they feel can be attributed to the loss of their primary attachment; they are often diagnosed with behavioral disorders and medicated by doctors who are not adoption competent. I just ask you to consider: When are you the most vulnerable, the most needing of protection and care? When you are born. So to suffer loss at that age is catastrophic, especially because the impression it leaves sets the stage for your life moving forward. And it didn’t stop at birth. Many adoptees were kept in the hospital, sent to orphanages, given to foster parents. All temporary: the only constant was the adoptee, being passed around, again and again, mourning loss after loss after loss. You learn that love is impermanent: to feel it will result in grief, and the iteration continues until you are conditioned to live in fear of losing it. You may forget how to feel anything at all. Yet, to the nonadopted: you are adopted and you are loved- so you shouldn’t have any issues. Adoption shouldn’t be hard. What’s not acknowledged is that you, the adoptee, most likely grew up repressing emotions that you didn’t even know you had, because you never were given space to understand that your behavioral “defects” and social differences were a result of never grieving the loss of your birth parents. There is no blame or fault here. There is the unknowing/ ignorance and there is education and advocacy. In order to trust in love, believe it exists eternal, it is necessary to face down the fear of all your repressed emotions and be given space for all that you are and have experienced.
The body of knowledge around adoption may be getting better, but when adoption was a booming industry in the 80s, little was known about infant grief or the impact of adoption on the adopted. Adoptive parents had so much love to give, but often their children would shy away or test them or be unemotional (PTSD) or overly so (PTSD), making parents stop giving affection or making them believe their child didn’t love them. Many adoptive parents remark on how their babies never really cried… Every single adoptee I’ve talked to told me their parents remember them as quiet, calm, chill babies. I believe it is fair to compare this to shellshock. Nothing is as painful as the primal wound… I didn’t cry when my hand was slammed in a car door when I was five years old and I had to unlock the door and open it to free my hand, I didn’t cry when I fractured my arm and didn’t tell anyone for hours because I didn’t want to be a burden, I didn’t cry when I fractured my spine, was thrown into a cliff off a snowmobile, tore open my elbow and knee mountain biking… It is common for people with PTSD to not feel pain at all. Maybe because after pain comes shock, numbness, and the deadening of your expectations of how you exist in the world… You are born, you lose your mother and her love, and you learn that your needs do not matter, so you forget you have needs at all, or they manifest in DSM-5 type behaviors.
Being bounced from hospital to foster care to orphanage and receiving the most basic of care (food, shelter) without love or consistency of caregiver impacts attachment, trust & a sense of safety. It changes the way you relate to other people, and how you make sense of the world. Sure, each individual must confront their own trauma, and that takes tremendous courage. But this is trauma that for too long had no name. The trauma of adoption disrupts what the nonadopted majority believes by default of ignorance: that adoptees should be grateful and that adoption is only a gift. Adoptees weren’t traditionally brought up understanding what their grief was, because it was overshadowed by the parents’ joy and because the grief was an unknown.
It can take a lifetime for an adoptee to understand the grief they’ve been carrying for their entire life and it certainly does have far reaching impacts on their ability to relate to others, feel safe and secure attachment, feel independent/ autonomous, or trust their partners. It changes their ability to find “home” within themselves. It changes their self-esteem and sense of worth or belonging. The fallout of a lifetime of unresolved grief is all-encompassing. And often, adoptees are not met with understanding or compassion… Because adoption tended not to be a consideration when evaluating behavioral issues.
Many adoptees don’t understand how disassociated they are, and have been, their entire lives because, at a bare minimum, no initial sense of safety was ever established. This is birth trauma- bodily trauma rooted/ stuck in physiological, biological systems; especially the central nervous system. It is the same type of emotionally overwhelming event that traps soldiers in PTSD, but the difference is that this happens as a newborn and the ramifications unfold developmentally from there. I am born, the world is not safe, I am adopted, it still isn’t safe but I somehow am surviving... not thriving. People enjoy telling adoptees they’re resilient, the same way survivors of sexual assault are told they are strong. At least the majority of soldiers or survivors of sexual assault have a baseline they can begin to remember; the days when the world was safe, when they were fully present. Adoptees hitting rock bottom puts them back in the womb. That is a long relearning curve. So yes, there is a disconnect and a dependency. There is a lifetime to unlearn and relearn, once the grief finally surfaces.
The belief is not that I’m unlovable because I was adopted. The fact is that love is initially absent and the belief is that love is permanently temporary, so test its strength so you can anticipate when it’ll leave you. Adoptees can find it difficult to believe that people actually care for them and part of it is because they feel trapped in an inability to prove otherwise: often manifested as the fear of asking for help or emotional support because they don’t want to be an imposition (“You should be so grateful you were adopted” aka don’t ask for more/ settle for what you can get from this point on), or literally don’t know the words to ask because they’ve been trapped in anxiety and PTSD their entire lives and they wouldn’t know that safety doesn’t feel that way. It could also be hard to believe because they lacked real care and the grounding in of a sense of love and “home” at birth.
Each new relationship is a test. At the extreme, every new person is going to abandon you because that was the foundation you learned. Your needs weren’t met- you learn as an infant that your needs aren’t important and that you are worthless. Maybe the neglect is so extreme (after all you’ve only been alive days and what other baseline can you compare it to) that you would otherwise die (and certainly give up crying for help), but you literally can’t because you are an infant- you are immobile. If your needs are not met as an infant and you are not given affection or comfort, how do you ever learn what your needs actually are, how do you ever feel safe? It’s like my nieces learning to ride a Strider bike as toddlers- they learned balance before peddling… Now when my niece rides a pedal bike, the moment she hits a bump or is startled her feet fly off the pedals in an attempt to save herself/ rebalance… In mountain biking this has not turned out well, yet it is an instinctual, deeply held behavior that is hard to unlearn. It’s even harder to unlearn when one doesn’t know it exists.
On their own, nonadoptees cannot understand what adoptees go through, and yet adoptees are surrounded by psychologists, doctors, psychiatrists etc. that are not adopted, yet able to diagnose them. Adoption is common, but rare, so it is probable that nonadoptees have no obvious reason to understand the “isolated” 2% of the population that is adopted. Most adoptees go a lifetime thinking there is something wrong with them (I was put in a drug & alcohol class as a teenager, I was diagnosed bipolar and was medicated for six years in my twenties: I have issues with none of these things and it wasn’t until I met other adoptees that I began to learn that my “issues” were the norm, and that a lot of it could be traced back to the time of my birth). Adoptees get diagnosed ADD, bipolar, depressed, multiple personality, etc. and medicated as a result… It is a tragic mistake. Adoptees struggle with complex PTSD for their entire lives, and have it before they are ever even adopted, and certainly before they have the words to describe it. Their birthparents don’t know what their baby carried over from their previous lifetime.
We have to reframe the way society understands adoption. The same can be said of all trauma. We are a grieving nation, yet the vulnerability of such tender pain is often too scary to face. We have to melt the barriers barring grief in order to embrace the fullness of love and nontraditional family systems. We need to find better, more efficient ways of accessing and releasing grief in infants and adoptees. We need to be better at validating the loss inherent in adoption because when we do, and we feel it, we become deeply compassionate individuals. Despite the odds, we are still alive… and in spite of how we sometimes overwhelmingly feel…. we want to be !