Is Adoption Trauma?

Adoption: Trauma that Lasts a Lifetime

Original Article by Vicki M. Running June 11, 1996

I found this so profound and so true I am compelled to repost it.

They just cannot understand. The perfect child of Mr & Mrs Smith they adopted 15 years ago is now skipping school, talking back, is involved in a sexual relationship with her 20-year old addicted boyfriend. Until a year ago she had good grades, enjoyed spending time with her parents; she was the ideal child. They have sought treatment from a family therapist. Nevertheless, they cannot seem to get through to her. There have been no new stressors in the household. What is the problem?

For many years adoption had been viewed as the perfect arrangement for all involved. What has not been taken into account are the emotional effects adoptions has on all involved in the triad, and most specifically for the purpose of this paper, the adoptee. These effects or issues, can be managed as long as they are recognized and acknowledged. Adoptees’ psychological issues need to be address by mental health professionals in order to recognize and effectively treat the symptoms of low self esteem, lack of trust and disassociation.

The adoptees’ trauma beings the moment she is separated from her birth mother. Some psychologists believe that an infant is not able to differentiate her mother until 2 months of age. At the same time they believe that the infant does not know she is her own identity (Kaplan 1978). What do mental health professionals believe the infant thinks for those first two months? They will suggest that she is in some type of limbo, that she does not have the capacity to think or know until two months of age. But yet she knows to cry when she is uncomfortable and how to ingest her food. Psychologists will call this instinct, but we should also look at the possibility of the newborn instinctively knowing who her mother is, after all, they were connected for 40 weeks.

Since an infant does not see herself as a separate entity, we must believe that she sees herself as part of the person she was physically attached and bonded to to 40 weeks. (Verrier, 1993, Chap 2) When separated from the one thing to which she was connected, the infant will feel she has lost part of herself.

             “Many doctors and psychologists now understand that bonding does not  begin at birth, but is a continuum of physiological, psychological, and spiritual events that began in utero and continue through the postnatal bonding period. When this natural evolution is interrupted by postnatal separation from the biological mother, the resultant experience of abandonment and loss is indelibly imprinted upon the unconscious minds of these children, causing what I call the ‘Primal Wound’ (Verrier, 1993 p.1)”

When the adoptee is separated from her birth mother, she undergoes extensive trauma. She will not remember this trauma, but it will stay in her subconscious as she lived it (Verrier, 1993). An event in a persons infancy can and will stay throughout her life. An example of the subconscious effect of an early experience would be Marc. Marc was in an orphanage the first year of his life. Because of the lack of human touch, he would rock himself in his crib. Marc is now 42 years old and still rocks himself when watching television, listening to music or sitting on a park bench. He does not remember rocking himself as an infant, but this practice has stayed with him through his subconscious his entire life.

The adoptee will always carry the issue of abandonment with her wherever she goes. It is no different then when a husband leaves a wife. She may remarry a wonderful man, but will always wonder if her new husband is going to leave her. She must work through the abandonment issue to regain trust. That abandonment issue has to be acknowledged, before it can be resolved.

Even if the 'Primal Wound’ as described above was not a factor in the adoptees’ emotional well being, the knowledge of abandonment will always be there. She may have been told she was 'chosen’ by her adoptive parents but it will not be long until she figures out she was abandoned by the first set of parents. Julie P. responded to a question on the Adoptees Internet Mailing List (an Internet support group that consists of approx. 1000 members) about the feeling of being adopted. “No, I am not depressed, miserable, angry or negative…but I have always felt second best. Sure I was told that I was the (chosen) one, but first I was rejected.” Regardless of the circumstances, it will always feel like abandonment to her.

The adoptee is given very little information about her relinquishment. (In 45 states adoptees’ birth records are sealed for 99 years. (CMS 2010) She is expected to leave the past behind on concentrate on her present and future. Out of respect for the adoptive parents, she will often not ask questions or talk about her adoption if it is an uncomfortable subject in her home. She will wonder if her relinquishment and about her birth mother.  To attempt to fill in the gaps she will create of acceptable scenarios of the circumstances of her conception, birth and relinquishment, that she can emotionally handle.

As a small child, she will not understand how her mother could give her up, or abandon her. Adoptees may feel that they were a bad baby, or that the birth mother was an uncaring person. Other thoughts will occur, such as she was stolen from her birth mother, either by public authorities or by her adoptive parents. She will generally outgrow these fantasies, and begin to see them as just that, but a part of her will always wonder.

The 'chosen’ child also has a negative affect for other reasons. The child may feel that she has to be perfect to live up to her 'chosen’ status. She may either become the compliant 'perfect’ child or she may just act out and misbehave to test the commitment of the adoptive parents. Either way, often times she is not herself, but rather acting a part. This acting can be very draining and emotionally confusing, and may last into early adult years and beyond. When an adoptee cannot live up to her 'chosen’ status, it will contribute to the feeleings of low self esteem. This will be further exacerbated if the adoptive parents are not aware of the issue and their actions reinforce the adoptees’ belief, i.e. sending her away for residential treatment or openly wishing for her to be more like themselves. (Sounds familiar-CMS 2010))

The adoptee is also aware of the many ghosts that follow her though life. These ghosts include the person she would have been had she not been adopted, the ghost of her birth parents, and the ghost of the adoptive family’s child she would have been (Lifton 1994, chap. 6). She may find herself trying to reconnect to these ghosts through her actions. Either being the image of her birth family, living her life according to her fantasy birth family, or acting as her vision of the adoptive parent’s natural child.

When the adolescent adoptee acts out it may her way of trying to connect with the image she has of her birth mother or may feel she is not worth of her adoptive parents love. Adolescence is a confusing time for any child, but the adoptee has many more identity issues to deal with.

As the adoptee begins to become aware of her adoptive status she will notice the difference she has from her peers and other family members. I noticed in my family I do not have the face shape, nose, mouth or ears of anyone in my adoptive family. Frankly with the exception of eye color, I stand out like a sore thumb. (CMS 2010) This is normal for an adoptee and can make her feel left out or misplaced in her family. A particularly tough time for the adoptee is learning about genetics for the first time in school. The first lesson in heredity and genetics is usually regarding eye color. If the adoptees eyes do not fall within the proper genetic pattern as her adoptive family, the adoptee can be left with a feeling of not belonging. There are many instances when growing up when again she is faced with the knowledge that she is different; when asked about family history by a doctor, when asked if she has a sister because the inquirer knows someone who looks just like her, when asked about ethnic background; in regular day to day conversations.

Physical differences are not the only ones noticed. Differences in personality or talents may be further misplace the adoptee from her adoptive family. In talking with other adoptees, I have described this feeling as “seeing my adoptive family is in a big circle, and I am on the outside looking in.”

With the adoptee not having a role model who resembles her physically or psychologically, it is more difficult to define where her life will lead. She may come from a biologically artistic family, but adopted into a scientific family. She may not only feel the need to follow in her adoptive family’s footsteps, attending similar colleges, choosing similar careers, but she did not have the artistic role model to show her that way of life. This further complicates the identity formation of the adoptee. “Ones identity begins with genes and family history…” (Reitz & Watson, 1992, p. 34)

Adoptees also lack the ability to see their physical characteristics as they will present themselves in the future. A natural born daughter will be able to tell how tall she will be, if she will have a tendency to be overweight, or if she is going to go grey early in life; but the adoptee is denied this genetic role model and will not know these things until she reaches that stage in life herself. This adds to the curiosity of wanting to know her genetic background.  (I myself and 5'6", and my daughter is 5'10", but neither of us have any comparison to judge this by..CMS)

          'Rachel’ says that families are a hall of mirrors, “Everyone but adoptees can look in and see themselves reflected. I don’t know what it’s like to be me. I feel like someone who looks into a mirror and see no reflection. I felt lonely, unconnected, floating, like a ghost.”

The adoptee will feel even more dissociated when conversations with family members or peer births are brought up. She is missing the story of her birth parents meeting, her conception, her birth, and her time after birth. One the Aoptees Internet Mailing List, one member described this as a feeling of “floating cosmic blip”. It is often commented that the adopteed feels 'hatched’ not 'born’. Non-Adoptees take their own life story for granted, but the adoptee is acutely aware that her is missing. So now, not only does the adoptee feel dissociated from her adoptive family, but from her peers as well.

Adoptees are faces with a feeling of loss and grief that they are not allowed, by society, to actively mourn. “With adoption, the child experiences a loss (like divorce or death) of an unknown person, and doesn’t know why.” (Adopting Resources, 1995) She is aware that family members are lost to her, but is expected not to mourn the loss of this family member she has never known. “Adoption Loss is the only trauma in the world where the victims are expected by the whole of society to be grateful” - The Reverend Keith C. Griffith, MBE

Not all of these issues affect adoptees to the same extent. Some may spend a lifetime dwelling on it, others may appear not to be affected at all. This would be true of any group of people living through a traumatic event, such as war veterans. It should be noted that adoptees are over represented in residential treatment centers.

 In recent years there have been more works written on the subject. In 1978 Sorosky, Baran and Pannor wrote on the Adoption Triage. This was one of the first books written specifically on the psychological issues of adoption. In one reference book written for psychology by Reitz and Watson (1992) it was  noted:

       “Despite the proliferation in recent decades of the literature on both family therapy and adoption, there has been little focus on the treatment of families involved in adoption.”

There are many books written by members of the Triad: the three sides of adoption; adoptive parents, birth parents and adoptees; that are geared toward their triad peers. These are an excellent resource for triad members to begin to explore the issues of adoption. In researching basic psychology books, if adoption is mentioned, it is in the following context: “It should be obvious that neither I or anybody else know enough about the psychology of adoption to offer any firm advice.” (Church, 1973)

Betty Jean Lifton PhD, Adoption Counselor/Author/Adoptee, also commented on the subject. When asked what lead to her studying adoption issues, her reply was: “Are you an adoptee….then you know.” It is easy to understand when someone who has not lived, would not give the subject much thought. Mental health professionals need to be made to give the subject some thought or they will be doing a great disservice to their adoptive patients.

The first step to communicating the psychological effects of adoption to mental health professionals is to educate the public in general. There have been more recent books, movies and such on adoption but they fail to acknowledge the special issues. Through accurate media representation, the general population can receive information needed to better understand the adopted person. In turn the mental health professionals can begin to study the subject and explore alternative treatments for their adopted patients.

Adoptive parents must also be aware of these special issues so they can find a counselor who is trained to deal with them. Too often, counselors of adopted children are not aware that special issues exist and they attempt to deal with the least disturbing problem and thus the fail to get to the core issue of adoption. Parents, as mine did (CMS 2010) took me from therapist to therapist, without ever having come upon one who is knowledgeable about the scars of adoption. Thus these children or adolescents become “secondhand patients. Therapists who do not see adoption as the core issue cannot reach the child. The Adoptee remains isolated and continues to act out…(Lifton, 1988, p. 273)

And what happened to Mr. & Mrs. Smith and their daughter? They received a referral for an adoption specialist. They are now attending family counseling and making some progress towards their daughter’s recovery through open communication and understanding of the trauma that she still experiences each day. One could only wish the same for all the other adoptees out there, child, adolescent and adult.

My First Holiday with My Birth Family

After 23 years in reunion, I finally got my first holiday (Thanksgiving) with two of my sisters and their families. 

I had never entertained the idea of this happening as long as my parents were alive due to “loyalty”.  As most adoptees, I have struggled with loyalty since reunion but I always felt open communication was the key. 

Societal expectations of gratitude are also always in play with adopted persons.   Society keeps telling us we have reason to feel obligated and loyal to our adopted families than bios.  We are made to feel that way because, after all our birth family didn’t want us or weren’t capable of keeping us, so… aren’t we lucky, grateful, that someone else did?”  The adoptee is caught in the middle of this very powerful, emotional conflict.  I constantly worry and constantly censor myself.

Feeling divided loyalty was a part of growing up and now as a reunited adult. I was raised to believe that my parents loved me more because they "wanted me.'

Now that I am in reunion, loyalty issues come up on a regular basis. In fact, people outside of the family will actually ask who I am closer to, or why I would want to search for complete “strangers."  People also love to weigh in on which family is the "real" family. Some have come right out and said that my searching was "disloyal" to my adopted family.

Bio adults are free to have express negative feelings about or personal challenges within a family and no one challenges them. It’s not the same for an adopted person.

Sorry - I got off on a tangent there. A lot of Thanksgivings the last 10 years were spent on a soccer field (the joy of being a club soccer mom)  but I can also say that loyalty kept me from spending holidays with my birth family for 23 years.  I am excited to share that my first Thanksgiving with my bio family and their kiddos was extremely memorable.  From the lavish scavenger hunts, scary movies to the Black Friday shopping – they were some of the best Thanksgiving memories in a long time!

Book Review - The Primal Wound

I went to my first ever adoption conference last April.  The Conference was the 34th Annual of the American Adoption Congress.  I met a lot of amazing people – but who knew that I would apparently be the LAST adoptee to read the “Bible”, The Primal Wound.  This book was talked about and referred to many times during the conference so when I arrived home, one of the first things I did was to order the book.

 If your life is affected by adoption, whether you're an adoptee, a friend or relative of someone who is adopted, this is a book to read.  It could explain a lot.  The Primal Wound speaks to the essence of our being. It speaks primarily to the adoptee, but also to the adoptive parent (AP) and birth parent (BP).

Nancy Verrier's experience as a psychologist AND an adoptive mother gives her a distinct advantage over many authors.  She has personal insight and has walked the walk.  The Primal Wound offers keen insight into the personal and inter-relational dynamics of everyone in the adoption triad.

This book does not talk badly, criticize or condemn any member of the triad.  The book is an honest; eye opening and open reality of what all members of the triad live with on a day to day basis due to the separation from their first mother. This book can only help an adoptive parent understand their child and an adoptee understand themselves which will and can only enhance their lives by trying to understand the child that is now "their" child, but whose heart may still be with their first mother.

This book also helped me understand and realize so much about myself.  It helped me understand why I am the way that I am, why I do some of the things that I do, why I struggle with love in my life, and why I have this subconscious fear of abandonment and trust.  While the book may not apply to all adoptees in every situation, it does ring true for many of us left with many unanswered questions as to why we are the way we are.

I cannot stress enough that I hope adopted parents read this book if not for yourself -  to better understand – but the benefit you will be able to pass along to your kiddos.  This book will help you to help them.

I found this book to be an amazingly accurate representation of my life experience. I am a happy adoptee. I had everything I wanted or needed. I had all the love in the world. After all - that's all a baby needs, right? I came into my parent’s home at just a couple days old.  But, the pain of separation from my first mother has never left me.  Society says – “What can a little baby know”? Well, I know I lost her - I still felt a certain abandonment. Even though I am in reunion -the pain of losing my birth mother is still with me today. I feel fortunate to have found this book.  I am encouraged to know that I am not alone. Everything I have felt for years is now right here in words and in black and white.

This book gives adoptees freedom from the guilt we feel all while validating us, as a true sub-culture, without identity.

Thank you Nancy, for your insight as a psychologist & adoptive mother -   I am sure it took a great deal of courage to write about such a sensitive topic that society continues to characterize as the good deed of all good deeds that cannot and should not be questioned.

Adoptee Connections

Questions: Did you know many adoptees growing up? Do you know more now? How have adoptee friendships (online or in-real-life) impacted your experience? How do you generally make adoptee connections?

Growing up in a small town, I am amazed at how many people were adopted.  I didn’t really think about just how many there were until I moved away.  I guess you can say I was being a typical teenager and the world revolved around me.

Although there were a lot of individuals that were adopted – it was rarely ever talked about.  I definitely can’t remember being surrounded by people who understood exactly how I felt about being adopted without ever having to say a word.  I didn’t have anyone around that meant exactly what I meant when I said I wondered and wanted to reach out and search.

I have two older brothers (non-biological) who were adopted before me. Together we learned that we were adopted and no one questioned or asked questions from that point on. 

It was not until my adult life where I really started asking questions and meeting others that were willing to talk about it.  That is when I learned I was not alone.  I was not the only one who wondered.  Who didn’t understand or have answers to the question of “why”.

I will never forget the day I first encountered an adoptee blog. As I began to read their thoughts (that were actually my thoughts) I felt as if I had just discovered I was not alone.

I have read and found that as some adoptees are known to do, we go on to be teen moms.   I was young but not necessarily a teen mom.  I believe it is because we as adoptees can’t help but think about our own birth mothers and how they were once pregnant teens.  It makes it easier to understand while having gained a tremendous amount of respect and empathy for them and what they must have endured back then.

Having a wealth of adopted people in my life has allowed us the chance for reflection and debate on our condition, but it has never protected us from the oppressive crap of routinely being misunderstood. Truth be told, you just can’t talk about adoption without someone who isn’t adopted and them taking issue.  A great example is an incident that recently happened to me on social platform.  I had made my status a quote from the Primal Wound (even hashtagged it #Primal Wound) and a relative decided to make a comment that was the epitome of society saying I should be happy I was not left in an orphanage and that I was clothed and fed.

I am pretty versed in the subject of adoption – yet it is mindboggling when the the typical questions arise “Aren’t you happy to be adopted?” or “Aren’t you over that yet?” to name a couple. Truth be known, I will never be happy about being adopted, and I will never “get over it”!

This year, I went to my first adoption conference.  American Adoption Congress  held their 34th annual conference in Cleveland, OH.  It told me a lot when I checked in and in my bag I was given a box of Kleenex! The American Adoption Congress
is comprised of individuals, families and organizations committed to adoption reform. They represent those whose lives are touched by adoption or other loss of family continuity.  Due to family obligations, I could only stay 2 of the 4 days but during those 2 days - I met a few amazing people who I am sure I will be connected to my entire life.  Check out their website for more information by clicking HERE.

Most adoptees I grew up with continue to live in silence, keeping the secrets of a contract they did not sign. I am willing to be their voice.  And I will continue to be their voice as long as adoption remains the condition lawmakers use to deny me equal rights.

Does the desire to search mean you are unhappy?

One of the biggest reasons adopted people decide not to search is fear of hurting members of the adoptive family.  Many of my adopted friends have actually said they have the desire but will probably search once their adoptive parents are deceased.  My heart hurts for them because the desire is obviously there and they are taking their chances that their biological mother will outlive their adoptive parents. 

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Words Matter

Why are we so sensitive to “words”?  Is it the pain over our past?  Is it that we harbor the anger and bitterness over our loss as infants? Research shows that almost every adult adoptee in therapy reported a very early felt sense that something was “wrong”, or  “missing”, or “off” even when they could not articulate those feelings.

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On Sunday I flew back to St. Louis with just a little more confidence in my step.  The confidence that is only gained through identity.  Before this meeting, I had only letters and phone calls that made up my image of WHO I was.  Now I had pictures and an actual face to face meeting (mental image) that I will cherish forever.  Piecing together parts of your unknown past is and was emotionally draining!

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First Interactions Between BM and Me

The day came.  I remember just crying and crying – knowing that I was holding the same paper that my birth mother had held and that it was her words on that piece of paper.  I remember my eyes welled with tears making me have to read the same paragraph multiple times before grasping the meaning of the written words.  I remember feeling more “complete” than I had ever been. 

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