Who Am I?

by TLB, adopted from Vietnam to Canada.

Do I look like my father or mother? What is my real name? When was I born? Who am I really? I have been going through these questions my whole life and not quite sure if I will ever find the answer.

I was born in Vietnam, adopted by a white family in Canada in the early 70’s. I am part African-American and Vietnamese but I look more African-American, and I’m also physically disabled which I contracted from polio and a gun shot wound (something I have been told as a child, but not sure if it’s true). I have always known I was different growing up, not because the colour of my skin but because I was disabled. When I arrived to Canada I had to go to the hospital for many surgeries to straighten my legs and back due to scoliosis. When I arrived home from the hospital, this is when I felt I didn’t belong in the family. As a young child I was stubborn and barely spoke because the effects of leaving Vietnam and being in a different environment, I was overwhelmed.

Being an African-American Asian disabled child, living in a white world, I knew I was different and I wanted so much to fit in. At an early age, I knew that my adoptive mother treated me different than my other siblings. They had two other biological children along with another adopted child from Children’s Aid Society, so I was the black sheep in the family and that was my nickname to other family members and neighbours. My adoptive mother wasn’t the perfect mother everyone thought she was behind closed doors. Using my wheelchair was forbidden in the house so I had to always crawl around on the floor and carpet, but leaving marks on the carpet didn’t look good and caused my adoptive mother to always vacuum, so I had to have my bedroom moved down in the basement – being isolated away from my siblings. Whenever my siblings would come down to play with me, they were sent back upstairs and told not to play with your “black sheep” sister. Being alone in the basement, I stopped talking and had to entertain myself as a child. From not talking, my vocal cords didn’t develop well so whenever I went to school, I had trouble interacting with other students and was bullied and labelled as being dumb.

My adoptive mother always told me I should be grateful to them for adopting me. I always kept my feelings inside because if I told them how I really felt, I would be beaten. I always had to thank her for saving my life every time I did anything wrong. The first time I said “I wish you’d never adopted me” my adoptive mother emotionally and physically abused me. Sometimes I wouldn’t care what she did to me, I was happier just to be in my own shell in the closet.

I was never involved in any of the family gatherings or family vacations. I would always eat alone after everyone else ate. The one memory I will never forget was when my adoptive family went away to Florida and I wasn’t allowed to go because my adoptive mother said “black and crippled children were not allowed”. I went to the mirror and looked at myself. I wanted so much to be white that I scrubbed my skin so hard but it just turned red. I pushed my wheelchair down the stairs and tried to push myself up to walk, instead I fell down and was left lying on the floor for days until a neighbour found me bleeding. Instead of being a good neighbour and help a young girl, he took advantage of me for days while my family was away having fun. When my family returned, I tried to tell my adoptive mother what happened. All she said was, “You were looking for attention and that’s what you deserved”.

I wanted so much to be a part of the family to the point that I would agree to clean the house. My adoptive mother would always introduce me to her friends as the “black maid of the third country”. My adoptive mother emotionally abused me by continuing saying she never wanted me because of my disability and skin colour. She didn’t think I would turn out to “be soo dark” and a troubled child needing therapy appointments. All I wanted was to make my adoptive mother proud of me, but nothing I did ever satisfied her. Whenever my siblings got into trouble, I would stand up for them and would lie and steal for them so they would play with me. There were times I would sneak food at night because I was so hungry but whenever I got caught, I was sent to the closet for days. Nothing I did was good enough for my adoptive mother.

When I was 11 years old, I was told that I was leaving the family and spending a few days somewhere else. I didn’t know what I did wrong. That night I stayed up all night rethinking the day – what did I do to displease my adoptive mother. All she told me was I would be going to a better place that can care for my “crippled-black” behaviour. I cried the whole way begging my adoptive mother that I would be a “good girl”. Four hours later I was dropped off to a big stone house with lots of stairs and other children running around the living room. My adoptive mother told me it was only for a few weeks and that the family will help me with my behaviour. For the next few days, all I did was sit by the window waiting for my adoptive mother to return. Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. I had to eventually realise that I was staying in this house and no-one was coming back for me.

I was living in a house with 25 other children. I tried to fit in and be a part of the family but still felt like an outcast. Even though I was not the only disabled child, I felt that I didn’t belong. I found out that the foster mother of this home, was the woman who helped my adoptive parents adopt me from Vietnam. The foster mother had an organisation that helped Canadian and American families to adopt children from third world countries out of orphanages that she opened. I wasn’t the only child adopted and sent to the foster family. During the years, living at the foster family I became a reserved and quiet child and during my teen years I still wanted to know “who am I”? I asked the foster mother if she knew anything of my birth mother and every time I asked her, the answer was always, “Wait until you are eighteen”. From then I just left the question alone and tried to live my teen years in the home.

When I first went to the foster family, I was placed in a school with other disabled children but I felt it wasn’t for me. I wanted to be independent and be left alone so I became very stubborn especially during therapy sessions. Having therapists lift my legs and try to stretch them wasn’t working for me, they tried to get me to use braces and crutches, I definitely didn’t want that. So they finally agreed for me to use a sports wheelchair and what freedom I felt!! Using the wheelchair built up my teen arms and I became very strong, during recess time. While other children were at therapy, I could be found in the gym bouncing basketballs. This is when a sports coach saw me throw my first basket and she asked me, “Do you want to be an athlete and travel?” I quickly answered her, “Yes!” Little did she know that I didn’t just want to be an athlete but I wanted to travel so I could be out of my foster house as much as possible. My foster father was abusing me whenever we went to the family home in Montreal every summer, so whenever I found out that I would be travelling in the summer – I looked forward to the summer knowing I would be out of the country!

If it wasn’t for that sports coach, I wouldn’t have been able to be the Paralympian athlete I am today. I have travelled to many countries and won numerous medals, but a part of me felt that I didn’t deserve it. Whenever I was away, I still felt like an outsider to my team mates and other athletes. Deep down I believed they all knew who they were and they always talked about their family. With my timidness, I still had trouble interacting with my team mates. By the end of every trip, I dreaded going home because I knew what I was going home to.

My foster family didn’t really recognise my athletic achievements. There were times they didn’t even know I went away for a week because there were so many children in the house and the foster mother was busy with her work. I remember one time I arrived home from my first competition where I’d won my first 5 gold medals (being the youngest on the team) and when I arrived home, I just sat at the front door with my bags waiting for someone to greet me. When my sister came down the stairs to see me she just said, “Are you running away?” From that moment, my enthusiasm just dropped from my heart and I wished I could just run away. So from then on, I just continued on with my competitions with no feeling of accomplishment, feeling like a nobody.

I competed in two Paralympics, two PanAm games and many small competitions. When I won my first Paralympic 5 gold medals, I was interviewed by the paper but a lot of the words written were just not true. The story portrayed a young girl winning medals from a foster home that cared for her, but they really didn’t know the truth.

I am grateful for the foster family to let me stay with them, but behind closed doors they portrayed themselves as looking like the perfect couple helping many children. The house was not accessible, I continued to crawl up and down stairs to get to my bedroom, and I had to crawl up and down and bring my chair down stone stairs outside to get to my school bus.

My whole life living in the foster family, I wanted so much to be out and living on my own. When I turned 16 years old, I finished high school and left the foster home. I went to college and received a degree in Business Administration.

Throughout my life, I always felt unloved and not wanted by anyone. I thought of my biological mother not wanting me, my adoptive mother not wanting me and within the foster family, I was just “another child”. I have tried my best to do right things, never gotten involved on the wrong side of the law, etc. I always felt I didn’t fit in anywhere, had trouble with social gatherings and interacting with adults my age. To this day, a large part of me continues to feel isolated, not wanted and most of all not knowing who I really am.

Recently, I decided to register with 23&Me to know my background and I discovered I have many 2nd and 3rd cousins out there. I was surprised to know that I have some sort of distant family out there but disappointed to not have any information about my parents. I just want to have the feeling of belonging. Growing up, I never had that feeling.

The Legacy and Impacts of Abuse in Adoption

Part 2 of a 3 part series on Sexual Abuse within Adoption

When abuse happens to a child from the very people who are supposed to protect it, a devastating legacy of impacts is created. I lived with my adoptive family for 19 years until they left to go overseas to be missionaries. Up until that point in my life, I had learnt to suppress my truths and bury it deep within my body.

How can one ever describe the impacts and legacy we are left with as a victim of sexual abuse within an adoptive family? Words feel inadequate.

The Worst Crime is Being Expected Not to Tell – Darrell Hammond

I watched Darryl Hammond’s Cracked Up life story on Netflix – it helped me find the words. I highly recommend watching it for those who seriously want to understand childhood trauma and the legacy it leaves. I related to his story on so many levels: the anger at self for having been so vulnerable, the conflicting emotions about these very people who are your parents who others only see as amazing and wonderful people, the memories of abuse where my body felt violated, disrespected and used for their own purposes, the coping mechanisms I developed to survive, the trail of devastation left behind in early relationships and choices because I knew no better until I got professional help, the attempts to take my life because the pain was so unbearable, the depression, the darkness that would consume me. So many parallels with the life I lived until I found help and healing. Thankfully it didn’t take me over 50 years, but it certainly consumed a large part of my prime adult life and I still continue to deal with the impacts to this day. I think this is the part most people don’t understand which Darryl’s documentary highlights – our trauma never leaves us – what can get better, is that we learn to forgive ourselves for our survival and coping mechanisms, and we can learn to reconnect with and care about ourselves. It is a lifetime journey of healing and coming to terms with what was taken from us – our innocence and potential to live life without those brutal scars.

Each day, each week, each year I struggle to comprehend my adoptive family. My childhood mind just can’t integrate that they could have been so cruel, nasty, neglectful, mean — but yet they were also my saviours, my lifeline to surviving a war, my rescuers. It is their unspoken expectation that I should just get on with life as if nothing has happened that continues to hurt the most. I did this for many years but it becomes harder the older I get and I can no longer accept this anymore. I can no longer deny the emotional impact I feel each time I interact with them. It’s been so hard to pretend that I don’t hurt, I can’t do it anymore. What they choose to see is a strong, resilient survivor who has overcome. Yes that is part of who I am, but what they don’t want to see, is the other half – the hurt, traumatised inner child me who wants to be protected, loved and nurtured. I have had to learn to give to myself because they have not been capable. Not one member of my adoptive family wants to know how I’m impacted or understand my struggle. This is because their shame is deeper than my pain. This is what no-one will talk about. It did not escape my notice that Darryl Hammond tells his story publicly after both his parents have deceased. I recognise we subconsciously protect our parents if they’ve abused us and it’s at our cost in mental health, to do so. This is the sad reality of childhood trauma inflicted upon us by our supposedly “loving” parents.

I’ve barely written about this topic in over 20 years – in places I refer to it briefly but rarely in-depth. It’s not a topic I love nor is it a topic I talk about to shame my family. I do so now, to encourage others who are tortured by the shame of what happened to them — to speak out, find their voice and empower themselves. The first article I wrote on this topic I kept anonymous out of my own shame and desire to protect my adoptive family. I look back at how ridiculous it is that I should have ever felt I had to protect them. As an adopted person, there is nothing worse than being relinquished by my first family then being unprotected by my second. My layers of loss and grief are multiplied!

We never forget what happens to us as survivors of sexual abuse, we can only simply move forward from the hate and anger that is so valid, to realising it only damages ourselves if we allow it to fester or hurt ourself. For my own survival, I have to live with it and move on – somehow I’ve learnt to remain true to my own needs and ensure my life is no longer controlled by the thoughtless actions of the perpetrators many years ago, or the shame and guilt that controls them now.

My sexual life is forever tarnished and damaged. I will never have a relationship with my partner that I might have had, had I not been sexually interfered with. Being abused in this manner has always compounded my ability to trust, to want to be close, to feel safe with people and figures in power, it destroys my belief in a greater power – my spirituality. It was not surprising that after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse, the documentary Revelation revealed that many children had suicided whom the investigators attributed directly to having been sexually abused. It is no secret that many of us who have been abused end up self intoxicating, destroying ourselves because our soul is so damaged and hurt. We just want the pain to end, we want someone to reach out and help us.

I cry for the child within me who was so vulnerable and trusting but was so misled and taken advantage of by the males in my adoptive family (extended and immediate). I cry for those all over the world who have to live with this horrendous crime to us as innocent children. Sexual abuse is a terrible reality for anyone but having it done to you from within an adoptive family adds so many more complex layers of trauma that become almost impossible to unravel and deal with. Relinquishment trauma in and of itself is terrible enough. Relinquishment and then abuse in adoptive family is just soul destroying. I hope one day people will stop talking about adoption as if it always saves us and awaken to the realisation that sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse is too prevalent in adoptive family environments. We need to change this!

I want to note that I have met many amazing adoptive parents and I am not that bitter and twisted to label them all with this brush stroke, but I do want to awaken our society to the biggest myth that adoption saves us. From a place of honesty – for those of us who live abuse in adoptive families, it is likely the biggest silent killer of adoptees!

I never spoke up while I was young because I was constantly told how lucky I was by friends and strangers. I never spoke up because I was made to feel like shit in my adoptive family, picked on, singled out, the family slave, called names like “tree trunks” or “monkey face”. I remember one young man Matthew, I never forgot him, he was a rare one who was kind to me and could sense what was going on. Matthew was employed as our new farm hand by my father to help out. He was blonde, blue eyed, respectful and strong. I remember he stood up to my adoptive father questioning why he was so tough on me, forcing me to do the labour a young man like himself could do, but yet I was pubescent girl. My father quickly got rid of him. I never heard or saw from Matthew again.

I wonder how Matthew is today and whether he found another job. I felt bad that it was because of me that he lost his job but to this day, I always remember him for being kind without sexual implications and very respectful of me. He had shown pure concern for me. I wish he’d reported my father and his ways. Little does he know how far my father went with the abuse and if he knew, he’d probably hate that he didn’t do something.

My friends at church and school sometimes saw how my father treated me but it seems no-one reported anything. Why would they? My mother was the school Principal, my parents both seen as strong Christians with a missionary background, active in the church and community, leading the youth groups, hosting the fire brigade. I wasn’t acting out. I was a school academic and high achiever. I wasn’t into drugs. But I retreated within myself. I always thought I was an introvert until my adoptive family left while I remained behind to start Year 12 while they went to live and work overseas as missionaries.

In reconnecting with some of my extended adoptive family in the past few years, it has confirmed that some had concerns about how I was being treated from as early as toddler years. Some have said to me they wish in hindsight, that they had done more, reported their suspicions. As an adopted person, I’ve just never experienced a protective or safe parent. I grieve that!

I have the resilience these days to watch things like Revelation and Cracked Up. I use to avoid because I’d be such a wreck watching anything that closely resembled my traumas. I have learnt to turn my emotional churning into something constructive. I write to share with the wider world about how we can better protect vulnerable children. I turn my childhood tragedy into an opportunity to speak out and empower others to do likewise. I advocate for those who are still struggling to find their voices. I talk about the hushed up topics that people don’t want to discuss. I speak out to give hope to other adoptees like me, with the message that your life doesn’t have to be destroyed. There is a way to heal and move forward. We don’t have to stay ashamed. We have nothing to be ashamed of! We can speak up even if we don’t get legal justice. We can help encourage our fellow sufferers to find their braveness and shed off their mantles of shame. It’s not ours to carry, it is the system and the adults who fail to protect the most vulnerable!

I speak out to bring light to this hidden tragedy of sexual abuse within adoptive families. We don’t even know what our rates of sexual abuse are because nobody captures it or researches whether we are more prone to sexual abuse in adoptive families than others. I can only refer to research in similar situations like foster care and if our statistics somewhat mirrored foster care, then we really are the silent victims because we don’t have any one monitoring us once we join our adoptive family. We have no avenues to call out for help. We are totally vulnerable within our adoptive family. We have to do better to protect vulnerable children and ensure we are placed in better environments than what we have already lost. Sexual abuse in adoption must be talked about for this change to happen!

Coming Next: Part 3 – What Needs to be Done about Abuse within Adoptive Families

Trauma Informed Resources

Adoption, Abuse & Exclusion from the Royal Commission

Part 1 of a 3 part series on Sexual Abuse within Adoption

I write this in honour of the survivors who spoke out with much courage in both the Royal Commission and Revelation. They inspired me to no longer be afraid to speak up. Change is only going to happen if we shake off the mantle of shame and name the perpetrators and no longer allow them to hide!

Most people in the adoption community understand and accept that there is trauma and loss involved for us, the adopted person. The trauma we refer to in adoption is usually what I more correctly term “relinquishment trauma” – the trauma that comes from having connected in utero with our mothers and then ripped away for whatever reason, never to connect to her again, unless we are lucky enough to be reunited or have an open adoption (which is rare in intercountry adoption contexts). Many well known professionals like Dr Bessel van der Kolk and Gabor Maté have spoken at length about the childhood traumas involved in being relinquished or abandoned.

In this 3 part series, I want to talk about one of the traumas that occurs to some of us after our adoption – the trauma of sexual abuse within our adoptive families. This topic is too often hushed up in shame and guilt and we, the adoptees, are left to deal with the ramifications – alone, and unsupported.

During COVID-19 I’ve had extra time to be able to watch some documentaries. One of the most impactful was Revelation on ABC which is an investigative documentary by Sarah Ferguson following on from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse. I felt compelled to watch it because at the time, the media was covering the release of Cardinal George Pell, who reached one of the highest levels of office in the Catholic hierarchy, and was set free on legal technicalities after taking his case to the Supreme Court in Australia. He had previously been found guilty of child sexual assault by two separate courts but those decisions were overturned. Being a survivor of sexual abuse within my adoptive family, I was horrified and angry at this news like many other survivors! I was triggered and reminded of the lack of justice for people like me, whose perpetrators get away with their crimes! Triggered also because I understood intuitively how much courage it must have taken for the one brave soul and allies to stand up against the Catholic church and dare to take it on, speak his truth, and hope/pray that justice would prevail. Sadly it didn’t! Like me, that brave soul has to live knowing that no matter how hard we fight for our inner child who has been so badly wounded, there is sometimes no legal justice to ensure the perpetrator is punished for their crime. The other trigger was to watch the Pope shortly after, speak out in support of Cardinal Pell, likening his “suffering” to that which Jesus Christ suffered. Ughh for those of us who do believe the victims, this is like the ultimate twist and it sounded just like my adoptive father crying out when I confronted him a couple of times over the phone for his deeds from the past. He demanded that I stop “crucifying him”. Could there be any further twist to us victims being portrayed as the perpetrator, causing their suffering?!

I am compelled to speak out for adoptees like me, who suffer within our adoptive families from sexual abuse. I believe it’s one of the worst forms of trauma that is layered upon our already fragile bedrock of trauma from relinquishment. It has taken me decades to feel open and liberated enough to speak freely about how this has impacted me. I speak out because I tried to participate in the Royal Commission but in the end, I didn’t get to because by the time my lawyer confirmed I was indeed considered technically “under State care” whilst my abuse had occurred, I was too late – the Royal Commission had 1 week left to go and were no longer taking testimonies.

I was initially denied the opportunity to share my story in the Royal Commission because as soon as I said “I’m adopted” they automatically told me that abuse occurring within the “private domain” was not included. I should have said my abuse occurred technically while I had not been adopted. This point in itself highlights one of the areas in which we adoptees speak out about for what is wrong with adoption – and that is the lack of responsibility for us long term, by the State or Institution. The State/Institution takes us, places us, assesses our adoptive family, theoretically screens them, educates them, matches us to them, and deems them “eligible” to adopt. So if the institution that is so intricately involved with placing us “gets it wrong” (in hindsight), and it turns out we are abused by the people chosen by them to be our “parents” – how is it that they can escape having “no responsibility” for any part in our abuse? Remember – we are young children and never got a say. We are in the most powerless position. I argue that being adopted should not deem us as being outside “institutional care from a long term perspective” i.e., adoption is a long term form of State/Institutional care. The astute will understand that the prevailing “once-off transactional view of adoption” is one of the largest reasons why States/Institutes are happy to adopt children out and push adoption as a first solution. It enables them to wash their hands of us and not be held accountable for what happens after. In comparison to our peers who end up in other forms of alternative care that don’t sever the State/Institutional responsibility – e.g., foster care, guardianship, stewardship, or kinship care; they were allowed to participate in the Royal Commission and are followed up on long term.

I know in speaking with other adoptees around Australia how frustrating it was for us to have been excluded from the Royal Commission. While the Royal Commission is holding most institutions accountable for the lack of responses to sexual abuse, the very institutions who placed us into adoptive families where abuse happens, ends up never being accountable for their role.

The Royal Commission was just one way in which I would have liked to have helped create visibility to those of us who suffer sexual abuse whilst in adoptive families we are placed in, as a form of institutional care.

Another option I have, is to seek the services of a lawyer and take up my own personal case against the perpetrators and/or those who deemed my adoptive parents fit to adopt a child. This path in itself is a lengthy and emotionally taxing process. Not many of us end up doing this because being adopted, the mantra to be grateful weighs heavy. Our relinquishment trauma also usually means we have so much to deal with already. I have met only one intercountry adoptee who took legal action against their adoptive family for sexual abuse. To do so, has been a heavy price of further abandonment and unresolved family dynamics. It is a toxic mix of issues adoptees have to struggle through if they are to ever seek legal justice for this type of crime.

Over the past few years, I sought to find a lawyer who could pave a way to claim justice for me but the experience has been just awful! It is terribly re-triggering each time I speak to a lawyer who has no idea about intercountry adoption from the adoptee perspective and the impacts of abuse in the adoptive family. Too many adoptees in ICAVs network have experienced sexual abuse. For most, contemplating seeking justice is just too hard. To have the fortitude and emotional strength to get through the process is almost an unattainable goal, the financial cost prohibitive, finding a lawyer with the right expertise is difficult; most of us just want to move on and try to put it behind us. Each time I spoke to a new lawyer, I’d have to tell my experience all over again. It’s been one of the most invalidating experiences of my life! The last lawyer was the worst, telling me the initial consult would be free but then proceeding to bill me anyway. Lawyers can re-trigger us with their preying mentality that reminds us of our perpetrators! Out of six lawyers, I experienced only one who had any compassion, acted humanely and with empathy. The rest were all legalistic with no heart or soul. There’s something to be said for a profession who needs to be trained from a trauma and racially informed perspective to represent us. Every adoption lawyer I spoke to has never heard of representing us, the adoptee. Their services are all for the adoptive families! It’s taken me over 2 years to be strong enough to write about this experience or to consider trying again.

Coming Next: Part 2 – The Legacy and Impacts of Abuse in Adoption.

Resource

Listen to Kaomi Goetz’s Adapted Podcast in which she shares her story of Sexual abuse and the Institutional Response when she approached them.

Expectations of Gratitude in Adoption

gratitude

I was recently contacted by a fellow adoptee who is seeking views and experiences of adoptees where gratitude is expected and how we feel about this. I immediately responded because gratitude in adoption is such an unspoken about subject, particularly from the adoptee perspective. For me, it was definitely a burden I felt whilst growing up and carry still to this day. Interesting that little has been written on this topic specific to intercountry adoption because our adoptions are so rife with connotations of being saved from poverty, war, slums and the streets. These connotations also come with equal expectation that we flourish in our Western white adoptive countries and families for which we should be grateful for.

It is assumed, somehow, magically, our losses in relinquishment should be negated by the gains in adoption.

I can understand how the majority of people who think of the word adoption would not necessarily equate that with living an experience of being expected to be grateful. But, from my own life experience, the word “grateful”, “thankful”, “be happy”, or “lucky” pops up in adoption conversation regularly. People who are not impacted by adoption expect us to be grateful for the material wealth and education we gain in life having been adopted. As an adoptee, not only have I experienced people’s assumptions about how lucky I am in their eyes to be adopted, I also experienced the expectation of gratitude said out loud by my adoptive parent during my childhood. It was said to me once or twice, but the way in which I was treated most of my childhood until I became independent and moved interstate, told me without words that it was the foundation of my adoption.

In hindsight, knowing now that my adoptive father was not comfortable to adopt a child not his own, from a foreign country, he went against his instincts and clearly gave way to his wife’s desire to save a child from the Vietnam war. What they saved me from, I’ll never know unless I find my first family. Whether I was indeed saved, who knows. Am I grateful? If I answered no, people naturally would recoil and look at me horrified, stunned. How dare I be ungrateful for my life in a wealthy country with material comforts, an education, and the life everyone in poverty aspires to.

But, of course I am grateful in many ways! Without choosing to be grateful, my emotional well being would be one of dissatisfaction, depression, unease and wishing to be dead.

I have been there! For plenty of years! And I had to battle to find a way through.

I choose actively to be consciously grateful, to focus and spend my life turning it into something positive. And it’s much nicer to be in a stage of life where I can choose to be grateful in general, as opposed to being forced to feel indebted for being saved via adoption.

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I’m a female adoptee born in Vietnam, flown out as an infant to Australia in the early 1970s. I’ve told my personal story what feels like a thousand times, but yet no one has asked before what it was like to carry that expectation to be grateful for my existence in my adoptive family.

My adoption was not legally facilitated until I was 17 years old and it is still a mystery as to whether my legal adoption paperwork exists somewhere in Vietnam. I hadn’t really come to acknowledge or understand the true meaning of this until the past 6 months. It is enlightening to observe how my story of adoption and relinquishment has changed over time as I’ve become more fully aware of the truths, perceived and real. I am constantly having to rethink what was told to me growing up and comparing that to the truths I find today, and who I have become.

Not having an identity on paper for 17 years, of course I feel the expectation to be grateful to my adoptive country Australia in giving me a birth certificate and hence allowed an identity. But at what cost? The expectation to be grateful these days is overshadowed by questions I have on why it doesn’t seem to have been questioned whether I had an identity in Vietnam or how to preserve or respect it legally.

The words “gratitude” or “grateful” are like an alarm bell ringing inside me. It grates on my nerves and I feel myself inwardly flinching. For me it comes with so many negative memories. Even googling to find an image for this blog and seeing the visuals, created feelings of unease and discomfort in my body. If you can relate to me as an adoptee, saying, seeing or reading the word “gratitude” in relation to adoption is a trigger that I have to deal with all the time.

I don't owe you.jpg

My adoptive childhood was spent working like a boy slave on the family’s dairy farm. Being thrown the “you owe this family because we adopted you” line because I was standing up for myself, was one of the toughest moments I remember. It was one of those rare times where I was trying to be stand up for myself about not wanting to be forced to help with milking the cows. The other children were allowed to peacefully sleep in every morning. My childhood sense of justice was strong. Why was I constantly singled out to be made to work around the farm with my adoptive father who inappropriately touched me whilst in the dairy or in my bedroom? He had no sense of respect for my privacy as my body developed in early teenage years. I recall a few times he woke me with his cold hands running over my bare chest and stomach, then dragging me out of my bed by my legs, nightie flinging up over my head exposing my naked body, laughing at how “funny” it was to be dragged along the frost covered grass on a cold Victorian morning. This would happen just on daylight before the sun even rose. Nobody else was awake. My hatred rose further when I once removed the outside key from the lock of my door but was authoritatively told how dare I try and lock him out. Everything about my life was dependent on him and I was given no sense of privacy, respect or control.

I grew to resent my adoptive father during my childhood but yet I pined for a tiny bit of love to be shown. I wasn’t grateful for this existence and I certainly hated that my lack of blood relative status meant it seemed to give him licence to work me like a slave and touch me in the way no father should. His other bio children were left to do what they wanted. They were not forced to work like me on hard physical tasks; chopping barrow loads of hardwood, milking cows day and night, cooking and cleaning in the kitchen, being forced to run out in the dark and shut the chooks in every night (I was terrified of the dark), etc. It felt like slave labour with no empathy for my feelings at all. It certainly wasn’t a childhood filled with love, safety or understanding. Nor was there any room for any compassion or support about what I might be feeling from being separated from my biological family and wondering why.

The expectation, verbalised out loud, to be grateful for being adopted was a heavy heavy burden to carry .. and still is. I was forced to justify why I needed hair conditioner and shampoo (I had waist long hair) and he would only provide soap as that was good enough for everyone else who had short or little hair. I was made to feel that buying a toothbrush was too much and how dare I need or ask for anything. I was made to feel and was told many times that I was a “fussy”, “difficult” child, always “telling lies” and “stealing“.

To this day, the “you should be grateful because we adopted you” mantra is what has stopped me from speaking openly about the emotional and sexual abuse I endured from early childhood to teen years. No adoptee should ever have to be thrown that line of feeling we owe a debt of gratitude to our adoptive families. Even when abuse does not occur. Whether spoken or not, we adoptees do NOT owe our families. They adopt for their own self fulfilling reasons. I had NO choice but to survive the adoptive family I was placed in.

You can probably feel the anger I still carry at the injustice of being made to feel that I owed my adoptive family for being rescued/saved. It brings lifelong consequences of being fiercely independent and not easily allowing anyone to help me. I suspect other adoptees can relate. For me, being helped, being given something I don’t ask for, usually comes with a fear of the unspoken price at which that help is provided. Hence, I would rather do it myself. The expectation of gratitude for being saved by adoptive family and society at large, is a heavy burden.

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This burden of expected gratitude in being adopted is enhanced by the religious elements intertwined in much of modern adoption advocacy.

Fervent religious organisations and individuals who willingly promote and facilitate the adoption and rescuing of children add another layer of expected gratitude onto us. People who believe adoption is an ordained action by God, that they are following his command to help an orphan, makes it difficult for adoptees to share about the struggles of being adopted and relinquished.

I rarely hear of any adoptee who will willingly stand up in a church or religious institute and share their adoption experience with all its complexities. For me, this would be the worst audience ever! I can’t imagine receiving validation or empathy. Instead, I suspect I would receive unsolicited advice to be grateful and thankful to God that I am in a better place and that all is going well now. The all familiar saying of, “Count your Blessings!” by religious people in response to adversity is one I find hard to stomach.

Google for yourself the word gratitude and you will see the many religious and spiritual images linked to this concept. Our struggles as adoptees go unvalidated and unsupported because of blind prejudice that somehow adoption is meant to be, ordained by God. How can anyone question the unspoken assumption that we should be grateful for our adoption, when this is the long held religious and spiritual belief?

Thankfully, my adoptive family and others have apologised in recent years for the wrong doings in my childhood and I have chosen to be grateful for this and to move on. It’s interesting how with apologies I now feel more at liberty to be open about my life. It’s as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I no longer carry the burden of responsibility for family secrets and shame, trying to protect them from the consequences. For many years now, I have been true to myself and will not allow the expectation of gratitude to overwhelm my truths.

I have focused my energies on rebuilding the relationships with adoptive family as they are my one and only family I know, to raise me and give me an identity. For this I am truly grateful – but that’s not to say the journey hasn’t been a struggle and at many costs.

Gratitude in adoption should never be an expectation. It should be a choice we are free to make about life in general – after we come to terms with, and are supported in, understanding our losses and gains from relinquishment and adoption.

Cuts You Deep

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Whilst studying for my undergraduate degree in History, I found the similarities of my childhood and reading the history of Nazi Germany opened up my old anxieties. The interrogation methods of the SS were like pages read out about my own childhood. My adopted mother acted like a Concentration Camp guard, always on the lookout to entrap my sister and me in some wrongdoings. She would face the label of the ice cream carton inside the freezer at a certain angle to see if it was ever moved. If it was, we were chastised for stealing food.

My sister stopped me one summer afternoon when I had a few bites due to my lifelong suffering from hypoglycemia and showed me how to angle or place the carton back into the freezer. I didn’t know it at the time but the low-blood sugar levels made me extremely hungry. I was forced to binge eat when I had my episodes and ate entire packets of cookies so I could immediately get rid of the evidence. I felt guilty wasting food and therefore crammed the cookies down in a couple of minutes. I did this because the first time I was caught, I endured hours of humiliation and punishment that didn’t fit the crime.

If my adoptive father was not in a good mood I was given a spanking with the belt or switch and this was followed by my adoptive mother’s tidal wave of rhetorical commentary and questions such as, “We don’t starve you, so why did you do this?” and “Your theft only indicates you will be a criminal when you grow up, do you want to go to jail?”

I wanted to reach out and talk to people about what I was going through but my family was firmly rooted as respected members of the church, work, and community. I felt the only option abuse 2I had was to remain silent. They made up logical stories and explanations to family, colleagues, and acquaintances to explain their side of the story. It involved half-truths to paint the victim as the aggressor, evildoer, and villain. They did this protect themselves. They did this to remain in the good graces of the community they lived in, even though they were the ones doing harm.

They fabricated stories that the child was the one attacking them, stating the child was unruly, dangerous, on drugs, etc. This gave them an external reason to “protect themselves” and rationalize the altercations and find sympathy from individuals who were unfamiliar with the family issues and interactions. Whenever this happened, my sister and I were at greater risk because getting away with one incident of abuse allowed the perpetrators to continue or escalate the patterns.

Abuse comes in numerous forms:

Physical abuse is violent and uses intimidation, isolation, restraint, aggression, and endangerment as a form of control.

Mental abuse gets into your mind and uses gaslighting, silence, manipulation, and victimization as a form of control.

Verbal abuse goes from your ears to your mind via screaming, bullying, name calling, berating, and blaming.

Sexual abuse is about dominance and uses jealous rages, coercion, sexual withdraw, rape, and degrading acts as a form of control.

Emotional abuse forces you into situations that produce intense anxiety, guilt, confusion, shame, anger, hostility, rejection, and fear to be used as a form of control.

Economic abuse is about limiting resources and uses stealing, destroying assets, dependency, refusing access, falsifying records, and interfering with work environments as a means to control.

Spiritual abuse is using your beliefs such as dichotomous thinking, prejudice, elitist beliefs, demanding submission, excommunication, and estrangement as a means of control.

Types of abuse

When adoptees finally confront their abusers at a time in life when they are no longer dependent upon them, they are often met with attacks from other people who may know the abuser at a distance and feel trust and admiration for them, not understanding what has really gone on.

I wrote several months ago on my Facebook page about some of the abuse and neglect that I faced as a child. My nephew shot several scathing messages asking why I was airing dirty laundry in public. I had an uncle who wrote to me and was very dismissive about the abuse stating, “he had it worse” and “corporal punishment was an accepted use of discipline”. I have long since blocked both individuals but realize these family members do not understand the full picture of what was going on.

Upon reflection, I realize they have been told years of misinformation about me from adults who were established in their community. I think this victim shaming and blaming occurs for the following reasons:

  • The abuse often takes place behind closed doors and cannot be validated by others.
  • Abusers deny their actions and when confronted individuals are met with conflicting stories, half-truths, and outright lies.
  • Abusers blame the victim when in reality they were the ones who were the aggressors.
  • Violence is oftentimes preceded by verbal abuse, this is a tactic used to keep the victim at bay.
  • The abuser needs to be right and in control, they may use their authority or moral standing to explain why they were forced to what they did.
  • The abuser is possessive and may try to isolate their child from friends and family as a means to protect themselves.
  • The abuser is often times hypersensitive and may react with rage. When they lash out – they blame you and act as if you are responsible for their anger.

Abuse

I’ve had the privilege of meeting thousands of adoptees around the world and many of them have confided in me and shared their horror stories of abuse and neglect. One of the worst experiences is a young woman who remains connected to her adopted family even though her adoptive mother overlooks the fact her husband was sexually abusing her. I met a pair of sisters in the United States who had a father that made them feel guilty to take care of him in his elderly years, even though he was often missing from their lives. Even when he was home, he ignored them and was “terse” at best. Numerous other adoptees felt their adoptive families were not invested in them, they were not “bad people” but they were not connected to them nor had close relationships.

The issue may worsen when adoptees try to sever the relationship or move away. The parents may feign sickness to draw them back into the relationship or offer them promises they never intend to keep and play a game of catch and release with their heart. They may lash out and do things to make you feel guilty or ways to be part of your life. Some of the ways they may manipulate are:

  • The abusive individual may reach out, stating they have changed and then turn on you and lash out in anger as they did before.
  • They will make promises, with no intentions of changing to draw you back into the relationship.
  • They will leverage your actions, distancing you, keeping your children away to portray themselves as the victims.
  • They will change the story of what actually occurred, stating you have an overactive imagination, that what you say is a lie or back their story with the silence of their codependent spouse.
  • They may use money and resources to leverage themselves to make demands and “compromises”.

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I was caught in this cycle of craziness for much of my adult years. What I found helpful was to speak to other adoptees who faced similar abuse. Some of the braver ones pointed out it was okay to sever the relationship to regain my sanity. They were the first to tell me that I was the victim. They were there to answer questions and their strength helped me to take the steps to separate myself from toxic relationships.

Years later I read an excellent book that went deeper into the issue called Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life by Susan Forward. It took someone to tell me it was okay to leave my toxic adopted family. This is a personal choice, like other things that could be unhealthy in our lives – such as smoking, drinking or staying in bad relationships. I wish you peace and sanity. I hope this helps.

Further reading:
https://www.facebook.com/SusanForwardPhD/

Citizenship should be guaranteed in Intercountry Adoption

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Intercountry adoption is often portrayed by adoption agencies using words like “forever family” to attract couples wanting to adopt, assuming a child in need is matched into a family, as if born to.  One assumes the adopted child’s place in that family becomes permanent, right?

Wrong!  Intercountry adoption does NOT equate to permanency.  The reality we see today goes against everything that adoption is meant to be about.

Here are some images from the United States (US) Department website (they changed it sometime after this post):

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If we google the definition of adoption, Wikipedia tells us:

Adoption is a process whereby a person assumes the parenting of another, usually a child, from that person’s biological or legal parent or parents, and, in so doing, permanently transfers all rights and responsibilities, along with filiation, from the biological parent or parents.

Unlike guardianship or other systems designed for the care of the young, adoption is intended to effect a permanent change in status and as such requires societal recognition, either through legal or religious sanction.

Today’s practice in the US of actively deporting adult intercountry adoptees back to their home country because they are not guaranteed citizenship (i.e., permanency), portrays a different message to the definition of adoption.  Why should we take note of how the US are treating their intercountry adoptees?  Because the US is the largest receiving country in the world for intercountry adoption.

How can citizenship not be automatically given?  How is this “ethical” or “transparent”? Why aren’t intercountry adoptions, dating from the 1950s to early 1980s in the US, considered enough to provide permanency to the adoptee as a citizen in their adoptive country?

Here is our newest Citizenship – ICAV Perspective Paper which demonstrates the lack of justice and ethics in intercountry adoption for the child, who grows up to become an adult.

Citizenship of the adopted country SHOULD be an automatic right for the child who is intercountry adopted!