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

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.

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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.

Not Good Enough

NGE 1

I was an artistic child and I spent much of my free time drawing when I was a child. I drew my interpretation of Star Wars. I was not allowed to watch the movie because my religious parents believed it was evil to try and interpret the future. Our hired hand found my drawings in the trash and he took them out and framed them. I was shocked to see my drawing hanging up on his walls. The man gave me encouragement and told me they were some of the best drawings he’d ever seen.

Some months later, when I was 12 years old, I won an art competition from the pool of local schools and won a hundred dollars for the best Christmas drawing in the area. My picture was placed in the local paper and when I rushed home to tell my parents about my accomplishments, their response was, “It’s not good to brag!”

NGE 4

I was 18 years old and returned home from Desert Storm. I was asked to stay on active duty to help process the returning soldiers from the war. I worked very hard and stayed up late processing documents. I made calls to the Pentagon to get answers for my boss. I worked many late nights, improving the old documents to capture the data that we needed and became close friends to everyone whom I worked with. I wanted to serve the individuals who flew back from the war and my boss was impressed with my work ethic. He surprised me with an award. My parents lived about an hour and a half away. My boss recommended I invite them because it was a significant accomplishment. He was thoughtful enough to extend the invite to my parents to attend the awards ceremony.

At the ceremony, it was explained that a junior soldier such as myself rarely received this distinction. The only comment I ever got from my parents was, “Glad you didn’t get into trouble!”

I look back to my youth and vividly remember trying to gain acceptance, to find a place of belonging, and yearning for love from people who could not give it. As a more mature adult, I realize throughout my adult life I have worked harder and done more to compensate for the internalized messages I received (verbal or not) of “never being good enough”.

NGE 5

I’ve seen other adoptees like myself who’ve given their best, worked above and beyond their peers, trying so hard .. but still never giving themselves the credit they deserve. If you can relate … you may suffer like I did, from being conditioned into believing you are never good enough. This feeling lingers in our head and drives us to work so hard it can damage our relationships. This twisted reality can also have negative effects on our health.

I have read some insightful articles that enabled me to work through these negative self beliefs.

We can’t hate ourselves into a version of ourselves we can love.”
Lori Deschene

Karl McBride is a therapist who worked with dysfunctional families for more than 3 decades. He believes that individuals who internalize they are not good enough often come from narcissistic and abusive families. These families could be alcoholic parents who send mixed signals as they sway back and forth between being sober and drunk. For children with narcissistic parents, we struggle to comprehend that our parents are incapable of loving us.

The following is two ways in which we as children respond to these false messages that we are unloveable:

The Fixer

All children want to feel accepted and loved by their parents. A child will unconsciously try to fix whatever the perceived issue is, in order to gain parental acceptance. The child may have an internal dialogue as a means of trying to resolve the situation. It may look like the following:

“If only I was a better kid, this would not be happening.”
“If I did better in school, my parents wouldn’t fight.”
“If I listen to my parent’s problems, maybe they will be less stressed.”
“If I do more housework, maybe my mom won’t be so sad.”
“If I become great at sports, maybe my dad won’t drink so much and want to come to my games.”

This type of child ends up over achieving.

The Lasher

The not-good-enough children either sway back and forth from being the Fixer or they may do the opposite and act out, i.e., they become The Lasher. Lashing out in anger, confusion and frustration trying to gain their parents attention.

Regardless of whichever way children respond to not being loved, children internalize the false message and eventually realise they cannot solve their parent’s problems.

Then there’s The Blame Game in which it is not uncommon for abusive parents to blame their children for their own parental failures and problems.

With narcissists, it’s always someone else’s fault. Some of the warning signs that your parent may be narcissistic are:
Does your parent always have to have things their way?
Are they critical of you at all times?
Is your parent jealous of you?
When you discuss your life’s issues, does your parent divert the discussion to talk about their own problems?
Do you feel that you were a slave to your parents?
If you answered yes to most of these questions, the chances are high that your parent was a narcissist.

NGE 3

So why do we as adopted children respond as we do? Many of us as children have been conditioned to believe we are the ones at fault. We say to ourselves, “It must be me.” Adults are assumed to be more educated, experienced and in control, hence it is easy for adopted children who feel vulnerable to think, “It must be my fault if my parent is mean to me, or can’t love me”.

McBride believes the child ends up carrying the emotional baggage of the family and takes on the burden. The child thinks, “If only I could do more” in order to fix things.

If you find yourself always being tired, always over extending yourself, always trying to achieve more, then I would recommend taking a step back and asking why you are doing these things. You may be compensating to overcome those child beliefs which you have carried into your adult life.

I know I struggle with this. I have been told by many bosses that I work too hard and assume I should do more to self improve. It’s like an endless quest to be “good enough“. I think in all things in life, moderation is the goal. I now I force myself to step back, take vacations and not answer calls on weekends. It took me 45 years to re-condition myself from overexerting and extending myself to realize I have a habit of being like this. I now have to ensure I develop strategies to prevent burn out and learn to relax.

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Additional Questions:
Do you feel that you are not good enough? How do you cope with such feelings? Do you think it is something else that triggers these feelings?

More Reading:
https://www.facebook.com/DrKarylMcBride
https://www.willieverbegoodenough.com/narcissistic-mother-survey/