The King

We don’t know what we think we know.

As a child my dad never tired of yelling, “Who’s the king?” and I’d enthusiastically yell back, “Elvis” as I’d been taught to do, always to hoots of laughter and applause. I was too young to understand the meaning of my words, I only knew what the adults wanted of me.

‪As children, even as adults our words can have a performative nature; we say things all the time to delight others, sometimes to provoke, or just to make people comfortable in order to maintain harmony. We perfect this skill as children, keenly aware of the stated and unstated demands for loyalty, for silence or for allegiance.

I can think of so many ways in which I would speak someone else’s thoughts packaged as mine.  My words had nothing to do with my beliefs and everything to do with fitting in and seeking approval. Something not exclusive to adoptees but particularly difficult for us – as it is for anyone who feels they don’t fit into the community they find themselves in.

If you find this relatable then perhaps it won’t be a leap to consider that the adoptee you know isn’t as fine as you think. Perhaps you see the danger in the viral video of a little girl talking about meeting her adoptive mother for the first time expressing nothing but love and gratitude.

Both the larger scale ethics of using this for pro adoption marketing and the more personal danger to this little girl who must already be in an environment in which she understands on a deep unconscious level what’s expected of her in order to be safe. Spoiler alert, it is not to have curiosity or longing for her birth family or the identity she’s lost.

When I look at happy smiling photos of myself as a baby or as a little girl I feel I betrayed myself, and yet I know I was just a child trying to fit in, I wasn’t an ambassador for adoptees. For the little girl in the viral video, I feel pain for her because I see that possible future for her and more so because of the public nature of the video and how it’s being used. 

If you haven’t yet been in a community of friends and family where the seemingly perfect couple break up or divorce to the complete surprise of you or those around you – give it time. If you haven’t yet stumbled on the fact that one or more of your loved ones have been suffering with depression or mental health problems for decades without you knowing, perhaps even without them knowing, I suspect you’re in a minority. I hope that you never have and never will have to wonder about the true nature of a loved ones’ state of mind after they take their own life.

Even those who pay close attention to the wellbeing and feelings of others can and will be misguided about the deep-seated fears and fragility of others. Our society is a boot camp in emotional armoury, perfectionism and side-lining feelings.

If you’re not an adoptee, I talk about this in the hope that you can recall a time you were mistaken about someone or some part of yourself, perhaps revisit what you think you know about those you care for and learn how to look a little deeper and trust the lived experiences of adoptees instead of discounting them.

If you hang around adoptees long enough with an open mind, you’ll see some universal themes emerge, and likely discover that we don’t know what we think we do.  If you can allow for that, we can begin to be more honest with ourselves and others about what we do and don’t know.  You can listen and inquire with humility, kindness and willingness to learn from those willing to share. Help us do better to define the real issues, recognise the biases holding back progress and build the right support for adoptees.

Adoptee Activism in America

Listen to Adoptee Voices

Adoptee advocacy and activism for me, is about adoptee healing and claiming back our power.

This week has been so powerful but raw on so many levels. I have travelled to America to attend the Dept of State’s Intercountry Adoption Symposium (Sept 17 & 18) which brought together all the government bodies and NGOs related to, and fulfilling, intercountry adoption processes, the accredited entities which include IAAME and the adoption agencies, and for the first time, representation from the adoption triad. After this ended, some of our American intercountry adoptee leaders and individuals who wished to be involved at government policy and practice level, met with the Dept of State (Sept 19) and had a chat about how we might interact/liaise together in the future and what our goals are and issues of concern.

The following are my thoughts after attending these past three days.

Hearing the same chants for “more adoption” that I’ve read about across the waters but got to experience for real, has been nothing short of gut wrenching.

Getting to personally understand the life experiences of some of my fellow activists has been an honor.

The question was asked to our adoptee group why few American intercountry adoptees in recent years, had until now, not risen to involve themselves at policy level.

After being in America for a week, seeing the level of anger for those who dare to voice any truth that doesn’t match the “we want more children” chant has been a massive reality check. America the land of the free! Well, I see it’s more the land of the free for those who share the dominant discourse — but it can also be unkind and lacking compassion to those who express a different story.

The scale and depth at which intercountry adoption has been conducted in America, that adds avoidable emotional damage to some adoptees, has finally helped me understand why their voices have not been at the table. The ability to rise above one’s terrible reality of adoption is a massive ask. What struck me in coming to personally understand these journeys en-masse over the years I’ve been connecting to fellow adoptees, is how much worse it is here in terms of size and scale. It is not just the historic adoptions from the 50s to 80s. I’m meeting adoptees from the 90s to 2010s and hear the same terrible experiences! I’m also not denying there are probably a ton of intercountry adoptees who have little motivation to make things better because they already had it wonderful. Their reality is not dismissed and neither should the other range of experiences across the spectrum.

Some of the audience responses were so dismissive of our struggles citing that we were just a “moment in time”, or unlucky enough to be a consequence of “a few bad apples”. As I said on day 1 in response to Laura Ingraham’s speech, one terrible adoptee experience is one too many! So please, if you really want to hear what we have to say as adoptees, believe me when I say – “these bad apple adoptions are still happening since the past 20 years”.

Hearing calls and support for “unregulation” and “streamlining” is not the answer in the face of the huge reality. What do we need governments and stakeholders to do differently that hasn’t been done, either at all, or enough? We need them to acknowledge the wrongs of the past to the present. We need full acknowledgement that the decisions made FOR us as vulnerable children, have been terribly painful, terribly damaging for too many .. we need to hear it not just once, but over and over many times so that we know you do not forget the mistakes of the past and those who have been a victim, can feel safe knowing we have learnt the lessons, or at least are trying to.

From my own personal journey of healing, I know how incredibly important it is to hear, “I’m sorry it has been a terribly hurtful experience” from a heartfelt place. Not only do we need to hear that you’ve heard and acknowledged our pain, we need you to give us time to then process that acknowledgement, allow us to move further in our journey — and then ask us to focus and work together on how we prevent it from ever happening again.

For adoptees it is terribly triggering to be dismissed, our reality denied, and our concerns brushed over with “it’s not like that now”. Yes things have changed … drastically, but they need to change more! Support services for the duration of our lifetime, need to be implemented that help us move past the damage. We need reparation that allows out of the box solutions for individual journeys of healing. We need to see that sending children back AS SOON AS WE KNOW something isn’t looking right, is totally a first option that will be supported by all the players who facilitated the adoption. Keeping the child as the only option adds further complications that we adoptees are eventually left to sift through.

People and countries make mistakes .. we are only human. What’s currently missing is the acknowledgement and the sensitivity across the SPECTRUM of players to recognise the trauma from decades (yes, 70 years!) of intercountry adoptions done poorly. The reality that the current and previous American administrations have failed to address intercountry adoptee citizenship, the basic cornerstone of permanence, continuity, and family— clearly demonstrates how little understanding and support exists for the displaced adoptee. This is brushing the wrongs of the past under the carpet on a massive scale!

I realise why adoptees have not been at the table pushing their way in. The depths of pain can be too raw and the risk of receiving further trauma by those who invalidate our experiences, is incredibly high. For a country as religious as America, it sure has little understanding of the need for the power of healing and the acknowledgement of wrong doing. All Americans should be praying not for adoptions to be increased but for the ones who are here already, to be given the right support in order for them to find healing. For the ones deported to be given the supports they need along with their broken up families.

Only once we are fully supported to heal as those who have already suffered, can we truly contemplate ethically adopting more — at least then, we can be confident that despite mistakes being made, the great America has the maturity to help the victims overcome.

My heart breaks for my American brothers and sisters who struggle to rise from out of their ashes. I found it fascinating to see the 9/11 section of the Newseum and the way in which so much compassion is portrayed for those victims, yet in intercountry adoption – I ask where is that same compassion? Is there any recognition of the collective suffering that too many generations of intercountry adoptees have been experiencing in America?!

No! They remain a blip on the radar screen, barely seen, largely misunderstood because they are cloaked with, “You should be grateful to be in this amazing country” banner which denies the tragic realities of so many!

I am compelled to lead by example and demonstrate that adoptees can find their power. My path is but one way to rise above the ashes. I have learned for myself how incredibly healing it is to turn my pains into triumphs and to attempt to make this world a better place and I always wonder what I would have achieved had I been left in Vietnam (my adoptee sliding door/ parallel universe musing). This path of adoptee advocacy is my way to make sense of my adoption and life . Perhaps I was saved to give this message — to be this voice, to truly represent the “child’s best interest” and make sure it is not shoved away?

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I hope that this week has been the beginning of the start, that momentum will flow because …

it only takes one to take a stand for truth, for another to find their courage.

What a week of learning, what a week of connecting! I hope America will come to embrace the mistakes of its past in intercountry adoption and provide a safe space for the many intercountry adoptees who need healing and be given many places at the table, not just one place filled by an Australian/Vietnamese.

I also want to acknowledge the many true supporters of adoptees who came from so many stakeholders groups. It is incorrect to assume all government workers, all agencies, all adoptive parents are against us speaking our truths. Despite the intense and sometimes times painful challenging moments, I was uplifted by the volume of supporters who told us they were so happy to see us and hear our voices. I hope I live to see the day when they will become the majority AND the loudest voice we hear from.

I was told that supportive adoptive parents have sat back from the table, out of respect to allow us adoptees to take the platform, to make space for us — but I want to tell those parents and advocates, please don’t be silent in your support. We are at a critical point where intercountry adoptee leadership is emerging and we need ALL the support we can muster.

What I deeply respected was my fellow panelist, the birth mother representative who demonstrated no fear in telling her truth, nor the consequences for doing so. Whether we agreed with her views or not, I imagine her journey of overcoming the stigma, fear and trauma throughout her life has helped her realise there is little to lose, in having the courage to speak her truth. As two representatives of the adoption triad, we both know “the cost of remaining silent”.

Her ending sentence was so respectful and she said, “It should be the adoptees who you listen to the most”. I can only say how much that meant to us. This is the message we need our supporters to uphold – it will encourage us to rise above our pain and fears. Please don’t be silent — it is too open to interpretation!

Huge thanks and respect to the adoptee leaders who gave of their time, money, and energy to be at these forums.

Joy Alessi – adopted from South Korea, co-director of Adoptee Rights Campaign.

Cherish Bolton – adopted from India, co-director of PEAR, academic.

Trista Goldberg – adopted from Vietnam, founder of Operation Reunite, educator.

Marijane Huang – adopted from Taiwan, social worker in adoption and foster care, educator.

JaeRan Kim – adopted from South Korea, social worker and PhD research academic.

Kristopher Larsen – adopted from Vietnam, co-director of Adoptees4Justice.

Monica Lindgren – adopted from Colombia, barrister in family law.

Reshma McClintock – adopted from India, founder of Dear Adoption, co-founder Family Preservation365.

Patricia Motley – adopted from Peru, member of Peruvian Adoptees Worldwide.

Diego Vitelli – adopted from Colombia, founder of Adopted from Colombia, studying masters in counselling.

The Push-Pull Dance in Adoptee Relationships

I remember back in my mid 20s when I had been in a serious intimate relationship for 7 years – my first love! Do we ever forget our first? No! For me, it was sooooo intense! The first person who I felt truly loved me as I was – warts and all. The first person who really tried to understand my mind and heart. The first person whom I felt “safe” with. As an intercountry adoptee, I had grown up in an adoptive family that hadn’t been an overwhelmingly positive experience and I yearned to feel love, yearned for a connection that wouldn’t be scary or hurtful. I remember my adoptive dad saying more than once not to be so “clingy” to people when the occassional visitor gave me attention. I craved their warmth and nurturing mannerism! The words of my adoptive father made me feel there was something wrong with my desire. In his words I was, “All over them like a bad smell”. But looking back, I recognise this now as the adoptee within who was hurt, abandoned and seeking the connection with a mother figure who wouldn’t let me go.

I kept looking for that “connection” and into my young adult life, I had several serious intimate love relationships. Each time, when it ended, as it inevitably did – it really hurt! I desperately wanted to be loved but I also needed to keep the person at a distance so they couldn’t hurt me too much. My experience of life was that people who said they loved me, either left me because I was “too much” or they hurt me.

Through alot of therapy in my mid 20s and 30s, I eventually recognised what was going on. I call it the push-pull dance that we adoptees master. The dance says: I want you close but I want you far away. It is the powerful dichotomy that we adoptees live. It reflects the dance we have going on within ourselves of wanting to believe we are loveable but living a reality that says the opposite – if we are loveable, then why are we left alone on our own, without our mother. We then subconsciously search for that connection to repair the hurt damaged child within, to want to see a reality that says “we are loveable”. I internalised my relinquishment as “there is something wrong with me” which was enhanced by an adoptive family environment in which I was neglected and abused. These experiences compounded into a feeling that I was always inferior, of no worth and why would anybody want to stay with me. The damage was so immense that I did actually hate myself and this was reflected in self harming behaviours such as suicide attempts. My self hatred was turned inwards upon myself. Others may show it in different ways.

Every human being has a powerful desire to feel loved and for adoptees – it is enhanced on steroids. Our rejected inner child drives our motivations and instincts to recreate and bring back that connection which was unfairly severed with our mother who carried us in-utero. We never really get over that loss of “mother”. I’ve done alot of therapy in my life but fundamentally, it still hurts to have lost her and never know who she is, to be held within her arms as a babe usually is, and to never hear her soothing voice or be held up to see her smiling, adoring face. We adoptees lose those precious moments forever, even if we manage to reunite and find each other again it doesn’t undo the trauma imprint left upon our heart and psyche. So it is not surprising that we carry on our search for that magical “mother-child” intimate connection through our romantic adult relationships.

The hard part is, when we feel so unloveable there is a mismatch between what our heart and our mind says. Our mind says what we all know logically – that every human being is of worth. But yet in our body, our heart, we don’t feel loveable. So our mind wants us to believe we can be in a relationship and that somehow we will find that one relationship which will wash away our pain – we pull people towards us, desperate to find that connection. But in our body and heart we don’t feel we’ll ever be good enough and therefore we push them away. We then get into a cycle of judging ourselves harshly for being in these patterns, saying, “See, told you so! Nobody will ever love me. I’m not loveable”, and it becomes a self fulfilling and cyclical prophecy.

So the question remains: are we adoptees left to forever be incomplete in someway? Going through the motions of this constant push-pull dance? I believe through my own experience, that we can find healing and it can vary for individuals as to what that healing looks like. For me, it was the deep body reconnection therapy I did which helped the most. It was a powerful moment when my therapist helped me recognise that my mother and I are not separated forever – that I am a part of her, that I haven’t lost her, for she is actually within me. That I carry her within me! That blew me away to actually feel this truth. I finally grieved and consoled my inner hurt child.

I also had spent several years working through the negative impacts of my adoptive family and the damaging messages I had internalised. But eventually, it all came together through perserverance and commitment to being on the path of self recovery. Once these things happened, I learnt to reconnect with myself and stop pushing away my own inner feelings of hurt, loss, rejection and to deeply love my inner child, accept her and not make her feel bad for “being needy” and wanting love. The subconscious instinctive response to push people away no longer controls me and I’ve been capable of being in a healthy positive intimate relationship. I now understand why many of us adoptees can journey along without ever being aware that we have “adoption related issues”. It is not until we see the repetitive cycles of our intimate relationship patterns, the push-pull dance, that we begin to fathom how much our relinquishment impacts our life. For some of us, it can be the first overt signal that something is not quite right.

A really useful book that helped me along while being in therapy, was Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Connection. (The first book of hers that I read, The Dance of Anger, was so important to my healing!)

If you are an adoptee reading this blog post and you can identify with the pattern of wanting people close to you but subconciously pushing them away, you are not alone. This is a completely normal response to a difficult beginning. We act this way for a reason and the good news is, it can be changed. It starts with a conscious decision to learn as much as possible as to why we became this way and how the pattern began. Then its a matter of finding a way for yourself that helps free you of the subconscious drivers. I refer to this as being on the path towards healing and recovery.

In the past month, I’ve become a fan of Anthony Robbins after watching his Netflix I Am Not Your Guru show. So much of his approach matches my healing journey where I learnt to accept and nuture my wounded child. I think that’s why it’s so devastating if we have an experience of an adoptive family who never fully accepts (or even understands) our wounded traumatised child within. When adoptive parents reject and push that hurt child away, it gives us the subconsciuos message that our child is not loveable and therefore, we as adults replicate what they’ve done because we don’t know any better. We push our inner hurt child away too but yet, the real path to finding healing from our relinquishment, is to embrace our inner child, love it, nuture and protect it and then allow it co-exist with our adult self. Only then do our beginnings no longer control our destiny.

Our path towards healing and recovery can start any moment. It is a choice. We don’t have to be controlled by our beginnings forever. A healthy positive intimate relationship is possible! Reaching out to post adoption supports are a great place to start. Finding a therapist who suits your style and personality is another. Doing yoga or meditation is another. But give yourself the chance and be gentle on yourself. This stuff doesn’t change overnight, it can take years of commitment to healing and recovery. It starts with awareness and the desire to figure it out.