Guest post by Mike, adopted from Hong Kong to New Zealand.
I remember growing up in an orphanage until the age of 6. Some of my memories include playing in the little park which had a pond and loving nature, the little frogs and birds. When we were naughty, the older kids would hide rubber spiders in our beds saying they only came ’cause we naughty, till one night I got angry, sad at it and cut it in half – laughing and crying at same time, chucking it at other kids. I was always being the big brother figure.
I remember getting pushed off a stage and hurting my head. That’s where my fear of falling and being scared of heights comes from. It was heaps of fun growing up in orphanage. There I learnt what family was, my culture, my heritage, my language, I had a sense of belonging and identity. I was the smart but naughty kid!
I remember the last day before getting taken to New Zealand for adoption. My birth mother came to see me to say goodbye but I didn’t recognise her. She could only spend a couple of minutes with me because she didn’t do the paperwork. So for a while, that was always on my mind about so many “what ifs” and if it was my fault that I got taken away because I didn’t recognise her.
When I got adopted at age 6 and taken away to New Zealand by a white European couple, I had to re-learn and adapt so fast. It was all about fitting in and surviving!
My adoptive parents were not ready for the challenges that came with an older adoptee with a sense of identity. There was a lot of physical and emotional abusive. It was a crap family environment where they were abusive to each other, physically as well. They also had 2 foster kids who were spoilt! I was the black sheep of the family. I got bullied at school then would come home to be abused and beaten up there too. It made me grow up real fast and made me tougher.
They often used their abusive ways to try and mend me into the child they wanted. This of course, pushed me further and further to the point of running away at an early age, depression, attempted suicide, self harm, etc. At age 10, I ran away from home and ended up with a bunch of street kids for a week until they turned on me and beat me up, leaving me bloodied for the police to come pick me up and take me back to my adoptive parents. They tried so hard to mend and fix me with various psychologists, counsellors, etc., but to no avail.
My adoptive parents eventually got divorced when I was aged 15 and I ended up with my adoptive mother. Things went more downhill after that, which eventually lead me to a life of crime. I loved life as a youth criminal, the excitement of shoplifting, stealing, breaking into cars, etc., being part of a youth street gang. But this eventually led me to prison at age 19. I put 2 white boys in hospital from a group fight. The reason for the fight was because of my own racist views against the white people because at that time, I didn’t know all the issues and the mental state of mind I was in.
I got out of prison at age 21 and went back to my adoptive dad. It didn’t last very long because he was still stuck in that mentality that he could bully me and mould me into that model citizen that every dad can dream of. Much to his disappointment, I was in a deep state of depression, denial and hatred because I was so institutionalised – prison was kinda like the orphanage. I ended up joining the Triads and becoming a leader.
I have no regrets with the adoption, my past and everything that has happened as I have achieved so much through sport. I represented my country/homeland in sports, travelled the world, married the girl of my dreams, etc., but as I get older (37 in July), I am afraid of what future I have. My wife wants kids but I don’t have a job or stable income. I don’t want my kid(s) to go through what I did. In a gang, the lifestyle that I live, it’s hard when you have a criminal history, PTSD and a sense of fear of rejection.
A few years ago, my birth mother found me on Facebook. I went to Hong Kong to meet up with her a couple of times. It was disappointing. Maybe I expected the movie dramatic emotional meet up – but it was nothing like that! I was just like, “Oh yep! You’re my mum”. But we couldn’t communicate much due to the language barrier, so it was a bit disappointing. I have half sister who speaks English who lives with my mum. I found out my mother was only 18 years old when she had me and at the time. She was living in a women’s home. Her mother (my grandmother) was divorced at age 15 and had no ability to give her 2 girls stability – so she sent them to a girls home to survive.
Despite all I’ve lived, I guess what I want to say to adoptive parents is, you have a responsibility to the child you adopt – be a positive mother/father figure to the child that you’re bringing into your world. Try to have a better understanding of the challenges that your inter-racial child may have.
Mike welcomes your messages in response to his story.
We are in the midst of unprecedented times with COVID-19 taking over the world but as an Asian intercountry adoptee raised in a white adoptive country, I find myself once again, in that uncomfortable “in-between” space. I have lived the experience of sitting between two very different cultures and races – east and west. I am a product of both but yet at this point in time, I feel ashamed at how human beings can behave and treat each other when ultimately, we are of the same human race.
I have been raised with the white mindset of my adoptive country but I have also spent over a decade embracing my once removed cut-off Asian heritage. My current pride in being Asian didn’t happen easily because I was adopted in an era without education to advise parents that our cultural and racial heritage is of immense importance. I had to put years of concerted effort into reclaiming back my birth heritage, race and culture. So I find this period of overt racism against Chinese/Asians as very confronting. It reminds me of how I once use to hate my own Asian-ness. I was teased as a child for how different I looked — picked on for my slanting eyes, flat nose, and non European profile. I grew up isolated being the only non-white person in my community as a child. I know that for many Asian adoptees (and many adoptees of colour) right now, we are having to relive those racist moments all over again.
What has been particularly triggering recently, is to see the American President choosing to consciously speak about the COVID-19 disaster with pointed fingers at a whole race, calling it the “Chinese Virus”. I felt personally offended. Did you?
When a leader of the world’s superpower labels a whole race in such a negative manner it overtly tells us that racism is very real, acted out by those highest in power. They make it appear as if it’s “normal”, “okay”, “justified” to do so —- but racism should never be okay! So adoptive families, if you haven’t recognised that we intercountry and transracial adoptees experience racial micro aggressions every day, I hope that this period in time, is your wake up call!
Racism is one of the most common issues we intercountry adoptees end up having to navigate. Facing racism and having to constantly explain why we look Asian (or any colour different to the majority) but speak, think and act like a white person in our adoptive country is a constant challenge. This has been documented in many of the resources we adoptees contribute to and create, eg. The Colour of Difference and The Colour of Time. Sadly, not all adoptive parents recognise the racism we experience and many are definitely not equiped to know how to prepare us for it.
Some more-awoke-adoptive-parents have recently asked what they can do to support their adoptive children who are of Asian descent. I’m sharing this advice from Mark Hagland, a Korean adoptee who has been co-educating adoptive parents at this facebook group for many years:
“I think that parents absolutely need to find ways to explain the situation and the environment to their Asian children. Of course, whatever they say must be age-appropriate and sensitive to the individual temperament and stage of development of their individual child/ren. And every child is different. But all children deserve the truth–sensitively and lovingly shared, of course.
Some parents will inevitably say things like, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly harm my child! I want her/him to remain innocent for as long as possible!” Any such sentiment reveals white privilege. All children of colour end up experiencing racism. The least loving thing possible is to avoid preparing one’s child to experience the inevitable. Far better to lovingly explain to one’s child that there are going to be difficult experiences out there, but that they will be okay because they will be supported by you, their parents.
I often tell parents of young children that even the youngest children can understand the concept of fairness. Start with that, if you have a young child. Start with the idea that some people are mean/unfair just because of how someone looks or where they’re from. It IS mean/unfair. With a young child, we need to prepare that child without imparting fear or trauma.
I made sure as a young adult to move to a very large, diverse, welcoming, progressive city in order to live in psychological comfort. And this is literally the first time as an adult that I’m even the least bit worried about experiencing aggressions or micro aggressions against me personally, in the city where I live. I believe it will mostly be okay, but who can say for certain?“
I have also been like Mark and as an adult, I ended up relocating myself to a city area that is much more diverse than where I grew up. In my city of Sydney, Australia, I have found a place to belong where I’m not the only Asian or non white person in my community. I have also married into an Asian family which has helped me immensely to embrace my race.
For young adult adoptees, if you are struggling at the moment due to the increase in racism you see directed towards Asians from COVID-19, I highly recommend joining adoptee led groups and communities where you can connect with others and be supported by your peers. There’s nothing like being able to freely speak amongst a group of people who understand what it’s like! The validation and peer support is invaluable. If you have found yourself hugely triggered and struggling emotionally, please seek out further professional support and surround yourself with a strong support network of people who understand what it’s like to be a racial minority. Here is also a link with some great tips.
Right now it’s not an easy time for anyone, but for adoptees and any people of colour, it is a heightened time for being a target of racist acts/comments and/or for being triggered. Please take time to nurture yourself and join into communities who do their best to support and understand you. Let’s all:
Many prospective adoptive parent forums discuss whether it’s a good idea to change our original names at adoption. We thought we’d provide you our views, as adults, with hindsight from our lifelong journey as intercountry adopted people to help inform you of how we feel about this issue.
Here’s a collation of our responses, shared in no particular order, from our ICAV facebook group where we had this discussion. We hope it is helpful.
My view is that our names should not be changed unless we want them to be changed. My adoptive mom changed mine simply because that’s what she wanted but to me, my original name is what I really resonate with and it’s my identity. In adoption they use us as a substitute to make us theirs and not just take us in to take care of us because another family cannot or will not do it.
As far as the documents go, I think there needs to be legislation in place stating that we have the right to access our birth documents and be given them freely. Most times we cannot even go to ask for them from the courts because you need to know certain details such as county etc and adoptive parents have and can withhold that from an adoptee. It’s our history and we have every right to know who we are and we shouldn’t be forced into another persons mould of family.
To me it’s just unethical especially taking into consideration some of us were actually trafficked and not given up. Such was my case. The government lied and by the time there was enough information to find me in the orphanage, I was already adopted and bio family members were denied custody of me within that time also because of my a mom’s expression of wanting to adopt me. They lied about medical records and they lied about my bio dad’s information simply to gain more money for the federation.
Adoptive parents should be able to change our name but only if they can prove there is an immediate threat to us in keeping our birth name.
Микайла Трапезникова adopted from Russia to America
We lost enough. We are people before we enter their families, regardless of whether they like our names or not, it is ours. Even if it is “just” an orphanage name.
MKR adopted from Asia to America
I’d prefer they would have kept my name but then again, the orphanage were calling me by my middle name, “Manuel” which I always felt was odd. But when I found my mom, she called me by my first name “Antonio” and it made more sense. Anyways, now my name is Daniel which has nothing to do with my real one.
My birth family also say Tonio, short for Antonio. In Peru, this name is very common but in Canada, not so much. I feel like it’s a part of where I’m from. It’s also my father’s name. I always knew my real name, I just wish I’d got to keep it. The entire thing. I will eventually change it back to my real name. It’s just frustrating that I have to get through the legal procedure over all the stuff I have to do to reconnect with my culture.
It’s very sad ’cause it adds to all the stuff I was deprived from when I was adopted. It’s my identity. I also feel like growing up not speaking my language was cruel. I wish I could have grown speaking it a little bit so I didn’t waste my brain plasticity’s peak when I was a kid and have to learn it as a grown man.
In Canada, it always was important to learn English if you are french and both those languages are easier to learn or immerse in. Peruvian Spanish is also different from other Spanish, so even though I know Central American’s and South American’s, I don’t wanna learn Mexican stuff and realise it’s not the same.
I just feel like adoption out of country is wrong. Changing names or not, it doesn’t give back what we lose by being deprived of our culture. I wish I still had my name but then again, I wish I wasn’t adopted and I wish I grew up in Peru with my family even more.
I had this identity crisis where neither my real name felt like me nor did my legal name. It’s weird to say but it was very confusing for me. I suffered from this, not being able to identify with these names. It meant nothing to me. It’s like I’m in between and nowhere, at the same time. That’s what being adopted is for me. It’s assimilation. It took away my sense of self.
Daniel Walsh adopted from Peru to Canada
Honestly, I wouldn’t want my Korean name. After finding out my birth mother didn’t even name me and that the midwife did, I kinda thought about getting rid of them as my middle names too. I don’t like being asked all the bloody time about “why this and that” so at least having an “english” sounding name has helped me not have to constantly be asked questions all the time. But thats just me. I hate being asked and having to explain for the billionth time .
Gemma adopted from South Korea to Australia
A lot of people don’t think names matter. But just like in tribes, they knew where you belonged by the tribal name associated. So changing our original names means that you are erasing our identity.
I was named Angela as a baby, born to my mother, my roots, my history, my identity. I was renamed Maria, which I never felt connected to. Maria was someone I knew who was brought into another family and my memories don’t go beyond the days I can recall being part of a new family. If they had kept my name and added on to it, maybe with a middle name if I didn’t have one, that would have been acceptable, it would have given me some sort of comfort that I am real and not just some random child who needed to be wanted because of the circumstances my birth mother was in at the time. An added name/surname comes second to who I already was, we aren’t renewed after we’re adopted. We’re human, not some immaculate being that comes down from some planet.
We are the same child and who we become after adoption doesn’t redefine our identity, it merely hides and erases it on paper. We are not to be claimed like a puppy who gets two owners in one life. We aren’t animals you make up names for. We are already someone before we had to be someone else’s.
The key to “loving” this child that you need to have because there are so many children out there who need your “help” – is not to change who they are, or to replace their beginning with one that attaches/claims them as yours. It’s to take the child who’s already someone and build from that, understand that no change of name, no information erased from their true birth certificate will make them look like you birthed them into this world. Nothing will fix what’s broken within yourself, or whatever void you’re trying to fill, by changing / falsifying our identity.
Your power to change the identity of a child on paper is something you need to look inward about and think whether it’s truly for the benefit and the best for the child who’s lost/losing her biological ties and everything that goes with that; or if it’s to benefit you and your needs.
Maria Hernandez adopted from the Philippines to Canada
My name is mine. I used to hate it and wanted to change it. And then when I got married, people wondered why the hell I didn’t change it. It’s mine. It’s grown on me. Yes, it links me to a birth mother for whom I do not care, but it’s my name. No one can pronounce it, but it’s my name. I’ve thought about adding my birth father’s last name to mine but maybe in the future. I have so little left of my roots. Leave me with something.
Marisa Smith adopted from UK British/Native American ancestry to America
Don’t go there. That’s our family name and changing it strips us of our identity and family connections. Even married couples don’t always have the same last names. The adopters just want us to “match” them so they can pretend we’re theirs.
For adoptees whose names have been changed, going back to our birth names should be as easy as going back to a maiden name after a divorce. No cost, no hassle, just file it with the courts and you’re back to your own name again. It’s just one more area in which adoptees have no choice or right to consent.
Jodi Gibson adopted from Ireland to America
One of the first things we learn to write as a child, is our name. This is what identifies us as an individual, it is the collective sum of our unique personality and our lineage held together by words – our first and last names. So when we become adopted, we shouldn’t lose the right to who we are born as. I want to suggest respectfully that most adoptive parents change our names out of an unrecognised acceptance of the patriarchy and colonialism that predominates the basis of adoption. I hope that parents in this era will question more deeply why they feel the need to change our name.
Of course it’s convenient to not have to explain to half the world why our name is not the same as our father or mother or how we “belong” to them — but how can we develop self esteem, confidence, and pride in our own identity if we are not allowed our own name? Our name is an expression of who we are and we all deserve to live our truth. The most important thing we have to develop as we journey life, is our relationship with self and our name is integral to our sense of self.
I was given an anglo name by my adoptive parents with my Vietnamese name in the middle. At age 17, I was given a choice if I wanted to keep my Vietnamese name as my legal name. I chose at that time to keep the name as my parents had chosen because at that stage in my life, I hated everything Asian and had absorbed the negativity and racism I experienced within my adoptive country. After doing much work on myself years later, to find my true identity and reclaim my Asian self with my caucasian mindset, I now feel pride as to where I was born and I do wish my adoptive family experience had been different. No doubt if they’d taught me about my heritage and beginnings with a sense of respect and pride, I would have been proud to own my Vietnamese name. It would have helped me develop a stronger and more positive sense of who I am rather than the unnecessary complications I had to sort through as a much older adult.
On the flip side, there’s no doubt people in Australia would have struggled with pronouncing my Vietnamese name considering I was raised in very remote rural regions but I question any adoptive parent who intends on raising their child in areas with no racial mirrors; my generation of intercountry adoptees has definitely seen that this adds to our complexities in negative ways. Now that I live in multi-cultural and very-Asian-dominated-Sydney, my original name would not have been an issue if I’d been raised somewhere like this.
Vong Ung Thanh aka Lynelle Long adopted from Vietnam to Australia
I asked a bunch of adoptees this question for our child whom we adopted. Some said they wouldn’t have wanted a Korean name growing up because they already stood out too much and the name would make it worse. Others wish they had kept part of it (I’m in this camp).
We kept his birth name given by birth mother but changed the romanisation. I have advised other adoptive parents to keep at least part of the name.
Allison Young adopted from Sth Korea to the America and adoptive parent
I didn’t know for a long time that my birth mother had indeed named me. I wish it was my second name and now if I had to go through the process of changing it, it would be long and costly.
It’s a difficult question because I have periods when I dislike my own name because well, it’s not my first.
I know of not one adoptee that doesn’t at least attempt to find their roots. Finding out your adoptive parents gave you a new name can be difficult to digest, especially when you find out later in life. It can also enhance the internal divide an adoptee may already feel.
Lina adopted from Brazil to Germany
The moment or moments you are given a name, or alter a name (via marriage, divorce, blended families, immigration, or choice thru Deed Poll etc), they are all markers in the time line of an individual’s life. There are always many things to consider, however, inclusion and continuity of names (where ever it sits eg first / middle / hyphenated etc) seems to tell a story of a life lived and cared for by many whether biological family, carers, adopted family, or married family. Nothing is hidden and it’s just left to the individual as to which name they would like to be known as, which may change as they grow up, which is naturally what we often do (adopted or not, child names and adult name versions).
The issue for me would be about providing choice for the adoptee, not taking that away. And to not create identity erasure. Doing this creates identity ambiguity which is so damaging. Choice is empowering when so many parts of our lives as adoptees is about feeling disempowered and marginalised. My five cents worth.
Sue Bylund adopted from Vietnam to Australia
I wouldn’t want my Indian name. I partly just love the uniqueness and ambiguity of my current name but I ALWAYS hated my Indian name. I think as I child I truly believed that name represented an ugly part of me. That ugly, unknown confusing part. Then with how non-Indian I am, I wouldn’t want it!! BUT on the flip side I wonder how connected I would actually feel if I hadn’t had the opportunity to completely separate myself from the Indian part of me.
Anonymous adopted from India to America
What’s in a name? For adoptees, connection and disconnection. Most adoptees have little else going forward except their birth name – their link to humanity. When adoptive families change a child’s name, often to one that removes ethnic relevance and birth family history, the new name is a primal severing.
In my case however, the abusive people who adopted me mocked my birth name relentlessly. When I finally escaped my childhood hell as a teenager, I chose a new name that powerfully symbolised my new life. I eventually changed my name legally.
My advice as an adoptee is to keep and honour the adopted child’s birth name; use a nickname if needed. In this way, the link to the child’s core identity is preserved and not denied.
Jesse Lassandro adopted from Spain to America
In many cases our name is the only gift our mother gives us and our only link to her, to family and to culture. If it wasn’t given by her it’s still a part of our story. Our name is important and a disregard of it is significant it sends a message about who and what’s important. It’s the first sign that parent (and in some case white) comfort is more important than ours and we must collude with that or face their pain and resistance if we want to reclaim that name or any part of our biological identity – it’s a heavy burden for an adoptee.
If you have to change an Asian or African name for the comfort of a white community you’re not ready for a transracial child and all its complexity, not ready to advocate for them and celebrate their otherness instead of trying to disguise it. Don’t gift a child a sense of shame in their culture instead nurture confidence and security in who they are and the skills to advocate for themselves. Learn those skills yourself if you haven’t already. If you choose to erase your child’s identity instead you fail at this first hurdle. So prepare for a rough ride once your child tries to find their roots without your help because you’ve shown yourself unable to be supportive.
Name changes also play a crucial role in anonymising us so that biological family can’t search for us. No matter how well argued the parents case is for name changing – it’s a power grab, which means it disempowers others. I can’t express how heavy the burden of search is, it lies entirely with the adoptee because of the many ways birth families are disempowered and shamed to deter them from searching. I shouldn’t have to search, I want to be found.
Gardom adopted from Malaysia to the UK
Prospective and adoptive parents are contributing to a situation where we may end up with a huge list of names. It can be very confusing and does not aid identity. I have 5-6 different last name options (and more, if you consider hyphenating any of those). Now, that’s exacerbated by the fact that Sri Lankan Sinhala people typically have two different types of family names and can use either and that I am married. But being married and changing your name is not unusual in many countries.
Also, having two last names is also not totally unusual as Spanish and Latin American cultures often also use two names (and perhaps there are other countries too who follow such a system).
I have three given names as my bio mother gave me two and my adoptive parents kept my birth name as middle but gave me a new first name. So that’s three given names. It is just plain psychologically difficult to have so many different names. How many people have 9 different names? I don’t even want to calculate how many combinations that is!
Anonymous adopted from Sri Lanka to Australia
I think this is very personal to individual adoptees and there’s no way an adoptive parent can know which the child would prefer. They often have to make the best decision they can based on what they think is best. Hindsight is always 20/20.
I don’t think I would have wanted to grow up with my Korean name and deal CONSTANTLY with people misspelling it and mispronouncing it and having to spell it for people everywhere I go. Ugh. Just thinking about it makes me tired. Lol! But I also wasn’t very in touch with my Korean-ness as a kid.
I think today, it would be neat to have it as a middle name so I could have this little reminder. My husband and I also adopted from Korea. Our son is 9 and we chose to change his name. For one, his Korean name was one that was easily turned into a cruel taunt in America and we felt it would make him a target for bullying. We’ve told him all along, however, that we will help him change it back if he ever wants to do so. He knows we are fine with whatever he wants to do. We actually gave him a middle name he shares with my husband, who is white. Many adoptive families I know keep the Korean name as the middle name so they can decide later to go by their middle name if they’d like. I think that’s a great thing.
Anonymous adopted from Sth Korea to America
My Iranian name Susan was given to me at an orphanage, probably a horrible place to have spent any time in whatsoever. I am happy I got to keep it as a middle name because otherwise it would have felt as if my Swedish adoptive parents were actively trying to erase my origins. They gave me the first name Sarah, which works in the whole world. Sarah is common in Iran too, which is great now that I have found my birth family.
I am happy with not having a Scandinavian name that no-one abroad can pronounce. It would raise so many questions wherever I travel. With a name like Sarah there are less questions. Finding my birth family, it turned out I have a big sister named Susan, so now I’m even more happy I wasn’t given that as my first name.
So my advice is: 1) don’t erase the orphanage name; 2) give your child an international name; 3) if possible, give the child a name that works in their native country; and 4) if the child was given a name by the birth parent and if the child is old enough to answer to that name, you CANNOT under any circumstances change it.
#2 ICAV Blogger Collaborative Series from Adoption Awareness Month 2019
When someone says “I don’t see colour,” to me this means they don’t see me. They will argue that they see me as a “person,” just like we are all people. But I counter that view because my personhood, my identity, my humanity, cannot be uncoupled from my brown-ness.
Pretending not to see colour has the effect of negating everyone’s ancestry, personal and familial history, and their lived experiences in the racialised society we all live in – no matter where we live. In intercountry adoption (ICA), this “colourblind” view can be absolutely devastating because ICA is dominated by white people adopting brown and black babies from all over the world. If white adoptive parents refuse to see their child’s skin colour or their own skin colour, how can they fully parent and love their child unconditionally?
For, it would seem, being colourblind is only possible under certain conditions: (a) I don’t have to see your colour; (b) I don’t have to acknowledge my colour; (c) we never have to talk about what your colour or my colour means; (d) we never, ever have to talk about how those colours exist in relation to each other within the larger context of culture and society.
From the perspective of a brown intercountry adoptee like me, I feel a mixture of sadness and anger towards anyone who espouses a colourblind mentality because they essentially negate the history of my brown ancestors.
If you refuse to allow that humanity has attached certain assumed behaviours and levels of privilege and importance to different skin colours, how can we possibly have a conversation on why these structures are in place, who’s benefitting and who’s being harmed by them, and why it’s important to create a truly level playing field?
When white adoptive parents pretend to be colourblind, how can they help their child be proud of the skin they’re in? How can they recognise their child’s need for racial mirrors? How can they help their child understand the beautiful and rich aspects of the child’s ancestry and culture as well as the pain and oppression their race has experienced and continues to experience, and how those dynamics relate to each other? How can they help nurture a racially competent child who grows up into a racially competent adult – even if that means their son or daughter is racially competent in a race that doesn’t match their own? How can they see the role that their white privilege has played throughout their own lives and via the intercountry adoption of their child? How can they decide how to use their white privilege going forward?
None of this is possible if we are teaching and encouraging people, including white adoptive parents, to pretend not to see colour.
Congratulations you’ve just completely erased my first culture, my birth family, my genetic history, my country of origin! Look I know you meant well, but underneath this, there’s an insensitivity or lack of awareness about everything that I was and still am before I was adopted. It’s kind of like you’re saying, “Good job – you have assimilated so well that you’re just like me/us now!” But I’m not.
One of my fellow intercountry adoptee friends joked about how we are coconuts – brown on the outside and white on the inside. It’s funny, but it’s also not funny.
My adoptive parents tried to show me books and documentaries about Vietnam when I was growing up, but I wanted nothing to do with anything that highlighted my difference. When I got sunburnt on my nose, I asked mum if I’d be white underneath. So I got caught up in the “not wanting to see my colour thing” either.
I was very good at being a chameleon, it’s like I had to become one to survive. I was so desperate to fit in and to belong that I learnt fast about how to adapt my personality to be loved and liked. I still do this to this day, but I’m learning that I’m enough as I am and I don’t need to perform to be worthy of being loved.
The popular TV show This Is Us wowed audiences again with its coverage of transracial adoption. I don’t watch the show, and a lot of adoptees can’t bring themselves to watch it either. And yet it’s immensely popular with adoptive parents. The supposedly “mic drop” scene is as follows:
Jack: When I look at you, I don’t see colour. I just see my son.
Randall: Then you don’t see me, Dad.
During NAAM, it’s particularly biting to see this interaction getting mainstream attention. You see, many of us adoptees of colour have had this exact dialogue with our colourblind families and friends (myself included).
This isn’t an original line, and dare I say, I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers lurk in adoption spaces and stole this from the stories of adoptees, co-opting our stories for better ratings.
This isn’t some TV script for your entertainment; this is a painful part of our real lives. It hurts us in deep, existential ways to be denied access to our birth culture and traditions and then to be unseen by our adoptive families. It is actively rejecting us a second time.
If you refuse to “see” the parts of me that are a brown Indian, then you are actively refusing to support me on my journey to discover who I was born to be. Your choice to take the easy road to claim, “I’m not racist” actively isolates me and in turn plays into its own racial problems. Take the harder road with me, with any of the people of colour in your lives, and learn how to unlearn racial biases. This work requires you to see, so take off your (colour)blinders.
The fact that it takes a network TV show to get this concept to take hold rather than the direct words of real adoptees should disgust anyone and everyone who loves an adoptee.
I challenge adoptive parents and allies who support the adoptee attempt to “flip the script” during NAAM to think about how prioritising entertainment over the real words of adoptees is its own form of silencing; to be more intentional about whose voices you choose to uplift; and be more critical of the media you choose to consume.
Somewhere along the way in my life, I got the message that I’m not a real Asian. As a mixed race adoptee I don’t even dare try to join Chinese adoptee communities or Indian ones for fear of not being enough in some way. I can’t make sense of what it is to be a Malaysian Chindian — I don’t know any others, I’ve never met one. There are no books I know of, no museums or movies. Even if there were, I would be reading them the way an outsider learns about history.
Something I resent is the suggestion I should do something in order to belong. Belonging isn’t a citizenship test!
As an intercountry adoptee brought to England by a white couple with no friends of colour, all the markers of my culture have been erased. Except my skin colour, my hair, it’s texture, my eyes. Each time someone says, “I don’t see colour”, or simply behave as though they don’t, this implicit message that I don’t belong in my biological culture is reinforced and I’m erased a little more.
I don’t forget that my gay friends are gay, I don’t forget their struggle to belong or to feel safe holding hands or kissing in public. To erase that would be a failure of empathy and allegiance. Of course it isn’t the only part of their identity and I’m interested in all the other parts too. The ones that are like me (or not), the parts that amaze, amuse or confuse me — I love them all.
Everyone just wants to be seen. I wonder what makes you feel unseen?
When we experience ourselves differently to how we are seen, there’s a disconnect, a disruption to our identity which isn’t resolvable with free will alone.
Belonging is relational – by its very nature it demands the acceptance of others.
Since the later years of coming to terms with my identity, fitting in between my two worlds (adoptive and birth), understanding the impacts of being relinquished and adopted, I have shared many of my experiences to wide audiences but one situation close to me, never ceases to frustrate me the most. This is when my own adoptive family make this comment, “But we see you as one of us” or “We don’t see you as being different” after trying to explain how I’ve always felt so different and out of place.
I acknowledge, in their eyes, they are trying to say to me that I am accepted and embraced by them as being one of their “clan” despite my skin colour and outward obvious differences. But without any in-depth discussions about the complexities of being intercountry adopted, these types of comments just made me feel even more disconnected and isolated from them. What it showed me was they had very little understanding of my intercountry adopted journey. When they don’t have these important conversations with me, they are oblivious to how their comments make me feel even though I know it is not what they intend.
What would I prefer my family to say? I would prefer them to acknowledge my differences and really try to understand where I’m coming from. For me it’s about the discrepancy I experience on a daily basis because strangers throughout my life meet me once and make basic assumptions that I am NOT one of them (white Australian) based on my appearance – my skin colour, my eyes, my hair. The internal battle I face as an intercountry adoptee, is that whilst in my private family circles I might be fully accepted, it is NOT the experience I have in public outer life.
The constant jarring reminders of “not belonging” in my wider adoptive society leaves me with a lot of unresolved questions of who I am, where do I belong, who are my clan, and how did this reality eventuate. Are my adoptive family even aware of these impacts? No because they are so blind to what everyone else can see and received very little education on race, culture, and the importance of open discussions. Ignorance is not bliss in this case.
So when my adoptive family says, “I don’t see your difference, you’re one of us” when clearly I’m not as clarified by many strangers, this comment only acts to shut down the conversation instead of opening it up and allowing me the space and love to process competing realities.
Being intercountry adopted is not a reality we adoptees can ignore for too long!
I don’t know if it’s the fact that I didn’t grow up in an English-speaking country, but we don’t use the word “colour” to describe a person. In Sweden, we use “foreigner” as opposed to being Swedish. So instead of saying “I don’t see colour”, people would say “I never think of you as anything but Swedish” or “I see you as the same as us”. They say that to be nice.
When I grew up there were very few people in Sweden with a darker complexion. Most didn’t speak the language well and some of them (of course, a small minority) appeared shady. Swedish mindset is to question if they (dark complexion people) could be trusted.
To tell me that I don’t appear foreign means I am a person they trust. But … when I go on dating sites strangers viewing my profile, only see colour. I get less guys who write than my white peers, less matches with white skin but more super likes from “foreign” men.
One time I wrote in my profile text that I was adopted so as not to appear scary. Then I thought adopted might also sound scary, because in Sweden that implies psychological problems. So I deleted it again and had to come to terms with being less popular online.
My close friends have never said these words to me about not appearing foreign but I do things said like this occasionally and every time, I am offended. As if that random person has a right to put an approval stamp on me. As if I were to do anything untrustworthy, he or she would judge me much harder and say, “Hmm, I guess she wasn’t like us, after all”.
What defines me is not what you see, it’s what I see. Colours don’t colour my life, but my experiences in a prejudiced and bigoted society have.
A transracial adoptee’s worth as a human being is both legally and socially determined by his adoptive parents, his adoptive family, their friends and neighbours, and the entire local community that is encouraged to invite him in as one of their own. But as I eventually learned the security blanket of immediate family didn’t always save me from explaining what I was doing there or defending how I belonged. In my youth, it seemed like I was constantly feeling a barrage of disconcerting interactions with other kids who called me out, in so many words, as being a foreigner, even though I knew nothing else than what my Irish Catholic family had taught me: That I was an “Allen”, that I had to go to Mass every Sunday, that I spoke English and that I belonged to them.
The erasure and then replacement of my identity reverberated in how I developed a sense of self: I didn’t really have a Self. I had a mock-up of one, a misfitting template that I was encouraged to carry around and display each and every day. I didn’t know what it meant to be Vietnamese because that was not the point of this whole adoption experiment. I was trained to look in the mirror and pretend that I was just another Irish Catholic kid with a bad temper. I was trained to not read about the war I had been exfiltrated from. I was trained to see myself like everyone else.
I even trained myself not to see colour. Even though my graduating class in high school comprised many kids from refugee families from Southeast Asia as well as several Asian adoptees, including me, I couldn’t pick them out because I refused to see them other than strangers. I didn’t hang out with any of them or even talk to them because why would I? I was “Kevin Allen”. Son of Evalyn and Bob, and oldest brother to two sisters. I couldn’t even find myself for so long because I was lost. Lost in the fantasy that I was just like my parents, just like my aunts and uncles and cousins, and just like the community that held me under its tutelage.
In art studio class in high school we had to do a self-portrait. I took my time drawing mine. I used coloured pencils and got the shading and features of my young face all correct and flattering. I thought it was a great representation of me. It was one of my proudest works. But I never kept it for myself. I gave it to my parents. I felt I had no use for it.
Am I a dog, cat or a fish that you can return back to a pet store? Your actions reflect that I am less than an animal You give strokes of affection and positive comments to your pets As I receive constant chastisement for the infractions that I committed You are genuinely worried when your pet is sick or lost You know nothing about me and remain clueless about the issues I face alone I am insignificant I am a nobody Why did you adopt me?
Other families make a habit of routinely calling each other But we are not like other families, I don’t receive calls from you Most families visit each other over the holidays Unless I come to you, I don’t get visitations Most families know chapters about each other as they interact You know barely a paragraph of my life I am invisible to you I do not matter Why did you adopt me?
You remain vile, proud and unwilling to grasp onto the olive branches I’ve extended With that attitude, how could I subject my children to you? You claim that my truths are mere exaggerations, lies or made up stories How can we discourse when all my words are offensive to you? I have pondered this question so many times You said I have deserved the horrific things you did to me I am a disappointment I am not worthy Why did you adopt me?
There is no answer to this question You’re not honest enough to tell me why When you examine the answer, you dislike yourself even more When you’re confronted with the facts, you tighten your grip on denial You would rather take the reasons with you to the grave Than to be honest with your child I am not deserving I am beneath you Why did you adopt me?
By Mark Hagland, South Korean intercountry adoptee raised in the USA.
One of the topics that we adult transracial and intercountry adoptees talk about a lot–A LOT–is the “adoptee fog” and our coming out of it.
I have to tell you that it took me several decades to pull myself out of the transracial adoptee fog. I grew up in near-total whiteness, and intensely internalized racism towards myself, ending up with a massive complex about my own physical appearance that I’m still actively working on healing, even now, at 59.
Here’s the thing: growing up in near-total whiteness in the Midwest of the US in the 1960s and 1970s, even with wonderful, wonderfully loving parents, was incredibly devastating for me. It completely disabled my ability to navigate the racist society we all live in, and, as I say, I totally internalized racism towards myself. What society told me every single day was that it was an atrocious crime not to be white, but at the same time, I was at least undeluded enough to know that I couldn’t ever BECOME white–I just couldn’t. So basically, I felt like some kind of alien and criminal.
I instinctively knew that I had to get away from where I grew up (again, even with very loving and wonderful parents there), and had to find my way to the big city and somehow find an identity that I could live with. But, having grown up in near-total whiteness and having internalized both a white internal identity and racism into myself, it ended up being an incredibly long, complex path. Having had zero access to birth-country culture or to any significant number of people of color, I flailed at first.
I was incredibly, incredibly lucky in one respect: when I came to Chicago for graduate journalism school, I was admitted to a school that was run by deans, a significant number of whom were Black journalists, and who were committed to diversity and to the empowerment of young journalists of color. So for the first time, I actually found myself in an environment in which I wasn’t one of only a couple of or a few people of color, and I began to “get it.”
And, over time, I found friends of color who would accept me. I was lucky in that regard, too, being a young gay man, because it is easier in the gay male subculture to meet people of color and to socialize across races.
Through my 20s and 30s, I began to create for myself a social environment that worked for me, and then when I was 40, I was brought into the transracial adoptee community, and my head exploded, and my development accelerated dramatically. I was able to begin to truly embrace an identity as a person of color through interacting with fellow adult transracial adoptees, all of whom had also struggled as I had, to find our identities, given that we were all raised in significant whiteness, and had had to figure things out entirely by ourselves.
Over time, I was able to build my own social environment, and to learn how to interact successfully with fellow people of color. It took decades, but I managed to do it. And now, finally, in my 50s, I have a proud, relatively integrated sense of identity as a person of color in the world.
And I’m absolutely committed to mission, and that means supporting my fellow adult transracial adoptees on their journeys, and educating white adoptive parents, so that they can learn and can help their children of color to move forward successfully on their journeys.
And in that context, I am constantly, constantly urging and imploring white adoptive parents to move into diversity for the sake of their children. I do not want the littlest transracial and intercountry adoptees to experience what I’ve experienced. I do not want them to have to spend literally 40 years before they begin to feel comfortable in their identities as people of color.
Above all, I want everyone to understand that raising a child of color in total or near-total whiteness is profoundly devastating to that child. It means that that child will grow up inside an intense transracial adoptee fog, and will inevitably spend years struggling to begin to build a successful identity as a person of color. And that is tragic.
So I am absolutely committed to this mission. And I am glad to be fully out of the transracial adoptee fog. It only took me several decades to accomplish it–WOO-HOO! LOL. But seriously–no transracial and intercountry adoptee should have to struggle that long. And honestly, I know a significant number of adult transracial and intercountry adoptees who are still fully in the fog, and don’t even know it.
Adoption is not heroism. It does not fight poverty, disease nor the root causes of inequality.
Adoption doesn’t even raise awareness about the real causes of poverty, inequality, parent-child separations, disease or social immobility. Instead it creates idolatry of those who look to adoption in a world which stigmatises infertility, disease, poverty and poor access to education.
Celebrity adoption doesn’t give adoptees a much-needed voice – rather it silences them, trapping adoptees in a pernicious web of gratitude in which life with their rich, famous and predominantly white culture, is normalised as better than the one they’d have had with their (implied inferior) families.
Celebrity adoption harms all adoptees. They’re the most highly-publicised way in which most people come into contact with adoption, and yet are least likely to highlight the voice of adoptees. Celebrity adoptions come with a literal team of agents, publicity experts, legal minds and brand managers whose job, in part, will be to keep any dissenting adoptee voices about their famous families out of the media.
In the everyday life of an adoptee minus celebrity, the media is highly effective in idolising the role of gratitude towards adoptive parents. So much so, that adoptees speaking out on social media come with a high risk of trolling and death wishes. Imagine the extra risks and isolation for a celebrity poster child of adoption.
Celebrity adoptions exacerbate a climate of silence and create an inadvertent marketing campaign for child trafficking. The outcome of showcasing only (false) saviourism in adoption is to make adoption fashionable and highly desirable to the upper and middle classes and wannabe saviours. To make intercountry adoption fashionable, with anonymising family history at its centre, this creates a commercial market for baby farms, coercion and kidnapping and provides a kind of diplomatic immunity and witness protection for all agencies and families under the magic umbrella of adoption.
Adoption is the look over there strategy of distraction from what by other names catalyses police searches, support groups, societal outrage, concern and campaigns for separated (and trafficked?) children. But in the name of adoption, society is sure that some kind of mystic lottery ticket win has been exchanged for riches and happy ever afters.
As if to prove the effectiveness of adoption mythology – I know the above will seem like shocking hyperbole to the average non-adoptee, to anyone who hasn’t spent time listening to the stories of adult adoptees who has seen adoption only through this beautiful adopter lens, and the seemingly happy adoptees in their own community (who are actually committing suicide at an alarming rate and are over-represented in addiction and depression).
But it will come as no surprise to any adult adoptees who have listened to a community sharing their experiences. It is a support circle that is part activism and part healing in response to our own search for answers and the need to shake off the mythology of adoption stories.
I’ve yet to see a celebrity adoptive parent raise the voices of adoptees. Even Hollywood writers, skilled in empathy for their character inventions (and surely now alert to the need for representation), present adoptees as one-dimensional ghosts. For some reason (alluded to herein!) the adoptees in dramas are extremely grateful for their superior adoptive parents. Searches are presented as a simple, in-the-moment decision with results in minutes and dramatic reunions which quickly morph into happy blended families. They barely touch the reality for adoptees, or the reasons adoptees hide their feelings, nor the emotional or geographical and language barriers to intimacy in family relationships. Instead adoptees’ stories are presented as a bump in the road of an otherwise pain-free life growing up in their amazing adoptive families, only slightly inconvenienced by the literal absence of medical data and not the complexity of identity in a family of strangers and belonging in biological, perhaps even racial, isolation.
In this fictional world, nurture is presented as having the power to defy nature, where every desirable trait and strength is credited to adoption.
This half-truth or just plain false story of adoption as saving children also disguises the reality of parenting adopted children. Children who’ve experienced body held trauma of separation from their most primal relationship cannot replace the never-had biological children of infertile people. The failure to address this grief in all parties and to instead speed towards wishing for the separation of babies from families, helps no-one but instead leaves everyone having to repress forbidden feelings. Something which never ends well for anyone.
The cost of supporting a family in crisis, particularly in Africa, is a fraction of the cost of adoption and lifelong parenting costs in the west. So is adoption really about saving babies?
The cost is not only financial and parent-centred, it is biological in its impact on adoptees. In the context of adoption, people frequently confuse being preverbal with being pre-feeling and pre-memory, the myth of the blank slate. In truth there are many things you learn as a baby which you don’t remember consciously — walking, talking, or laughing for example. Babies comprehend without words, a sense of safety and primal connection lays a foundation in which to form strong attachments, robust relationships and resilient immune systems. All our lives we rely heavily on unconscious memory as much as we rely on conscious memory to make decisions, learn, build relationships and sense threat.
If celebrities and royals truly want to help – they could instead work to raise the voices of adoptees. Seek answers instead of trusting in the ones entrenched in a legacy of bias. Look for the reasons behind poverty cycles, mortality rates and family struggle leading to adoption, find the best and brightest minds and put them to work. Look past discomfort to explore and educate about colonialism, identify ways to undo harm, to allow others to reclaim cultural identities and heal broken families.
Those in positions of high status and power could explore how to avoid separating a child from its family and community.
Create foundations and charities dedicated to keeping children in their culture and with biological relatives. Find ways to make intercountry search and reunion easier for adoptees, fundraise for therapy and research into the experiences of adoptees. There is still so much that adoptees and science are only beginning to understand as we gather data and experiences and we are only just beginning to be heard – this is where you can help!
If my mum read my posts about adoption, she’d think, “Not Juliette, not my daughter!”
I’ve done the emotional work because I know my parents haven’t and never will. Brexit tore my family apart when my parents voted and arguments revealed just how little they understood they had an Asian immigrant daughter. I struggled and battled them over Brexit, Trump and racism for two years. I raged, I withdrew, I reflected, I dug around for answers but I knew I could only ever work on myself. I knew the whole argument about Brexit had always been about adoption, but they didn’t. Likewise, I knew the first rift that happened in my teens, on the surface was about moving (countries) for about the 6th time in my short life, was also about adoption. But I never said it, so we never talked about it. And as far as I know, they never knew it.
So when at age 46 a friend gently suggested I meet up with her 70 year old adoptee friend who’d done plenty of therapy around her own adoption, I shrugged and agreed. I did not realise how much it would clarify and soothe me to talk to another adoptee, something I had never done before. That’s still incredible to me! Imagine being blind and never connecting to another blind person for most of your life – never knowing how universal your feelings are or realising only those who’ve experienced it, truly understand. As someone who’s been adopted, compared with those who haven’t and think it’s a beautiful happy ending with little to do with anything else, there are things I could never tell anyone while growing up. My loneliness, my longings ended up revealing and highlighting that biology matters and that my family was not enough and that their difference (not mine) was a source of deep isolation and pain. I understood from an early age just how forbidden that topic was and just how little self awareness my parents had about their own grief and it’s impact on me.
I could not find my place in this large white working class family whose only experience of Asian culture was take-out food. I’m not sure they ever rejected me exactly, perhaps I rejected them? But I certainly wasn’t embraced by them. I wasn’t in the minds of extended family, except to be asked about politely as an after thought, after speaking with my parents. If it ever occurred to my immediate or extended family to wonder how I felt being adopted and different, transracially and intercountry adopted, I never had any evidence of it.
For those aware of Tuckman’s model of group development (Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing) I never got past the first stage of Forming with my extended family. They never stopped being polite. That reminds me of the first reality show on MTV, “.. the true story…of seven strangers…picked to live in a house…(work together) and have their lives taped…to find out what happens…when people stop being polite…and start getting real…The Real World.” Perhaps it sounds blissfully charming to live in a world where people never stop being polite, but the real connection doesn’t actually happen until you do. That doesn’t mean when you stop being polite you start being rude, it just means you start exploring each other in a more open and honest way and that can get muddy – but done with curiosity and empathy, it can also lead to stronger and more meaningful relationships.
Now that I think about it, I’ve never left the storming phase with my adoptive parents. The classic movie 12 Angry Men is a great example in a nutshell of a group of strangers, moving from being cautiously polite through to an angry battle of wills, until they begin to learn more about each other’s stories and perspectives and in doing so, are able to reach understanding and consensus. A group can be colleagues, or it could be a jury, or new or old friendships. If you cast your eye on your relationships with friends or family, you’ll see the ones that got past the forming/polite stages, or through the storming phase, and those which never have. Side note, one of my friendships actually got a real life dose of this after we worked briefly together on a project and never saw each other again until we found ourselves on a jury together. We’ve been great friends ever since!
Some teams or relationships will never leave the storming phase and will then never reach their potential together. They will at best remain independent of each other and work alongside each other without too much jostling, at worst actively sabotage and disrupt progress and harmony. When they reach the storming, they will never test their own beliefs against differing perspectives, instead they will retreat into the safety of a story told from a single lens, their own. This is what my parents have done, you may be wondering right now if I have done that too. Certainly there is plenty I can’t know. But I can tell you I have thought it out from their perspectives initially more than I did my own, it’s the nature of life as an adoptee. For emotional safety, the pervading priority is the comfort of adoptive parents and the story they tell themselves. Society easily empathises with their longings — not ours as adoptees. It’s my deep understanding and prioritising of their perspective which also keeps me from unravelling theirs with my own. This also hinders the possibility of healing the widening rift in our relationship with truth.
Rightly or wrongly. Most of my therapy has been an attempt to work out the question of whether I should or not. Whether they are capable of growing at this point in their lives, or whether I would only cause pain and confuse them without any useful end game. In doing so, I create more emotional labour for myself in trying to explain the unexplainable.
When my mum went to see the movie Lion with her sister, I wondered whether it was an opening for us to talk. When I asked her how it was, all she said was, “It was good”. Neither of us pushed it further than that, though I remain astonished that she could have nothing more to say than that. I imagine that she looked at that story and specifically saw all the ways in which the protagonists story was not like mine, not like hers. What I think she would cling to was that I was a baby, not a few years old with memories of my family. In her mind, I had not experienced what he did as a lost child in India, searching for my missing relatives and not knowing how to get back to them. But of course I did, except as a baby, I experienced it all without language and by the time I had words for it, I also had awareness of the pain it could bring. And awareness of how little anyone would understand it.
I now have language for my experience and I understand the value of sharing it with other adoptees. Sharing with adoptive parents and with a society which harbours a one dimensional view of adoption through the lens of adopters, I want us to move past the forming phase of using babies to heal the wounds of infertility and opaque illusions of saviourism. I want us to move past the storming phase of denying the reality of adoptee losses and denial of our human rights, into an age of genuine problem solving, equipped with self awareness and the courage to learn from others. Still, it’s common to find people responding to this thought with, “Not every adoptee …”, not their friend, not their cousin, not their daughter.
To you, I remind you that my mum would read this and think that too.
Mental illness, mental health – words which most people don’t like to read in connection with the word adoption. We usually like to think of happy forever after families but the reality is, adoption is based on the trauma of relinquishment and loss so it’s no surprise that adoptees suffer rates of mental illness far higher than the non-adopted population.
So instead of burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the reality, lets talk openly about what we might do better to assist individuals and families with a lived experience of mental illness.
In Australia, October is Mental Health Month and I’d like to explore how we might reduce the feelings of isolation and the daily struggle for adoptees with a lived experience of mental illness. How do we be more sensitive and not inadvertently trigger underlying pain? Not only do adoptees with a lived experience suffer the same loss from relinquishment as all adoptees, but they suffer a double whammy from the stigma of mental illness that further compounds their early life traumas.
Over the years of connecting and peer supporting my fellow adoptees, the toughest experience is feeling like I let down my fellow peers with a lived experience of mental illness. I do not come equipped knowing intuitively how to support them and what makes it hard in my role as a peer, is the boundaries of peer support via social media and face to face are loose and undefined. What I’ve learnt is, adoptees with lived experiences of mental illness need stronger boundaries because it’s helps them feel safe when reaching out.
I know there’s nothing more powerful than hearing it from those who live it. So, I’ve asked one of my peers who has some ideas from a lived experience perspective. She has kindly shared her thoughts on how we can provide better support to adoptees and she is currently working as a volunteer peer educator in mental health. I personally thank her for providing this wealth of information which she has gathered over the course of her life journey! She does so in the hopes it helps her fellow adoptees with a lived experience of mental illness.
Here is what she provides, including the list of resources at the bottom.
Throughout this article, the term lived experience refers to someone who identifies as having a mental illness, or comes from a complex trauma background, or could be a carer for someone with lived experience. Most importantly we need to recognise that someone suffering from those symptoms has lived experience which is not a label nor does this define them as a person. Just as people aren’t their “broken arm” or their “headache”, physical and emotional / medical illness needs to be treated with the same respect.
Here are some of my ideas of what could be done to better support adoptees with lived experience in mental illness:
Encourage others to hold adoptee-with-lived-experience events like a meal or a forum / workshop where they can talk about their recovery journey. This breaks stigma and is not a rant but a shared story with a purpose to help others in sharing what helped.
You could frame the purposeful storytelling like a set of questions for the adoptee to share on such as: What has helped vs what didn’t help? How have you changed from then to now? What would you like to see done or said differently? What do you need more or less of, to continue your recovery going forward?
Social or Workshop Events
Hold weekly or fortnightly coffee catchups or have a walk or art group, but the emphasis is not counselling. Ask the adoptees with lived experience in mental health to write a list of resources that helped them and make it accessible to others online.
Invent an Adoptee wtih Lived Experience Day to honour those adoptees and have a fun, self care activity day. Do this also for their Carers. You could include info booths, pamper booths, plant a tree activity, food and art activities, talks by people with Lived Experience and people of social standing to attend and open the event.
Training / Supervision
Adoptee peers should go through Trauma Informed Care (TIC) training and Developmental Trauma Disorder training (same as Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder training). TIC training is all about asking what has happened to a person and considers the context. This is in contrast to asking an invalidating question such as, “What is wrong with you?” or ” Why are you not fitting in?”.
Training and supervision is about the peer support person learning to respond not just react. General awareness about how we speak and act around people with lived experience is necessary and learning about Boundaries, Duty of Care, Accidental Counsellor, Suicide, Mental Health First Aid are all good tool kits to add to your belt.
Training is also about being, doing and using appropriate language at all times and noticing our own triggers and judgments arising and tending to those.
The Recovery Model or Strengths Approach
Both these models are currently the best for providing a framework for engaging people with lived experience of mental illness. You can access these through Recovery College or a similar type organisation. The focus of these models is to bring awareness to what the person can already do for themselves and what has helped so far. There is also training available for carers of people with mental illness.
People with trauma experiences may not always show or say anything if they are triggered. So it is important to check in and ask if they are okay. Do things like setup safe places / chill zones during events, just in case.
Self education, training and being on boards / committees of organisations like SANE Australia or Beyond Blue was a way I helped myself. They provided opportunities to share my story or join their speakers bureau. Access to education and event opportunities is important for those with lived experience.
If a peer adoptee with lived experience wants to go on to become a peer educator, I found Recovery College and One Door Mental Health teach all the modules needed, including Purposeful Story Telling. After one completes the modules you become a certified “peer educator” and can then teach at the colleges. One Door Mental Health reimburses those who tell their Lived Experience Story at workshops. You can also be reimbursed when One Door Mental Health are asked by a service organisation to speak on a specific subject like BPD, depression, anxiety or schizophrenia.
Anybody’s recovery is as good as the social connection, support networks, finances for support, understanding and opportunities to contribute. Being treated as normal as possible but with the context of trauma, considered as far as our behaviour / limits / expectations can go. This includes what others are capable and willing to be open minded about and setting a context to the bigger picture.
Everyone needs to know that they are seen and heard and that people care. We who live with mental illness matter and have a purpose. We are often shut out and marginalised and our behaviour makes us vulnerable and an easy target for being overlooked as a valued contribution and educational resource to the community.