by Soorien Zeldenrust & Dong-Mi Engels who write this article on behalf of the Adoptee & Foster Coaching (AFC) team, Netherlands.
Standing still with today, with life, surviving and giving up. You’re tired and you don’t want to feel anymore. You wish to find a path, away from the pain and sadness.
A day where 6 suicide reports of intercountry adoptees, which all took place on and around New Year’s Day, have now arrived to our Adoptee & Foster Coaching (AFC) colleagues. One from India, two from Korea, all 3 adopted to Netherlands; one from India, one from Chile, both adopted to Belgium; one from Chile adopted to Germany.
Making the unbearable bearable
Your body is broken the moment you were separated from your greatest commitment: your mother and your origins. Once in a new family and another country you will be obliged to attach yourself to this. Not only from the environment, but also from yourself to survive. As a child you can only stand with yourself by adjusting. When “problems” come later, it will be downplayed or your surroundings try to “fix it”. After all, you were so neatly adjusted (read: devastated).
You’re getting older, the unforgettable feeling and being different from your surroundings remains present deep inside and slowly rises to the surface. Soon it gets to the point that you can no longer ignore (recurring) relationship problems, workplace issues or health issues. Where should you look for it and who should you be with? Is there someone who can really understand what you’re going through and what you’re feeling? Usually not in your immediate vicinity and not from the regular professionals either. And yet you want an end to the intense pain, the unprocessed sadness and (the double) grief. You wish for an end to longing for a home or a place, that desire for hiraeth, a deep homesickness.
Some of us reach a point where they don’t want to feel all of this anymore and can’t handle confrontation anymore. They also feel guilty towards their adoptive parents because they can’t handle the pressure of being “happy”. They’re over it.
By sharing these hopeless looking thoughts and greatest fears with like-minded people, you can break through this and you will feel that you are no longer alone. It really does get better. You can handle this pain and learn to embrace it because you will understand it and never have to wear it alone again.
We as AFC coaches unfortunately can’t prevent what happened last New Year’s Day. There are adopted people who see no way out. All we can do is be there for you when you are ready to reach out and ask for support. By giving recognition and sharing, we want to let you know that you are not alone and there is a place to learn and be yourself, with all your questions, sadness, fears and thoughts. Make yourself known and be heard. We provide a listening ear, the correct aftercare and the necessary awareness in the outside world.
Worldwide, intercountry adoptees commit suicide 4-5 times more than the average non-adopted person. This occurs especially when adoptees can’t find their first parents and relatives and they are very vulnerable during the holiday season.
It was October 10, 1990. “Imagine” by John Lennon played on the radio. I heard my adoptive mom on the phone tell my sister that our father passed away….
14 years and orphaned again. My adoptive father suddenly died because of a medical mistake after a hernia surgery. As a result, our family would never be complete again.
As a child my surroundings often told me to be grateful for my new life with my new parents. No one told me adoption not only causes you to get new parents, but adoption also causes you to lose your parents twice.
The pain and sadness I felt as a 14 year old was immense and loneliness was unbearable. I didn’t understand then that I not only mourned the loss of my adoptive father, my safety and my new family, but that the loss triggered my old loss trauma.
Nowadays I know I’m not alone in this. A lot of adopted people have traumas that originated before they were adopted.
Traumas invisible and unpredictable and triggered by loss. Loss of a pet, home, friendship, health, job, divorce of adoptive parents or loss of a loved one or adoptive parent(s).
Sometimes the early child traumas are too large with all the consequences. But often knowledge of loss trauma can help with relinquishment and adoption, we need to declare this “abnormal” reaction to an apparent small event.
The circumstances surrounding my adoptive father’s death have helped me to make it my mission to create knowledgeable aftercare through and for adopted persons.
At AFC we notice that adoptees benefit from adoption coaches who specialise in relinquishment and adoption. This is because those adopted themselves have also suffered similar loss. Knowing the loneliness and the sadness, carrying their fate and surviving the pain.
And today I comfort myself with the thoughts that my adoptive father is proud of me, my passion and drive. And that this didn’t make his death entirely pointless….
A mother with no available options doesn’t actually have a choice when it comes to letting her daughter go on an “education program”.
Her child getting “adopted” while on the education program was the result of desperation, greed, ignorance and corruption.
A greedy adoption agency that chose to look the other way as to how children were coming into the system for adoption.
Ignorant adoptive parents who didn’t fully understand the problem at hand before trying to “help”.
A desperate middleman who chose to “bend” the truth and exploit vulnerable Ugandan families in order to put food on the table.
Corrupt judges and other government officials that cared more about lining their pockets than the well being of a child.
The misguided notion of “a better life” led everyone involved down a path that contributed to almost erasing a child’s identity, culture and ties to her family.
Adoptive parents’ love that wasn’t based solely on a child being part of their family helped them see beyond the lies and help her get home.
A child’s bravery in speaking out enabled the truth to be understood.
Continuing to allow children with families to be needlessly adopted and subjected to a lifetime of trauma and loss as a result of being separated from everything and everyone they have ever known and loved — from their identity within that family unit is inhumane.
Every time I get to visit with Namata and her family these are the things that run through my mind.
All that was ALMOST lost and erased.
4 out 5 children living in institutions worldwide have families that they could go home to.
Ignoring this family separation crisis will only continue to ensure that 4 out 5 times children like Namata will be needlessly adopted and separated from their families.
Subjected to a lifetime of trauma and loss NEEDLESSLY.
If adoption is about the well being of the child, why do we only care about their well being to the extent that they end up in a new family?
Adoptees are 4 times more likely to attempt taking their own life, so who’s well being is being prioritised when we knowingly ignore the truth and continue with intercountry adoption the way it is today?
Know better. Do better.
Lynelle’s response to Jessica:
As an intercountry adoptee separated forever from my family, these photos bring tears to my eyes. Last night I dreamed of my biological father – it was the first time he’s ever been present in my dreams. Usually it’s my mother. Seeing your daughter surrounded by people who mirror her, are her clan and having her place of belonging is just so beautiful! I know how much heartbreak, unspoken loss and grief, misplacement and longing you have prevented for her!
Your grief every day is the grief she would have lived with her whole life if she’d remained adopted.
Thankyou for being a mum who’s done what is in her best interest! What a gift you gave her to stop that unnecessary pain! I’m just sorry you feel yours and it’s the first time I’ve really comprehended how painful it must be for you and the rest of your family.
I wish other adoptive parents could understand this. It’s either your pain or ours that exists with intercountry adoption but so many choose to save themselves from the pain, instead of the child. You are one of the rare few I know who chose to accept it for yourself and do what’s right and ethical!
She’s just beautiful and deserves to be where she belongs!
Moth….errr. Can I say this word without a pause? Moth..eerrr. Can I say this word without my mind racing to a hundred different thoughts? Moth….errrr. Potentially, maybe, and yet possibly, no. For me it is a word that brings up many connotations, some good, most bad. A word that is hard to utter as my stuttery voice reflects my heart. The purity of the word is lost to me. I am not used to the word on its own, but rather always with another word in front, whether it be birth mother, first mother, adoptive mother, real mother or not real mother. Always another word in front, as if delineating my experience into parts, not a whole. Confusion ensues and my head is spinning as everyone tries to tell me what moth…err is and what a real moth…er is. The expectations and idealisations of moth…er fracture under increasing weight of scrutiny and life experiences. Instead of asking, people are shouting. This is what a real mother does or does not do, or this is what it means to be a mother. Can’t you see that the very fact people are arguing means there’s something not whole about this? No wonder I can’t fully utter this word on my own, bewitched by longing and sorrow, and fully feeling the emotional tension in the word. I can’t escape it. Even when I stare into the eyes of a romantic partner, the alarm bells ring and the sirens wail. What makes this woman different than a moth…errr who left a son? What ensures that the same won’t happen again? The primal fear and the visceral reaction. Moth…eer, what have you done to me? My head is spinning and about to implode.
It feels strange to say it on my own, waiting impatiently for another accompanying word to show up beside it like a dog searching for its master. Can’t a child have two moth…errs? There I go again. Damn. Another qualifying moth…err. As much as I need to grieve for the moth…errr that is lost, I must also grieve the idea of moth…errr and the fact that, upon relinquishment, my idea of moth…errr was forever shattered, leaving me, a baby, to pick up the pieces. Adults tried to reason for the scraps of moth…err floating around in my heart, and yet, now it is the adult me picking up the pieces to reason with the baby me about the idea of moth..err. Can a man nurture himself? Can he become his own idea of moth…err? What choice is left? I am tired of people defining mother for me. I have an idea of it, because I have lost it, and know the effects of it. And yet where can one begin to heal, except for first grieving mother?
i wish i were a giant with feet ten miles wide so i could walk across the ocean and back to the other side a goodnight kiss on one shore to those i hold close to my heart then a long hike through the ocean deep and blue to my beloveds on the other port and then i would have a giant’s heart to hold all this joy and sorrow inside but instead i’m just this small, lonely man and so i sit in the middle and cry
perils of a foreign-born adoptee mi boreal interior collection (c) j.alonso 2019
Poems by j.alonso may not be reproduced, copied or distributed without the written consent of the author.
It’s early morning, I’ve only the birds for company for a few more hours. Until my favourite person wakes up. Across the world in the place I was born it’s already early afternoon on my birthday.
Birthdays are a strange, strange day for adoptees. The days preceding it are pensive and sad for completely different reasons to those who perhaps see only more candles on cake. It’s an odd day to celebrate given the anniversary of loss eclipsing that day.
My birthday is one of normalised secrets and mysteries, unspoken questions unanswered. Who was the woman to whom I was born on this day? How was my birth? Did she hold me at all, for how long, minutes, days, weeks, months? How was she feeling? Sad, relieved, resentful, frightened. Decisive?
Who were the other women who cared for me and brokered my adoption? Nuns convinced they were doing a God’s work. While from my perspective it seems more like a Handmaids Tale.
I know my mothers name, her age and that she was Indian and I have her ID number, assuming my birth certificate wasn’t falsified as many were in other parts of Asia. That’s all, except perhaps that she was likely Catholic. You would think a name and an ID card number might be enough to find her. But it’s another continent, another culture. One in which I have no sources, no allies or relationships and no sense of the unwritten rules and expectations.
Her name now brings up an obituary listed in late 2016. A woman with this name died leaving behind a husband and a daughter. More mysteries, could it be my mother, and if so, is the daughter me, or a sister? Is her name common in Malaysia? Are those whom Google uncovers with this name, no more likely to be relatives than a Brown or a Smith? Or is it more rare? The first search reveals a young man, a journalist in Malaysia, a crime reporter. He’s on Twitter but he has only a handful of followers and very few tweets showing me who he is. Should I follow him, and see if he follows the clues back to me? Am I a random stranger whose profile of a Chindian Malaysian adoptee is only of passing interest or could it resonate with the possibilities of a shameful family secret? How does an adoptee reach out to people in these circumstances knowing the possible weight of consequences?
I could hire a detective – perhaps with this information it wouldn’t take a well connected expert long to find people and information. But I’m told it’s common practice to expect to bribe people for information. For my information. I’m resentful about how much it might cost me to find out what everyone else takes for granted. A history they’ve never even had to consider a human right. It just exists. Perhaps it’s even a little boring, the story of the day you were born, told again and again.
If I take my search to another level, there’ll be no going back once a certain line has been crossed. So much can unravel once it does in a family across the world, and in one here.
Only adoptees will really understand this, perhaps they will always mean more to me than family. They are mostly strangers across the world, they know intimate details about my adoption story and almost none about my day-to-day life. A kind of Adoptees Anonymous.
Today a call with my British adoptive parents will be unavoidable. There will be pseudo jollity. They’ll wish me a happy birthday, ask me about my day and presents, and no one will mention the secrets and mysteries of this day in 1972 in Malaysia.
I had my first panic attack almost fifteen years ago. I had just found out that my then partner was pregnant. As happy as I was for her and us that we were having a baby, something inside of me which I had suppressed for my whole life, without being aware of until then, was awoken. Sheer panic and absolute terror overcame me. I couldn’t eat or sleep. I was vomiting and having night sweats. This intense period went on for two weeks. Waves of panic and adrenaline would surge through me periodically through the day. I had to take time off work. I’d get up in the morning and make myself a glass of sustagen and that’s all I could manage to eat for the whole day. I lost 7 kilos over two weeks. I worried that a new baby would somehow replace me, that there wouldn’t be enough room for me and my needs anymore. The primal fear of being abandoned and rejected had resurfaced. I was thirty years old.
This has happened again twice more in my life. The second time came when my ex-partner and I broke up after being together for fifteen years. It was the same sense of being abandoned, feeling alone and not worthy of being loved anymore. Sound familiar? Thus ensued more vomiting and the inability to sleep or eat. I also experienced suicide ideation. I didn’t actually want to die, I just didn’t want to continue feeling like this. I’d lie there imagining what would happen if I walked out in the middle of the busy road that I lived on at the time. A very good friend thankfully called me one night to ask how I was. I told her about my thoughts of the busy road and the sharp knives in the kitchen.
She said, “You need to go and see your GP tomorrow”. I replied, “I’ll just keep doing my yoga and meditation. I’ll be fine.” I was less than fine. My doctor was unavailable so I saw another doctor who prescribed me anti-depression medication that had an anti-anxiety effect and another type of medication for anxiety. Both were highly addictive. And yes, I became addicted to them. It took me almost a year to get off them. The same beautiful friend who called me, drove me to stay with my parents who live on the Bellarine peninsula near Geelong, an hour and half away from Melbourne. I arrived a shell of myself and my folks literally scooped me up like I was a child again and took care of me until I was well enough to return home.
The third time came recently four months ago now when my girlfriend broke up with me. The same feelings of being rejected, not good enough, unworthy and unlovable resurfaced. This time though throughout the panic attacks, the vomiting, nausea and inability to eat, I was still able to function to the degree where I could continue to go to work and parent my children. Something had improved.
It’s only now that I have finally started working on the issues surrounding the one time in my life I was actually abandoned — as a newborn on the orphanage doorstep in Vietnam.
I now have a better understanding of what triggers my anxiety and what is at the heart of it. It isn’t anxiety at all, it’s grief. I have an ocean of sadness inside me that I’ve never fully addressed until now. I have gathered a team of professionals to surround me who are helping me work through this deep seated feeling of not being good enough or loveable. I know objectively and rationally that I am, but somewhere deep inside, the wounded child doesn’t know that ……… yet.
I was writing to an adoptive mum about how we adoptees express anger and it reminded me of how frightened people are, in general, of that “adoptee anger”. In the aim of creating greater understanding of this misunderstood and feared emotion, I thought I’d write about why anger is a valid component in an adoptee’s journey and how people can support an adoptee in the midst of the anger. I don’t speak for all adoptees but share from my own experience.
I don’t recall being aware of my anger being related to my abandonment until I reached my mid 20s. I do recall feeling angry as a teenager but at the time my anger felt like a result of feeling confused about my place in the world, feeling like I didn’t fit in, that people teased me about my looks, and at being treated differently in my adoptive family. I know if anyone had approached me during those teenage years and talked about adoption or abandonment I would have brushed it aside saying it had nothing to do with how I was feeling. I was a teenager who had no idea of the issues that were underlying my feelings. My adoptive family didn’t seek to look for issues other than normal teenage issues – they were told that love should be enough – an era where adoption and abandonment was just not understood.
I was the teenage adoptee who never rebelled overtly. Personality? I’d say it was my fear of rejection that created my drive to “fit in” and my desire for “acceptance” that drove me to succeed at school academically. My emotional outlet was music. I played the piano all the time and I recall my adoptive sister demanding I stop thumping the piano so loudly and angrily. Looking back I realise now it was my only outlet and sign of deep seated anger and primary to that, sadness. I certainly felt like I had no-one who talked to me about those feelings, to initiate those conversations, and perhaps I was so shut off from trusting anyone instinctively that I couldn’t see them even if they were in front of me. I grew up with other children at school and church who were also adopted domestically, but I don’t recall any conversations about “adopted” children except to overhear that they were causing their parents a lot of trouble.
As an adult adoptee, I I personally know quite a few intercountry adoptees who grew up rebelling and getting into drugs, alcohol, sex. They’re all addictions to a degree that help to bury our feelings because they are so overwhelming. I can totally understand why we turn to these comforts and what is driving them. For adoptees, it’s our deep seated feelings of hurt at being abandoned. The persistent questions in our psyche of why were we given up? People are so blinded by the fairytale myths of adoption of “forever family” and “love is enough” they don’t see the signs so obvious to an adoptee like me. You may treat us like forever family and love is enough but WE don’t feel like that. Not for a long time. For kids like me, who appeared well behaved, our struggles go undetected – only to show up later in early adulthood as deep seated depression and suicidal attempts or other covert symptoms. Perhaps parents should consider themselves lucky if they have a child who is acting out – at least the adopted child is trying to tell you there is something they are struggling with – it’s their call for help. As for adoptees like me on the other hand, my parents had no idea of the depth of my struggles and for some unknown reason I’m still alive to write about it. For those adoptees who manage to cut off those feelings permanently by ending it all, I say it’s a terrible reflection on our society in the ways we perpetuate adoption myths, failing to support and offer the help and acceptance they are seeking before it’s too late! My parents certainly never realised I had deep seated underlying issues that might have benefitted from some guided assistance. I looked on the exterior as the model child, always conforming, performing highly at school, despite being caught for shop lifting in my early teens.
The reality is anger is a normal emotional response to our unordinary beginnings of loss, detachment, disconnection, severing of our ties to mother who carried us, loss of our genetic heritage, feelings of not belonging in our adopted land and environment, feelings of displacement, confusion as to where exactly do we fit in and why it is so hard to wrestle with all these feelings that no-one else seems to have, let alone relate to. Unless the people surrounding us and closest to us understand this anger and have an interest in “hearing” what this anger is about, I think as adoptees we continue to escalate in our behaviours of expressing anger in poor and dysfunctional ways which sabotage further our abilities to develop relationships that otherwise might be supportive.
I came to the realisation in therapy one day that in fact harming myself was my anger turned inward. Adoptees who act out their anger are displaying it out, those of us who are perfectionists and trying to conform will turn it inwards if there is no appropriate avenue to express it. So how can we best help an adoptee with anger? First and most importantly we need someone to listen to us and accept we have a real valid reason for feeling anger. This means not being afraid to hear the adoptee’s anger. Don’t turn the issue away from the adoptee and make it about you. I know many people who are afraid of hearing/seeing/being on what they perceive is the receiving end of anger – if so, I encourage you to read The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner. In blocking the adoptee’s innate need to express that anger, you will also be blocking their need to express their innate sadness of loss and disconnection.
Second, don’t react to the anger expressed in a negative way. If you do, this gives the impression that our anger is wrong. No, what is wrong is not the emotion and sound reasons for it, but the way in which we turn that anger energy onto others or ourselves. What we need when we express anger is someone to validate and confirm that our anger is ok and that underlying it is our pain and sadness at being abandoned.
Third, once you allow the anger to exist, you might be surprised to see it turn into tears of raw sadness, hurt, and pain. This is when we need a nice warm accepting cuddle that offers comfort and demonstrates you are sharing our pain with us.
As adoptees, if we constantly receive the message overtly or covertly that our anger is not ok, you are reflecting back to us that it is not ok to be who we are. We are a result of a terrible beginning so naturally our psyche has to resolve this and find a way to heal. If you block the anger, the adoptee will never get to the other end of the spectrum of healing because anger is our secondary emotion to sadness. If we are too afraid to express our sadness, we express it as anger. If you can’t hear our anger, you won’t be able to hear our sadness. If we never get to express our sadness and pain, we never get to resolve our beginnings.
The message I’m trying to convey is please don’t be scared of our anger or try to inhibit it from being expressed. Once our anger gets heard, we won’t be as explosive or reactive. It is like uncorking a bottle of wine, if you let the anger gas out, the wine goes nice and mellows. Now I’m not saying we only have to let our anger out once, no, sometimes we need multiple times of expressing this anger and being “heard” and listened to. In my experience, the power of healing for me came from being able to tell my story fifty different ways to fifty different audiences. It was the validation I needed. Having people come up to me and empathise and give that understanding I’d been seeking all along. After a while of getting people’s validation, I learnt that my feelings were ok and not to run from them. I learnt it was good to listen to my anger within but the trick was to find an appropriate method to channel the energy and turn it into something useful for ourselves. For me, it was to create a support network for other adoptees who were struggling like I did. For others, it could be an artistic outlet, music, writing, anything that allows us to express the anger and sadness in a safe and healthy way.
The above is written specific to adoptee anger based only upon the initial abandonment wound. If an adoptee gets further hurt, abuse, racism on top of their abandonment, then of course the anger gets compounded by these extra causal factors. I’m also not advocating for violence which is anger acted out towards others or justifying an adoptee purposively hurting others because of their “anger”. I’m simply writing about a much misunderstood topic specific for intercountry adoption and hoping to share some insight as to why we display anger, where it’s coming from, and how you might help us resolve it in a healthy way.
My wish is to live in a world where an adoptee’s anger will be heard for what it is i.e. instead of labelling us and pushing us away because people are afraid of the force in the emotion, they would instead embrace us and validate that we have every reason to feel sad and angry. If our anger is embraced, you will enable us to heal ourselves by being true to our feelings and to start to truly connect to you and share our deepest needs by embracing who we are at our deepest core.