Finding the Right Therapy as an Adoptee

Over the past 20 years, I’ve probably seen at least 10 different therapists in my life. I’m an intercountry adoptee from Vietnam to Australia, prior to the end of the Vietnam war. If you met me now, you might question my claim to seeing so many therapists. I am not the same person as I was 20 years ago. Back then, I was in the fog – I had no real idea of how being adopted impacted my life. I was raw, reactive, highly volatile, emotionally dead, a real go-getter with drive that most of my peers couldn’t fathom. Now, 20 years on, I’m more mellow and I’ve found my peace! Not that one ever arrives at some destination but I am certainly no longer living the inner turmoil I use to try and ignore. The journey to finding my real self, my identity in-between Australia and Vietnam, hasn’t been smooth or easy but it was certainly enabled by having the courage to see some amazing professionals and ask for their help and support.

I’ve seen these counsellors on and off over the years, depending on what the issues were. I’ve covered major life issues of relinquishment/abandonment, abuse and negative family dynamics that impacted my ability in intimate relationships. I’ve also had therapy to help me be a better parent and become aware of how my history impacts my style of parenting .

I certainly wasn’t raised in an adoptive family who saw “therapy” as a means of seeking help. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen my parents reach out for professional help – they will only go to a medical doctor if they are seriously seriously ill but often deal with health issues on their own, seeking natural remedies where possible. So in my adoptive family, seeking help was not the done thing. Perhaps that is a reflection of the era in which they were born? And perhaps my psychology training at university influenced my perspective – but I will say I learnt nothing about trauma in my psychology training! Not one subject on the impacts of childhood trauma in the 4 years of my undergraduate degree! I didn’t realise I had any “issues” until I noticed relationship difficulties and patterns, depression and self harm. I only saw the surface symptoms I exhibited with no clue as to what was underlying.

The therapists I have seen, range in qualifications from counsellor, psychologist, psychotherapist to psychiatrist and what I’ve learnt, I’d like to share because I know in speaking to other intercountry adoptees, it’s not easy to find one that works for you! Some adoptees might wonder what therapy is all about and have no faith it will actually help them. Some might have been once and found it so uncomfortable they don’t want to go again. So here are the things I’ve learnt along the way that might help in case you’re considering therapy for the first time or again.

The first thing I had to learn was to ask myself: Do I need help? Am I going around in circles repeating the same cycles? Do I feel like my reactions are outside my control? Am I overreacting to things (being triggered) and not understanding why? If so, a professional trained in the area of my difficulty might be a great idea.

After some years of undergoing therapy, I realised I should approach therapists a bit like a job interview. I found there is value in “first assessing the therapist” (preferably over the phone or face to face) to see whether they have the right skill set and personality to fit with me and the issues I want to deal with. Don’t just see the first therapist you stumble upon. There is no point seeing a therapist for relationship issues if they have no speciality training in relationships — and there is much to be said for seeing a female “mother-figure” therapist for abandonment mother issues. I learnt to ask whether my therapist had speciality training in “trauma”, have a chat to them over the phone for free first to get a feel for whether I’d be comfortable sharing with them. If so, I would then usually try for one or two sessions first and see whether there is a good “fit”.

After going to a few therapists, I learnt not to blindly continue seeing them just because they are considered an “expert”. I learnt over time to check my gut feeling on whether there was a good “connection” with my therapist. The therapeutic relationship works because we learn to develop a trusting relationship with them – they become the other significant person whom we work out our complex issues on. We transfer our issues onto them instead of playing out these issues in real life with unsuspecting and untrained people. The therapy won’t be effective if we have no trust or connection with the therapist. So like with any other “professional” whom you seek expert help from, check their credentials, check that they act professionally towards you at all times, check that they have safe and appropriate boundaries, and ask around from people you trust (your adoptee peer group) as to whom they found as good and effective therapists.

Unfortunately, if you are like me, my most turbulent years were also at the time when I was not financially stable. That meant, I usually couldn’t afford the high fees. Therapy is not cheap (rarely free) and excellent therapists usually have long wait lists and higher fees. I did learn to ask for a fee based on a sliding scale of income. This meant I could afford the same therapist as someone earning a full professional income.

I also learnt there are different methods of therapy. In the beginning I knew only of the traditional “talking” or “cognitive” therapy: commonly we think of Freudian days, sitting on a couch speaking about what we have going on in our heads. But over time, I came to realise talking therapy was limited and didn’t really help me to change the patterns I was living. Yes, I could now identify the issues and patterns, but changing them was something else. I eventually stumbled upon “body” therapy modalities and found this to be much more effective in changing persisent patterns and helping me to reconnect within myself. Once I did this type of therapy, I was no longer split between my mind/head and my body/feelings. I was able to re-integrate my sense of self and I felt a sense of harmony within.

The final point I will make, is I learnt that the type of “qualification” of the therapist was almost irrelevant as long as they had qualifications, training and experience. What I mean is, don’t assume a psychiatrist is going to be better than a psychologist or counsellor. They each have their own area of speciality training – a psychiatrist is medically focused so very essential if you also suffer from a mental illness and need prescription drugs. A psychologist also has years of academic training and a psychotherapist and counsellor has various routes to become trained so often I found this attracts more “mature aged” people with lived experience compared to those who enter university and come straight out with little life experience but loads of academic knowledge. My point is, don’t get hung up on what “qualifications” they have but more importantly, ask at the beginning what their approach, style and experience is and give it a try for a couple of sessions. You’ll quickly know whether this is the right fit for you or not.

I’ve recently shared at ICAVs private facebook group (for intercountry & transracial adoptees only) and our ICAV Newsboard (open for the public), a great link that lists adoptee therapists in the USA from one of our intercountry adoptee therapists. Wouldn’t it be awesome to see that replicated around the world! Nobody knows best what our journey is like and how to support it, than those who walk it!

In ICAV and amongst adoptee led groups, part of the benefit of connecting together is that we can share via word of mouth about who the awesome therapists are and the many other amazing modes of healing. I’d love to hear from you as to what works. Please feel free to comment!