One of the highlights in travelling to the Netherlands last month was to finally meet in person Hilbrand Westra, a fellow intercountry adoptee born in South Korea and adopted to the Netherlands, whom I have liaised and worked with since the beginning of ICAV. Not only did I get to meet him in person, share a few meals, laugh and pose for photos like above .. but I also got to hear him speak. He was previously one of the key adoptee leaders in the Netherlands, advocating for intercountry adoptees at government level and was awarded the Order of Orange-Nassau for his amazing contributions to the adoptee community.
In the past few years, he has taken a back seat in advocacy but has turned his efforts to his other passion with adoptees – of providing professional emotional support. Like myself, he has also observed that advocacy is best done when an adoptee has healed their inner self and often the biggest barrier to this healing, is the lack of professionals who have methods and experience to truly help us move past the traumas of the past. I love that Hilbrand is now focusing on providing for this gap in what we need most!
Here is the video recording I made of his presentation which gives you a little insight as to how he operates. It is 23.4mins long so make sure you have time to listen in full. Apologies for the slight fuzziness in the recording, I must have knocked the lens when I zoomed in.
He works utilising the well known European models of adoption constellation and systemic work to help adoptees (and fostered people) shift through the layers of trauma we inevitably acquire, due to being relinquished or removed from our families of origin.
For those who want to know more about Hilbrand and the coaching team he is building in Europe to provide vital, professional emotional support to fellow adoptees, please see his website (dutch) or here (english).
Huge thanks to Chilean Adoptees Worldwide who hosted the event and invited Hilbrand, myself, and other key adoptee leaders as guest speakers. It was an AMAZING and memorable day!
Note: ICAV does not condone the use of illegal substances. This post is shared in the spirit of highlighting how everyone finds different pathways to healing and the depths of the trauma in relinquishment.
One high dose trip changed everything for me. I wish I did it 20 years ago. When I thought there was no other way, I managed to still have a little bit of imagination and curiosity to wonder if there existed another way – other than self destruction. I never thought I’d still be here. I don’t think I’m out of the woods yet though. I’m still processing the experience at both a conscious and subconsious level which will take some time.
Yesterday was 6 months to the day since I tried a mushroom trip. I reflect on it a lot, and just thinking about the experience is emotional. But I really think I only started on the road to healing after the trip. Afterwards, it was a similar feeling to when someone close to you dies, like a sadness or loss, but it also felt like a completion of something. It makes sense that the healing part of trauma can’t commence until the origin of the trauma is faced and I think that’s what the trip did for me. Now I have to be patient. Before the pain was vague and diffuse, dragging me down. Now it’s stark and in front of me.
As like the clinical trials that I’d researched before embarking on this journey, as soon as I could, I wrote down my self reflections and observations of what I could recollect from the trip and then for a couple of days after. Here is an extract from my writings below. I don’t think I could ever have had an experience like this any other way.
“…. I start feeling cold and start to shiver slightly. I get into bed. It doesn’t take long and I start to feel the descent. I’m breathing quickly. I’m twitching and shaking. Then I remember to relax my breathing, let it go, don’t fight it. Then all references and rationale disappear. The ego is gone. It’s just me.
Then I’m there. I’m in a cave. There is only enough illumination to see a few inches in front of me It’s not light, just faint illumination. Beyond the illumination it’s just blackness. Fear. Loneliness. Abandonment. No sense of direction or which way to move or face. No comprehension of what to do. There’s no-one out there. I’m reaching out in the darkness but there’s only emptiness. There’s no-one there. I’m alone. Totally alone. I don’t know what to say. I’m confused. Scared. There’s no comfort. There is no hope. The consciousness is beyond pain. Pain is physical. My cries and tears are physical. This isn’t pain. It’s more painful than pain. It’s utter despair. It’s utter anguish. It’s utter wretched hopelessness. This is my consciousness.
It was always you. You. You. You! Damn it! It was always you. I had to come to this wretched place to realise it was you. Come and get me! Come and help me! Come and comfort me! Get me out of here! I look up and can see in the distant dark a vague figure of a woman. I can’t see your face, but I know it’s you. I can’t get to you. There is too much darkness between us. There’s just too much. I don’t know how to get to you. I’m waiting for you to come and get me. I’m just here! Please don’t leave me here alone. How can I survive on my own like this, in a place like this? You put me here, you’re supposed to stay with me. Now you’re too far away.
Why is there no help? I’m confused. Scared. So scared. So alone. So alone. Who am I looking for? It feels like forever, frozen alone in the darkness, then I realise.
Yes, it’s you, my mother.
I don’t understand why. I can’t comprehend this here, alone in this cold darkness.
I can’t do anything about it. She is gone. She is gone forever. Never coming to get me. I will never see her face again. Her hands will never touch me ever again.
But now I know who you are. Now I know it’s you. It was always you.
I know you loved me. I know you did, I really do. I know it’s not your fault. But it hurts so much all the same. I’m sure you loved me. But it’s painful all the same.
All you have left me with is this pain.
Am I only this pain and despair? Is this all I am? Is this all I will be. But it’s all I know. I know nothing else. It’s who I am. How can I change it? I don’t know what to do. It runs so deep and black. There is just too much of it. I want there to be more than this pain and unfettered sobbing. Please, this can’t be all there is. I want to find where it ends, where it stops and something else starts. But there’s just too much of it. It’s all I know. It’s all there is. There is just too much of it. It’s all I will ever know. It’s all I can ever be.
I peer into the blackness. It’s an endless cave of unlit tunnels and openings. I know this is my pain. If I can fully explore and map it, and know everything that’s out there, then I can know where it ends. But it’s just so large. It’s just too big. I’m scared to go too far. I don’t know where it will take me. This is far enough. If I go any further I might not come back.
If I am not pain, who am I? If I am not hopelessness, who am I? If I am not despair who am I? It’s all I know. It’s all I am. I cease to exist without it.
But what about those that love me? They’ve given me all the tools I need to be more than pain and despair. Yes, I can see them laid out neatly at my feet. I just need to use them.
But I don’t know how. I don’t know what to do. They are foreign to me. They make no sense. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. If only I knew what to do. Why can’t anyone show me? Surely someone has the answer? I’m so frustrated. My fist and teeth clench in frustration because I don’t know how to do what I so want to do.
I’m so sorry to you all. I’m so so sorry. I’ve let you all down. I’ve failed. I’ve failed. I’ve failed.
I can see you all on the other side waiting for me, reaching out your hands for me. I can’t believe how patient you are. I don’t know if I can ever get there and be with you. I know you love me so much and wishing I could hurry up and figure it out. I am sorry to keep you waiting. I’m a failure. I’ve failed. I’m so sorry. I’m a total failure. Maybe you shouldn’t wait. I’m holding you all up. You’ve got your own problems and lives to move on with, I’m just a burden on you all, holding you back, dragging you down. Draining you with my failure. I’m too broken. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. I’m so very, very sorry.
I’m so ashamed about all this. It’s all my fault. I’ve got the tools and I’m wasting them. But I just can’t figure out what to do with them. What they even are. If only I knew what to do.
But maybe I’ve been using them all this time and I didn’t even know it. I’ve gotten this far haven’t I? Yes, but it’s been so hard. I can’t keep doing it this hard. I’m scared I may slip back to that darkness forever. The place where there is no-one to help me no matter how much I cry. If I go there and stay, my pain will become everyone else’s to.
Here or there, I’m a burden. I don’t know what to do. I wish someone could give me the answer ….. “
Some informing links about psylocybin, the psychoactive compound found in psilocybin cubensis mushrooms, or more commonly known as magic mushrooms.
Prof Roland Griffiths is the lead researcher at John Hopkins in the USA. There are heaps of interviews and podcasts with him on Youtube talking about his psilocybin research. Maybe start with his Ted Talk which is only 15 min long. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81-v8ePXPd4&t=447s
Whilst it’s been a game changer for me, I’m not about to start evangelising to everyone to use psychadelics. Everyone is different but it seems there is some legitimate efficacy to their measured use that is being further substantiated in ongoing research.
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!
Within ICAV’s private group for adult intercountry adoptees I recently asked the question: “If we lived in an ideal world, given your adoption experience is as it is, what would you need to be at peace with it all?” I made it clear we could discuss and provide answers that were both realistic possibilities and idealistic fantasies.
The discussion that followed was powerful and I’d love to share some of the themed responses which highlight what’s still missing in intercountry adoption to make it really about “the needs of the child”. You’ll see from some of the replies to my question, we do grow up and continue to have ongoing needs that continue to be umet via intercountry adoption. Often times, it seems that intercountry adoption creates more needs than we began with as vulnerable children which makes me wonder what purpose did our intercountry adoption achieve for us, the adoptees?
Truth and Answers
Many of us have adoption documents which have details that are either totally incorrect or somewhat questionable and shades in between. The worst I can cite as an example of totally incorrect, is a Haitian intercountry adoptee who was given an already dead person’s identity, a false birth mother listed on adoption paperwork and subsequently found out the truth years later, that her biological mother never gave consent. An example of the questionable and changeable information provided is the experiences of countless South Korean adoptees who get given differing information each time they approach their Korean adoption agency asking for details, locked away in their agency files.
This lack of knowing the truth or having transparent access to our relinquishment and subsequent adoption information, can further traumatise us in recreating yet another event in which we are completely powerless to know our basic identity information and compounds our already fragile ability to trust others. As Christine shared,
“Having to doubt that what I thought all along was my story now may not be true, is difficult.”
Like others who shared on this theme, Chaitra listed finding the Truth as her first response, along with others:
Knowing the truth about the circumstances that led to my adoption.
Meeting and having a relationship with my birth family.
Being fully immersed in Indian culture as a child so that I would have had knowledge of food, language, holidays, traditions, etc. as well as racial mirrors.
Having adoptive parents who openly communicated with me about adoption and race.
Chaitra had none of these things in her life.
The Desire to Find Biological Family
For some who reunite, finally meeting biological family gave them a sense of understanding who they were at the level of physical attributes and personality which were always unlike those of their adoptive family. For example, Thomas shared it this way:
“Meeting my birth family has helped me a lot. I met my grandmother’s side of the family and they’re all like the same as me with huge eyes, light skin and curly hair. They’re also all really shy and tend not to say much unless spoken to, like me. It has really helped me to answer some questions about where I come from“.
For others, like Chaitra above who have not been successful yet in reuniting with biological family, there is still the desire and thinking that IF they could meet, it would help to put together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle which makes up who we fundamentally are. Dominic expressed it well, “Just to know I have relatives would give me a sense of peace. Surely they couldn’t have all perished in the Vietnam wars!”
When adoptees are impeded from knowing the answers and finding biological family, we are left with a lifetime of uncertainty. Our fundamental identity questions remain unanswered.
This was a recurring theme for some adoptees who expressed the wish that adoption not be a necessary and created social response to children who are vulnerable. As Parvathi wisely questions,
“Only if the child has got no parents and feel uncomfortable in his country, he should have the opportunity to move. Why a child who has lost his parents should also loose his country too?“
Sunitha also said, “I think the whole society system and humanity should have been different from the beginning of time! What is international adoption if not a new colonialist way? It just reflects the inequalities of the world through the cover of good will and humanitarian feelings. Another way to see it, is just rich people in need of kids, buying kids from poor countries and raising them in their culture which is supposed to be superior to their original one.”
Through our experience of being intercountry adopted, we inevitably end up questioning the system that created our reality. We are not naiive in believing that intercountry adoption is only about poverty because it’s clearly not, as sending countries like South Korea and the USA demonstrate. Kim explains it well:
“When intercountry is done both ways, it doesn’t seem in the best interest of children either. It only looks like a fair trade of children, a business of import-export, done both ways. The USA already export their children (mostly black children) to Europe, why aren’t those kids adopted in their country first before adopted to other countries?“
As Tamieka shared, the world needs to create more services that focus on first families and “helping them be able to maintain and keep their families and children.” If this happened with as large a revenue as what intercountry adoption generates worldwide, I question whether there would be a need for intercountry adoption.
Justice when Adoption is Done Wrong
For those who wonder whether their adoption was legitimate or not, we are all too aware of the harsh reality that there is little to mostly nothing that is done, or can be done, to prevent further injustices or to punish those who create these situations. Tamieka eloquently expressed this as, “The world needs to provide organisations that hold those who are responsible for the corruption in adoptions, responsible for tearing families and people’s lives apart, to be held accountable for their actions and to be brought to justice.”
Whether intercountry adoption continues to be practiced or not, there is the question of where is justice for those who are already impacted? Sadly, our desire for restorative justice for adoptees who are wronged via intercountry adoption is currently a utopia. This is the harsh reality but it won’t stop us from speaking out against this and highlighting how unethical the practice is without any mechanism for seeking justice.
An End to the Ongoing Pain
Sadly, for many the unspoken consequence of relinquishment on the vulnerable child, is a lifelong path of psychological pain in having been abandoned by our biological parents. Followed by intercountry adoption, our experience can become a secondary abandonment, this time by our birth country. Via intercountry adoption we lose our right to our birth family and country forever and are not given the choice to retain our identity, culture, heritage or citizenship. The pain of abandonment by biological parents and birth country have an ongoing effect which can last a lifetime. If this goes unsupported by the majority of adoptive countries who offer little to no post adoption support services, we can be left with an endless amount of internal psychological pain.
For adoptees who feel this pain intensely, they desire an end to their struggles and can at times, see death as the only way out. Little wonder that adoptees are reported in research as suffering higher rates of suicide, attempts at suicide, mental health issues and reflected in greater proportion compared to the non-adopted population, in prisons or drug and alcohol rehabilitation services. The pain of relinquishment is real and has to be acknowledged. Adoption is often portrayed as a win-win solution but it glosses over the real pain that adoptees can experience, whether openly shared or not.
Kim shared it very clearly:
“Death would give me peace. I think only death can make me stop remembering her, the Me before adoption. Only death can remove from me that kind of pain, loneliness and homesickness that adoption injected into my soul.”
Thankfully, within support groups like ICAV, we don’t minimise or diminish our sometimes painful realities. We openly speak and share, which is so important for healing.
Paul eloquently summed it up: “This is such a hard question. Honestly, I think about this with so much hyper-realism that it’s difficult to get to any perfect world state of mind for me, any wishes for what could be different. My birth father is dead. My adoptive mother is dead. My birth mother, who knows? And what does that mean? And yet I am here. And there are friends, family and strangers and _____. That beauty. But still there’s the Unknown, the tension, the contradiction; the complexity of history; our absurd global socio-political circumstances; etc.. What helps me through all of this? This. Our sharing. Our stories. The potential for moments of connection and understanding, even in all their imperfection. Our various bitter realities. Your question. Our voices. The realization of shared experience and circumstances, not sameness, but sharedness. This helps. Thank you.”
It’s amazing to see the power of peer group sharing and connecting and how it facilitates our journey of growth as adult intercountry adoptees. Read Stephanie’s expression of what she gained from the same group discussion.
Vipassana means to see things as they really are. It is a self-exploratory, observational meditation technique that trains you to navigate your body’s sensations and move through them with objectivity. This technique derives from India and is based on the principle that there are scientific laws which govern the phenomenon of what happens in our bodies. By regularly concentrating on the natural occurrences within, we find the roots of our suffering and can slowly untie ourselves from it.
I recently attended a 10-day introductory Vipassana meditation course, from 17 – 27 December at a retreat center in Joshua Tree, California. This is where I spent my Christmas.
This course was assisted by two amazingly trained meditation teachers, but taught mainly by S.N Goenka (1924 – 2013) with recordings. Goenka is a teacher who started in India, 1969, and taught hundreds of thousands of students his meditation technique which spread to the East and West.
Coming from an orphaned birth in the Philippines and with PTSD from my adoption, I wasn’t sure how successful this meditation would be. I’d researched the technique, plus had previous experience in Buddhist yoga practices and meditations. I believed I possessed enough knowledge and context to allow me to understand the technique. I also realised it couldn’t cure personal issues, deep emotional or mental instability, disease, chronic illness, or depression. What I hoped for was the Vipassana meditation technique might give me the ability to heal myself if I was stable enough. Learning this could help me work with my PTSD on my own. This could give me the mental and emotional tools to fight my dark battles within and cure myself of my own ailments in time, and hard work. So, I went through with my plan.
It was tough. The hardest mental work I’d ever done. It was like using the mental concentration of a Master’s program and applying this concentration to myself. I woke up at 4:00am and practiced meditation trainings until 9:00pm for 10 days straight. All in silence. My breaks were during breakfast, lunch and dinner. Stuff rose up within me. Thoughts about past lives. Romantic fantasies. Burning pain. Frozen terrain. Blissful peace.
I fought within. I struggled. I was overcome with sensations. Fears arose. I submitted. I was restless. But, I was determined. I concentrated my attention of my breathing for three full days, practicing pranayama. In the meditation hall, I sat with 80 strong women and many of us caught a cold during this time. We pushed through together.
In the middle of the 10 days, I had a vivid dream about my older brother also adopted from the Philippines like me. In my real life, he had slowly gone insane with his own PTSD. I had loved him even though he’d been damaging to me. In my mid-twenties, he’d disappeared and scarily turned into a stranger with an off personality. The pain from losing him the way I had was devastating and these memories of him bled through the currents of my whole life.
In my dream, my adopted brother sat next to me in a booth at a restaurant. He had cuts all over his face which he had done to himself. I scribbled him a note, I will always love you. To my surprise, my brother drew over the note. He drew a large house over my words. I woke up. That’s when it struck me. The house related to an earlier teaching from Goenka. A recording of him spoke about how our suffering can perpetuate and build a house we live in. That day, I processed more emotions and hard sensations.
I bolted as fast as I could the morning of the 11th day. It has been a month and I can say my meditation has improved. I am trusting myself and my process more. I am beginning to work through emotions from the past in a more productive and objective way. I now have a tool to start healing myself of my PTSD and memories. And, I’m beginning to use this tool with more precision.
What I’ve come to discover is the phenomenon of what happens when training in Vipassana meditation and being committed to efforts towards enlightenment, that is, a seed is planted within. The seed grows in spurts, as our thoughts and actions begin to create a practice in itself towards the goal of transcending. To me, it’s like circumambulating around a stupa, every action becomes more focused, not only of the self but also of our greater humanity. This practice changed me from the inside out.
This is why I’m preparing to learn more about meditation and cultivate a regular Buddhist meditation life. As an intercountry adoptee from the Philippines from the 80’s, having been born from destitute poverty and experiencing not only an inhumanly impersonal adoption process and trauma from my post adoption placement, the pain of what happened cannot be ignored any longer. I feel I’ve pushed this pain away all my life. My healing cannot wait any longer.
So in this new year, I’m making a decision to set a new course that grew from this Vipassana training. I’m deciding to set up my life around self healing first, allowing my work and visions of ‘success’ to come second.
Most in the intercountry adoption arena are aware of the dramatic fall in intercountry adoptions around the world and the remaining smaller number of intercountry adoptions is mainly of older aged child (ie above 5 yrs of age), sibling groups, and children with special needs. It is important when people consider adopting internationally they truly think about the impact adoption has on the life of the child at all stages.
I would like to share my friend’s story who is adopted from Thailand because we rarely hear from the perspective of the person adopted at an older age and what it’s like to have clear memories throughout life and particularly the struggle during intial transition when adoption occurs. It is also nice to hear the voice of an adult Thai adoptee.
If we are to continue to internationally adopt older aged children, we need policy makers and adoption experts at all phases (pre adoption, at adoption handover, and post adoption) to be aware of the many issues that arise and to improve funding of and access to services for the family and adoptee to ensure positive outcomes.
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.