by Allison Young adopted from South Korea to the USA.
And on those days when we walked to the sea and found Mi-ja waiting at her usual spot in the olle, Grandmother recited common sayings in hopes of comforting us two motherless girls. “The ocean is better than your natural mother,” she said. The sea is forever.”
~ The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
One year ago on September 11, after a lifetime of waiting (and one devastating almost-encounter in 2003), I finally met the woman who carried me for 9 months and gave birth to me.
I would like to say it was a happily-ever-after situation, that it was cathartic and I’m so thankful for the meeting but due to her circumstances, I was told we could never have a relationship or even further contact.
Although I have compassion, this hurt more than I could allow myself to feel. At the time I allowed myself one day to fall apart and then I put those feelings away. I had 3 kids in a tiny apartment in a different country and was soon going to adopt my son. I knew it would probably come back for me later — because that’s how trauma and grief work.
To be rejected by one mother figure broke my heart and then a few months later, to be scorned by my other mother nearly broke me.
Sometimes it takes a life-altering event to realize what love is, to see who is actually loving you and who is kicking you down, while calling it love. I have learned so much in this past year, by far the hardest year of my life. I am learning the meaning of self-love, self-care and boundaries. I am mothering myself, decolonizing my mind and body and allowing the ocean to heal me.
I did seek professional help and am working with a therapist. I am making changes to my life for the better, for my own future and so I can break the cycle for my kids.
When I look at my 4 beautiful children, I hope they know that while I’m far from perfect, I will try so hard to be a good listener — to learn, grow and change; to value what matters most to them and see them for who they are.
백절불굴 (baekjeol bulgul) is a saying which means “indomitable spirit.”
My birthname,수은 (Soo Eun), means “grace of water.”
I will be okay. And I am ever grateful to those who helped to keep me afloat this past year.
Have you already made an appointment with yourself?
I remember having to forge myself, like many adoptees! Forge my own personality without any stable benchmarks and this mainly due to the absence of biological parents. Indeed, children who live with their biological parents do not realise that their choices, their tastes, their decisions etc., are often (not always) unconsciously oriented, guided, inspired by the bases provided by their biological parents. Example: I won’t be a mechanic like daddy, but I know what I could have possibly done so because daddy did it. Mom is in the social business so I may have a predisposition for this area. Then there are the children who go directly to the same jobs as their biological parents because it seems to them to be a form of safe bet.
In short, what I mean is that I was dumped for a long time, like many of my fellow adoptees, I think. Not all but a lot. And I asked myself a lot of questions. So it is true that this also happens to children / teenagers who live with their organic parents, but in a different way. The basis of the questioning is in my opinion divergent. This is why I also remember having made an appointment with myself. I really took several evenings. Several moments to find myself within me. And ask me simple, banal questions which were of monumental importance to me.
Who are you Prad? What do you like? What is your favourite color? Not the one that will make your answer interesting or make you better. The colour you like. Black. No, come to think of it, I like blue. The same goes for music. What’s your dress style? What is best for you? What are you good at? You seem cold, sometimes distant. Are you really or is it a shell? Is there one area that attracts you more than another? All these questions that we have already been asked in other circumstances, I have asked myself. You love sport? Yes, but I’m not a football fan unlike all my friends. Don’t be afraid to say it, to assume it. For that and for everything else. Be yourself. Think of you. Only to you. Don’t live for others. Not for your friends, not for your great love, not even for your adoptive parents. Don’t lie to yourself, build yourself.
We can build our own benchmarks. Our own bases. It is such a difficult and wonderful exercise for us adoptees. But I think it is necessary because the main thing that remains is to listen to yourself.
If you haven’t already, take the time to meet. Make an appointment with yourself.
This is the one time of year where I’m reminded I don’t have that childhood family with amazing memories and closeness. I’ve always yearned, as only some other adoptees can know, for that sense of family where I feel wanted, cherished, loved deeply. I know my family, like many others, are never perfect, but the older I get, the more I see my childhood in my adoptive family and can only remember the pain it created for me. Adoption is supposed to be happy isn’t it? It’s what gets portrayed. But I know I had spurts of moments of happiness in mine — it’s so hard to recall because as I grow older and relive it all again via children of my own, I realise the level of neglect and trauma my adoptive family caused, that could have been avoided.
How do I get past it? Should I? Or do I accept it will just always be … yes it hurts beneath the surface, oozing with pain every time I have to think about “adoptive family”. I’m old enough now to understand this pain is part of who I am. It’s not going away but I can hold and honour what I’ve had to do, to come past it —to be functional, stable, loving.
Healing doesn’t mean the pain stops and goes away. Healing means I’ve come to accept the truth. I no longer sit in it drowning or reacting. I’ve learned better ways to manage my emotions. I’ve learned how to have boundaries and not give past what I’m willing to. I’ve learned it’s ok to remain true to my own needs. I’ve learned to accept what can’t be changed but to change what I can. I can accept them as they are and know they’re not capable, even if they wanted. I have to give it to me, myself. Love, connection, acceptance, nurturing.
Xmas, like Thanksgiving for Americans, is a time where as an adoptee, I feel those sad feelings for what I might have had but didn’t. I know the reality of reunions is that even bio family, if I ever find them, will most likely never be able to meet my emotional need for “family” either. So, this Xmas, I will bring my children and husband close and treasure every moment I have with them for they are the only true family I will ever have! I am thankful I was able to heal enough to have a loving relationship and become a mother myself and give to my children what I never got. This has been my life’s blessing and will be my focus this Xmas!
Do I look like my father or mother? What is my real name? When was I born? Who am I really? I have been going through these questions my whole life and not quite sure if I will ever find the answer.
I was born in Vietnam, adopted by a white family in Canada in the early 70’s. I am part African-American and Vietnamese but I look more African-American, and I’m also physically disabled which I contracted from polio and a gun shot wound (something I have been told as a child, but not sure if it’s true). I have always known I was different growing up, not because the colour of my skin but because I was disabled. When I arrived to Canada I had to go to the hospital for many surgeries to straighten my legs and back due to scoliosis. When I arrived home from the hospital, this is when I felt I didn’t belong in the family. As a young child I was stubborn and barely spoke because the effects of leaving Vietnam and being in a different environment, I was overwhelmed.
Being an African-American Asian disabled child, living in a white world, I knew I was different and I wanted so much to fit in. At an early age, I knew that my adoptive mother treated me different than my other siblings. They had two other biological children along with another adopted child from Children’s Aid Society, so I was the black sheep in the family and that was my nickname to other family members and neighbours. My adoptive mother wasn’t the perfect mother everyone thought she was behind closed doors. Using my wheelchair was forbidden in the house so I had to always crawl around on the floor and carpet, but leaving marks on the carpet didn’t look good and caused my adoptive mother to always vacuum, so I had to have my bedroom moved down in the basement – being isolated away from my siblings. Whenever my siblings would come down to play with me, they were sent back upstairs and told not to play with your “black sheep” sister. Being alone in the basement, I stopped talking and had to entertain myself as a child. From not talking, my vocal cords didn’t develop well so whenever I went to school, I had trouble interacting with other students and was bullied and labelled as being dumb.
My adoptive mother always told me I should be grateful to them for adopting me. I always kept my feelings inside because if I told them how I really felt, I would be beaten. I always had to thank her for saving my life every time I did anything wrong. The first time I said “I wish you’d never adopted me” my adoptive mother emotionally and physically abused me. Sometimes I wouldn’t care what she did to me, I was happier just to be in my own shell in the closet.
I was never involved in any of the family gatherings or family vacations. I would always eat alone after everyone else ate. The one memory I will never forget was when my adoptive family went away to Florida and I wasn’t allowed to go because my adoptive mother said “black and crippled children were not allowed”. I went to the mirror and looked at myself. I wanted so much to be white that I scrubbed my skin so hard but it just turned red. I pushed my wheelchair down the stairs and tried to push myself up to walk, instead I fell down and was left lying on the floor for days until a neighbour found me bleeding. Instead of being a good neighbour and help a young girl, he took advantage of me for days while my family was away having fun. When my family returned, I tried to tell my adoptive mother what happened. All she said was, “You were looking for attention and that’s what you deserved”.
I wanted so much to be a part of the family to the point that I would agree to clean the house. My adoptive mother would always introduce me to her friends as the “black maid of the third country”. My adoptive mother emotionally abused me by continuing saying she never wanted me because of my disability and skin colour. She didn’t think I would turn out to “be soo dark” and a troubled child needing therapy appointments. All I wanted was to make my adoptive mother proud of me, but nothing I did ever satisfied her. Whenever my siblings got into trouble, I would stand up for them and would lie and steal for them so they would play with me. There were times I would sneak food at night because I was so hungry but whenever I got caught, I was sent to the closet for days. Nothing I did was good enough for my adoptive mother.
When I was 11 years old, I was told that I was leaving the family and spending a few days somewhere else. I didn’t know what I did wrong. That night I stayed up all night rethinking the day – what did I do to displease my adoptive mother. All she told me was I would be going to a better place that can care for my “crippled-black” behaviour. I cried the whole way begging my adoptive mother that I would be a “good girl”. Four hours later I was dropped off to a big stone house with lots of stairs and other children running around the living room. My adoptive mother told me it was only for a few weeks and that the family will help me with my behaviour. For the next few days, all I did was sit by the window waiting for my adoptive mother to return. Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. I had to eventually realise that I was staying in this house and no-one was coming back for me.
I was living in a house with 25 other children. I tried to fit in and be a part of the family but still felt like an outcast. Even though I was not the only disabled child, I felt that I didn’t belong. I found out that the foster mother of this home, was the woman who helped my adoptive parents adopt me from Vietnam. The foster mother had an organisation that helped Canadian and American families to adopt children from third world countries out of orphanages that she opened. I wasn’t the only child adopted and sent to the foster family. During the years, living at the foster family I became a reserved and quiet child and during my teen years I still wanted to know “who am I”? I asked the foster mother if she knew anything of my birth mother and every time I asked her, the answer was always, “Wait until you are eighteen”. From then I just left the question alone and tried to live my teen years in the home.
When I first went to the foster family, I was placed in a school with other disabled children but I felt it wasn’t for me. I wanted to be independent and be left alone so I became very stubborn especially during therapy sessions. Having therapists lift my legs and try to stretch them wasn’t working for me, they tried to get me to use braces and crutches, I definitely didn’t want that. So they finally agreed for me to use a sports wheelchair and what freedom I felt!! Using the wheelchair built up my teen arms and I became very strong, during recess time. While other children were at therapy, I could be found in the gym bouncing basketballs. This is when a sports coach saw me throw my first basket and she asked me, “Do you want to be an athlete and travel?” I quickly answered her, “Yes!” Little did she know that I didn’t just want to be an athlete but I wanted to travel so I could be out of my foster house as much as possible. My foster father was abusing me whenever we went to the family home in Montreal every summer, so whenever I found out that I would be travelling in the summer – I looked forward to the summer knowing I would be out of the country!
If it wasn’t for that sports coach, I wouldn’t have been able to be the Paralympian athlete I am today. I have travelled to many countries and won numerous medals, but a part of me felt that I didn’t deserve it. Whenever I was away, I still felt like an outsider to my team mates and other athletes. Deep down I believed they all knew who they were and they always talked about their family. With my timidness, I still had trouble interacting with my team mates. By the end of every trip, I dreaded going home because I knew what I was going home to.
My foster family didn’t really recognise my athletic achievements. There were times they didn’t even know I went away for a week because there were so many children in the house and the foster mother was busy with her work. I remember one time I arrived home from my first competition where I’d won my first 5 gold medals (being the youngest on the team) and when I arrived home, I just sat at the front door with my bags waiting for someone to greet me. When my sister came down the stairs to see me she just said, “Are you running away?” From that moment, my enthusiasm just dropped from my heart and I wished I could just run away. So from then on, I just continued on with my competitions with no feeling of accomplishment, feeling like a nobody.
I competed in two Paralympics, two PanAm games and many small competitions. When I won my first Paralympic 5 gold medals, I was interviewed by the paper but a lot of the words written were just not true. The story portrayed a young girl winning medals from a foster home that cared for her, but they really didn’t know the truth.
I am grateful for the foster family to let me stay with them, but behind closed doors they portrayed themselves as looking like the perfect couple helping many children. The house was not accessible, I continued to crawl up and down stairs to get to my bedroom, and I had to crawl up and down and bring my chair down stone stairs outside to get to my school bus.
My whole life living in the foster family, I wanted so much to be out and living on my own. When I turned 16 years old, I finished high school and left the foster home. I went to college and received a degree in Business Administration.
Throughout my life, I always felt unloved and not wanted by anyone. I thought of my biological mother not wanting me, my adoptive mother not wanting me and within the foster family, I was just “another child”. I have tried my best to do right things, never gotten involved on the wrong side of the law, etc. I always felt I didn’t fit in anywhere, had trouble with social gatherings and interacting with adults my age. To this day, a large part of me continues to feel isolated, not wanted and most of all not knowing who I really am.
Recently, I decided to register with 23&Me to know my background and I discovered I have many 2nd and 3rd cousins out there. I was surprised to know that I have some sort of distant family out there but disappointed to not have any information about my parents. I just want to have the feeling of belonging. Growing up, I never had that feeling.
If you want a garden to grow, you need to prepare the soil and tend the earth. Removing weeds is essential prep and maintenance work. Without weeding and fertilising, your flowers and vegetables can’t grow properly.
If you want a wound to heal, you need to clean it our before you stitch it closed or bandage it. If you leave debris inside the wound, it will become painful and infected. And it will need to be re-opened, cleaned, and treated further.
Sometimes, when I tell people I attend a support group for adoptees and first moms, they ask why I would want to be around people who just sit there and talk about their sad stories. Aren’t we all just dwelling and being downers? My answer is a strong No. The times in my life when I felt the lowest were the times when I was completely alone in my trauma, before I found an adoption trauma-competent therapist, before I found a local support group, before the internet and the creation of FB groups, before I became active in the intercountry and transracial adoption community. Having a community around me of people who share the same primal wound and learning and working together to move forward in a healthy way, is very healing, though it can be painful.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, post-adoption services are critical for all adopted people. And I’m talking about the provision of FREE adoption-trauma-based therapies; local, adoptee-run support groups; access to OBCs and DNA tests; travel budget set aside for trips back to the country of origin; language lessons and translation services for intercountry adoptees. Without adequate, available, and competent pre and post adoption services, we are expecting lush gardens to grow on unprepared land. We are expecting wounds to heal without first helping to clean them out, or worse – by not even acknowledging them in the first place.
To all of my fellow adoptees who are out there, getting down and dirty in the trenches, pulling out those weeds and planting new seeds, I dedicate Digging in the Dirt, by Peter Gabriel.
Adoptee advocacy and activism for me, is about adoptee healing and claiming back our power.
This week has been so powerful but raw on so many levels. I have travelled to America to attend the Dept of State’s Intercountry Adoption Symposium (Sept 17 & 18) which brought together all the government bodies and NGOs related to, and fulfilling, intercountry adoption processes, the accredited entities which include IAAME and the adoption agencies, and for the first time, representation from the adoption triad. After this ended, some of our American intercountry adoptee leaders and individuals who wished to be involved at government policy and practice level, met with the Dept of State (Sept 19) and had a chat about how we might interact/liaise together in the future and what our goals are and issues of concern.
The following are my thoughts after attending these past three days.
Hearing the same chants for “more adoption” that I’ve read about across the waters but got to experience for real, has been nothing short of gut wrenching.
Getting to personally understand the life experiences of some of my fellow activists has been an honor.
The question was asked to our adoptee group why few American intercountry adoptees in recent years, had until now, not risen to involve themselves at policy level.
After being in America for a week, seeing the level of anger for those who dare to voice any truth that doesn’t match the “we want more children” chant has been a massive reality check. America the land of the free! Well, I see it’s more the land of the free for those who share the dominant discourse — but it can also be unkind and lacking compassion to those who express a different story.
The scale and depth at which intercountry adoption has been conducted in America, that adds avoidable emotional damage to some adoptees, has finally helped me understand why their voices have not been at the table. The ability to rise above one’s terrible reality of adoption is a massive ask. What struck me in coming to personally understand these journeys en-masse over the years I’ve been connecting to fellow adoptees, is how much worse it is here in terms of size and scale. It is not just the historic adoptions from the 50s to 80s. I’m meeting adoptees from the 90s to 2010s and hear the same terrible experiences! I’m also not denying there are probably a ton of intercountry adoptees who have little motivation to make things better because they already had it wonderful. Their reality is not dismissed and neither should the other range of experiences across the spectrum.
Some of the audience responses were so dismissive of our struggles citing that we were just a “moment in time”, or unlucky enough to be a consequence of “a few bad apples”. As I said on day 1 in response to Laura Ingraham’s speech, one terrible adoptee experience is one too many! So please, if you really want to hear what we have to say as adoptees, believe me when I say – “these bad apple adoptions are still happening since the past 20 years”.
Hearing calls and support for “less regulation” and “streamlining” is not the answer in the face of the huge reality. What do we need governments and stakeholders to do differently that hasn’t been done, either at all, or enough? We need them to acknowledge the wrongs of the past to the present. We need full acknowledgement that the decisions made FOR us as vulnerable children, have been terribly painful, terribly damaging for too many .. we need to hear it not just once, but over and over many times so that we know you do not forget the mistakes of the past and those who have been a victim, can feel safe knowing we have learnt the lessons, or at least are trying to.
From my own personal journey of healing, I know how incredibly important it is to hear, “I’m sorry it has been a terribly hurtful experience” from a heartfelt place. Not only do we need to hear that you’ve heard and acknowledged our pain, we need you to give us time to then process that acknowledgement, allow us to move further in our journey — and then ask us to focus and work together on how we prevent it from ever happening again.
For adoptees it is terribly triggering to be dismissed, our reality denied, and our concerns brushed over with “it’s not like that now”. Yes things have changed … drastically, but they need to change more! Support services for the duration of our lifetime, need to be implemented that help us move past the damage. We need reparation that allows out of the box solutions for individual journeys of healing. We need to see that sending children back AS SOON AS WE KNOW something isn’t looking right, is totally a first option that will be supported by all the players who facilitated the adoption. Keeping the child as the only option adds further complications that we adoptees are eventually left to sift through.
People and countries make mistakes .. we are only human. What’s currently missing is the acknowledgement and the sensitivity across the SPECTRUM of players to recognise the trauma from decades (yes, 70 years!) of intercountry adoptions done poorly. The reality that the current and previous American administrations have failed to address intercountry adoptee citizenship, the basic cornerstone of permanence, continuity, and family— clearly demonstrates how little understanding and support exists for the displaced adoptee. This is brushing the wrongs of the past under the carpet on a massive scale!
I realise why adoptees have not been at the table pushing their way in. The depths of pain can be too raw and the risk of receiving further trauma by those who invalidate our experiences, is incredibly high. For a country as religious as America, it sure has little understanding of the need for the power of healing and the acknowledgement of wrong doing. All Americans should be praying not for adoptions to be increased but for the ones who are here already, to be given the right support in order for them to find healing. For the ones deported to be given the supports they need along with their broken up families.
Only once we are fully supported to heal as those who have already suffered, can we truly contemplate ethically adopting more — at least then, we can be confident that despite mistakes being made, the great America has the maturity to help the victims overcome.
My heart breaks for my American brothers and sisters who struggle to rise from out of their ashes. I found it fascinating to see the 9/11 section of the Newseum and the way in which so much compassion is portrayed for those victims, yet in intercountry adoption – I ask where is that same compassion? Is there any recognition of the collective suffering that too many generations of intercountry adoptees have been experiencing in America?!
No! They remain a blip on the radar screen, barely seen, largely misunderstood because they are cloaked with, “You should be grateful to be in this amazing country” banner which denies the tragic realities of so many!
I am compelled to lead by example and demonstrate that adoptees can find their power. My path is but one way to rise above the ashes. I have learned for myself how incredibly healing it is to turn my pains into triumphs and to attempt to make this world a better place and I always wonder what I would have achieved had I been left in Vietnam (my adoptee sliding door/ parallel universe musing). This path of adoptee advocacy is my way to make sense of my adoption and life . Perhaps I was saved to give this message — to be this voice, to truly represent the “child’s best interest” and make sure it is not shoved away?
I hope that this week has been the beginning of the start, that momentum will flow because …
it only takes one to take a stand for truth, for another to find their courage.
What a week of learning, what a week of connecting! I hope America will come to embrace the mistakes of its past in intercountry adoption and provide a safe space for the many intercountry adoptees who need healing and be given many places at the table, not just one place filled by an Australian/Vietnamese.
I also want to acknowledge the many true supporters of adoptees who came from so many stakeholders groups. It is incorrect to assume all government workers, all agencies, all adoptive parents are against us speaking our truths. Despite the intense and sometimes times painful challenging moments, I was uplifted by the volume of supporters who told us they were so happy to see us and hear our voices. I hope I live to see the day when they will become the majority AND the loudest voice we hear from.
I was told that supportive adoptive parents have sat back from the table, out of respect to allow us adoptees to take the platform, to make space for us — but I want to tell those parents and advocates, please don’t be silent in your support. We are at a critical point where intercountry adoptee leadership is emerging and we need ALL the support we can muster.
What I deeply respected was my fellow panelist, the natural mother representative, Claudia D’Arcy, who demonstrated no fear in telling her truth, nor the consequences for doing so. Whether we agreed with her views or not, I imagine her journey of overcoming the stigma, fear and trauma throughout her life has helped her realise there is little to lose, in having the courage to speak her truth. As two representatives of the adoption triad, we both know “the cost of remaining silent”.
Her ending sentence was so respectful and she said, “It should be the adoptees who you listen to the most”. I can only say how much that meant to us. This is the message we need our supporters to uphold – it will encourage us to rise above our pain and fears. Please don’t be silent — it is too open to interpretation!
Huge thanks and respect to the adoptee leaders who gave of their time, money, and energy to be at these forums.
Joy Alessi – adopted from South Korea, co-director of Adoptee Rights Campaign.
Cherish Bolton – adopted from India, co-director of PEAR, academic.
Trista Goldberg – adopted from Vietnam, founder of Operation Reunite, educator.
Marijane Huang – adopted from Taiwan, social worker in adoption and foster care, educator.
JaeRan Kim – adopted from South Korea, social worker and PhD research academic.
Kristopher Larsen – adopted from Vietnam, co-director of Adoptees4Justice.
Monica Lindgren – adopted from Colombia, barrister in family law.
Reshma McClintock – adopted from India, founder of Dear Adoption, co-founder Family Preservation365.
Patricia Motley – adopted from Peru, member of Peruvian Adoptees Worldwide.
Diego Vitelli – adopted from Colombia, founder of Adopted from Colombia, studying masters in counselling.
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.