by Naomi Mackay, adopted from India to Sweden, residing as a documentary film maker in Scotland; currently producing her memoir and film. You can follow Naomi at Linktree, Facebook, Instagram.
I AM HERE!
I pass you in the hall. I pass you on the streets. I pass you in the shops. I pass you on the beach. I stand next to you when you brush your teeth. I stand in front of you at the bus stop. I stand on the balcony. I stand behind you in the queue. I sit in front of you on the bus. I sit opposite you in the waiting room. I sit at a table in the café. I sit on the grass in the park. I smile from under my hair. I smile from across the counter. I smile to hide my tears. I smile to make you feel better. I talk to those who need it. I talk to myself. I talk to you in the queue. I talk to your dog while your face is in your phone. I wait for you in the rain. I wait for the bus. I wait, while you do. I wait patiently, for you to see me. I AM HERE!
Lately I’ve felt like why whole life I’ve been talking into a void, where others have been heard but it’s like I’m not even there. Sometimes I’ll get an awkward smile, often I get told “You get what you put in!” I’m useless, obviously I’m not putting anything in as I get nothing.
Maybe they’re right, I’m a spoiled brat who can’t see it. Maybe they’re gaslighting me.
Whatever the truth is, I’m still invisible, speaking into the void.
“An adopted teenager once told me, “I feel there are two teenage me’s. The me that was born but didn’t live. And the me who was not born, but lived the life I have today.” Without understanding she was expressing the split in the self that so many adoptees make in order to survive….” – Betty Jean Lifton, a writer, adoptee and adoption reform advocate.
Many adoptees become aware at some point in their life that who they are in the present is not the same person as the one they were in the past. Often adoptees have not been able to build an identity or live on before being separated.
Due to relinquishment, most adoptees split into parts and live like this for survival. To be able to do this, they become alienated from their original selves and leave their body. In addition, their original identity has been lost or erased by adoption.
This makes adoptees experience a feeling of intense emptiness or even an urge for death. They become aware that the original self that was born has not lived and that the current survival part that was not born, is living their life. They survive instead of live.
This consciousness opens up the grieving process that was always present in them but never allowed to have a place.
The hidden grief becomes liquid and looking at this sadness, finally reveals the original self.
Veel geadopteerden worden zich op een gegeven moment in hun leven bewust dat wie ze in het heden zijn niet dezelfde persoon is als degene die ze in het verleden waren. Vaak hebben geadopteerden geen identiteit op kunnen bouwen of kunnen doorleven voordat zij zijn afgestaan.
Door afstand zijn de meeste geadopteerden opgesplitst in delen en leven zij vanuit hun overlevingsdeel. Omdit te kunnen doen zijn ze vervreemd van hun oorspronkelijke zelf en hebben zij hun lichaam verlaten. Daarnaast is door adoptie hun oorspronkelijke identiteit verloren gegaan of uitgewist.
Dit maakt dat geadopteerden een gevoel van intense leegte of zelfs een drang naar de dood ervaren. Zij worden zich bewust dat het oorspronkelijke zelf dat geboren is niet heeft geleefd en dat het huidige (overlevings) deel dat niet is geboren is hun leven leeft. Zij overleven in plaats van leven.
Dit bewustzijn brengt het rouwproces opgang dat altijd al in hun aanwezig was maar nooit een plek mocht hebben.
Het gestolde verdriet wordt vloeibaar en door dit verdriet aan te kijken wordt het oorspronkelijke zelf eindelijk zichtbaar.
The desire to know my origins is an innate and fundamental human need (and right).
My need to know my origins is akin to your need to breath air that keeps you alive.
We only know our origins are important when we don’t have it, or access to it. For people like me, this is our daily lived experience!
As an intercountry adoptee, I live my whole life trying to find who I come from and why I was given up / stolen.
It’s really hard to know how to go forward in life if I don’t know how and why I came to be in this unnatural situation.
My life did not start at adoption! I have a genetic history, generations of people before me who contributed to who I am.
We cannot pretend in this world of adoption and family formation that genetics does not matter, it does – significantly; I am not a blank slate to be imprinted upon; there are consequences to this pretence and it shows in the statistics of our higher rates of adoptee youth suicide!
One of most shared experiences amongst adoptees whom I connect with, is the topic of “feeling all alone”, “like an alien” and yet human beings are not meant to be isolated. We are social beings desiring connection.
Separation from my natural origins and the knowledge of these, left me disconnected and lost in a fundamental way.
My life has been spent trying to reconnect – firstly with my inner self, then with the outer self, and with those around me, searching for a sense of belonging.
As an adoptee, I can be given all the material things in the world but it did not fix the hole that my soul feels, when it has nowhere and no-one to belong to, naturally.
My substitute family did not equate to a natural sense of belonging.
I searched for my origins because my innate feelings and experience of isolation and loss drove me to find where I came from and to make sense of how I got to be here.
I was asked to speak about the lifelong impacts of identity loss. So I shared my story and some statements from fellow adoptees to highlight our experience.
I am one of these children who has not had my identity protected. Children like me, grow up. We don’t stay children forever – and we can have opinions and thoughts about the structures, processes, policy and legislations that impact us and create our lives. I am honoured to be asked to represent just one small group of us with lived experience, that the forum represents as “children from alternative care options”.
I was adopted from Vietnam during the war in 1973. The war ended in April 1975. My adoptive father flew into the country while it was still at war and flew me out as a 5 month old baby. My papers were supposed to follow but they never arrived and my adoption was not finalised.
I lived for almost 17 years in Australia without an identity. It was the family joke that I made the perfect spy because I didn’t exist. I was keenly aware of not existing and having no paperwork – it made me feel insecure, insignificant, unseen.
The practical impacts of not having any identity papers for 17 years were that I could not apply for a passport and travel outside Australia, I could not get my drivers licence, I could not apply for anything like a bank account and, more importantly, I was not followed up on since arriving in the country by any child welfare authority nor the adoption agency.
Finally when I was 16 years old, I wanted to get my drivers licence so my adoptive parents were finally propelled to take action. They went though the adoption process again, this time through the State not a private agency, and my adoption was formalised just before I turned 17 years old.
I was given a brand new Australian identity. It does not state my Vietnamese identity only recognises the country that I was born in, Vietnam.
Via this 17-year-late process of intercountry adoption, was there an official check for any of my identity documents in Vietnam? Or a check to confirm my adoptability or relinquishment? These questions remain unanswered for me. I was certainly never offered other options like having help to look for my origins in Vietnam .. I was only ever told that being adopted was THE solution so I’d be able to exist and have some sort of identity.
In my mid 20s – 30s, I spent over a decade trying to obtain my identity and adoption papers from Vietnam. Via my ICAV network, I came across an ex-policeman who had helped a few other Vietnamese adoptees. He somehow found what appears to be a Vietnamese birth certificate, and he took a blurry photo and sent it to me.
When I traveled to Vietnam in 2019, I went to the place where that document was said to be kept, only to be told the usual story – a flood or natural disaster destroyed ALL paperwork from that whole year. They have nothing for me. I visited the hospital where I was apparently born, only to be told I could not access my mother’s file without her permission – what a vicious cycle! I visited the police station precinct where the stamp on the birth certificate identifies it is held, only to be also told they wouldn’t help me. I asked for help during my visit to the central authority of Vietnam and was told to fill out a form via the website — which is in Vietnamese, which I can’t read or write in. There are so many barriers to being able to access my identity. Language is a HUGE one!
I have since done a few DNA tests and had genealogists help me, but that hasn’t been too successful either.
This struggle to find our identity, is very common for an intercountry adoptee like myself and is definitely worse for those of us who have been adopted out of a war torn or crisis filled country. In the rush to help “rescue” children like myself, processes are bypassed or sped up and vital information gets lost.
Our ICAV Community
Feeling isolated for most of my childhood, in my mid 20s I founded our international network ICAV that provides peer support to intercountry adoptees like myself who struggle just like I did. But I am only one voice amongst hundreds of thousands globally, so it’s important you hear more than just my voice!
I asked the ICAV community to share with you what their lifelong impacts of identity loss are. I’m going to share with you just 8 out of the 50 responses to highlight some of their experiences:
Many thanks to those adoptees who were willing to share!
Within our ICAV community, we could write a few books about the lifelong impacts of identity loss, many have already. There are so many more complexities that I haven’t talked about such as twins being purposively separated for adoption (not being told they’re a twin and the extra layers of impact for them of identity loss); 2nd generation adoptees (children of adoptees) and their lack of access in legislation to their inherited identity; etc. I hope my short talk helped expand your mind from the theoretical to the lived experience which speaks so loudly about the importance of identity rights for communities such as mine.