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!
Whilst studying for my undergraduate degree in History, I found the similarities of my childhood and reading the history of Nazi Germany opened up my old anxieties. The interrogation methods of the SS were like pages read out about my own childhood. My adopted mother acted like a Concentration Camp guard, always on the lookout to entrap my sister and me in some wrongdoings. She would face the label of the ice cream carton inside the freezer at a certain angle to see if it was ever moved. If it was, we were chastised for stealing food.
My sister stopped me one summer afternoon when I had a few bites due to my lifelong suffering from hypoglycemia and showed me how to angle or place the carton back into the freezer. I didn’t know it at the time but the low-blood sugar levels made me extremely hungry. I was forced to binge eat when I had my episodes and ate entire packets of cookies so I could immediately get rid of the evidence. I felt guilty wasting food and therefore crammed the cookies down in a couple of minutes. I did this because the first time I was caught, I endured hours of humiliation and punishment that didn’t fit the crime.
If my adoptive father was not in a good mood I was given a spanking with the belt or switch and this was followed by my adoptive mother’s tidal wave of rhetorical commentary and questions such as, “We don’t starve you, so why did you do this?” and “Your theft only indicates you will be a criminal when you grow up, do you want to go to jail?”
I wanted to reach out and talk to people about what I was going through but my family was firmly rooted as respected members of the church, work, and community. I felt the only option I had was to remain silent. They made up logical stories and explanations to family, colleagues, and acquaintances to explain their side of the story. It involved half-truths to paint the victim as the aggressor, evildoer, and villain. They did this protect themselves. They did this to remain in the good graces of the community they lived in, even though they were the ones doing harm.
They fabricated stories that the child was the one attacking them, stating the child was unruly, dangerous, on drugs, etc. This gave them an external reason to “protect themselves” and rationalize the altercations and find sympathy from individuals who were unfamiliar with the family issues and interactions. Whenever this happened, my sister and I were at greater risk because getting away with one incident of abuse allowed the perpetrators to continue or escalate the patterns.
Abuse comes in numerous forms:
Physical abuse is violent and uses intimidation, isolation, restraint, aggression, and endangerment as a form of control.
Mental abuse gets into your mind and uses gaslighting, silence, manipulation, and victimization as a form of control.
Verbal abuse goes from your ears to your mind via screaming, bullying, name calling, berating, and blaming.
Sexual abuse is about dominance and uses jealous rages, coercion, sexual withdraw, rape, and degrading acts as a form of control.
Emotional abuse forces you into situations that produce intense anxiety, guilt, confusion, shame, anger, hostility, rejection, and fear to be used as a form of control.
Economic abuse is about limiting resources and uses stealing, destroying assets, dependency, refusing access, falsifying records, and interfering with work environments as a means to control.
Spiritual abuse is using your beliefs such as dichotomous thinking, prejudice, elitist beliefs, demanding submission, excommunication, and estrangement as a means of control.
When adoptees finally confront their abusers at a time in life when they are no longer dependent upon them, they are often met with attacks from other people who may know the abuser at a distance and feel trust and admiration for them, not understanding what has really gone on.
I wrote several months ago on my Facebook page about some of the abuse and neglect that I faced as a child. My nephew shot several scathing messages asking why I was airing dirty laundry in public. I had an uncle who wrote to me and was very dismissive about the abuse stating, “he had it worse” and “corporal punishment was an accepted use of discipline”. I have long since blocked both individuals but realize these family members do not understand the full picture of what was going on.
Upon reflection, I realize they have been told years of misinformation about me from adults who were established in their community. I think this victim shaming and blaming occurs for the following reasons:
The abuse often takes place behind closed doors and cannot be validated by others.
Abusers deny their actions and when confronted individuals are met with conflicting stories, half-truths, and outright lies.
Abusers blame the victim when in reality they were the ones who were the aggressors.
Violence is oftentimes preceded by verbal abuse, this is a tactic used to keep the victim at bay.
The abuser needs to be right and in control, they may use their authority or moral standing to explain why they were forced to what they did.
The abuser is possessive and may try to isolate their child from friends and family as a means to protect themselves.
The abuser is often times hypersensitive and may react with rage. When they lash out – they blame you and act as if you are responsible for their anger.
I’ve had the privilege of meeting thousands of adoptees around the world and many of them have confided in me and shared their horror stories of abuse and neglect. One of the worst experiences is a young woman who remains connected to her adopted family even though her adoptive mother overlooks the fact her husband was sexually abusing her. I met a pair of sisters in the United States who had a father that made them feel guilty to take care of him in his elderly years, even though he was often missing from their lives. Even when he was home, he ignored them and was “terse” at best. Numerous other adoptees felt their adoptive families were not invested in them, they were not “bad people” but they were not connected to them nor had close relationships.
The issue may worsen when adoptees try to sever the relationship or move away. The parents may feign sickness to draw them back into the relationship or offer them promises they never intend to keep and play a game of catch and release with their heart. They may lash out and do things to make you feel guilty or ways to be part of your life. Some of the ways they may manipulate are:
The abusive individual may reach out, stating they have changed and then turn on you and lash out in anger as they did before.
They will make promises, with no intentions of changing to draw you back into the relationship.
They will leverage your actions, distancing you, keeping your children away to portray themselves as the victims.
They will change the story of what actually occurred, stating you have an overactive imagination, that what you say is a lie or back their story with the silence of their codependent spouse.
They may use money and resources to leverage themselves to make demands and “compromises”.
I was caught in this cycle of craziness for much of my adult years. What I found helpful was to speak to other adoptees who faced similar abuse. Some of the braver ones pointed out it was okay to sever the relationship to regain my sanity. They were the first to tell me that I was the victim. They were there to answer questions and their strength helped me to take the steps to separate myself from toxic relationships.
Years later I read an excellent book that went deeper into the issue called Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life by Susan Forward. It took someone to tell me it was okay to leave my toxic adopted family. This is a personal choice, like other things that could be unhealthy in our lives – such as smoking, drinking or staying in bad relationships. I wish you peace and sanity. I hope this helps.