by Soorien Zeldenrust & Dong-Mi Engels who write this article on behalf of the Adoptee & Foster Coaching (AFC) team, Netherlands.
Standing still with today, with life, surviving and giving up. You’re tired and you don’t want to feel anymore. You wish to find a path, away from the pain and sadness.
A day where 6 suicide reports of intercountry adoptees, which all took place on and around New Year’s Day, have now arrived to our Adoptee & Foster Coaching (AFC) colleagues. One from India, two from Korea, all 3 adopted to Netherlands; one from India, one from Chile, both adopted to Belgium; one from Chile adopted to Germany.
Making the unbearable bearable
Your body is broken the moment you were separated from your greatest commitment: your mother and your origins. Once in a new family and another country you will be obliged to attach yourself to this. Not only from the environment, but also from yourself to survive. As a child you can only stand with yourself by adjusting. When “problems” come later, it will be downplayed or your surroundings try to “fix it”. After all, you were so neatly adjusted (read: devastated).
You’re getting older, the unforgettable feeling and being different from your surroundings remains present deep inside and slowly rises to the surface. Soon it gets to the point that you can no longer ignore (recurring) relationship problems, workplace issues or health issues. Where should you look for it and who should you be with? Is there someone who can really understand what you’re going through and what you’re feeling? Usually not in your immediate vicinity and not from the regular professionals either. And yet you want an end to the intense pain, the unprocessed sadness and (the double) grief. You wish for an end to longing for a home or a place, that desire for hiraeth, a deep homesickness.
Some of us reach a point where they don’t want to feel all of this anymore and can’t handle confrontation anymore. They also feel guilty towards their adoptive parents because they can’t handle the pressure of being “happy”. They’re over it.
By sharing these hopeless looking thoughts and greatest fears with like-minded people, you can break through this and you will feel that you are no longer alone. It really does get better. You can handle this pain and learn to embrace it because you will understand it and never have to wear it alone again.
We as AFC coaches unfortunately can’t prevent what happened last New Year’s Day. There are adopted people who see no way out. All we can do is be there for you when you are ready to reach out and ask for support. By giving recognition and sharing, we want to let you know that you are not alone and there is a place to learn and be yourself, with all your questions, sadness, fears and thoughts. Make yourself known and be heard. We provide a listening ear, the correct aftercare and the necessary awareness in the outside world.
Worldwide, intercountry adoptees commit suicide 4-5 times more than the average non-adopted person. This occurs especially when adoptees can’t find their first parents and relatives and they are very vulnerable during the holiday season.
To my fellow adoptees who were triggered recently by the news about the Stauffer family who publicly told the world about rehoming their 4 year old little boy Huxley (of Chinese origins also living with autism).
I speak out with you in solidarity against the way some adoptive families and the adoption industry continues to treat us as a commodity! The recent coverage crassly reminds us of how traumatic our life has been .. the adoption wounds together with our bedrock of relinquishment trauma, gets further layered upon when multiple abandonments occur. I know when the “system” allows or facilitates re-abandonment like this (deportation is another form), we personally feel violated, as if it has literally happened to us, again.
I personally know adoptees who have lived this experience of being relinquished by multiple adoptive families – “rehoming” is such an impersonal term for an experience that is so immensely personal! What most people don’t understand is the trauma never leaves our being and it takes us decades to war through it – if we get through at all!
I want adoptees who suffered this experience to know, it wasn’t something wrong with you — it’s that there is SO much wrong with the current system of intercountry adoption that allows this to happen.
The recent experience highlights everything we adoptees speak up about that is wrong. We are treated like a commodity! Given away and discarded when it becomes too hard, not the ideal that the family signed up for (and purchased).
There is something inherently wrong with the mantra of adoption that everyone naively believes Huxley will be better off with his second family. This assumes that second time round, the agency and adoptive family will get it right — but our lived reality of adoption highlights that the process of matching is such a random lottery! The agency may do no better the second time round, especially when they have no incentive or punishment for either outcome, nor are they forced to be held accountable for failures like this or to report it.
I’m sure that you, like me, might feel mad about this situation because we continue to receive the message that something is wrong with us – that we are not good enough. As relinquished children, this is an internalised message we spend our lives fighting to correct! We often feel like damaged goods. Sadly, not even the best adoptive family in the world can ensure Huxley or others like him, come out of messes like this without lifelong consequences.
The system is wrong when prospective parents are not adequately assessed, educated from a trauma informed base, nor rejected. Not everyone should be given the privilege to parent us! It takes a very gifted and emotionally aware type of person to truly help an already traumatised child to heal, flourish, and feel accepted enough to be able to overcome their beginnings!
There is also not enough post adoption supports to ensure better long term outcomes. Governments and agencies treat adoption like a once-off transaction where their responsibility ends the day our adoptive parents take us home. They are rarely given adequate support and their “education” ends the day the transaction is complete, whereas we know, every phase of life opens up a new layer of complexities to unravel. We have no independent advocate who watches out for us long term to make sure we flourish and no reports exist on our long term outcomes over decades. There are certainly very few mechanisms for adoptees to report or take action at the time or later on, when we are mistreated or further damaged. Will Huxley be given a fund from the adoption agency or first adoptive family to provide him with a never ending supply of professional helps should he want – to wade through the maze of compounded traumas? I can’t imagine so! And when we speak out about experiences like this, our voices are usually silenced in preference for the adoptive parents and it is expected the child should “move on” as if a “magical other adoptive family” will “fix us”, so we can live happily ever after! Problem is, we are not living a fairy tale and the next adoptive family is probably not given extra post adoption supports for life either!
The myths in adoption such as “forever family” create unrealistic ideals of adoption that add to the mountains we adoptees and our adoptive families have to overcome. Even with the best family and resources, sometimes there is just too much trauma and sometimes, nothing ever makes it better! Do they teach prospective parents this to set more realistic expectations?
What makes this recent experience for Huxley so triggering for me, is the lack of respect for his personal journey and struggles – his journey made public from day zero with almost a million viewers seeing every detail! His additional challenges publicly displayed to the whole world. That the family monetised their YouTube channel off the back of his trauma is unforgiveable and he will one day consider all this when he’s in his 30s or 40s and ask all the questions we adult intercountry adoptees ask now — how could a family do that, when they are supposed to be supporting and loving? Was it ever really about him or them? We are not a cockle or a peacock to be displayed and show cased when it suits for adoptive parents to be seen as a saviour! Our journey is a lifetime of trauma and loss! Ignorance on a scale like this only acts to compound existing traumas. I wonder if he’ll consider it abuse when he’s older? I would.
It is not okay to participate in an adoption system that churns and spits out adoptees as if we are a gidget with no feelings or soul! We are of immense value, we are vulnerable and deserve better. If this is how intercountry adoption is conducted, we should be all shouting out for it to stop until it’s done in a more appropriate manner that respects us as human beings and teaches families that you either take us with all our gifts and challenges – or you let us go, help us stay with our family and culture, or with another family who has the capability to be there for us long term! With the sheer volume of adoptee led platforms in cyberspace that provide education and insight into our journeys, I wonder how any adoptive parent or agency can continue to claim ignorance and naivety.
I hope the collective anger we adoptees feel right now will encourage us all to shout out from the roof tops about our experiences and free ourselves from the inherent shame we feel in being abandoned and rejected. This is not our shame to bear – it is a system that perpetuates further trauma onto our already traumatised bedrock.
For adoptees who experience rehoming, it’s abandonment multiple times. There is nothing wrong with us but everything wrong with a system that perpetuates a type of people who adopt from a naive and grossly inadequate understanding, fooling themselves into believing they can rescue us – only to fall flat on their faces. I’m a parent of a child on the autism spectrum. I totally know how hard parenting can be – but I’m also an intercountry adoptee with foundational traumas and I understand how important it is, that we get this right so that the trauma vulnerable children live, is no longer compounded by the damaging system we see glaring right in front of us!
Note: I have been astounded by how many amazing and astute adoptive parents exist out there in cyberspace who have been as angry about this as I. I hope that you too will turn that anger into encouraging adoptees to speak out and be heard. Help to elevate our voices!
Since sharing my thoughts, I have seen many other intercountry adoptees writing and sharing theirs! Wonderful to see our voices coming out of the dark and giving exposure! Here’s a list of what’s been written since:
These past few weeks since easter has been reflective and sad for me. Whenever an adoptee friend commits suicide, it brings on many emotions:
Raw sadness that we’ve failed another person impacted by adoption!
Helplessness that the powers-to-be (sending and receiving governments, agencies, lawyers, social workers) who control and continue to facilitate intercountry adoption, don’t do enough to prevent this type of outcome. We know after 70 years of intercountry adoption, that the trauma involved in intercountry adoption HAS to be supported for LIFE!
Anger that it is documented and well understood that we continue to suffer much higher rates of suicide than non-adopted people and yet – the powers-to-be still continue to facilitate intercountry adoption with very little commitment to adequate post adoption supports, nor any consequences to being held accountable for their role in facilitating the adoption.
Grief for the people left behind, who are suddenly made intensely aware of the feelings of powerlessness that led the person to leave this world in this manner.
Frustration that for the majority of adoptees, we can get to this space without reaching out for help because we are often surrounded by public ignorance and media misrepresentation that adoption is only “wonderful” and provides a “forever family”; or of “a moment-in-time-reunion” that creates an illusion that this will fix the internal pain of needing to know where we belong. The damage these fake messages create when not balanced or listening to those who live it from a broad spectrum across time, is that this message can act to negate and amplify the struggles adoptees often feel.
And where are the supports for those left behind? How does our peer community deal with the ripple effect when this happens? I have not seen many resources to equip us with this. We struggle along, wandering in the dark.
What this does to me is put me on high alert for any adoptees I know who share about being in this dark space. You would be surprised by how many there are – often the ones whom nobody suspects! All I can do is reach out, offer to listen, tell them I am here when they need it most and encourage them to reach out for professional help. This is because the pain is often our deep trauma from relinquishment and possibly complicated if the adoption wasn’t supportive and positive. It’s an awful feeling to wonder who’s going to be next. I’m only one person and there are thousands of us intercountry adoptees. It feels like a ticking time bomb! Yet I also totally know how they feel because I was there during my most painful years. I know how easily life becomes that dark space where you truly believe no-one cares but even if they do … it feels like the pain is never ending.
For those who don’t understand and want to, for me when I was in that space, I just wanted the pain to end! I just wanted to feel some peace! I was tired of crying, tired of being so sad, so angry, exhausted trying to pretend I was “normal”. But suicide is a temporary solution and often when in that space, we aren’t looking at the reality of not being here in life and all the things we will miss out on, or the impact on the people who we leave behind – we just become consumed with wanting to end the pain!
Somehow, we must create a space that helps adoptees deal with this pain in a safe way.
Adoptee suicide drives me to continue to reach out to my peers, to try and create a safe space where their emotions and confusions can exist without judgement. ICAV is about providing resources and connecting peers to enable the journey of finding their truths, encouraging them to find healing, and offering some hope.
I can only wish that adoptee suicide stimulates more of us to reach out regularly to our adoptee peers; check in, show an interest, be a listening ear and help encourage them to reach out to spaces/places where they will be uplifted and supported.
ICAV created the Intercountry Adoptee Memorial Facebook page 2 years ago. Sadly, we have over 30 intercountry and transracial adoptees memorialised there in just this short period of time — but what about those we don’t know of because they never tapped into support networks? They are the ones whom I worry about the most!
This is why I spend my energy advocating to stop or change the way intercountry adoption is done to ensure better post adoption supports (such as free search and reunion and DNA testing, free counselling, free mental health assessments and support), better assessment and education of adoptive families, find ways to enable justice for those who have been dealt the worst hands (deportation, abuse in adoptive families, illegal and illicit adoptions, rehoming). There are so many complicating issues in intercountry adoption and adoptees should not be left to navigate these alone without the right support systems in place. Sending and receiving countries should be held accountable on whether their intercountry adoptions are a success or not. This implies there should be long term follow up on those whom government, agencies and lawyers place — including followup with the families on both sides (adoptive and birth).
Adoptee suicide tells me we still haven’t done enough to prevent and minimise harm caused by the structures that facilitate and support intercountry adoption.
If you are an adoptee impacted by the loss of your adoptee friend via suicide, or you are contemplating suicide, please consider reaching out for professional crisis support and to your local Post Adoption supports.
Peer support can also be useful as we can sometimes advise where to find these professional post adoption and crisis supports. A list of adoptee-led post intercountry adoption supports can be found here; but unless professionally trained, peer support is informal and not provided 24×7.