by Lina Vanegas adopted from Colombia to the USA.You can follow Lina on Instagram @linaleadswithlove or on Twitter @LinaLeadsWLove
When we talk about adoption it’s important that we are honest and transparent and avoid sugar coating things or inserting toxic positivity or adoption propaganda.
The reality is that many people do not truly understand adoption, what it it entails, what it is and the impacts, trauma, grief and loss.
To break it down, I was bought and sold in 1976. I lost everything and my identity was erased. This is heartbreaking and devastating to me. It’s hard to wrap my head around it. I can’t honestly fathom how this could have happened. The tragic thing is that I am one of millions. Yes M I L L I O N S. There are an estimated 7 million adopted and displaced people and the number is growing. 2 million of us are intercountry adopted.
I just saw a comment on Facebook last night that was commending a white adoptive parent for sharing a positive adoptive story and they also stated we need more positive adoption stories. If positive is what you want then adoption is not the topic to equate with it. There is always trauma, grief and loss with adoption no matter the circumstances. This is a given and guarantee. When we talk about adoption, we must be honest about what it entails. It’s not beautiful, a fairytale, rainbows, sprinkles and unicorns.
I was bought and sold in 1976. This is my lived experience.
Christmas and New Year is a time when we usually get together as families, celebrating and reconnecting. For some adoptees, this is a particularly tough time of the year because not all of us are closely connected with our families (birth or adoptive). Often it is this time of year that can be the hardest for it brings up painful feelings of not being closely connected .. to anyone. It can remind of us how we don’t “fit in”, how we are forever in-between spaces, or of how little we are understood by the very people who raise or birthed us.
Adoption is based heavily on loss – loss of our origins, loss in knowing who we came from and why, loss of our culture and traditions we are born to, loss of our extended families. And adoption does not always replace everything we’ve lost. Adoption is also heavily based in trauma – it is the trauma our generations went through that often result in us being relinquished for whatever reason. Or it can be the trauma our country went through, a result of war, famine, natural disasters, etc. We adoptees carry these losses and traumas within us, often we are unaware we carry it, until we do some deep diving into our origins and reconnect to some of our most primal feelings of abandonment and grief.
This Christmas and New Year period, I hope that we can be mindful of our fellow adoptees for whom this can be an especially triggering time of year. Last year in Europe the team of adoptees who are therapists at AFC knew at least 6 adoptees from their immediate circles who suicided between Christmas and New Year. This year, globally who knows what our numbers will be – for we’ve also lived through another tough year with COVID-19 and that has further heightened the sense of isolation for many, adopted or not.
I’ve just finished participating in two major events this year to raise awareness of the connection between between being adopted and experiencing suicidal feelings or actions. The first was a webinar with lived experience where we shared openly. You can view it here:
The second, which followed on from our first, was a Twitter event in which more of us shared our lived experience and thoughts which you can read here as a summary wakelet.
Huge thanks to the sponsoring organisation United Survivors and intercountry adoptive mother Maureen McCauley at Light of Day Stories, who organised these 2 incredibly powerful and much needed events.
I wanted to share my answers for Question 4 which asked us, for fellow adoptees who are struggling, what would I say? My response is:
You are not alone! Many of us have been in that space, I know how tough it is to find a way through, but it is possible. Please reach out to your peer support spaces – there are so many of them. If you need help finding them, ICAV has a list of intercountry adoptee led orgs around the world.
Please also don’t be afraid to try and find a mental health professional. It can make a world of difference to be supported by someone trained to understand our lived experience. If you need help finding them, ICAV has a global list of post adoption supports as a great starting place.
Adoption begins with traumas and most of our life, we spend unpacking that and making sense of our life, who we are, how we came to be here. But once we surround ourselves with support and commit ourselves to working through those painful parts, our life can change and we CAN find healing and connection.
It begins with ourselves, finding connection back to ourselves – who we were born to be, not necessarily who we are adopted to be.
Our life as an adoptee does not have to be controlled forever by our beginnings but it is so important to not deny and ignore the pain, but to offer your inner hurt child a space where her pain can be heard, and where healing can begin.
My message for adoptive families and professionals who struggle to understand how/why adoptees can feel suicidal, I highly recommend you watch our video series which covers the universal themes I’ve observed, reflected through the stories many adoptee have shared with me over the past 20+ years. It is SO important adoptees feel heard, validated, and given the space to share from our hearts, without judgement or expectation.
Part of the vision I created and still hold for ICAV remains very true at this time of year:
A world where existing intercountry adoptees are not isolated or ignored, but supported by community, government, organisations and family throughout their entire adoption journey.
by Dan R Moen, adopted from the Philippines to the USA.
Part three of this series focuses on toxicity and its impact with grief. The black vine-like shapes represent toxicity and how it manifests itself within and around all of us. It’s depicted as an uncontrollable beast and has completely engulfed an individual. It grows and flourishes when grief isn’t addressed, resources for healing aren’t in place or utilised, and when one feels like giving up. The vine-like creature wraps itself around the other gentleman and is trying to pull him down along with the other person. He is desperately trying to grab the hanging fruit, representing hope. Loosely inspired by the mythology of Tantalus, he is just out of reach of the fruit, but the toxicity is pulling him away. Intertwined in the vines is various stressors that give the vine-like creature it’s power. Phrases like Covid-19, Trump, gun violence, Biden, divorce, and other phrases fuel this creature – and when not dealt with, allows for it to become stronger.
In the left, the arm is representing suicide; depicting how all these stressors can manifest itself into the toxicity of the vine-like creature and how it now has grown barbs. Wrapping itself around the arm of the gentleman, it cuts deep and creates unearthly pain. The blood drips and fuels the stressors on the ground, once again igniting the cycle and power of the vine-like creature.
by Dan R Moen, adopted from the Philippines to the USA. This is the 2nd of a 3 part artwork piece by Dan that explores being adopted.
One of the key things that has been an eye-opener for me is understanding what’s appropriate to say to somebody who’s grieving or going through pain.
We have failed to understand each other and to utilize tools to cultivate real empathy — not sympathy. Unfortunately, because of this, difficult conversations can cause alienating, victimizing, or gaslighting the individual. We oftentimes want to give advice or external perspectives, but oftentimes it’s unwarranted when the person is going through pain in the moment. This is in large part because we have been taught that giving advice equates to helping. Humans have a natural instinct to want to fix; the idea that anything that doesn’t fit the standard needs to be repaired and repaired quickly.
All it does is alienate the person and make them question if they have a right to feel human emotions. Without consciously doing it, this can easily come off as egotistical and one can project their own ways of dealing with life expecting the person grieving to meet that same standard — even with the best intentions at heart.
The key to really helping somebody going through grieving or troubles is to really listen and validate, validate, validate. This being said, that does not necessarily mean agreeing with the person, but it is humanizing the person and allowing them to have a place to cry, feel, and go through the emotions necessary for growth.
Be mindful of what you say to individuals when they look overwhelmed, dealing with anxiety, or going through a loss. I must remind myself this all the time. I slip up too. What you say to them can deeply impact them either positively, or unfortunately, negatively. Do not make it about yourself, and above all else…. DON’T tell them how to feel. Sometimes, remaining silent, but being an active listener, helps the other person tremendously, and phrases such as “thank you for sharing. I’m sorry you’re going through this. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help” will help them and give them a sense that they can go to you for support.
These are reasons why we as adoptees have, on a much larger scale, so many mental health problems going on that unfortunately get undiagnosed, untreated, and invalidated. When we see crimes happening there is something more deeper going on that we don’t see. Crimes in society from stealing to murder, are symptoms of deeper and more complex needs by humanity.
Keep in mind more scars are invisible than they are visible, this means you do not know what the person is going through. There could be much more from their history and lived experience that you may never experience. What we are witnessing when someone is grieving may be rooted in something much deeper and more historical in their own lived experience. So why would we compare our lives to each other? Life is not a race to the bottom, nor a race to the top. We must be able to be like glassware. Wine glasses hold what they can hold, shot glasses hold what they can hold, and punch bowls can hold what they can hold. One cannot pour the same amount of liquid from a punch bowl in to a shot glass; it will overflow. However, people are not static, they can handle the amount of stress that a shot glass can hold, and slowly move up to a punchbowl, and then back down again.
I recently had a conversation with a wonderful friend of mine who is Indigenous, about the Native American community and how they view about giving advice:
Elders do not give advice or perspective in every situation they get an opportunity. Instead, they understand that a young person will have a different lived experience than an elder and in order to get advice, one must give each other bundles of tobacco. Tobacco is sacred in many Native Americans traditions and cultures as it is a medicine used for prayers, communication, and messages to the Spirit World. Elders will give tobacco bundles to the youth if they need advice and young people will give tobacco to elders if they need advice. This is seen as an offering gift. I absolutely admire that, and I wish people would practice this concept way more: even in therapy there are codes of conduct about giving unwarranted advice. When the phrase, “What do you think? What would you do? Do you have advice?” Is uttered, that’s the invitation. If you ask, “May I offer perspective, advice?” and they don’t want it. Don’t give it. Let the grieving person BE HUMAN.
For Dan’s 1st artwork in this series, see Grieving for the Child of the Past. For more on Dan visit his website.
In November 2021, I was asked by the Australian Department of Social Services, to source artwork by intercountry adoptees that would fit with their artwork brief for a literature review they funded reviewing the research available on Adoption and Suicide.
ICAV approached various adoptee artists known for their work by ICAV and requested if they wished to submit any pieces. Dan, a Filipino adoptee in the USA, had only weeks before just joined the ICAV network and I had seen his artwork as part of getting to know him. His artwork blew me away with its depth and intensity. So I’ve asked him to share it with you all here. Artwork is such a powerful medium to portray the adoptee lived experience! I hope you enjoy the next 3 blogs whereby we share you Dan’s incredible talent, his artwork and the meaning behind each piece.He presents to you his 3 part series, all related to being a Filipino intercountry adoptee.
by Dan R Moen, adopted from the Philippines to the USA.
This represents both my present and my past simultaneously going through emotional turmoil. The child is suggested to be naked in representation of being completely vulnerable. With both arms surrounding the adult form of themselves, the child desires nothing more than to be loved, protected, and to not feel orphaned—a real sense of belonging.
The adult, however, represents my current adult self. The old world/Victorian/Edwardian clothing represents a connection to history; the love for studying and learning from our ancestors and a passion for those who came before, and yet, completely ignoring the child in the present. The red vest represents love but is covered and not revealed by the partially closed frock coat. He is looking away from the child suggesting that there’s a disconnect. He is looking in towards the darkness knowing that the world isn’t all shiny and glorious. He too is also grieving but not fully connecting to the child. One arm is wrapped around the child suggesting there is some small connection to his past self, but the other hand is completely in the pocket suggesting that there’s a sense of standoffishness, including cognitive dissonance—needing to grow up and to move on. He is displaying the inner turmoil of accepting the idea of “that’s just life” – while simultaneously, not granting himself permission to fully mourn with the past child.
Surrounding them, there are different colors suggesting fire of meanings. The dark greens represent the forests that I visited throughout 2020 and all the secret spots that I like to go to for healing. Many of these locations were off the nature trails, and for one to visit them, they would have to trek deep into the woods to find these locations.
The red represents the blood of those who have died at the hands of bad policies, politics, racism, ignorance, and to Covid-19. As does the white, which represents the countless spirits and souls who have passed onto the next world.
The yellow represents the fire with chaos and change. There are hints of gold metallic paint suggesting the idea that there is healing within the chaos, but it depends on individuals’ perspectives. This is represented physically by the viewer as the angle that you’re looking at the painting determines the visibility of the metallic paint. So, when multiple people look at the painting at the same time, some will see the metallic paint while some will not see it, that’s the point.
Many of us, as adults, sometimes forget that the raw emotions we feel, are human, just human. No logic is needed in the moment of grief. Many of our fears, woes, and deep inner turmoil come from our past, and sometimes, we mourn our childhood – as we haven’t given ourselves permission to fully grieve and feel these raw emotions. We must give ourselves that permission; any advice from others or opinions from others will not be fulfilled if we don’t allow ourselves to feel first and validate how feel internally.
You matter too. You are #1 in life; from birth to the next world – learn to live with yourself, not by yourself.
Coming next, Dan’s 2nd art work piece Does My Perspective Matter? in his 3 part series.
To find out more about Dan and and his work, check out his website.
At the moment when adoptees experience that they have lost part of themselves due to relinquishment and / or adoption, they suddenly come into a grieving process. A kind of mourning that they themselves, but also their surroundings, often cannot comprehend or contain.
A special event such as a pregnancy, the birth of a (grand) child or a wedding can suddenly lose its colour or shine. A demise, loss of work, or a move can suddenly become the most dramatic and prevailing event of an adoptee’s life.
The previous loss that hitherto sat dormant in the unconscious is triggered. Suddenly the unconscious wakes up in the conscious and throws back the adopted one into the previous loss trauma with the corresponding behavioural change. The emotions that come with this seem to absorb everything, structures and controls disappear and chaos prevails.
Often adoptees who previously considered themselves “fortunately adopted” suddenly feel the emptiness and try to fill it up by looking for their self, their identity and / or their mother. But the emptiness, sadness and fear does not dissolve during this quest or in reunification. There often remains the history, the secrets, the guilt and the shame between both.
Because of the fact that this form of loss and mourning is not recognised in our society, adopted people do not have the option (e.g. leave period) to mourn, give meaning to their loss or experience a farewell ritual like a funeral of their adoptive parents. And often they have no memories of their first parents with whom they can comfort themselves. Because of this, it will often remain a never ending story and the wound will remain open.
A mother and child separation causes lifelong loss, which we carry in our body until the end of our life and is also transferred to the next generations.
That’s why it’s important to raise awareness for the loss and trauma during relinquishment and adoption and the impact of missing our descendants data. Adoptees should experience as much entitlement to support in their grieving process as those not adopted.
by Sara Jones/Yoon Hyun Kyung, adopted from South Korea to the USA.
I have no photos of myself before I was 3 years old. I have a few photos after that age taken at the orphanage. Staff members took photos of children to send to sponsors or potential adoptive parents. In one of the photos, I am wearing a Korean hanbok but I am not smiling in any of the photos at the orphanage.
A few months ago, I came across a photo (not one of mine) that literally made me feel like I had been thrown back in time. The photo was taken in 1954 at a well. The well has high cement walls and a pulley system. Rusted metal drums sit nearby. Two young boys are drawing water while a little girl stands near them. The 1954 photo helped me visualize what life might have been like for me in Jeonju, South Korea.
Here’s what I see when I looked at that 1954 photo: I see an older brother, about 8 years old, a younger brother almost 6 years old, and their little sister who is 2 years old. They are poor, but don’t really know anything different. They live with their grandmother and father in a rural village in South Korea. Their father is the oldest of several children and some of their aunts and uncles are still quite young. They are all struggling through the economic disruption that has happened in their country. Their father worked in manual labor and was injured. So the boys help their father and keep watch of their little sister. The little sister is used to staying near her brothers. Sometimes the children go to day care and the boys sneak the little sister extra corn snacks. Her brothers are her protectors.
The children don’t know that their father is making an excruciating decision. Their father can no longer provide for them and thinks his only choice is to send them to the children’s welfare center. The little girl has no idea that she will be separated from her father or even from her brothers. The children also don’t know that their father will soon take them to a well and give them each a tattoo on their arm, using a needle, ink and thread. He is worried he will never see his children again. In the 1954 photo, the children are just siblings, sent to the well for the day’s water.
The children might have wondered why their father was taking them to the well the day he gave them their tattoos. The oldest son cries as his father gives him the tattoo. As the father gives his oldest son his tattoo, he says to him, “I will come back for you.” Before the father gives his little baby daughter her tattoo, he hugged her.
It’s been a long 3 years since I met my Korean birth family. The distance from the U.S. to South Korea feels longer and harder with the pandemic. The language barrier weighs on me constantly. How will I ever communicate with them?
Some things need no words. Like this moment 3 years ago of my Korean family and I at the well in Jeonju, where my father gave us our tattoos. Watch the video here.
“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.
Reckoning with the Primal Wound is an adoptee led film created by Rebecca Autumn Sansom and her natural mother Jill. Together they explore what the Primal Wound is and how it’s affected their lives.
This film is really about Rebecca’s journey of coming to terms with who she is; making sense of being adopted; understanding the deep pain and loss she’s felt in her life; exploring how it’s not just her journey but many other adoptees too; coming to terms with hearing her natural mother’s journey and understanding that this experience has universal themes.
I think it’s a fantastic exploration of the profound impacts created when separating a mother and child; hearing and seeing the lived experience from both ends – the adoptee and her natural mother. It’s also insightful in demonstrating the common reality of how adoptive parents struggle to understand the significance of, and coming to terms with, the trauma from which they’ve built their family upon.
Often in reunion we adoptees are caught in the middle of competing emotional issues and we can sometimes shoulder too much of the responsibility of holding the space for all. I personally felt Rebecca’s film is such an empowering way to hold the space for herself and tell her story, bravo!
I love the range of experts within this documentary, especially all the lived experience and how professionals are interwoven amongst the personal stories. It’s so important to understand the huge web of interconnected people in adoption, the roles they play, how we are all impacted. It was especially poignant to see the longitudinal journey of reconnection facilitated by Jill’s social worker, who clearly cared very much.
Ultimately this film resonated with me because of its truth and validation to all adoptees who cannot just “get on with it” and act as if being separated from our natural mothers has no impact on us. Overall, the message for me rings true: that for deep healing to happen in adoption, there needs to be a profound reckoning of the impacts caused by separating a mother from the child, and acknowledgment that these are lifelong.
To learn more about the documentary, you can visit Rebecca’s website.
ICAV is running adoptee online events this September where adoptees will have access to view the documentary and participate in an online group afterwards for a post film discussion.
by Mimi Larose, adoptee of Haitian origins raised in Canada.
Have you adopted Haitian kids ? My adoptive parents haven’t talked to me yet about the earthquake that just happened. In 2010, when that earthquake happened, they accused me of being too emotional about the devastation and incredible loss of life that resulted.
Every time they don’t say anything or don’t seem concerned, it deepens the divide between us.
Adoptive parents, you should check on your kids and allow them the space to grieve. They might be thinking about their parents, thinking they might have lost an opportunity to ever meet them. They might be hurting in silence because they feel you don’t care when you stay silent.