Adoptees and Therapy

What cannot be talked about cannot be put to rest.
And if it is not, the wounds will fester from generation to generation.

–Bruno Bettleheim

Bettleheim could easily be talking about adoptees –

  • Why is therapy for adoptees so scarce?
  • Why are adoptees unacknowledged?
  • Why does no one understand us?
  • How many people pay a therapist and still act as the educator?
  • Why is it when adoption is mentioned in therapy there is often an awkward silence?

I have asked myself these questions many times, with good reason: I am an adoptee and a therapist. 

It is every adoptee’s right to access therapy

As an adoptee, I know all too well how terribly hurtful it is to be misunderstood in therapy. There is an appalling lack of therapy suited to our needs and a lack of therapists who truly and precisely are able to understand our personal plight, adoption.

What happens to us before we are born?

Personally, and professionally, I believe the crux of many adoptees’ problems are present before birth – there is evidence to suggest the foetus in utero absorbs their mothers’ feelings. When we consider how our mothers felt, knowing the baby they were carrying would not be theirs, this theory is plausible. Birth itself may have been problematic–my mother suffered a severe anxiety attack during labour because she hadn’t been told what would happen to her body–emotions didn’t come in to it either!  

How are we affected if we are removed from our mothers as babies?

The bliss of being with our mothers and then an abrupt separation stunned, shocked and traumatised our tiny undeveloped brains, leaving our nervous system overloaded with cortisol and adrenaline, and our neuronal wiring in utter chaos. 

Stuck in time, in ‘baby’ trauma, the adult adoptee does not have an outlet to discharge their feelings and the trauma, now stored in their body, known as body memories. The actions, behaviours, feelings and cognition are often distorted, out of place, out of time and out of sync with the reality of the present – not surprising really, is it?

What does the NHS offer and why is it not suitable for adoptees?

The NHS counselling and psychotherapy services are wholly inadequate for adoptees. CBT and antidepressants are the usual treatments offered. This is totally unacceptable and shows the sheer naiveite of those who purport to help us.

CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and antidepressants are not suitable to treat trauma – the latter, though helpful for some are designed to stifle emotion, something we adoptees are used to! The former, CBT, should be introduced later, to help to rectify faulty beliefs and encourage a more positive attitude, for example. It usually lasts six weeks – six weeks was the usual time an adoptee spent with their mothers, another painful reminder of adoption’s legacy!   

I believe within the adult adoptee is a baby adoptee and, until the baby adoptee`s traumatic experiences have been acknowledged by an appropriate therapist, ideally another adoptee who has worked on themselves therapeutically, the baby adoptee is stuck – I call this ‘baby-work’. With CBT, the emphasis on cognition is not only missing the point but is of no use to an adoptee because our trauma began before we developed cognition. Until professionals, including therapists, are educated about adoption, nothing will change.    

The adult adoptee, thwarted once more because no one understands them, even in therapy, is exiled, marginalised, discriminated against, misunderstood and sometimes disbelieved because the therapist doesn’t even know what they are talking about! How is this humane or justifiable?

What can I do as a therapist?

My experience as a therapist with adoptees is not vast. Nevertheless, I refuse to reject a client because they are adopted. Instead, I chose humanity over bureaucracy, the truth over lies and the spoken word over the silence of adoption. Instead of rejecting the adoptee because, apparently, I am not ‘trained’ in adoption counselling, I may have been reprimanded.  I was not, because I kept quiet – another example of adoption’s secrecy, even today, therapists remain silent to protect the very officialdom that continues to twist its knife into adoptees.

This skewed imbalance within the therapeutic world, in my view, needs urgent attention. If not, the probability of breakdowns, heart attacks, anxiety, depression, personality disorders, cancer, hypertension, addictions etc remain our fate.

Furthermore, the inclusion of adoption into ACEs, the DSM – 5 and the WHO would give us the recognition we deserve.

The Department for Education is holding a consultation on removing the requirement for those who offer therapy to adult adoptees in England to be registered with Osfted (the schools inspector). You can view and take part in the consultation up to 20 March 2023.

Post written by a guest author who wishes to remain anonymous