It’s ok to take a break – we are!

15th to 21st May is Mental Health Awareness Week 2023. This year the theme is Anxiety.

  • Fight or Flight – feelings of anxiety are our body’s innate response to stress or perceived danger. Anxiety can feel like unease, worry, or apprehension. This ‘fight or flight’ mechanism helps us react quickly to potential threats.
  • Physically, anxiety can show up in our bodies as a faster, irregular or more noticeable heartbeat, feeling lightheaded and dizzy, sweating, breathlessness, headaches, chest pains and loss of appetite.
  • Psychologically, anxiety can manifest as feeling tense or nervous, being unable to relax, fear, worrying, sleep problems, feeling tearful, concentration, obsessive thoughts or intrusive traumatic memories.
  • Anxiety can cover a wide spectrum – we can all feel a little anxious sometimes, for many reasons, but anxiety can become problematic if it persists for long periods of time, is overwhelming, or stops us from functioning in our daily lives.

And for us adoptees? Are we more prone to anxiety? I would say possibly, yes. We confront issues that the general population do not – we are faced with issues of identity, loss of genetic mirroring, our ancestry, our heritage. Some of us are displaced and removed from our culture, our country of origin, some of us discover late that we are adopted. Some of us are in harmful situations prior to adoption. Some of us face additional adversity in our adoptive families. We struggle to gain access to our birth and medical records/history, search and reunion is often problematic and fraught with complex emotions, and we can also be dealing with feelings of loss, grief, hopelessness, rejection to name but a few – and many of these issues and feelings can lead us to feel misunderstood, anxious, depressed and helpless.

There should be absolutely no shame in feeling any of the above. We are adoptees. We are SURVIVORS, and to claim and own any – even just one – of these issues and feelings is brave and courageous. 

Help and support

If you have or are feeling any of the above issues and either you want to know more about anxiety, here is a link to the Mental Health Awareness Week website where you can find further information.

If you feel like you need further support, you can contact the Samaritans or seek out other specialist mental health bodies or charities. Your GP can also help you. (It is good to know that anxiety can sometimes be a catch-all diagnosis for other underlying issues that many adoptees can suffer from – symptoms can present in a similar fashion.)

What about us?

This brings me to share with you that here at AAM, we are trying to be more aware of our own mental health. As a group of 7, we have been working very closely and intensely for a solid year now, spending a great deal of time, effort and emotional energy in brainstorming, campaigning, educating and advocating. We hit the ground running last May with our hefty response document to the JCHR Forced Adoption inquiry and we literally have not stopped. I mean, not for a day.

And none of us noticed. We showed up every day, and frequently every night. Adrenaline and excitement for our cause fuelled us. Things have been going great. We have had lots of media interest, we have been making great connections, meeting adoptees like yourselves and all has been good. Extremely busy and intense, but good!

But only this past week, we took a pause for breath. And we realised that we are all exhausted – every one of us. Emotionally, physically, mentally. So we are taking a well earned break. We are putting our own mental health first. We will be spending come much needed time with our families – whatever that means for us. We are going to try to indulge in some self care, simple pleasures, walks in nature, sitting quietly in the garden with a cup of tea. And we encourage you all to do the same.

We will be back, we promise you that! But we need this break.

In the meantime, take good care of yourselves, rest well, recharge and reinvigorate and we will see you soon.

All the best


PS Existing events will go ahead, see some of you there!

Musings on Mothering Sunday

Every year, I struggled with this Day. Nobody knew. Not one person. Not a teacher, nor my parents, nor my extended family, nor my friends.

Adoption Trauma: a Personal Reflection

How do we come to recognise that we are traumatised?

At what point in your life do you allow yourself to be excused—and to excuse yourself—because you finally realise you have The Trauma? 

When I say ‘finally’ I mean that as adoptees we have lived our lives thinking that we were ‘not quite right’ because we had issues in our relationships, friendships, and attachments, difficulty with trust, intense fear of rejection, or had certain idiosyncrasies, thoughts, anxieties, behaviours that we just didn’t understand and so we thought we were just a little odd or felt different from our peers.

We all have our own idiosyncrasies, sure, but when a gaggle of adoptees come together on our weekly peer support Zooms, only then do we realise that we share many traits. And the more we share with each other (often as our sole support network), we discover that our collective trauma was not and is not properly recognised or acknowledged. It was hidden from society so that even we ourselves couldn’t claim it.

What do I mean when I talk about adoption trauma?

Many of us find that as we meander through our lives, we find it difficult to cope with significant life events, or life transitions, often feeling anxious for no reason and always on high alert or extra-sensitive to potential threats.

Our preverbal trauma literally had an effect on our brain development: physiological effects include raised levels of cortisol and adrenaline, which can lead to hyper-vigilance, constant anxiety, sleep disorders and eating disorders. Substances are often used to self-soothe. Many of us have large chunks of missing memories, where our brains were trying to protect us from trauma. 

How have I come to recognise this trauma?

Because I’ve done my own work, tried to understand myself, to put into context what happened to me, I try to be gentle with myself in acknowledging that I have no recollection of a Self that is pre-trauma—that my biggest trauma is preverbal and therefore so far deep inside of me and intrinsically linked to me that I almost can’t see the wood for the trees.

I’ve been through counselling and had pills thrust upon me by doctors, but until recently nobody brought up my maternal separation and subsequent struggles in my adoptive family as being so traumatic as to have given me The Trauma—almost as if it were irrelevant and that the problem was actually me. 

I know now that there is nothing bad or broken with me as a person and nothing wrong with who I am at my core. Now I understand that it was what happened to me that has given me The Trauma. A trauma so misunderstood and misdiagnosed that I wasn’t permitted to experience it. 

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) and the unhelpful adoption narrative

I now believe, aged 49, that I have CPTSD. I know from the way that my body and mind behave and after decades of trying to hide or mask this (which is truly exhausting) that I’m ready to face it head-on, to be my authentic self (which is a relief). So, I’d like a permission slip, please.

Permission to be just who I am, with my flaws, my weaknesses, my idiosyncrasies. Permission to cut out the bullshit, to smash that narrative of being ‘lucky, chosen, grateful, having been given a better life’ not just for me, but for many adoptees who are suffering in similar ways.

ACEs –  Adverse Childhood Experiences

Despite all of this, adoption itself is not considered to be an ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience). I want to know why. I don’t think enough research has been done. Or I think the research may be skewed somehow.

Some adoptees are, through no fault of our own, in the FOG (Fear, Obligation, Guilt) about our experiences, meaning that we are conditioned to be complicit in the positive adoption narrative; we carry shame, and guilt, for our feelings, we want to protect our adoptive parents from how they feel deep down, so we internalise. And I’m not throwing shade—I was there myself for a long time.

So how do we conduct research that traces outcomes for adult adoptees when we’re often not even asked the right questions when we seek help? And when many don’t even seek help because it’s too scary, or we feel we ourselves are to blame, or when we don’t even have the language to articulate what we are really feeling?

How can we try to bring about change for better adoptee support?

How do we bring to attention how we feel? How do we change the narrative? How do we get proper support—proper diagnoses and trauma-informed counselling?

We are trying—a very small group of UK adoptees in our Adult Adoptee Movement—few in number, yet determined to challenge attitudes to historic adoption, striving to change the narrative on adoption and trying to educate and advocate for proper, trauma-informed support and counselling.

We are not a ‘whiny bunch’ as some people think—’shouty adoptees’ I think an adopter called us on Adoption UK’s group forum (with a reassurance from their moderator that they would be bringing someone in to oversee content which was potentially upsetting for adopters to see: adoptees talking about their adoption trauma).


Whether adoptees consider themselves to be perfectly fine, or to have had a happy/successful adoption, a study by Margaret Keyes reported that the odds of a suicide attempt were 4 times greater in adoptees compared with non-adoptees. Not a good statistic. 

Paul Sunderland, an addiction counsellor, noticed that adoptees are significantly overrepresented in addiction counselling for substance misuse and abuse.

We need support. Before it is too late. 

The Harsh Reality of Living Without any Medical History

I am an adoptee born in 1974 and adopted 8 weeks later. I speak from lived experience of inheriting a genetic condition, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS) from my first mother but only discovering this in my 40s.

I’m 49. When I look back at my life up to now, I can pinpoint times that I struggled with my health. Times that, if I had arrived in my adoptive family with a full medical history, would have been easier to manage, quicker to diagnose and come with a lot less worry. 

The impact of unexplained physical symptoms

As a child, I had double-jointed thumbs which I would contort into odd shapes to amuse my school friends. On the netball court, my weak ankles, flat feet and hyper-mobile joints led my feet to ‘collapse’ at times, giving me shooting pains. I just thought this was normal but when I was 13, with continual knee pain and bunions at such a young age, my mother took me to a podiatrist for gait analysis. I was given custom orthotics to put into my shoes to correct my fallen arches and over-pronation. 

At age 14, my teeth were crooked and I had a centre shift—my two front teeth were not central in my mouth. My dentist removed all 4 of my eye teeth to make more room, as my mouth was overcrowded. I had a fixed brace fitted top and bottom, metal rings moulded around all 4 molars and I had to wear elastic bands which stretched from my top to bottom brace – only to be removed when eating.

Pregnancy and childbirth—unexpected complications

Giving birth to my first child, pre-diagnosis, I had an emergency C-section because she was in undiagnosed breech position. I’m certain that she turned in the middle of the night after I was induced, due to having pre-eclampsia, and waiting for labour to start. I experienced awful pain and looking back, it might well have been that—EDS makes for very stretchy insides I later discovered. My episiotomy was very slow to heal, another facet of EDS which I just didn’t know at the time.

The effects of anaesthetics

When I gave birth to my second daughter, in Belgium, I had asked for an epidural. After her forceps delivery, the placenta would not arrive. That turned into a medical emergency as they discovered there and then that I had placenta acreta, where the placenta grows into the lining of the uterus and won’t come away on its own. I had to endure manual extraction, which was traumatic. And still painful, despite the epidural. I kept telling the medics “I can still feel!” I don’t think they believed me. Had they and I had prior knowledge of my EDS, we would all have been able to navigate round the fact that another feature of EDS is that we react differently to anaesthesia as our tissues are too stretchy to hold the anaesthetic and it doesn’t seem to stay where it is needed. When my daughters and I go to the dentist for any fillings or extractions, our dentist is now aware that she needs to give us more local anaesthetic and to give one with less adrenaline in, as that gives us the shakes. 

Our mental health: adoption is trauma

At university, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I was treated with both counselling/talking therapy and antidepressants, but these didn’t really help. I didn’t even really feel comfortable with being diagnosed as ‘clinically depressed’ because deep down I intuited that something was just and has always been ‘off’/wrong… What was glossed over was the fact that I am adopted—not was, am—and being adopted has affected me lifelong. Even though in counselling sessions, I found myself mostly talking about my relationship with my adoptive mother and how difficult I found that growing up, my being adopted in and of itself was never addressed. Looking back, it was as if it simply was not even relevant – neither to my life, to the counsellor and certainly not to my mental health.

Adoption: the elephant in the treatment room

I do not believe that I was depressed, not clinically. I believe that I was traumatised. No pills could ever have helped me. I did not want to take pills. I wanted to be able to express, for the first time in my life, how I felt. I wanted to be heard. To be seen. To be validated. 

I found myself in the same situation many years later, after the birth of my first child. I felt elated to have started my own family, and I knew that I was not suffering from any kind of postnatal depression, but I went into the hospital to speak with one of the post-birth counsellors there as I just couldn’t shake the ‘lost’ feelings I was having.

Again, a hopeless exercise. I went once and I remember tears streaming down my face as I told the counsellor how disappointed I was that I had to have an emergency C section as my baby was breech – that I lost the chance to give birth naturally and to be able to see my baby being born, coming out of my body—so I knew she was really mine, and of me. I told her how important that was to me. She just sat there. She was not qualified to handle what I was telling her.

Where could I find support post-partum?

So I left the room, sat in my car in the hospital car park and cried. I didn’t know who to turn to next. So I stuffed all these feelings down and they didn’t resurface until a couple of years after the birth of my second daughter. 

I was living in Belgium with my family at the time. My husband worked away seventy percent of the time and I was separated from family and friends. We spent five years in Belgium. I was struggling. I saw my GP, who diagnosed me with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) which might as well have been ‘I have no clue what is wrong with you so let’s call it a generic anxiety disorder and send you on your way with some antidepressants.’

Trying to take charge but the issues are still not recognised

The tablets made me spaced out and dizzy. So dizzy that I had an accident. I fell off my bike because my balance was so bad and my head so fuzzy, and hit my head on the kerb. I went to the hospital. I was okay, but I had had enough. I stopped taking those tablets and have never taken any again. I knew something was wrong. Not with my head, but with my life. I knew it was time to try to talk about how I felt, my adoption, my adoptive mother. All of it. 

I found a psychologist. We conducted our sessions in a hybrid of French and English. He listened. He let me cry. He held out tissues, but there just was no solution. I felt like he couldn’t fix me. Again, we focussed on my struggles with my adoptive mother, rather than the issues of being adopted and taken away from my mother as a baby. So I gave up.

EDS diagnosis and the consequences

A third attempt to try to sort myself out (and understand myself) arose from my Ehlers Danlos diagnosis in 2017. EDS is a genetic disorder where the structure of connective tissue & collagen is abnormal due to a gene mutation. This results in abnormally fragile and hyper-extensible tissues throughout the body which can lead to a range of multi-systemic symptoms and have a widespread effect on the body. Joints are hyper-mobile, or ‘loose’ and unstable, leading to overly tight muscles, joint pain and fatigue.

Looking to my first family for answers

As I was showing signs of Vascular EDS, which is often considered to be the most serious form, I had to see a geneticist to undergo genetic testing and ’counselling’ to ascertain which of the 13 types of EDS I had. I had to go through an extensive screening, with many questions about my family history. This was not only upsetting but very frightening.

Even though I am fortunate enough to be in reunion with both of my first parents, I was terrified not only for me, but for my children and, actually, for both of my first parents as I had obviously inherited this condition from one of them. I apologised profusely to my first parents when I emailed them a two-page document I had put together myself, asking about any possible conditions or early deaths in our ancestry from particular diseases or cancers. It was the only thing I could think of doing—to try to take control of my own health and protect that of my daughters.

Finally, some genetic testing—why do we not get this sooner?

The wait for my genetic screening results was fraught. I lost a lot of weight through worrying and this entire process brought many things to the surface for me about what adoptees have to endure without access to or knowledge of our genetic history and medical records. It is not only cruel to deny us access to these records, but it is also a danger to our health and that of our children and we often have to jump through several hoops to obtain these records.

My results came back negative for Vascular EDS, so a diagnosis of Hypermobile EDS was given.

Facing the intergenerational impact

A carrier of EDS has a 50% chance of passing it to their children, so without delay I had my daughters assessed in London to see if I had passed this on to them. They did indeed have the condition. I felt awful. That was all on me. My eldest daughter was 13 and my youngest 10 at the time.

The three of us have all seen a heart specialist, a podiatrist and several physiotherapists over the years to manage our EDS as best we can. Looking back, there were things I could have done which would have helped my girls, or afforded us to be better prepared for dealing with this. But I lacked the knowledge at the time.

Finally, some progress with mental health professionals

In order to manage this newly-diagnosed condition, I was referred to a clinical psychologist for Pain Management. We did discuss how to manage my pain, through pacing, prioritising, postponing, planning and delegating. However, certain traits were recognised by my therapist: my perfectionist tendencies, my need for routine and control of my environment, my people-pleasing and my system being on high alert/fight-flight for much of the time.

It was the first time that someone had suggested to me that I was not depressed, nor was I going mad, but that I was genuinely struggling. Again, we spoke about the difficult relationship with my over-protective, controlling adoptive mother, but not the maternal separation trauma. Mixed emotions followed—a combination of relief, anger and extreme sadness, to name but a few.

In 2022, aged 48, I finally found an adoption-competent therapist. A therapist who specialises in family therapy, but who also happens to be an adoptee. She understands my primary trauma and my feelings around being an adoptee plus the secondary trauma of having an adoptive mother who could not give me what I needed. Who in fact made my initial trauma worse.

What can we learn from my story and what needs to happen for adoptees?

We must have access to our medical history and our trauma must be validated, understood and treated by adoption-competent therapists because, for some adoptees, not only our health but our very lives may be at stake.