Long Lost Family: an adoptee’s view

But there is a price for this help. Always a price. And that price is having your life put on show, having your complex, raw, unprocessed emotions filmed, Davina leaning in.

A sense of belonging

I can go back to the first house I was taken to when I was adopted, not far from where I now live. The house I grew up in is in the village where I still live today. This is part of my jigsaw.

A match made in hell for adoptees?

Let’s remember that we were children but children grow up into adults and those adults want answers as to who they are and where they came from. Coram IAC owes it to us and our next generation. We are not ornaments or souvenirs, we are people with a past history and an origin story that belongs to us.

On screen: Intercountry adoption

Freddie’s inability to communicate her true feelings echoes that of us all. We are silenced, unable to articulate the trauma that lives in our bodies. We as intercountry adoptees are made to feel grateful for being saved from a culture that is deemed inferior to western society. However, those same western societies see us as different. This is the paradox of being an intercountry adoptee. We don’t belong to either society and never will.

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).

Studies

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. 

Gaslighting, or, Please Listen to Adoptees

Adoption makes people uncomfortable. If you mention you are adopted you generally get one of two responses: a slight look of horror and a quick subject change, or a tilted head “poor you”. I get it. Adoption is complicated and you don’t want to put your foot in it. 

Of more concern are those who gaslight adoptees and tell them they shouldn’t feel a particular way. Gaslighting means you are trying to make a person doubt their own account and their own experience. You would never do this to any other marginalised group. It is manipulative and cruel. Adoptee gaslighters tend to fall into a few categories:

Adoptive parents

Obviously, not all adopters but unfortunately too many. Adoption is a highly emotive issue for most adoptive parents (APs). I get that ‘adoption is trauma’ feels like a personal criticism. The idea that you might be complicit in a harmful system must be terrifying. 

Too often, APs will stonewall and refuse to engage with the idea of adoption trauma at all. Challenging behaviour and struggles with life MUST be down to pre-adoption trauma. Birth parents ’bad’, adoptive parents ’just doing our best’. These kinds of APs believe the solution is more funding and more support for adoption. It is a very rare AP who will posit we need to support birth families so that children can stay at home. Let’s be honest. Adoption, in the vast majority of cases, is about satisfying the needs of infertile couples and is a last resort for them. It is not about what is best for the child.  

I am often frightened when I stumble across adopter forums online. Adoptees who are critical of the current system are characterised as angry and aggressive, and to be ignored at all costs. We get ‘not all adoptees’, ‘I’m sorry you had a bad experience’ and ‘my adoptee doesn’t feel that way’. These APs are demonstrating, vividly, that they are not a safe person for their adoptee to share feelings with. I am reminded of that Mitchell and Webb sketch and wish that more APs had the bravery to ask, “Are we the baddies?”* 

We did not all experience neglect or mistreatment pre-adoption. Many of us have loving relationships with our adoptive families. We doubt ourselves enough. If we tell you that adoption is traumatic, BELIEVE US.

*I am not comparing adoptive parents to Nazis. Definitely not.

Professionals and ‘professionals’

Many of the social workers and therapists we come across are brilliant. They are underpaid, overworked, and endlessly supportive. There are a few who have blundered into a setting they are not equipped for and can do more harm than good. They usually fall into the category of people without proper qualifications or appropriate regulatory oversight. There are too many examples of these individuals reaching out, unsolicited, to adoptees and offering magical solutions. They are usually staggeringly patronising and seek to impose a denial of reality. They can cause terrible damage, especially for the adoptee emerging from the fog who might be asking questions for the first time and who lacks support.

I’m traumatised, I’m not an idiot. I haven’t lost my ability to think critically. I want support from compassionate professionals who are educated on adoption issues. 

The imminent removal of Ofsted regulation for adoptee support is a concern. It technically leaves us no worse off—Ofsted are toothless in practice and the requirement for regulation has severely limited the number of people who come forward to support adoptees—but to remove it entirely opens the door to charlatans. Everyone involved in supporting adoptees should have trauma-informed training. There should be appropriate oversight. And please can we prevent adoption agencies from being providers of this support? It is a blatant and dangerous conflict of interest.

Other adoptees

This one is particularly tricky. Not all adoptees feel the same way. If you had a great experience, fantastic, but two things: i) you might find you feel differently as time goes on, and ii) your good experience does not negate someone else’s difficult one. 

I hate saying that first part. It sounds so off. It’s just that I genuinely believed for years that I was lucky, and now I don’t feel that way. This experience of ‘coming out of the fog’ is so common but it is difficult to talk about without sounding patronising. This is one of the reasons we need more academic research into the adoptee experience and how it moulds and shapes you throughout life. 

As a minimum can we agree we should be respectful of each other’s experiences? There is no obligation on ‘happy’ adoptees to speak out against adoption but it is not helpful to silence those of us who do. For me, it is not about my trauma or experience, it is about systemic problems with our current system of plenary adoption. And let’s face it, the happy adoptee narrative is the one that is predominant in society. Unless you really believe that adoption is perfect, please make a bit of space for those of us who want change. 

Ourselves

I had a knock back recently when I was refused a mental health referral despite making myself horribly vulnerable in front of my GP. I quickly spiralled into thinking that, of course, they’re right. I am exceedingly lucky, my problems aren’t as bad as other’s and I am a pathetic waste of space who not only doesn’t deserve help but shouldn’t need it. And so on, and so on, and so on. It was exhausting. I was pulled back by an incredibly supportive group of fellow adoptees, most of whom had experienced something similar. They made me laugh and feel like I was in good company.

I would never speak to another person the way I speak to myself. The reason I was in denial for so long about the effect that adoption has had on me is that I was gaslighting myself. I’m ‘too sensitive’, ‘not strong enough’ and just inadequate generally. I am going to try and stop this behaviour, or at least try and start noticing when it’s happening. I am accountable for my behaviour as an adult. It is not my fault that I was relinquished and adopted.

And finally…society

Oof. I don’t know where to begin with this one. Adoption tropes are all around. Baked into TV, films, books, just everywhere. I have never felt injustice so keenly before. It has knocked the wind out of me, and taught me so much, not least reverential awe for those who contend with more visible injustices or intersectional experiences. There is surely a lightbulb moment coming when we can take a serious look at the way we talk about adoption? Where we start to speak honestly about the nuances, biases and appalling mistreatment at play? It could just take one article that captures the zeitgeist, or one TV show that portrays it accurately, or one politician who is prepared to speak out. Here’s hoping…