Affirming the Adoptee’s Reality: A Way to Intimacy by Marcy Axness, Ph.D., Adoptee
The young child knows when the truth is being told and when it isn’t. It’s just amazing how much little children know of you, within and without.—Patricia McNulty, adoptee and Waldorf kindergarten teacher
The road leading up to adoption is invariably a painful one for parents, marked by many losses: the children they might have had, but for infertility; the child or children they lost through miscarriage, stillbirth, or death; and sometimes even pieces of themselves feel chipped away – their feelings of competence, wholeness, worthiness, and so many other essential components of self.
By the time their long-awaited adopted child is placed in their arms, parents usually – and understandably – just want to put all the heartache behind them and move on into the joyful realms of mothering and fathering. But the very real feelings of loss that attend adoption need to have a place in the story of the adoptive family, or they can cast ever-lengthening shadows on the relationship between parents and child.
Adopted kids often grow up with the mantra “being adopted is just another way to become a family.” This is a dismissive characterization of a profound experience that has involved not only the parents’ deep losses but the child’s loss of the parents who couldn’t keep him. With the best of intentions, adoptive parents often convey half-truths about the implications of adoption to shield their child from the pain of loss that is inherent in the experience.
Understanding The First Reality
“I lost my mother soon after I was born.” If I were to say this to a stranger, the response would surely be shock and sympathy for my loss: “I’m so sorry for you.” But if I tell that stranger, “I was adopted,” the response is usually, “Really, that’s wonderful, how nice for you.”
If we are to affirm an adoptee’s reality, we need to remember that she did, in fact, lose her mother soon after birth (in the case of an infant adoption). And while she may have been blessed with wonderful, loving, adoptive parents, this blessing was preceded by a profound loss. For a newborn to be separated from her biological mother is a trauma, both psychological and physiological, that is felt and processed and manifested in the lives of adoptees according to their individual temperaments, personalities, and physical, emotional, and spiritual constitutions.
There are two realities that a parent needs to accept in order to have an authentic relationship with an adopted child:
My child has two mothers and two fathers.
My child came to me not as a blank slate, but with a history of connection and of loss.
Adoptees – like all other people – have their roads to travel. Our “life journeys” come with certain burdens and lessons which help make us who we are. I believe that I am living exactly the life I was supposed to, and I have no regrets. But whether it was God’s plan or simply my destiny that I came into this earthly life as an adoptee, I still needed and craved compassion and acknowledgment for my losses, and for my reality, before I could truly move on to the business of living my life. The goal as I see it isn’t to try to fix things so that adoptees no longer have a burden, but rather to do whatever we can to help them remain connected with their inner truth instead of alienated from it. We can do this by affirming the adoptee’s reality.
The Heart of Open Adoption
Whether one has an “open adoption”, a “semi-open adoption”, an “international adoption”, or a “closed adoption”, these terms refer to the mechanics of the adoption, not to the way it feels. To have an “open-of-heart” adoption is to have the ability to affirm the adoptee’s reality, without flinching: “It was sad that you had to leave your other mother. I bet you miss her. Yes, you really do have two mothers.” Reality. Affirmed. Ahhh… that makes sense, my feelings make sense, everything makes sense now. I know what’s real.
The Gift of “What is So”
If you go to any park on any day in any city, you will see a child fall and start to cry – and then you will see his mother swoop him up and begin to chant incessantly to him, “You’re okay, you’re okay, no blood, you’re okay!” Meanwhile, the child continues to wail. Only very occasionally will a parent tell a child, “Yes, I saw that you tripped over that bucket and fell down. And that hurt, didn’t it?” Or maybe, “That was pretty scary, huh?” She reflects her child simply what is so – not what she wishes were so, or what she might prefer to be so. Her child’s crying ebbs and he is soon ready to get back to his business of playing. He has been heard.
Sadly, when we respond to our children like the first woman in the park, when we try to impose our preferred reality, our myth, upon them, we insidiously lure them – day by day – away from their own inner knowing, their inner truth. And that is when they become infinitely vulnerable in the world, for then they have lost their intuitive compass.
The other devastating consequence is that we erode our child’s trust when we don’t reflect the truth back to him. When we tell a child, “There’s nothing sad about adoption, it’s just another way to become a family,” he begins to lose his compass, and the ability to distinguish whether or not there are feelings of loss or hurt inside him. He will also lose any sense of trust for – and connection to – the parent who repeatedly discounts his experience and his reality. What incredible blessings come when we are able to affirm our child’s reality, because doing so builds trust, and trust leads to intimacy.
Studies show that this kind of intimate connection between parents and children is the most effective protection for them in a world of peer pressure, drugs, sex, and other high-risk circumstances.
Adoptive Parents Need to Affirm Their Own Reality
Why would we tell a child, “You’re okay!” with such frantic conviction when he has clearly just suffered a hurt? Perhaps it is because we need so desperately to remind ourselves (or convince ourselves) that we’re okay. We have to keep tamped down all of our own hurts and fears and losses that have never been acknowledged, our own reality that has gone unaffirmed. This is the generational legacy of denial.
Jung said, “The most damaging thing to a child is the unlived lives of his parents.” I take this to mean the parts of the parent that have been unacknowledged, unexpressed, and ungrieved: the shadow. For adoptive parents, a critical piece in affirming their adopted child’s reality is affirming their own reality.
“Other mommies and daddies had to take what they got, but we got to choose you,” is another of the well-intentioned but ultimately destructive lies that some adoptive parents tell in an attempt to bolster their child’s positive sense of self. Perhaps these parents are attempting to “polish” the status of being adopted, and compensate for any undercurrents of social stigma to which the child might later be exposed. While it may not be appropriate to discuss every painful detail of their pre-adoptive situation, it is crucial for parents to share the essence of the truth with their adopted children, the feelings that hover beneath the facts.
Annette Baran, the author of the groundbreaking book, The Adoption Triangle, says that “Adoptive parents must weep with their child: ’We’re sorry, too, that you didn’t grow in Mommy’s tummy.’”
“I think parents don’t realize they’re allowed to show these feelings,” says Baran. “They think they have to present an unflagging cheerfulness about adoption, in order that the children will feel positive, too. This is a mistaken notion.”
Parents who demonstrate emotional openness send a healthy message to their child that he or she is allowed to express a full range of feelings, not just the “positive” ones.
“Parents whose children express sadness usually feel that they need to reassure them, rather than feel the sadness along with them. But having lost an original set of parents is something to feel sad about, and the best any parent can do for a child is to allow them to share those feelings of loss with them,” explains Baran.
Saying It Out Loud: “Adoption Was Our Second Choice”
We as a society are two-faced about adoption—publicly we laud it as a wonderful thing, while in our hearts we often scorn it. It’s second-choice. And in the secret minds of many, second-best as well. If we didn’t find adoption so contemptible, so laced with shame, why would our laws be so vehemently constructed to protect everyone from the shame returning to their doorsteps? So…why should adoptive parents feel any differently than others in society? Discovering that you can’t bear children and deciding to adopt doesn’t necessarily obliterate a lifetime of subliminal cultural attitudes about adoption. It may just mean you desperately want a baby in your arms.
Very few people in our society grow up dreaming that they’ll fall in love, get married, and adopt a child, or that they will have a child and give it to others to raise.
Adoptive parents need to address their own ambivalence about the very desirability of adoption if they are to avoid the kind of inauthentic, happy-face approach embodied in dismissive slogans like “adoption is just another way to become a family.”
Another challenge for adoptive parents is the nagging legacy of infertility and society’s ongoing lack of recognition of this as a profound loss. Parents need to be guided and supported in finding ways to do their mourning, so that the adoptive mother can say very sincerely and authentically to her child – not just mechanically following a script – “I’m sorry, too, that you didn’t grow in my tummy. It was sad for me that I couldn’t grow a baby, and it was sad for you and your other mother that you couldn’t stay together. But I am happy that you and I ended up together.” What an amazing, powerful connection can be forged here, on this common ground of loss. Affirming the adoptee’s reality is a key element in the secure, continuing relationship between parents and children.
How Do Parents Affirm Their Adopted Child’s Reality?
1. Affirm the Newborn’s Experience
In my article, “A Therapist Counsels Parents of Babies Separated From Mothers At Birth, “1 a perinatal therapist offers specific things parents can say – out loud – to a baby who has been separated from his mother. Infants who have recently experienced separation from their mothers will show signs of trauma – prolonged crying or almost no crying, flaccid body tone or extreme rigidity, tremendous startle responses, and/or an unwillingness to make eye contact or to be held or comforted. Instead of feeling that the child is rejecting them, parents can say to this baby, “You miss your other mother. You miss your connection. You’ve lost something very important, and I understand, and I’m going to be here for you. It’s all right to be sad.” They can hold the baby, and let the baby mourn because this is what the baby needs to do.
The time to begin affirming an adoptee’s reality is at the very beginning; this lays a foundation of openness and honesty. Using the words, out loud, before the child even has language, it is our energetic message that is conveyed to her, telling her that we are connecting with the knowledge of loss that is in her bones, beyond words.
2. Tell Him the Story of His Birth
Children love to hear about the time in their mother’s womb, the day they were born, and the day they came home. It helps to lay a foundation for them of connectedness to their family and to this earth. It grounds them. Typically, it isn’t a story that adoptees get to hear. We grow up with the vague sense that we were hatched from a very special, top-secret file. This is one of the beauties of open adoption, in which it is possible to create a child’s “life book”, containing the birth parents’ pictures and information. This can lead to natural conversations about the birth parents: what color eyes the birth father has, what his hobbies are, the birth mother’s favorite song, whether she rides horses or likes to rollerblade, what she liked to do during her pregnancy. All such conversations are opportunities to affirm the adoptee’s reality.
3. Offer Her Stories, Songs, and Images that might Resonate with her Experience
As with all children, parenting an adopted child is not an exact science, but an intuitive one. It asks that you look deeply into your unique child and find what will resonate with her. Trial and error is often the path to gold in this realm. There are many great stories of separation, self-discovery, loss, and redemption. There are many great stories about children without their biological parents—Moses, Pinocchio, Merlin, and Arthur all were fostered away from home toward great destinies. These kinds of more symbolic, literary, artistic representations are wonderful to use. It invites the child’s imagination in. For me, Thumbelina, the story of a perfect little girl who was delivered from a flower, provided me with a powerful connection that — at age four or five — I didn’t begin to understand cognitively, which was its beauty. Thumbelina gave me a symbolic context for the primal feelings that lay at my core. That story, in some way, gave me a home for my soul.
Stories, drawings, and other types of creative expression can inspire the child’s imagination, and that is critical in supporting the development of a child’s healthy will forces. These approaches offer the child as many different colors and brushes and textures as possible with which to envision his own life, his experience, and himself. (Be careful not to undermine the value of this approach by “narrating” or over-commenting on the child’s expressions. more »
4. Take A Spiritual Approach
Holding an awareness of a child’s experience, without even saying a word, can be tremendously healing for the child and for the entire family. There is a growing body of evidence for the healing power of prayer, or of simply holding a vision of the person as a whole, healthy, completely loved, and at peace.
Another way to work on this level is to sit by the child’s bed while he sleeps, and “talk” to his unconscious, either silently or aloud. “I am safe in my world. It is safe for me to trust and to give and accept love. My mother and father will always be here for me. It is alright for me to feel sad or angry and to talk to my parents about it… they will affirm my true experience and my feelings.” This is a simple but incredibly powerful way to affirm a child’s reality.
Reality is A Personal Affair
In a sense, we cannot know exactly what any particular adoptee’s reality is, since an individual’s reality is a product of many subjective perceptions, filtered through her unique emotional, psychological, and spiritual lenses. But if we affirm an adoptee’s honest experience – what it is that really happened to her – and offer her a palette of contexts through which to own that experience, we will weave a vital connection with that child. Our gift in return will be her sense of trust and her resulting willingness to share with us her reality, and her life. And that is called intimacy.
We Come From A Place Not So Safe
by Paula Free, Adoptee
The Darkness Inside Me
There is a quiet rage burning through my soul. It’s lived inside me for years. Buried. Deep beneath the layers of abandonment, rejection, worthlessness, self-pity, and self-hate. I’m trying to get to the good part inside me, but all I feel is bad. It stretches through my heart and burns its way into my mind. I feel like I want to tear out my hair or scratch off my skin. This ache is so intense I could vomit. But instead, I sit in it and let it burn through me. Circling inside my belly. I can feel it intensify and grow more unbearable to handle. It has a hold on my soul and doesn’t want to let me go. I can’t move. I can’t speak and I can barely breathe. But I sit here. I am waiting to find a release. It keeps changing from one emotion to the next. All equally as evil and dominating. It’s as if they feel they have a right to live inside me, and now I belong to them. They own my soul and they have no intention of letting me go. I have slipped away under their power where I am lost and wandering, and alone, having settled into a life as a slave to the force of darkness that has replaced Me. She has established her domain. And I have submitted to her power. Not knowing where she came from or how to get rid of her, she is now me and I slowly lose the awareness of the good that I once knew existed inside me. She’s not so obvious to the world. I have been trained to put a smile on my face to mask the darkness covering my soul.
I feel only the abyss of pain deep inside and it consumes me. It is big and it is heavy and it feels like I am dying under the weight of it. I try to fight my way out but become exhausted and buried deeper still. I give in and stop and for a while walking around like this, feeling totally helpless to find the way out. What I have tried hasn’t worked. And then, I will read something, or hear something and I will feel it penetrate the negative weight around me, and for a moment I can remember how it feels to be safe, secure, and loved and I don’t want it to end. The feeling starts to fade and I try to keep it, hold onto it and make it mine. I want to stay here forever. I want to believe it is my right to belong here. And I can, for a while. I get comfortable here. Thinking it is my place; my home. I’ve fooled myself somehow finding a way to convince myself this is mine. Warmth grows in my heart. A smile grows on my lips and I am alive again. It’s love. I forget that I don’t own this place. I am only a visitor. I don’t know how long it will last or when it will be stolen away. For now, I live like it’s mine determined to hold on to this place I can’t seem to find, on my own.
I Need to Find You
To know where I belong. It has to be here somewhere. Who will accept me and keep me strong? If you, give me the strength, I don’t know for how long. I don’t know who I am or where to be so I look around for you to remind me. It’s still always temporary, and I am getting tired of the up and down is steadily getting tossed around. I feel at your mercy. I’m only OK when you like me. Because who will bring me to that place if it isn’t in your face. If I disappoint you I get cut off, and I am beginning to not know how to fit in. I need to know where you are. I think when I find you I will now be complete and get from you the entire suit. The pieces I can’t find inside I will get them from you and begin to rise. Now I know I must find you and I begin to look at everyone I see. Perhaps YOU will notice me. Then I will be found and the story will be that YOU in searching, found, and restored me. Time passes and nothing happens and I am certain I will never know how to become safe and whole. I look harder and become more aware that I will need to pay money to finish this stare. I know it is a big commitment to make the find move. I begin to panic and get stung by fear. What if you’re not available to give me your ear? I do it anyway. What have I got to lose? It must be done before I become a permanent member of the blues. I get the call you are willing to talk to and meet me to see what I have become. You happen to have been waiting for me all these years hoping I would find you to quell your tears. Tears you’ve cried for me since I’ve been gone. Not realizing the pain would always belong.
I am never more unsure and certain at the same time. This meeting was meant to be for us to climb out of the emptiness created after we separated. You cried when you saw me. We talked. and you tried to fill in the blanks of how there came this big divide. I listened and waited and thought it would be a magical moment of you and me; together again, bonded and strong reunited to sing our old song. It wasn’t the same. How could this be? I thought you were the answer to me. I didn’t really know you, but I was glad to see, there was some resemblance looking back at me. I wanted so much more but what I got would do. I had made some progress in finding you. I left not sure of what to feel. My completeness not seeming anymore real. I didn’t know how to fit you into my life. I definitely didn’t need another mom in my life. I came to you. I thought it would be the replaceable part that went missing from me. I realized there was nothing you could say to give me back what I felt stolen away. So, I stick to what I know works, keeping others happy to get the praise I’m worth.
Lost in Pleasing
It doesn’t take long before I’m exhausted and you seem to have found the pleasure in manipulating me to get your way. It’s so easy. I’m so needy. You see the power you have over me and begin to withhold the praise you see I need, watching, waiting to see if I bleed. I get weaker than I’ve ever been. Addicted to praise I work to please, every move draining me, I fall to my knees. Begging. Pleading. Desperate for you to see me, praise me, love me. Is this all I am? All that’s left? A life of deprivation I’m forced to accept. The more I need you the worse it gets. You strengthen as I weaken. You grow as I die. You no longer care as you watch me cry. I am lost more than I’ve ever been to. What I once held onto holds onto me. I am trapped in a space; falling, falling away from the first place. The pain has compounded; your rejection upon my lack of affection. Death to my soul; deeper than the deepest hole. I am now completely out of control. How do I fight the desperation I feel. I struggle. I’m trying to become more real than this pain inside getting harder to hide.
It has grown and has a life force of its own. I am fighting you. I am fighting me. I can’t find a place to let me just be. Chaos in my soul. I have no idea where to go. I am afraid. I am alone. I feel my heart will never find its home. I need someone to love me; feed my exhausted soul. I can’t go on like this. I’m not made for this abyss. I collapse. I am sobbing. I cry out in pain “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” over and over again. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry why did you have to go? I feel so unloved and unloveable.’ Was I too bad to kiss? Why wasn’t I worth the risk? “Please come back, come back, I need you in my life. You need to come back and make it right.” Oh God! Oh God! What am I going to do? I am alone and nobody can help me through. Nobody can help me through. NOBODY can help me through. I don’t know if I can make it like this anymore. It has to be me that gets up off this floor. I am now lying there, still. Waiting to receive the invincible pill. I roll to my side and curl up like a ball. Holding myself tight, I wait for the call. I am waiting for something inside me to change. Please help me, I need you… I need you…please help me find my way.
I open my eyes and jump up off the floor. I’m not giving up. I’m trying some more. I set out to see what has become of me. I can do this. I can do this. I have to believe. Things will be different just wait and you’ll see, a certain strength has come over me. I am determined to figure this struggle out. I know one thing is perfectly clear; this is about me and my enormous fear. The fear that has controlled me since my birth. Thinking I will never be loved for my true worth. I hear…and I’ve been told… I am worth more than gold – simply because I’m made from a one and only mold! Can it be; who I am, has nothing to do with how YOU feel about me? I’m getting excited and jittery. This thought alone is setting me free and releasing power from deep down within. This might be the first time I feel, I will win this race, and not forever be a victim to the constant chase. I have a sense that I’m on top, giving myself permission; it’s time to stop- hurting myself by not being clear; there is a reason I was sent here. No one can take my life away. It’s mine to choose what to do, what to believe, and what to say. I close my eyes. I go back inside to figure out my soul’s divide. Could it be I’m OK? You didn’t leave with my heart that day? I still have all my pieces intact? I have my heart. I have my worth. They belonged to me from before my birth.
I am Priceless
Complete by Design
Given to the world,
with you in mind.
My destiny is
Did you know that there are over 500,000 kids in the Foster Care system across the country???
Through the amazing collaborative efforts of Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind and Fire and his Music is Unity Foundation and Korean Adoptee, Founder and President, Holly Choon Hyang Bachman ofMixed Roots Foundationalong with our valued Sponsors, Donors, Partners and benefiting Community Partners, we will officially kick off on May 1st as well as join the #GivingTuesdayNow global campaign on May 5th where we will invite all of you to Take the #FosterChallenge that will take place throughout the month of May to help raise awareness and funds for and during #NationalFosterCareMonth.
With the recent global pandemic of the #Coronavirus (#COVID19) that has forced the closing of many colleges, universities, and schools across the country, many foster youths may not have homes or families to go to or have enough food to eat.
“With the Los Angeles County having the largest population of foster youth in the country, The Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services (LADCFS) ensures the safety of more than two million children across our diverse county. Currently, our department provides services to 34,000 children and youth, half of whom are in foster care. Through the works of Philip Bailey of Earth Wind and Fire and his Music is Unity Foundation and the Mixed Roots Foundation, They have always given generously and have demonstrated such passion for providing foster youth memorable experiences,” Ginger Pryor, Chief Deputy Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, said. “And even in these changing times, when everyone is sheltering at home and schools are closed, the special collaboration of these wonderful organizations continues to invest in our youth and bring attention to the needs of children in foster care.”
Please consider Taking the #FosterChallenge by Bidding, Donating, and Sharing our newly established #FosterChallenge Emergency Fund that will provide critical funding that will cover costs for meals/food, housing, computer/technological support, transportation, childcare, healthcare/medical, and educational needs.
Our goal is to raise $1,000,000 and will be distributed across the country to Foster Youth in need and our Communtiy Partners that serve them – All who have been hit the hardest by this devastating virus. Funds will be distributed in the first week of June 2020.
Thank you for all of your support and participation – #We CanDoThis!!
To learn more or Become a Donor, Sponsor or Partner by offering a silent auction item or experience or assist with media coverage, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
I am always thinking of ways “out of the box” and “practical tools” to help families understand the “inner world” of foster and adopted children. Because this inner world is aninvisible woundthat is hard to put into words for any child, due to the implicit pre-verbal experience of loss and separation. Children don’t have the developmental capacity to express the feelings, thoughts, and sensations. So, I have gone to great lengths via trainings, private psychotherapy, support groups every month, one on one coaching, and showing films to help families so they “get it.”
In 2014, Celia Center spnosored a training for foster and adoptive families in Los Angeles, from a child’s point of view in the first person, Truly, Madly Deeply Understanding Your Foster and Adopted Child. I tapped into my own inner child, as a foster youth and adoptee with the inspiration to help parents “truly, madly, deeply” feel their child’s inner life. Watch a clip HERE.
In this article, I want to share 8 pieces of parenting that I have mended, nurtured, and savored in my practice working with families today that are helpful for parenting a child with attachment trauma where the repair needs to be focused on building relationship and trust.
#1- I need you to maintain a positive affective tone that influences me, rather than letting my negative tone influence you. If you react to my “big hurt feelings”, then I will feel more powerful and want to be in control. By remaining calm… time, time, and time again, I will eventually see you as strong enough to deal with me, and my pain and I will stop testing you. Trust me!
How do you develop a positive affective tone? Rather than asking a question and expecting an answer, have an attitude of curiosity? Your tone of voice, will be higher, lighter, and calm and inviting. I will feel better and I will do better! #askanadoptee#askafosteryouth
#2- Try getting below eye level, in a relaxed posture, have empathy and tell me “I’m right here with you.” The science behind brain and behavior, says this activates an adaptive neural network and builds the executive function of the brain! -Tina Payne Bryson talks about this, she’s the Author ofThe Whole Brain Child.
#3- Please be aware of your non-verbal cues and how you “look to me” – eye contact, posture, tone of voice, and your timing/intensity of response. And pay attention to mine, because all my behaviors are ways of communicating unmet needs. Even if I am manipulating? That means, I don’t know how to get my needs met in a healthy way. Please show me how, rather than making me feel ashamed about this.
What’s hysterical, is historical!
#4- When you see me “act out” step back (literally take a step back!), assess- look at me and ask yourself “What is he/she trying to tell me?”, then go inside and ask yourself the following acronym, P.A.C.E. first to yourself, and then guide me with them. You do not have to do it this order, they are interchangeable ;0)
An attachment based acronym of “attitudes” “ways of being with” your child when they have big feelings!
P3– 1. BePlayfulwith U & Me- Humor is very important to create a quality of lightness an openness. Laughter builds memories of unconditional acceptance of US.
2. BePresentwith U & Me. Go inside and see how you are feeling, then see if you can feel what I am feeling and ask me “I’m sensing you are feeling _________. Is that correct?” “How can I help you feel better?”
3. BePatientwith U & Me. This was not meant to be easy, my feelings are messy and the clean up isn’t always neat. It will feel bumpy, at times and then the road will feel smoother. Do this intervention to learn how toHold Onto My Feelings
A– Have anAcceptanceof U & Me, and an understanding of my behavior. My behavior represents my best effort at that time. “I am doing the best that I can.” Please accept, if you don’t this will cause you more suffering. I still need limits for unsafe situations, and direct my behavior by focusing the “teaching on the behavior,” not on me or I’ll develop shame, which won’t help either of us get along better. Trust me.
C –BE Curious. Have a nonjudgmental, “not knowing” stance to inquire about my inner life that led to my behaviors so I feel safe, that my inner life will not be criticized. If I sense your judgment, I will go hide my motives and not be able to modify my behavior. So ask me with open ended questions like …“What do you think about that?” “ “Tell me about that?” “That looks, seems difficult, tell me how does that feel for you?”
E –HAVE Empathy. Empathy must be conveyed both verbally and non verbally.95% of communication IS NON-VERBAL.I’ve been through a lot, I know! but you don’t have to rescue me from the event or solve the problem for me. Say, “That must be SO hard for you!” “It is really hard, and you’re doing it and struggling with it.” “I’m so sorry you feel so sorry about _________.” And let me cry, I sometimes have a lot to cry about.
Adapted From the Daniel Hughe’s book, Attachment Focused Parenting
#5- I need your connection, not correction. Lectures are not effective with me because they are actually educating me to comply with “big people” rather than to develop my own meaning about a something.
“It’s like giving a prosecuting attorney more information to work with!!!”Please do “storytelling” with me which conveys an “attitude of acceptance of the listener”, rather than evaluation/criticism & encourages a non-reactive response in me. Trust me, I know.”
#6- I need to know the truth of my story….even if it is hard for you, it will be healing for me… trust me. I need to know you are strong enough to be WITH me in my pain, and still be loved.
#7- Please set expectations, chores, to-do’s based on my developmental emotional age, not chronological age, I will do better and feel better! I heard that children with attachment trauma have at least 2 years delay? So minus 2 years from my age!
#8- I need you to accept responsibility for initiating repair with me when I have my “big feelings”. If you insist I “apologize”, you are communicating that I’m responsible for the continuity of the relationship. I will then think “the relationship is not important to you and it will be highly unlikely that I will have the confidence to take the first step which will lead to a downward spiral of negative distancing and possibly ‘Take FOREVER” or…
…if I do initiate repair, I’m going to experience resentment that I had to be “a good foster kid or good adoptee” and be “sorry first”beforemy parent would welcome me back again into their mind and heart. This will effect my ability to be receptive to love. I need to be taught how to love and forgive.
When I feel love, I learn to feel my loss. When I feel forgiveness, I learn to feel empathy.
#9- I will say “I can’t” alot sometimes for my performance in school, my behaviors, or sports. This can stem from fear, worry, shame or from not knowing how to do it so I may avoid.Please reframe this “I can’t” as “I haven’t learned how yet” or “I haven’t done it yet” or “A part of me is afraid right now, in time I will grow a new part that will learn how to.”The word “scared” is vulnerable” for me, use the word “WORRIED.” “I see you are worried about this…”
#10- Please don’t withhold the following activities for discipline – Family Time, Sports, Hobbies & One-on-One time with Parents…these activities help me feel good about myself, accomplished, successful, and get me out of the “black hole of the primal wound.”
One last thing, I know “MY HURT PART” in my heart is a a part of me that is overdoing its job of protecting me from trusting a new relationship… “it keeps love away from me…”
Please accept and be curious of all of my parts so I can help organize who I am…Provide permission for emoting and externalizing. “Did you want to have your fit now about going to bed to get it out of the way?” Have me punch a pillow, rip up paper, pop bubble wrap.”
More interventions for emoting my big feelingsHERE.
Thank you for being there for me. I need you more than you know!
“Here is something I have believed about myself and my adoption since I was a child, since before I knew I was an alcoholic: My birth mother took one look at me and knew that I was worthless and unlovable and unredeemable. She didn’t want to keep me because she knew something was wrong with me.”
(I know that this absolutely isn’t true and that my birth mother loved me very much and made a very difficult choice. But this is what I have told myself.)
For me, as an alcoholic and an adoptee, the feelings of loss, uncertainty, and identity that come from being given away by my birthmother can be as cunning, baffling and powerful as alcohol. And as I’ve been trudging our road of happy destiny, I’ve met a lot of other adoptees with similarly persistent feelings.
It’s why I started AAA. It’s a new group focused on AA & Adoption. It’s at the intersection of 2 triangles – the AA triangle – unity, service, recovery – and the adoption triad – birthparents, adoptive parents and adoptees.
For adoptees in recovery, our root causes and conditions stem literally from our origin, from our birth and the circumstances around it. There’s often an unexplainable feeling of loss that haunts us and a fear of abandonment that persists throughout our lives.
From some estimates, adoptees are 5 times more likely to become alcoholics than the average person, 10 times more likely to be in therapy, and 10 times more likely to be in prison.
Suffice it to say, we have problems.
It’s said in the rooms that there’s a God-shaped hole that we as alcoholics try and fill with booze – and drugs, sex, shopping, eating, gambling, etc. For me, as an adoptee, that hole has always been shaped by that initial separation from my birth mother. You could say that the God-shaped hole inside me was also a mom-shaped hole.
Adopted or not – many alcoholics say we feel like we never fit in. For adoptees, we often felt like that from the beginning, from the families that raised us. We looked different – height, weight, hair color, skin tone – and often grew up alongside biological children of our parents. We feel like we had to be grateful for this new home we were given – and that at any moment we might be relinquished back if we didn’t behave.
Yes, adoption gave me a home with two loving parents who did their best. They did enough wrong that I need therapy but not enough for a best-selling memoir. And today as a sober man I will tell you they’re my mom and my dad and I love them very much for who they are and how they raised me.
But adoptive parents – no matter how great – can’t heal that initial break from our birthmothers. I’ve probably read as much adoption literature as I have recovery literature. I strongly identify with both. There’s a book called The Primal Wound about that break in which I recognize more of myself than in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The Primal Wound – AA, Trauma and Adoption
I don’t think the 12 steps are particularly great at treating trauma on their own. They absolutely give you the chance to stop all of the addictive behavior you’ve piled on top of the trauma and to establish a connection with a higher power. I don’t think there’s any hope of getting better without getting sober. It gives you a chance to heal. But then there’s still more work to be done.
And being separated at birth from your mother is certainly a trauma. For many adoptees, we were then shuttled off to an orphanage while waiting weeks and months for our adoptive families to get us. While there, we weren’t held as often as is necessary for the health of an infant. There have even been studies that show a baby will die if it is not touched or held. (Which is an insane study if you stop to think about it.)
So how do I heal that hole in my heart? How do I start feeling lovable and worthwhile?
For me, it started as I was detoxing from alcohol at a psych ward. I don’t know why I did it but I tried to connect with each individual in that facility as a human being experiencing pain and to show them compassion and care. Like Bill W. relating to Dr. Bob, one sufferer relating to another. I saw each fellow patient as a real human, as someone worth loving, as someone who had something good in them. I wasn’t going to throw them away or relinquish them, even if they’d ended up in this psych ward.
It’s what I desperately wanted for myself but never did or could never take in. It’s when the healing for me began.
As I entered the rooms and began sharing my story, I found that whenever I spoke at a meeting, invariably there would be at least one adoptee that would come up to speak with me afterward. And as I began collecting their numbers and seeing them around campus, it became clear that we could really help each other.
I’ve found healing through compassion and projection and from telling my story as an adoptee and an alcoholic. When my friend Darrylynn – an adoptive mom of an alcoholic – heard me speak, she understood that not everything her daughter was suffering through was her fault as a mom.
And when I’ve heard from AA birthmothers who gave away a child, I got to hear about how they never forgot a birthday, never went a day without thinking of that son or daughter and how much love and heartache they felt for that relinquished child.
Out of that, and some sober experience working through some of my issues, we started AA&A at the beginning of this year. We meet on the first Sunday of every month (on the weekend, so anyone in LA can get to the meeting without fighting traffic.)
As I’ve been going to different groups and announcing the AA&A meeting, on more than one occasion, an adoptee would come up to me after the meeting and say, “I’ll take your flyer, but I’m not coming to your meeting.”
Which I get. We adoptees don’t like joining things – because we fear that group will eventually reject and abandon us. It’s also a very emotionally fraught subject to deal with – like opening up a page of your 5th step that you’ll deal with but never truly eliminate.
So it’s a big deal to go to a meeting like ours.
The spiritual, maternal hole
Adoption didn’t give me the physical allergy to alcohol. (Though indirectly, it did through biology– my birth dad is likely on the streets and an addict if he’s still alive.) And I probably would have been an alcoholic even if my birth mom had raised me.
But it definitely helped with that mental defect. Emotionally, I tried to fill that mom-shaped hole inside of me with whatever I could. The grief of never knowing her felt like it would never end and was a raw open wound that would never heal. For example, any time I watched a movie where a mother would protect her son from danger, I’d end up sobbing – why didn’t my mother have the courage to raise me, to protect me from the dangers of the world with her love?
And feeling worthless and unlovable, believing that anyone who would see the real me would see that defection and then bounce, that contributed to a giant case of the fuckits.
To me, one of the greatest things about AA is that it’s a program that’s based on the concept of one sufferer relating to another fellow sufferer. Bill and Dr. Bob shared their common problems related to alcohol in that way. There’s a common bond in that, and it’s my belief that there’s a spiritual connectedness that happens when we share our vulnerabilities, our strengths, and our weaknesses and our shame that allows for something divine to move in us.
With AA&A, we can do that on 2 levels. As alcoholics, and as adoptees.
The AA&A Meeting
When we have our meetings, we do a short ‘moment to remember why we’re there’, and then we dive right into sharing. In some ways, it’s more like a support group than a typical AA meeting. Questions are welcome, and we definitely cross-talk in the sense of acknowledging when we relate to how someone feels or clarifying some family history. We have so many similarities – struggles forming and keeping relationships, feelings of not belonging that have stayed with us into our adulthood. Oh, and the abandonment issues. All the abandonment issues.
Some of us have met our birth families. It rarely meets the fantasy we had of that family as kids, and it doesn’t make everything suddenly better. Sometimes it’s complicated, and sometimes it’s worse than that.
We’ve had families of our own, and had the chance to see another living relative for the first time. We have our regular alcoholic problems of wanting to drink or numb out or isolate, too.
As Dave R. said, “I have about 100 issues around adoption, and I’ve dealt with about 40 of them.”
But every month, we leave feeling better and feeling understood. We’ve found a place where we are a part of, not apart from. For someone who was taken away from the first family they were supposed to know, that’s immensely powerful to feel a sense of belonging.
The Future of AA&A
“No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.”
I want our meeting to be there when someone comes into Alcoholics Anonymous when that primal wound from adoption is no longer being numbed from alcohol and drugs, but bleeding and aching and raw and horrible, I want to be there for them. Because life does get better. The feelings around adoption can be cunning, baffling and powerful. They may never fully go away, but I want to show that you can be sober, full of life, and still have that peculiar pain and struggle that we adoptees face. But you can manage them and find peace.
It’s my hope that we can grow our meeting and that word gets out enough that when a newcomer says that they are dealing with feelings around their adoption that enough people in the rooms of AA can send them our way.
If that sounds like you or someone you know, please have them contact us. We’d be thrilled to carry the message to another alcoholic adoptee.
Celia Center Support Group for Adoptees on 4th Saturday of every month at 2pm at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Studio City MORE INFO HERE
Adopt Salon was developed and is supported by the CELIA CENTER, a non-profit Adoption, and Foster Care Support organization.
An open support group for all members of the Adoption Constellation: First-Birth Mothers/Fathers, Adoptees, Former Foster Youth, Foster Parents, Kinship Caregivers, Siblings, Significant Others, Legal Guardians, & Adoptive Parents. $20 Suggested Donation
A place for the Adoption & Foster Care community to come together to share stories, thoughts, feelings, ideas, receive psycho-education, process grief/loss, learn about search and reunion, and build strong bonds/connections.
This group will be facilitated by Adoption Psychotherapist, Adult Adoptee Jeanette Yoffe, MFT. and Anne Bonura, Adult Adoptee, and First Mother
Participants: Members of the Foster and/or Adoption Constellation are allowed ONLY.
First mothers, First fathers, (pre & post-adoption)