There’s a school of thought that adoption is equivalent to violence, that the separation from one’s mother is inherently traumatic, and that the loss of a family (language, culture, history, birthright, traditions) is for some people so severe as to be debilitating.
As an adoptive parent, I find that school of thought to be sobering and daunting. I’d like it to be wrong. Yet I know that, for some adoptees, the impact of their being adopted–even if it’s the “right thing,” even if the adoptive parents are good and loving people–has a challenging, lifelong impact that interferes with their ability to trust others and to build healthy relationships.
Add to the trauma of being adopted any incidents of abuse and/or neglect, either before or after adoption, and you have the potential for a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
We think of that diagnosis perhaps most frequently for soldiers who have witnessed or participated in horrific acts during wartime, and who then seek help after that trauma. But PTSD can appear in other circumstances, including adoption.
The National Institute of Mental Health explains it this way:
“When in danger, it’s natural to feel afraid. This fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to prepare to defend against the danger or to avoid it. This “fight-or-flight” response is a healthy reaction meant to protect a person from harm. But in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this reaction is changed or damaged. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened even when they’re no longer in danger.
PTSD develops after a terrifying ordeal that involved physical harm or the threat of physical harm. The person who develops PTSD may have been the one who was harmed, the harm may have happened to a loved one, or the person may have witnessed a harmful event that happened to loved ones or strangers.”
Immanuel Williams was diagnosed with PTSD after being removed from his adoptive home. During the trial of his adoptive parents, Larry and Carri Williams, Immanuel’s therapist testified about Immanuel’s diagnosis and prognosis. I wrote about the therapist’s testimony here.
I doubt that most adoptees struggle with PTSD, but I am certain that some do. In any case, many children, teens, and adults deal with the “fight or flee” response quite often. I’ve read about a “freeze” response as well, that response of an inability to react, of staring, of feeling panic or anxiety. I would not minimize the trauma of adoption. Most adoptees ultimately do just fine, but some have mighty struggles. We do them and their families a disservice to minimize or deny the impact of grief, loss, and trauma.
In addition to understanding attachment and trauma, in addition to working with skilled clinicians in determining a diagnosis, art therapy can often be a significant healing tool, for wounded warriors, for adoptees, for anyone working through a profoundly painful experience.
Here’s a recent New York news story about the successful use of art therapy with soldiers. There’s a good, brief video about the program. Here’s an example of the art:
We tend as a society to discount or minimize the mental suffering that we ourselves or others go through. We also tend to minimize the value of art in healing some of that suffering. I am increasingly convinced that art can do great things in helping create new stories, or in expressing pain in safe ways, and in then leaving the pain behind.
It doesn’t have to with artistic talent. It has to do with letting go, with letting sadness and trauma take a different form, and with easing suffering.
Here are a few related Facebook sites; click on them to see more.
Healing With Art (I got the link to the New York story from this site.)
According to the news story about the soldiers: “A permanent display of hand prints and pins will soon be on the wall of the building for all who enter to see and will include the following quote chosen by the soldiers themselves: ‘The healing of your invisible wounds begins here.’ ”
Let me say that again: “The healing of your invisible wounds begins here.”