An Adoptee’s Reflection on Trauma, Love, and Adoption

Every Thanksgiving, one of the most wonderful and emotional traditions in my family is to light a candle for the people who aren’t there: for those who have died, who are alive but far away, who aren’t with us for whatever reasons. Sometimes the person lighting the candle says the names out loud of the people he is thinking about and missing. Sometimes the person just lights the candle, then smiles, or tears up. We leave the candles on through the meal.

Adoption, for all its joy, happens only through loss. Children have lost or lose their first family in order to be adopted. That can be necessary, if the child was in danger or had been abused or neglected to the point of needing a new family. But it’s still loss: loss of what could have been, or should have been, or would have been if only…

Adoptive parents, you can love your child deeply. Your child can love you deeply as well, and also feel grief and trauma that are real. It’s okay. It may manifest in different ways over time, in angry words or silent tears. There may be what seem puzzling outbursts at certain times of year—traumaversaries are real too. Join your child on the journey: encourage conversation, honor their grief, know that every child is different, love them, be silent with them, respect their realities at 3 or at 30.

I am a mother because of adoption. I love my children more than I can possibly put into words. Each of my children has been affected, in different ways, by the fact of being adopted. I am a firm believer that the stories (events, memories, traumas, happiness) they have lived through are theirs alone to tell.

My daughter Aselefech Evans has chosen to tell her truth today, to share her lived experience. This is a beautiful, poignant, and powerful essay. Please read, reflect, share.

The Unwanted Arrival of Trauma in Adoption

 

And maybe light a candle to keep warm the realities of those who are both present and absent in our lives.

Suicide and Adoption: We Need to Stop Whispering

Update: For resources about adoption-related suicide awareness and prevention, here is information.

Just this morning, as I was getting ready to post this, I read on my Facebook feed about a 28-year-old Korean adoptee who died by suicide two days ago. I did not know her. She was the same age as my oldest son, and she had a daughter about the age of my granddaughter. May she rest in peace.

I am holding in my heart a 20-something-year-old adoptee, adopted with a biological sibling into a huge adoptive family (more than 25 kids). He is overwhelmed all the time these days, as a result of things he has done and has had done to him. He wants to go home, though he’s not sure any longer where “home” is. He is in great need of mental health services, and is intently resisting help. He is teetering on the edge of suicide.

Yes, I know most adoptees do well. But this one is struggling, and it appears to be the result of events after he was adopted. His adoptive family has abandoned him.

My two most shared blog posts (shared over 1000 times on Facebook) are “Does ‘Adoption’ Really Equal ‘Trauma’?” and “Fisseha Sol Samuel: Irreplaceably Marvelous.” Both deal with a hard side of life: trauma and suicide. The first post says, yes, adoption is trauma, and there is a spectrum of response to it. The second post was written last October following the suicide of an Ethiopian adoptee who had previously exhibited no symptoms of depression, and whose death was likely (we will never know for sure) the result of a sudden, triggering, traumatizing event in which he was overwhelmed and impulsive. Fisseha’s mother, Melissa Faye Green, has written several powerful posts as she sorts through her son’s death.

Here is an excerpt from my post about Fisseha:

“There is sobering research that says that adoptees are four times more likely to attempt suicide. It’s here in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Not lightweight stuff, and even more startling in that the mean age of the 1000 participants was about 14. Out of the total group, which included adoptees and biological children, 56 had attempted suicide; 47 of those were adoptees.”

I am holding in my heart a 14-year-old Eastern European adoptee, who is too familiar with drugs and sex, who is loved deeply by her adoptive parents, who is in various therapies, who cuts herself and threatens suicide often. She can be a bubbly, sweet teen, and also a deeply frightened and frightening out-of-control mystery.

Yes, her struggle may not be the result of being adopted, but rather of what happened to her before she was adopted. She is struggling, and those who love her are deeply worried.

No one enjoys thinking of adoption as a trauma. No one likes to talk about suicide. And, I know: most adoptees–most people generally–don’t consider or die by suicide.

That said, let’s start thinking and talking about the link among adoption, trauma, and suicide. Let’s insist that suicide awareness be a part of pre-adoptive parent training classes. Let’s demand that anyone who claims “adoption competency” in their therapeutic practice is extremely knowledgeable about suicide. Let’s actively and shamelessly share resources to prevent suicide. Let’s request workshops like “The Presence of Suicide in Adoption” as a topic at adoption-related conferences. We need to stop whispering about suicide and adoption, and to speak about it with clarity and without fear.

I am holding in my heart a 16-year-old adoptee from India, beloved by her adoptive family, mentored by an adult Indian adoptee, raised in Minnesotan suburbs, who killed herself about a month ago.

Yes, she struggled, and also was offered and received help. She may be at peace now, though all those left behind are filled with sorrow and questions.

These 3 adoptees are among the reasons that we must talk about the role of trauma and suicide in adoption.

A few weeks ago, I was at the national conference of the American Adoption Congress. The main legislative advocacy effort of the AAC has historically been access to original birth certificates, a means of allowing adopted persons to know who they are, a basic human and civil right.

What is the connection between suicide and the AAC’s legislative efforts? Well, there may be a genetic component to the likelihood of suicide. Access to one’s medical and mental health history–too often denied to adopted persons–could be a matter of life and death. Knowing about a history of depression or other mental illnesses in one’s family could mean proactive treatment and interventions. It is yet another reason that closed records are unfair, untenable, and wrong.

Here are links to two medical journal articles:

Genetic and Familial Environmental Effects on Suicide – An Adoption Study of Siblings

Genetics of Suicide: An Overview

Many adoptees are adopted into families where the adoptive parents are well off financially, have attended college, and are in highly regarded professions.The adopted children go to excellent schools and often have wonderful opportunities. Still. Take a look at “Best, Brightest–And Saddest?”, in which Frank Bruni reflects on the “suicide contagion” among teens in Palo Alto and elsewhere who are under pressure to succeed academically in highly competitive situations. The article cites a CDC report that says 17 percent of American high school students considered suicide in 2012. Eight percent said they’d attempted it.

Suicide, of course, feeds on trauma and depression, and does not discriminate based on economics and education. While the “suicide cluster” among high schoolers in “epicenters of overachievement” is discussed in the New York Times’ article above, there has also been a similar tragedy–which has not made national press–among young people in Seattle. Three young men, ages 18, 18, and 20, who were students at the Seattle Interagency Academy (SIA), died by suicide, within a 4 month period in the last year. SIA works with at-risk youth, who have struggling families and who are often homeless or on probation. Listen to an excellent podcast with the SIA principal here.

Coincidentally, there was a string of 7 suicides by adolescents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota around the same time. No one is quite sure why this is happening, though bullying and grim prospects for the future seem to be significant.

I don’t know if any of these young people had spent time in foster care or were adopted. Certainly, though, their life paths echoed those of many young people whose families are struggling mightily, and those struggles are often the reasons that children land in foster care and/or adoption. Racism and micro-aggressions can significantly affect the mental health of transracial adoptees; I wrote about that reality here. Even adoptees placed as infants in same-race families can struggle with loss, grief, identity, and feelings of not belonging. It’s clear that many of these challenges manifest in adolescence.

This is all daunting tough stuff. I am seeking a balance: to acknowledge suicide prevention as a goal about which we can all speak in the adoption community, not over-reacting, being pro-active, and supporting each other. My next post on this subject will give some resources.

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Light Through Trees, Forest near Lake Langano, Ethiopia © Maureen McCauley Evans

Adoption, Art Therapy, and PTSD

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:

From wwnytv.com: "Art Therapy Helps PTSD Sufferers"

From wwnytv.com: “Art Therapy Helps PTSD Sufferers”

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.

Source: Healing Through Art (Facebook site)

Source: Healing Through Art (Facebook site)

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.)

Art Therapy Without Borders 

Art Therapy

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.”