Category Archives: Adoptee

the language of trauma

“The single most important issue for traumatized people is to find a sense of safety in their own bodies.”

Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

Disturbing memories and emotional pain can stay in our bodies long after a traumatic event has ended. Psychiatrist, researcher and educator, Bessel van der Kolk, wrote “The Body Keeps the Score,” about the unbearable heaviness of remembering and the antidote as focusing on the use of the body as a bridge to recovery. Noticing visceral sensations is the very key to emotional healing. According to van der Kolk, “Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort (italics added).” Further, “As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself… (italics added). The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know.” Except, often we don’t know what our bodies know. Trauma significantly impacts the mind, brain and body, and adoptees are particularly sensitive to trauma. Because we have experienced multiple traumas in our lives, our bodies can be easily triggered by situations that cause a hint of stress, whether related to adoption or not. The root cause is, the body really does keep the score.

From an evolutionary standpoint, our bodies developed a way to store traumatic memories somatically. It is crucial to our survival to suddenly, without conscious thought, recognize dangerous triggers and situations in the environment so we can quickly avoid them and stay alive. However, chronic distress and discomfort from constant signals create a life that can be extremely challenging and, moreover, affects intimate relationships.

Sometimes it may feel as if the trauma is happening all over again when a flashback or a certain memory surfaces. All of our energy and mental resources turn toward stuffing the memories down into the recesses of our awareness as we attempt to avoid reminders and get on with life. Unfortunately, the energy this requires and the resulting tension that accumulates can actually strengthen the anxiety we so endeavor to escape. This is something I’m becoming increasingly aware of and attuned to through therapy.

Trying to create distance from emotions, thoughts and distressing body symptoms can lead to dissociation. In other words, we figure out a way to disconnect from the body to avoid emotional pain. It’s like a relief valve that allows a detour around the pain. We dissociate, or compartmentalize, to survive the next moment, but it also separates us from the wisdom of healing within our own bodies.

Photo by Zen Bear Yoga on Unsplash

The pain of trauma is always held in the body. It has a location and a sensation that can be identified. I have experienced chronic neck, shoulder and back pain, likely from rigidly holding my muscles as a way to contain tension. I have also experienced a choking sensation in my throat at times when conflict arises or my body is experiencing increased stress. Notably, I also experience what I’ve learned are panic attacks typically triggered by a stress-related event. The attacks are debilitating and cause extreme nausea, numbness in my limbs and sensitivity to sound, smell and light. I feel like I’m going to pass out. Others may feel a different kind of numbness in their bodies because they are unable to perceive or manage anything that may approach heightened sensation. It becomes painful just to acknowledge the body and to live in it every day. The body becomes the enemy.

While this disconnection effectively prevents a person from feeling painful messages, it comes at a huge cost. We may have trouble receiving signs of danger, illness, hunger, satisfaction, stress or ease in the body. We have difficulty caring for ourselves because we don’t feel much. This prevents us from fully connecting with others on a deeper, more intimate level because we are, in fact, not fully connected with ourselves. We are unable to feel pain, but we are also unable to feel joy.

Because trauma is stored in the body, treatment to ease trauma must also involve the body. Movement, like exercise and trauma-sensitive yoga practices, provide supportive, self paced methods that are gentle, compassionate and nurture a sense of control, the very things that were missing during the trauma. Mindful meditation practices that involve the body, like body scanning, noting and tracking sensations in the body, grounding to the places where our body comes in contact with other solid surfaces, walking meditation and eating mindfully are all ways to reclaim connection to our own body. Proprioceptive input, or heavy work, such as yoga poses, push-ups, running, jumping rope, weight-lifting, chewing gum/sucking on a sucker, squeezing a stress ball, molding with clay or even household chores, like sweeping the floor, engage large muscles and joints and help organize and calm the body.

If you would like to start a gentle yoga or meditation practice, I highly recommend checking out Roaming Yogi by yoga teacher, Natalie. I love her YouTube videos, and she offers a wide range of yoga practices, from gentle Yin and Restorative yoga to more challenging Vinyassa flows, as well as meditations. Some of the videos are as brief as 10-15 minutes, and others are up to 45 minutes to an hour. Natalie is a great teacher and provides lots of instruction with each video, and further, you don’t have to leave your house to practice. I also like the Meditation Studio app by Muse. It’s available for iPhone and Android and includes a variety of meditations, ambient/nature sounds, instrumentals and music.

All in all, finding new ways to come back home to the safety and security of the body is the foundation of the healing process. It will have lasting positive effects on mind, body and spirit. And getting back in touch with our body feels like, as Nancy Newton-Verrier put it, coming home to self.

Featured Photo by Natalie Grainger on Unsplash

what every adoptee wants to know

When I was growing up in Louisiana, one of the questions I was most often asked by others upon learning that I was adopted was, “so who are your ‘real’ parents?” It was fairly obvious that I was adopted, as I looked nothing like my white parents. I had straight black hair, almond shaped eyes and skin the color of my dad’s morning cup of coffee. I was usually annoyed by the question each and every time it was asked. My typical response was, “well my parents are my real parents.” My adoptive parents were the only parents I knew. The only parents I would ever know. I have no doubt that other adoptees encounter the same question and perhaps feel the same annoyance.

What baffles me is that I was never curious about my birthparents until about two years ago after finding my adoption papers, 40 years after my adoption. This ambivalence was perpetuated by the secrecy surrounding adoption at the time. My adoptive parents never ever talked about my birth heritage, including the family I was born into. When I was placed for adoption, it was the beginning of the end of any connection to my birth country, to my birthfamily. After my adoption, all cultural ties were severed. I would never know that my birthparents were from China, but forced to leave the country and build a new life in Taiwan, that I had two older sisters and an older brother. I believe that my adoptive parents did everything possible to keep my past hidden from me, and for years, it would remain so. Then one day, the truth came out, or at least part of it. And when it did, it was the beginning of a new chapter in my life.

This afternoon, I went with some friends who are visiting from California to see a movie, “Philomena,” starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. It was a heart wrenching experience, although there was some humor between the characters. It is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who, as a teenager, had a romantic fling with a boy at a carnival and became pregnant. Rejected by her own family, she is sent to a convent where she gives birth to a son, Anthony, and is forced to work with other young girls in order to work off the penance of their “sins.” The girls are allowed to see their children for only one hour a day. What is even more tragic is one day, Philomena watches helplessly as her three-year-old boy is taken away by a rich American couple without as much as a goodbye. The convent was in the business of selling babies to wealthy Americans and having the young mother’s sign contracts that they could never find out the whereabouts of their children. This abominable practice is historical, unfortunately. Fifty years later, Philomena is still tormented by the loss of her son and the desire to find him. She unwittingly connects with dejected political journalist, Martin Sixsmith, portrayed by Steve Coogan, who agrees to help her find her son, primarily for the tabloid possibilities of a human interest story. What follows is a tender story of loss, reconciliation, forgiveness and ultimately acceptance.

I know some adoptees hated this film, but it really resonated with me, despite the creative license that was taken to make it more dramatic. The story of grief and loss was what struck me. The depiction of such a tremendous loss experienced by a woman whose child was taken away from her was so real. I felt the loss as if it were my own. So often adoption is portrayed as a happy event, yet rarely do we see the other side of adoption from the perspective of the birth mother who is forced to relinquish her child. One of the most memorable lines comes when Philomena decides to go to America with Martin Sixsmith in hopes of finding her son. Philomena says, “I’d like to know if Anthony ever thought of me…I’ve thought of him everyday.”

Since learning about my birthparents in Taiwan, I’ve often wondered if my birth mother ever thought of me. How can it not be so? Philomena answered this question for me. The separation between a mother who is forced to give up her child and the child who is relinquished causes a wound that is easily re-opened again and again. I will never know my birth mother . She and my biological father died before I had the chance to meet them. I have often wondered about her, like what her favorite color was, what kind of music she liked, what kind of personality she had, was she happy, did we bond at all while I was still with her? I was told by my sisters in Taiwan that she was a teacher, she enjoyed learning and classical music. Unbeknownst to her,  my biological father, placed me for adoption without her consent. I often wonder how it all happened, if my biological father felt anything at all when he took me to the orphanage and left me there to languish. My sisters tell me that our mother never talked about what happened, but it deeply affected her, emotionally and psychologically. When we met for the first time since my adoption, they gave me photos of our mother and father. I felt that there was such sadness behind my birth mother’s eyes and wondered what she was thinking when the photo was taken.

Philomena eventually learns that the life her son attains after his adoption is much more affluent than anything she could have ever provided for him. She recognizes this fact and is happy that he grew up having opportunities that he would not have had otherwise. This is the reason why many adoptees are placed for adoption, including me. It’s quite the phenomenon when you are given everything you could possibly need and want, yet still feel a hole somewhere deep inside you, like there is a part of you that’s missing. It’s still there to this day. I’ve learned to accept it, or perhaps even ignore it so I can deal with life.

I think that many adoptees wonder why they were given up or abandoned. Questions like, “was it because I was unwanted, was it forced, was I ever thought of afterwards?” are not uncommon. Unfortunately, many adoptees will never know the answers because of a lack of documentation, abandonment or falsification of documents. Finding my birthfamily brought me one step closer to the truth and to answering some of those questions. Yet, the whole truth is still so elusive. I will always have questions about my birthparents and my birthfamily. Answers are not so easy to come by.

In the movie, Martin Sixsmith quotes T.S. Eliot toward the end of Philomena’s journey, 

“The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” 

I thought how very apt this quote was. Philemona started her journey at the convent and, in the end, returns to it. My journey began in an orphanage in Taiwan. Two years ago, I returned to the city of my birth to be reunited with my birth/first family. I arrived at the place where it all started, yet only just began to know the place for the first time. Though I will never be able to meet my birth mother, I believe that she thought about me. There is no longer any doubt in my mind.

Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash