adoption and preverbal trauma

I am often confronted by fost/adoptive parents who question the impact of adoption on a child adopted at infancy. “What can an infant know or remember?” they ask. In this post, I’ll discuss this question and adoption as trauma.

In Nancy Verrier-Newton’s book, The Primal Wound, she writes,

Many doctors and psychologists now understand that bonding doesn’t begin at birth, but is a continuum of physiological, psychological, and spiritual events, which begin in utero and continue throughout the postnatal bonding period. When this natural evolution is interrupted by a postnatal separation from the biological mother, the resultant experience of abandonment and loss is indelibly imprinted upon the unconscious minds of these children, causing that which I call the “primal wound (p.1).”

Adoption is a traumatic event that occurs in the life of a child. As Verrier-Newton explains, separation from a child’s biological mother is a loss that is imprinted upon the unconscious mind of the child. It is stored as an implicit memory. This is also known as preverbal trauma or preverbal memory. The child is torn away from her biological mother and placed in the arms of strangers. Though the assumption is that the child will not remember any of it, psychologists now believe that children remember their birth and the following events, including relinquishment and adoption, up to age three. The infant is left with fears and anxiety with no way to verbalize, express, mourn, or contextualize her feelings. According to Debra Wesselmann, MA, LIMHP, “Implicit memory bypasses language and involves procedures and internal states that are automatic.” Infants and young children can feel emotions, but cannot place them in context. There is no narrative.

When a child experiences such distress, the only way she is able to cope is through crying or reacting to physical touch and anger. These coping strategies can manifest in overt expression or a marked lack of expression. An infant may cry in response to distress or rarely cry and be perceived as a “good” and peaceful baby when she actually feels quite the opposite and may be hurting. She may respond by recoiling from human touch or may become too attached to the sensation, displaying indiscriminate affection toward others, even strangers, as she matures. A child may express her anger through tantums – yelling, screaming, kicking, hitting, spitting, pulling hair – or withhold emotional expression.

According to adoptee, Karl Stenske, every adopted child falls into one of these two categories. She will either act out, or she is quiet, adaptable and compliant. The degree to which the child falls into either category is individual. In any case, adopted children have experienced ruptured relationships, hope, and trust. Some adoptees who act out will go to extremes, e.g., run away from home, threaten fost/adoptive parents, rebel academically and behaviorally, or even attempt suicide. In a study published in 2001, adopted teens in 7th – 12th grades were more likely to have attempted suicide (7.6% vs 3.1%) and to have received psychological or emotional counseling in the past year (16.9% vs 8.2%) as compared to their non-adopted peers.

The child who acts out may attempt to initiate some form of rejection from parents, teachers, peers and others to prove that she’s unlovable. She may reject others first in order to avoid being rejected. The acting out child is often perceived as “difficult” by her parents and others. Parents, teachers, and counselors may not associate the behaviors with trauma, and therefore, “lay down the hammer,” which in fact, only exacerbates the behaviors and trauma wounds. The compliant child, though not seen as having any outward problems and perceived as well-adjusted, is often overlooked and not given any form of counseling or assistance in healing from emotional wounds. This child, however, is just as much at risk and may be experiencing similar distress to the child who is acting out.

These two behavior types may present at various ages, although adolescence is a common time for them to reach their peak. Furthermore, some kids may actually experience both behavior types, alternating from one to the other depending on the environment and individual trajectory through childhood and adolescence. In my own experience, I was very much the quiet, compliant child. When I reached adolescence, however, I rebelled academically and in every other way. Though many teens rebel during adolescence, I attribute most of my emotional turmoil and acting out to adoption-related issues, including identity confusion, rejection, and a desperate need to fit in with my white peers.

Still, when presented with the above information, some remain skeptical. After all, what can an infant remember? Research strongly suggests that a baby is able to recognize her mother’s voice. Within a few days of birth she begins to recognize familiar faces, voices and smells and is drawn to them. She is able to discriminate her mother’s voice from those of other voices. If you are a parent and have biological children, think back on the time when your baby sought your presence, sought your face and smile, was comforted solely by you. How could we not assume that an adopted baby recognizes the loss and separation from her birth mother, despite her inability to narrate it? I argue that she does recognize such loss – she knows abandonment, sadness, and hurt. Though healing can and does occur, she carries that loss with her the rest of her life.

Stay tuned for my next post when I discuss healing childhood trauma.


Photo by Luma Pimentel on Unsplash

Verrier, N.N. (1993). The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child. Baltimore, MD: Gateway Press, Inc.

Stenske, K. (2012). What can a tiny baby know? Retrieved from http://www.theadoptedlife.com/angelablog/2012/11/20/adoptee-view-what-can-a-tiny-baby-know.

Wesslemann, D. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.adoptionknowledge.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Wesselmann-Preverbal-Trauma-ppt..pdf.

Taiwanese American cultural festival

May is winding down, and boy has it been a busy month. May is officially recognized as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Celebrations occur throughout California during the month including the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival and the Taiwanese American Cultural Festival, which is held annually in the Bay area. TACF is sponsored by Taiwanese American Professionals-San Francisco and Taiwanese American Foundation-No. California. This year, TACF featured a collection of nearly 50 works by authors, writers, poets, and creatives who are Taiwanese American or have ties to Taiwan, and guess what? My book, Beyond Two Worlds: A Taiwanese-American Adoptee’s Memoir & Search for Identity was one of the works featured! For the entire list of books showcased and brief descriptions of each book, visit Taiwaneseamerican.org.

Thank you, Ho Chie Tsai, for gathering this wonderful collection of books highlighting Taiwanese American storytellers. I wish that I could have attended the festival and seen the display in person as well as all of the other festivities. I’ve put several of the books on my to-read list.

If you’d like to purchase an autographed copy of my book, just follow this link.

Here are some photographs from the Taiwanese American Cultural Festival 2018!

Photo credit: Anna Wu Photography

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elevate adoptee voices

photos-by-lanty-597554-unsplashSince last November, I’ve had the privilege of connecting to many other adult international adoptees around the U.S. via a podcast I hosted called Global Adoptee Talk. Some participated in my podcast and others did not. Nevertheless, just to hear and share stories was incredibly validating, and I appreciate the supportive community that we’re a part of. Unfortunately, I had to let go of my podcast before it even had a real chance to get off the ground due to increasing demands at work and the lack of time and energy I had to keep up with editing/interviewing. I am always inspired, grieved, saddened, angered, and motivated by the many adoptees stories I hear – motivated primarily to elevate adoptee voices in whatever shape or form that may take. It’s always important to be mindful of the fact that though an adoptee may have had a positive adoption experience, there is still undoubtedly loss, trauma, and frequently a longing to connect to his/her cultural roots. That may mean searching for one’s birthparents or birth family or traveling to one’s country of origin, learning the language, and/or connecting to other’s who have similar backgrounds and experiences. It doesn’t go away – it may ebb and flow across the span of an adoptee’s life, but it’s a part of our makeup, it’s part of our DNA and hard-wired into our brains, literally. I don’t have time to go into how separation from birth mother is trauma, but suffice it to say, there is research that supports it. Acknowledging that adoptees have a vital role in the future of how adoption occurs and are given a voice is crucial.

I work in foster care and adoption, and it’s not always easy as an adopted person. Whenever there is an adoption, it’s very difficult for me to celebrate knowing that first there was loss – loss for the first mother and child. When reunification occurs with the child and birth family, my heart makes a little leap, as reunifications are rarer. When they do occur, it is a celebration.

Despite the challenges of working in foster care and adoption, I have the opportunity to work with some resource or foster families that get it to the extent possible in their circumstances- the trauma, the loss, the necessity of keeping birth connections in the child’s life. Families are trained in TBRI, and we talk about loss, trauma, and attachment from the very first clinical interview. I don’t want to villainize every foster/adoptive family out there, as I know some foster/adoptive parents who attempt to understand the loss and trauma adoptees experience. Even so, I dare say that it’s difficult to grasp the magnitude of what being in foster care or being adopted means if you have not experienced it first hand. I observe things through the lens of an adopted person, not as an adoptive parent or case manager or supervisor, and my thoughts and opinions sometimes differ from those I work with. This work gives me an opportunity to educate foster/resource/adoptive parents. Not every family who comes through gets approved to continue the process for multiple reasons, and that’s a good thing.

All in all, I’m sad to let go of my podcast, but I have hopes of one day picking it back up, as time allows. I miss that connection to other adoptees. There are plenty of super podcasts out there. Right now, I’m digging a couple of podcasts related to intuitive eating, health, and nutrition. One is called Food Heaven, and the other is Food Psych. Two of my favorite adoptee podcasts are Adoptees On and Adapted. The Rambler was also a favorite, but the show closed earlier this year. All of these podcasts are available on iTunes – listen in – it’s totally worth it.

I sure learned a lot while producing my podcast and am super grateful for those international/transracial adoptees that I had the opportunity to connect with. Adoptee voices are truly making their way to the forefront of discussions on adoption, as they should. Let us continue to build a strong and vibrant community, inclusive and respectful of all adoptees and their unique stories.

by Photos by Lanty on Unsplash

Past episodes of Global Adoptee Talk are available on iTunes

 

author event

IMG_2882Happy Lunar New Year! 2018 is the year of the Yang Earth Dog. According to Chinese astrology, there will be a strong masculine energy in 2018; however, the element of Earth and the sign of the Dog is going to temper this to help create a gentle, fun-loving vibe throughout the year. Right on. I could use a little gentle and fun-lovingness this year!

How has your 2018 been so far? I’m referring back to the Gregorian calendar now. Mine has been incredibly busy! My caseload at work has doubled since last July, which is actually not a bad thing. It just means I have a working lunch at my desk, and I’m more tired than I’d like to be. On the downside, I don’t get to the gym as often as I’d like because I’m too tired 😦 Anybody else have that annoying problem?? My commute to work is about an hour, so by the time I get home, I’m exhausted and hungry! Then all I want to do after a typically unhealthy dinner is binge on TV (because I’m too lazy to cook). I  watched the entire Grimm series in about a month and a half. I do miss that show! This morning, I made it to Vinyasa yoga and ate a healthy breakfast, thanks to the holiday off. Three days to the gym in a row is a miracle! I also bought some new blended essential oils, now brand Cheer Up Buttercup! and Peace, Love & Flowers at Sprouts. I have one of them diffusing as I write this post. A little self-care goes a long way.

Besides life at the job, I’ve also been producing a monthly podcast, Global Adoptee Talk. My weekends are spent interviewing other adoptees, then editing the recordings, which takes several weekends. GAT is a podcast about the experiences of international and transracial adoptees. I interview adoptees, and we discuss topics such as identity, loss, and blood ties. I just posted my fourth episode where I interviewed a fellow Taiwanese adoptee. Cheers! I love listening to podcasts on my way into work and typically tune into Adoptees On hosted by adoptee, Haley Radke, in Canada. It’s an amazing podcast! I especially love her Healing Series episodes. You should really check it out. I continue to learn a lot about podcasting and could certainly tell you what NOT to do! It’s a labor of love, and though it’s a lot of work, the best part of it is talking to other international adoptees and hearing their stories. There is nothing like the support of another adoptee who just gets it. In coming months, I’ll be talking to a couple of international adoptees who are also psychotherapists and will share their expertise on specific topics. Looking forward to some really great learning and growing opportunities!

On other fronts, I’m heading to Arizona on Friday for an author event where I’ll have the opportunity to discuss my book, Beyond Two Worlds: A Taiwanese-Adoptee’s Memoir & Search for Identity. The event will be held on Saturday, February 24th, at the Downtown branch of Chandler Public Library.  My book is featured among three other books and female authors in a series called “Women’s Voices.”Kneaders Bakery and Cafe in Chandler will be providing light refreshments. A big shout out and thank you to Ted Liebler, a librarian at the Downtown branch, for making this series possible! I’m so excited to visit Arizona! It’ll be my first trip back since we moved to California in November 2016. Can’t wait to go to Peixoto Coffee and Pomegranate Cafe. If you’re in the area, please stop by the library to say hello on Saturday!

Folks, I’m wishing you all a great week. If you have the day off, enjoy, and thanks for reading my post! I’m going to kick back and binge on some more TV. I just starting watching Humans on Amazon. It’s just a shame that we don’t have every Monday off!

 

 

new podcast

Hsiao_Ling_H-Logo-Final-3000x3000It’s rare that I write two posts in a row these days! I wanted to share with you a new podcast I’m launching soon called Global Adoptee Talk, a podcast about the experiences of international and transracial adoptees around the globe. The podcast will feature 1:1 interviews with other international/transracial adoptees, and we’ll discuss topics related to international adoption, race/culture/identity, search and reunion, and mental health. Please stop by to visit my new site, GlobalAdopteeTalk.com.

And, please share the podcast with your adoption community! I’m off to work now…Thank you so much for visiting Global Adoptee Talk!

ivory

RecitalMrs. Guinn placed the clunky brown headphones snuggly over my head, the giant earpieces squeezed my temples. A long, coiled cord stretch across the way to a stereo where she stood, ready to drop the needle. I had no idea what I was in for. Mrs. Guinn had never offered to play music for me at any of my other piano lessons. Mandi, my friend next door, and I took weekly lessons at Mrs. Guinn’s house. I loved going to Mrs. Guinn’s for my piano lessons and looked forward to them every week. She lived in a quiet neighborhood in Shady Grove and was probably 30-something in age. She was married to an officer in the Air Force and had a pretty face and gentle demeanor. She reminded me of Toni Tennille of Captain and Tenille. The front living room where Mrs. Guinn taught held an upright piano on one wall and an organ against another, a large window overlooked the street. Her house was always meticulously clean and inviting. “I have something I want you to listen to today,” she said as she guided me into the family room. The headphones felt heavy against my ears as she adjusted them. I sat silently and settled into Mrs. Guinn’s plush black couch, waiting for the music to begin playing.

“Da-da-da-DUM.” “Da-da-da-DUM!” Those first four minor pitches of Beethoven’s all too famous Fifth Symphony bellowed in my ears. The music escalated, and I became completely enraptured, magically swept away. With every pulse of the bass, my heart quickened. I was only 9-years old at the time, and yet that was such a defining moment in my life. The rest of the world fell away in those brief eight minutes or so of that first movement. I was an extremely shy, introverted kid, but at my lesson the following week, I mustered the courage to ask Mrs. Guinn if I could listen to that recording again. Of course, she obliged. Little did Mrs. Guinn know how much that recording influenced me musically. One of the other things I enjoyed while taking lessons from Mrs. Guin was the monthly gatherings she held at her home where all her students performed for each other. The best part was when she performed for us on her organ. I loved watching her feet fly across the pedals.

Mrs. Guinn was a member of the National Federation of Music and entered me into my first music festival where students performed and were adjudicated. I received a superior + and was selected to perform in the Honors Recital with many other students. Kabelevsky’s, The Clown, Op. 39, No. 2, was my first performance piece ever. As I climbed the stairs the night of the recital towards the concert grand piano, it felt as though I were having an out of body experience. Somehow, I got through my piece without any fumbles and took my bow to the applause of the audience. I would perform in many other recitals, each one causing more anxiety than the last. It was something I continuously struggled with.

Mrs. Guinn moved within a year or two. I was deeply saddened when she told me her husband had received a military transfer to Texas, as I had become quite attached to her. I eventually studied with Mr. Robert Buckner during my high school years. Mr. Buckner lived in Shreveport and was quite a character. He had a piano studio behind his house, and a dachsund named Angie. I began every lesson with major and/or minor scales as a warm-up, or Hanon exercises. I felt comfortable with his teaching style and sense of humor. I decided to major in music and attended Centenary College of Louisiana where I studied piano performance, primarily because it meant I didn’t have to take a single math class. I was beyond horrible in math or anything that had to do with numbers. Initially, I felt terribly inadequate compared to my peers who seemed to have much better training musically than I did. I struggled with ear training and theory, but loved composition and piano literature. I studied with Constance Knox Carroll and absolutely adored her. She was an inspiring teacher and incredible pianist. I’m sure, however, that I was one of her least favorite students, as I was not very disciplined and did not practice as I should have, especially during my senior year. I got distracted with theatre and dance and remember her scolding me at one particular lesson for my lack of practice. She had every right to because my senior recital loomed ahead, and I hadn’t memorized all of my pieces. She remarked that it seemed like I liked theatre and dance better, and she was right. What did I know at that age? Not a whole lot. I sat there silently, not knowing what to say.

I wasn’t exactly lazy, but discipline was not my strong suit. Practicing was such an isolating endeavor, and yet in those days, I didn’t always mind it. I typically hit the practice room for four hours a day, sometimes six on the rare occasion that I was super inspired. There were times when it was such a rewarding experience to sit at the keyboard and just play without anyone listening. Those were the times when I performed the best. But in front of an audience, I lost all sense of composure. Performance anxiety plagued me. I could not control my hands; they became leaden, nor the adrenaline racing through me, and memory slips haunted me. On one occasion, several students were to perform with the Shreveport Symphony in a special recital. I was going to perform the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A, K414. I can’t describe how exhilarating it was to perform with an orchestra, with other musicians. It was like flying, but without the motion sickness. Unfortunately, performance anxiety got the best of me, and my memory lapsed somewhere during the development. The orchestra continued to play as if nothing happened while I sat frozen. Eventually, I wove my way back in, but the damage had been done. I barely made it through the cadenza.

After graduating college, I taught piano for a brief time at St. Mark’s Episcopal in Shreveport and another Christian school before moving to Florida. I didn’t touch a keyboard for nearly 20 years after that. One day, my mom asked if I wanted my baby grand piano, the one they bought me when I first started taking piano lessons. Of course I did, and a couple of months later, my baby grand arrived to our tiny condo in California. It took up an entire room. I started teaching piano thereafter at a Christian elementary school in Mission Viejo, CA, and eventually taught privately on and off until 2013. My piano skills were more than a little rusty, and I lamented the loss. I attempted to take piano lessons a couple of different times, but just didn’t have the time to commit to practicing with family responsibilities and work. I stopped teaching altogether in 2013 when I went back to school to pursue a Master’s degree in Social Work.

I’ve now had my baby grand since 1999. It has moved with us many different times in the last several years. It’s sitting in our family room in need of a little TLC – or a lot actually. Every once in awhile, I sit down to play,  but most of my time is spent at work these days. Recently, I felt moved to find Mrs. Guinn and searched for her via Google. Amazingly, I found her, and she wrote back to me immediately. She continues to teach, perform at churches, and accompany choirs in Nebraska. Although she only vaguely remembered me, she said that she looked up old recital programs and located one dated May 23, 1976, that I performed in. She said I played a Schaum arrangement of Yankee Doodle as a solo and again in a trio performance with Mandi, my friend, and another student named Kelly Scott. I was so happy to hear from Mrs. Guinn and that she continues to teach and play.

I trained in piano for many, many years. I wish that I’d continued to play, but there was a part of me that felt my skills were inadequate, so I didn’t play for years. When I studied music therapy beginning in 2006, that passion for music rushed back in. And now, I long for my piano to be more than just a pretty conversation piece in my living room. One of these days, and hopefully not too long from now, I will get back to playing, perhaps a little at a time. Sometimes, it’s hard to play because I inevitably begin to compare my current level of skill to that of when I played daily for very long hours. People tend to tell me, “you should just play for yourself.” Well, it’s easier said than done. Nevertheless, music is truly part of my fabric. I can’t think of anything more powerful and transformative than music.

So, for your listening pleasure, here is one of my favorite pianists, Murrah Perahia, at the keyboard performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A, K. 414. To Mrs. Carroll, who inspired me to be a better pianist:

My memoir!

CoverBeyond Two Worlds: A Taiwanese-American Adoptee’s Memoir & Search for Identity is now live! If you have not yet purchased your copy, don’t delay. I have a few books left, and signed copies can be purchased right here on my website.  Just click on Shop to order. Kindle and hardcover editions are available via my author page at Amazon, and you can also find the book at Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound.org.

If you enjoyed reading the book, please consider leaving a review on Amazon, or wherever you purchased your copy! Unfortunately, I am unable to ship internationally; however, those copies can be ordered through Amazon and Barnes & Noble online. To learn more about the book and to read an excerpt, click here, and to read reviews, click here. Thank you for supporting Beyond Two Worlds!