She gave birth to me in a medication-induced haze under the watchful eyes of medical students, and then I was the one who was whisked away. She never saw me or held me. She signed the paperwork that said she was giving me up of her own free will and was not coerced into doing so, but the wording didn’t sit right with her. True, no one was holding a gun to her head, but it didn’t really feel consensual.
I don’t have a conscious memory of the first hours of my life, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a lot of fun, and on some level, I probably do have a memory of that time that I hold in my body and carry to this day. In those days, it was believed (and a lot of people still believe this) that an infant could be separated from its biological mother and given to another caregiver, and, as long as its basic needs were met by someone, the infant wouldn’t know the difference. I am not in agreement with this view. I believe the infant very much notices the absence of the biological mother that it has bonded with in the womb. I believe that I felt my birth mother's absence in every cell of my body, and knew that something had gone terribly wrong. Fear, rage, powerlessness: this was my introduction to the world.
The next three weeks are a mysterious blank. I was apparently in custody of the state, but the details are unknown to me. What I do know is that at the end of those three weeks I was placed into the arms of a loving couple who had struggled with infertility (in the days when infertility was also still a hush-hush topic) and considered me a miracle, a gift from God.
Throughout my childhood, I exhibited signs of trauma, but in those days, nobody recognized them as such. I was an anxious, fearful child, often “spacey” and oddly distant, but my parents, teachers, and others assumed that this was all just part of my personality. As an adult, I continued to struggle with self-esteem issues, anxiety, and (self-fulfilling) fears of abandonment as well as other relationship challenges.
It wasn’t until I was in my early 40s that I got the information that allowed me to make sense of how things had been just a little bit “off” for me my whole life. When I read Nancy Verrier’s book Coming Home to Self: The Adopted Child Grows Up, it was as if my life shifted into focus for the first time ever. Finally I had a framework to make sense of my life, and that framework was adoption trauma. Reading the book was therapeutic in and of itself, but I followed it up with actual therapy (mostly, somatic experiencing), and with the help of my therapist I was finally able to release the traumatic energy that I had been carrying all my life. The experience was, quite simply, life transforming.
Many things have changed in the adoption community since the days of my birth. As an adopted person, I support the shift from closed adoptions as the norm to a preference for open adoptions, when such arrangements are truly open and not just nominally so. And pregnant teens now have more options, too; some, with the support of family members or community programs, are able to keep their babies with them while simultaneously continuing their own education and growth. But on the subject of adoption trauma in newborns, I find awareness is still often lagging behind. I frequently hear prospective adoptive parents say that they want to adopt a newborn rather than an older child because the newborn will be a blank page and unharmed. Gazing down at that beautiful, precious baby, adoptive parents want to believe that the child is perfect and whole and unscathed. And the baby is perfect … but he or she may also have entered the world in such a way that the very first experience of life was a traumatic one (especially, if like me, the child was removed abruptly without being held by the biological mother -- it turns out that even being held for a short time can reduce the development of trauma symptoms).
The good news is that healing is possible, and there is much that adoptive parents can do to support the adopted child’s healing journey. Recent years have seen many developments in our understanding of trauma and how to support healing. Somatic experiencing was tremendously helpful to me, but there are also many other therapeutic methods that have been found to be effective. Finding a good child therapist with experience in adoption issues can be challenging (therapists generally get little or no training in adoption-specific issues), but a persistent parent will likely find someone who is the right match. There are also many things that parents can do on their own. Learning about attachment and neurobiology (Parenting From the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell is one good resource) can aid parents in helping their adopted child form secure bonds with them. And books like Peter A. Levine and Maggie Kline’s Trauma-Proofing Your Kids can help parents support their child’s healing from adoption and other forms of childhood trauma. With the support of informed parents, today’s adopted children can find healing and resilience much sooner in life than those of my generation.
Note: On November 30, 2012 I published a post called I May Never Completely Heal, and That's OK. It is essentially postscript to the above post. If you have come to this one first, I urge you to please click through and read the other as well.
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