I spoke with Sue Rogers about her Masters thesis and her experience of living with adoption.
Sue you are currently doing your Masters in Psychology at Monash University. Your thesis is focused on the counselling experiences of adult adopted people born in Australia. What made you select this particular topic?
I felt compelled to do it. The initial reasoning was that I couldn’t not do it. I knew there is a need for it. Adoption is a field that has never progressed much in terms of a wider understanding of the issues, particularly the long term impacts on adopted people.
There is too much one sided rubbish in the media that doesn’t inform people about how complicated adoption is. I was shocked when not long after the various National and State Apologies, pro-adoption lobbyists appeared in the media promoting adoption again, leaving out the truths about the complexities of international adoption. I was waiting for an apology for mothers and adoptees of international adoption, not promoton of more adoptions!
Did anything in your personal experience as an adopted person have any impact on your choice of study?
When I first entered therapy in 1999 I had started my undergraduate degree in psychology and the therapist suggested I might want to work with adopted people because there is a shortage of therapists with a deeper knowledge of adoption issues.
Now as a Masters student nearing the end of my training I thought it would be helpful for me professionally to find out what other adopted people had found useful about counselling and therapy so that I could learn from this. There is virtually no past research in this area to go on.
I think it is tragic that the mental health profession has remained largely as uninformed, as the rest of society, about the ongoing effects on us as adult adopted people. I hope that this is changing after the Apologies, and also the funding for counselling services at VANISH and Relationships Australia. Ironically, this was another reason why I wanted to do the research. I wanted to give a voice to adopted people without compartmentalising the issues as ‘in the past’ or into ‘forced adoption’ which is the language used in government circles.
I was a participant in the scoping study which informed the apology on past adoptions but I didn’t realise at that time the significance the word ‘past’ would take on. I believe the broader issues of the ongoing impacts of forced adoption have been dismissed and classified as only belonging to the ‘past’ when in fact they are very relevant in the present.
Like many adopted people I live with the effects in the here and now. I have struggled with painful reunion relationships for the past 25 years and will never know who my birth father is. Also, I think that in the present there needs to be more acknowledgement in the public arena of the parallels between donor conception, surrogacy, and ‘past’ adoption in relation to the same mistakes and the loss of rights for the offspring. It is heart breaking to hear the same arguments and myths repeated again. For example, in The Age last week there was an article about how love alone would solve all for the adopted babies of same sex male couples. This is oversimplistic and fails to recognise the ongoing challenges these babies will have to deal with throughout their lives. It appears nothing has been learnt from the past! So, this has prompted me to explore the effects of the ‘past’ because it is still so relevant now.
It is not easy for adopted people to find a professional counsellor who understands adoption and what adopted people go through as a consequence of living with their adoption on a daily basis. I know it is early days in your research analysis but what advice would you give to counsellors when an adopted person came knocking at their door?
There are several points I would like them to keep in mind:
- Become aware of you own views, value judgements and perceptions of adoption and then leave these aside so that you can really hear the experience of the person in front of you. Let the adopted person be your teacher. There is not much evidence based literature available and the adopted person lives their own experience, so knows it intimately.
- I’ve noted that a lot of past literature tends to polarise the function of adopted people as all good or all bad /dysfunctional. Be mindful about falling into that trap and do a thorough case conceptualisation; something not covered in the literature.
- Make sure you find out what has prompted the person to seek help at this point in their life and what their goals for therapy are.
- Consider the factors that have predisposed the person to their difficulties? For example, early separation, living with denial or secrecy.
- What are the things in their life that have precipitated or triggered the current difficulty? These could be a reunion, other significant losses or deaths, birth of a child.
- What are the things that are maintaining the difficulties and perpetuating them? They might be a consequence of secrecy, reunion relationships, beliefs, coping styles, inability to self soothe.
- What are the protective factors? What helps and who supports the adoptedclient and tend to make things better? Self- care, self compassion, self soothing skills, valued activities, routine, supportive family and friends are possible positive interventions.
- Recognise that there are progressive stages in the psychological integration of adoption for adopted people and different therapeutic approaches will be more or less appropriate depending on the different stages. For example, when I was growing up I would have said that adoption made absolutely no difference to my life, it was just a fact. Later when I met my birth mother I was overwhelmed by the emotional experience, on and off, for at least a decade and have been processing it on different levels for about 15-20 years. These stages I noticed in my Honours thesis and they are re-emerging again in my current research to different degrees.
- I would recommend not to assume that because someone isn’t ready to explore adoption at a point in time that this will not change in future and vice -versa.
- Avoid thinking any one stage is any better or any worse than any other stage. Accept and normalise the adoptd person’s emotional experience and take it as it comes without value laden judgements.
- It’s important to ask what adoption means to the adopted person so that it isn’t overlooked, especially if adoption isn’t what brought the client to counselling initially. Take the lead from the adopted client in this regard and be careful because opening a discussion about adoption can be a trauma that some people aren’t ready for.
- View the adopted person as a whole person who is shaped by all the experiences in their lives and not just as the member of a category. Walk the journey with them no matter which stage they are at.
- Understand that an adopted person has two mothers and two families and on different levels these are both important despite the traditional messages and legal status that only one matters. Be aware that the adopted person can be conflicted by having two mothers and needs someone on their side who will respect their right to independence and not have to look after everyone else’s needs on top of their own.
From your own experience what types of counselling have helped you understand and integrate adoption into your life?
My natural mother’s mediator contacted me when I was 18 years old. I remember the mediator saying that my mother hoped I didn’t have a ‘chip on my shoulder about being adopted.’ Prior to this I hadn’t ever explored adoption and was unaware of what feelings lay beneath the surface.
I met my mother when I was 19 years old and it has been an experience of extreme highs and lows. I felt like the ground I had been standing on caved in and suddenly my life no longer felt secure.
I’d never learnt how to cope with anything like this before and I felt lost and isolated. I underwent my own long term therapy after about 10 years of not being able to find adequate help.
I think the thing I needed most at that point was validation and reassurance that I wasn’t being disloyal to anyone and that my feelings were normal. My therapist would say ‘Of course you feel like that!’ as though she was astounded at my own surprise. She helped me to make sense of what I was feeling and made it safe for me to integrate my feelings. After another decade I began to realise that I could go off on my own and needed to learn to trust my own voice.
What else did you do to better understand and integrate adoption in your life, such as meditation or travel?
A couple of years after meeting my mother I went to Sri Lanka and then India to find a meditation technique. I came across Vipassana meditation as taught by S.N. Goenka and have been practicing this ever since.
This technique takes 10 days to learn and is taught on 10 day residential retreats in total silence, with no contact with the outside world for the duration of the course. On these retreats one lives as a monk or nun for that time and coming home practicing two hours per day (if possible). One also has to abide by a moral code of no killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct or intoxicants.
Whilst the difficulties I experienced prompted me to look for something like this, when I did my first course I somehow felt that I had been looking for this technique my whole life! Suddenly life made sense, I had a purpose, and a safe way to tune into myself.
I have travelled to India several times to meditate there and also been on pilgrimage to Myanmar (Burma) which was special. There are established Vipassana centres in Australia and world wide. The courses are run on a donation basis by volunteers and I have benefited enormously from volunteering on many courses over the years. I would recommend it and if anyone reading this is interested you can go to www.dhamma.org for all the information, center schedules, and application forms.
Have there being any other major Influences or authors in your life that have helped you integrate your adoption experience into your life?
Reading Nancy Verrier and the late Betty Jean Lifton, both experienced counsellors in adoption matters, were life changing experiences for me back in the late 90’s and even now those two authors are still extremely relevant. I just wish the psychology and counselling field were informed about their insights into the closed adoption system and the primal wound and the applicability to current fertility practices. In hindsight, for me personally I think the Primal Wound by Verrier was essential for me to be able to understand my experience although it didn’t give me any clues of how to become unstuck. I had to learn this from other things such as meditation, behavioural therapy, and life experience in general.
Thank you Sue for sharing your insights. Good luck with completing the thesis. I, along with many others, look forward to reading it when it is completed. I am a firm believer in adopted people finding their voice. It is important for those involved in family creation or offering counselling to hear about our experiences of living with adoption.
More about Sue
I grew up in Melbourne and have lived there all my life. My parents have a holiday house on the Mornington Peninsula at an area that is not well known. It is quiet, has dirt roads, sometimes koalas, and the beach is uncrowded and lovely. I have always loved going there and have fond memories. You can find me there on any of the hot days (unless I’m at work or uni).
When I left school I did a degree in Recreation Leadership and then had the great fortune to obtain a job in the Maldives as a snorkelling guide and aerobics instructor. I had to learn French for this job which I enjoyed immensely, it’s a beautiful language and I try to keep up with it here and there even now. The Maldives and French language was also a welcome respite at the beginning of my reunion and journey into processing adoption feelings.
Afterwards I travelled to India for six months where I started my meditation practice. I have returned to India three times since and enjoyed considerable lengths of time there.
In the late nineties I went to Europe, Nepal, and Thailand after working on children’s activity camps in England. When I returned, I studied a graduate certificate in Outdoor Education and worked with school groups as an Outdoor Educator. I had a passion for personal development and also for the outdoors and decided to pursue more study in something that would ultimately go deeper into personal development and also something I could combine with meditation and this brought me to psychology. I did my undergraduate and honours year at Swinburne in Hawthorn which was a fantastic course and I went in expecting the ‘rats and stats’ emphasis of undergraduate study that often puts people off psychology. I needed a long term project and psychology has been it. I have done it all part-time whilst working first with people with disabilities and then I moved into the mental health rehabilitation field.
I did my psychology honours thesis on Adopted Adults in Reunion: Secrecy, Reunion Relationships, and the Psychological Integration of Adoption. Thomas kindly included it in the Australian Journal of Adoption in 2009. After honours I did two separate six month trips to India, Tibet, Nepal, and the Maldives spending most of the time at the Vipassana meditation centres in India.
I was fortunate enough to be one of about 20 people out of 300 accepted into the Masters of Psychology Counselling at Monash University Clayton. I’m now in my fourth year part-time and have found it to be absolutely wonderful training. This year is all about finishing my thesis and internships. I will be finished by the end of this year and want to eventually set up my own private practice. My thesis is due at the end of May so hopefully I can share it by September.
I live with my partner in a beachside suburb of Melbourne and we have two spoilt tabby cats which I got from the Animal Protection Society. I have continued horse- riding which was my obsession as a child and I find it so special to remain connected to that part of my childhood. Similarly I have always loved swimming and the water. In the last 10 years I have reconnected with singing, had six years of voice lessons, and perform at open mic nights occasionally in a duo with a pianist. My partner loves rock climbing and we sometimes climb at Mt Arapiles, it has also been great to reconnect with that again from my Outdoor Education days.