I acknowledge the mothers, fathers, adopted persons and their family members who are directly affected by adoption. I acknowledge your loss, separation, pain, and the associated uncertainty you may live with. We all carry and have to deal with our emotional wounds. I offer you strength and patience in doing so.
My focus today is on being a product of the ‘clean-break’ theory and closed adoption practices and what I, and many others, directly impacted by these experiences can do to integrate hope, healing and happiness into our lives. This paper is more about the impacts of living with closed adoption than debating the merits of adoption per se. Within this context I’m also interested in whether the impacts of closed adoption are similar for those who have been subject to open or intercountry adoption practices. It’s a question I’m hoping my open and intercountry counterparts will be willing to discuss with me during the course of this conference.
Something is Missing
Finding your way through life when you’re adopted is a challenge. It takes time to understand and adapt to the ongoing impact adoption has on one’s life. To paint a picture of the adopted persons world I’d like to quote from Jeanette Winterson’s recent autobiography, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? This is a superbly written account about the many dimensions of living with adoption. In her circumstance it involved growing up with a highly unsupportive adoptive mother. I encourage all of you to read it.
‘Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives. A crucial part of our story is gone, and violently, like a bomb in a womb.
The baby explodes into an unknown world that is only knowable through some kind of story – of course that is how we all live, it’s the narrative of our lives, but adoption drops you into the story after if has started. It’s like reading a book with the first few pages missing. It’s like arriving after curtain up. The feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you – and it can’t, and it shouldn’t, because something is missing.
That isn’t of its nature negative. The missing part, the missing past, can be an opening, not a void. If can be an entry as well as an exit. It is the fossil record, the imprint of another life, and although you can never have that life, your fingers trace the space where it might have been, and your fingers learn a kind of Braille’.
The Braille analogy is a good one. Adopted people live with a blind spot – our fractured identity and missing past. To understand and adapt to our broken identity and uncertain past we have to learn a new language – a type of emotional Braille – to work out how to integrate that missing part, and past, into our present lives. This is something that needs to happen within our heads and our hearts, and is an ongoing process not simply a one off exercise. In dealing with our hearts we need to understand what its like to feel close and secure to someone, to return to the fundamentals of attachment theory developed by British psychiatrist, John Bowlby.
Bowlby pioneered attachment theory, described in his trilogy – attachment, separation and loss – which was published in three volumes between 1969 and 1981. Numerous experiments by him, his colleagues and by subsequent researchers show the importance of secure emotional attachment in our lives – the innate need we all have for safe emotional connection which is critical for the healthy development of personality, connecting to others and living enriched lives.
The ‘clean-break’ theory and closed adoption policy twisted attachment theory on its head to satisfy and provide a solution to the social stigma of unmarried motherhood in a manner that was convenient and cost effective for the state. ‘Clean-break’ practice decreed that the best outcome for the mother and child was for them to be separated at birth and have no further contact. The child given a new legal identity and family and the mother told to forget and get on with her life. This is the reality thousands of mothers and their now adult children experienced and live with. It’s real, and not a concept or figment of our imaginations. ‘Clean-break’ is a flawed practice that gave no consideration to the basic human rights of the mother or the child and most certainly did not think of the long term health and wellbeing consequences for them either.
Bowlby’s work was manipulated into a false premise, so keenly observed by fellow adoptee Catherine Lynch, leading people to believe that “there is no difference between infant attachment to its own mother and infant attachment to any other woman who steps forward in her place”. Nancy Verrier, an adoptive mother, confirmed this flawed position in the early 1990s when, after raising two daughters, one her biological child and the other an adoptive child, realised, due to the marked difference in the behaviour of her adopted daughter, that something wasn’t well aligned. This lead Verrier to in-depth research and her seminal book, The Primal Wound – Understanding the Adopted Child.
I first read this book in my early 40s and it was the first time I truly felt someone understood my world and could describe it, a view echoed by most adopted persons who read it. It is essential reading, as is Verrier’s comprehensive companion piece Coming Home to Self – The Adopted Child Grows Up, published only ten years ago. Verrier understands and articulates that the severing of the close relationship between a mother and child at birth after they had “biologically, genetically, historically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually” connected in utero over nine months has serious ongoing consequences for both of them.
It’s About Loss
What is evident, which mothers and adopted persons have known from the beginning of their separation experience, but have had to hide and remain silent in the face of social norms prevalent for many decades, is that closed adoption is a fundamental life changing event that affects everyone. At its core it’s all about loss. Adoption is created through loss, and without loss, there is no adoption. What this loss equates to is profound trauma, of having perceived or witnessed a life threatening event or an overwhelming experience. There is no adoption without trauma. For adopted people their experience of loss is one of profound abandonment, a kind of death, not only of the mother but of their core being, their inherent sense of self. Adopted people suffer their first loss at birth and even if this loss is beyond conscious awareness, recognition or vocabulary, it affects them on a very profound level for the rest of their lives. It is that void referred to by Winterson, “the missing past, the missing part”, or as she otherwise summarises, “no biography, no biology”.
When I reflect on my own adoption experience there were many times when I stumbled and fumbled through the void like a blind man without a stick – without any Braille to trace or to understand my journey. It’s taken many decades to comprehend this void and overcome the periods of darkness it brought into my life; to find within it an opening to understand, integrate and heal. And that isn’t surprising because in my household, as was the case in most closed adoption households – adoption as a topic for discussion was taboo. It was never discussed, never referred to – notwithstanding the fact I, as did many adopted persons, felt at odds with my new family and with the world. To be fair to my adoptive parents they didn’t know, and weren’t given any guidance or assistance, to understand that bringing up an adopted child comes with additional parenting challenges. Furthermore, for the first three decades of my life I never found another adopted person – inevitably I thought I was alone; one of a kind – which is quite bizarre when there are hundreds of thousands of us around the world. I, and my counterparts, lived in world devoid of any knowledge, understanding or interest, in what it was like to live with adoption. It became a silent, secret and solitary space. Society and family decreed it so.
It wasn’t until the late1980s, when I was in my thirties, that the first significant books about the closed adoption experience began to emerge on the world’s stage, written by people directly impacted by this practice. Betty Jean Lifton, a pioneer of adoption counselling, was one of the first with her books Lost and Found – The Adoption Experience and Journey of the Adopted Self – A Quest for Wholeness. Lifton rightly drew attention to the “child seen as a real person – not a fantasy child, not an idealised child, not a special child, not a commodity – but a child with his own genetics, his own talents and his own identity”.
Around the same time Silverstein and Kaplan produced their insightful Lifelong Issues in Adoption, describing the seven core issues of adoption: loss, rejection, guilt/shame, grief, identity, intimacy and mastery/control, which remain front and centre of adoption and its ongoing experience. And I’ve already referred to Verrier’s two seminal works above.
What is significant about these publications is that they all appeared when the bulk of those affected by ‘clean-break’ practices and closed adoption had become adults. We, that is our two sets of parents and ourselves, didn’t have any resources when we were growing up; there was little, if any, guidance or support to provide understanding of the lifelong affects of our separation trauma, which we felt and lived with every day. Along with the void was a knowledge vacuum. We continued to stumble and fumble through the void, and for those in the unfortunate position of being placed with abusive or neglectful adoptive families this presented an added and unwarranted challenge. And that is why the Senate Inquiry into former forced adoption policies and practices and the more recent Australian Institute of Family Studies research project into past adoption experiences are so important – they finally draw attention to the consequences of what it is like to live with adoption, whether you are a mother, father or an adopted person. And society at large needs to be made aware, because they are not aware of the impacts of adoption, and that is where the importance of the apologies occurring in each jurisdiction come in. They are the public platform for revealing what for too long has been hidden and, from the adopted person’s perspective, to note the fact that adoption is forced upon us irrespective of whether it was forced upon our parents.
So how do we live and cope with this wound? What kind of Braille do we have to develop and learn to work our way out of the void and onto a pathway that leads to healing and a fulfilling life? I’d like to approach these questions by looking at three things – the nature of trauma, the importance of connecting through relationships and the permutation of acceptance and commitment.
The Nature of Trauma
For over forty years Dr Peter Levine has studied stress and trauma and developed a variety of methods, under Somatic Experiencing, to treat it. He describes “trauma as one of the most avoided, ignored, denied, misunderstood and untreated cause of human suffering … the often debilitating symptoms that many people suffer from in the aftermath of perceived life threatening or overwhelming experiences”. And what could be more threatening or totally overwhelming than a new born child being permanently removed from its mother at birth and exposed to a world of emotional and sensory confusion?
“Trauma” Levine says, “is about loss of connection – to ourselves, to our bodies, to our families, and to the world around us. This loss of connection is often hard to recognise, because it doesn’t happen all at once. It can happen slowly, over time and we adapt to these subtle changes sometimes even without noticing them. These are the hidden effects of trauma, the ones most of us keep to ourselves. We may simply sense that we do not feel quite right without ever becoming fully aware of what is taking place; that is gradual undermining of our self esteem, self confidence and feelings of well-being, and connection to life”.
When someone faces a situation they perceive to be life threatening the body and mind mobilise enormous amounts of energy in preparation to fight or take flight which is a standard behavioural response humans and animals draw upon to defend or protect themselves. But what does one do in a situation where fighting or fleeing isn’t an option and won’t secure your survival – what other options do you have? Levine’s discovery is that we initiate the immobility response – we freeze. We shut down, or become numb, so as not to suffer pain or terror, or to provide an opening where we may find another opportunity to regroup and flee. In freezing, we trap unused energy in our bodies which causes problems, even many years later, as they manifest into, for example, hyperarousal, dissociation or helplessness and associated symptoms that could include hypervigilance, nightmares, mood swings, shame and lack of self worth, panic attacks or avoidance behaviour, to name but a few.
Levine’s research shows trauma happens primarily on an instinctive level, it is stored in our bodies, not within the rational parts of our brains. The pathway to treating trauma therefore is to access it through the felt sense so that we can connect to and release the trapped instinctive survival energy we didn’t use when moving into the immobility response. Consequently, “healing of trauma is mainly a biological process often accompanied by psychological effects … [and] especially true when trauma involves betrayal of those who were supposed to protect us … successful healing methods involve establishing a connection to the body”. We don’t have the time to explore Levine’s methods for healing trauma so I would encourage you to read one of this many books, for example, Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body, or to find a Somatic Experiencing practitioner as a therapy option.
Tend and Befriend
Looking at trauma from another perspective it’s worth mentioning that fight, flight or freeze are not the only survival strategies humans tap into. Dr Shelley Taylor, in 2000, published research that concluded fight and flight strategies were predominately male responses to threat and ever since these terms were coined by Walter Cannon in 1932, experiments conducted to test fight or flight scenarios had a predominance of male participants which tended to skew results. Taylor proposed that females have developed alternate survival strategies in the face of threat which she called ‘tend’ and ‘befriend’. She proposed that woman, when pregnant or nursing their young weren’t always in a position to fight or flee so in order to protect their offspring sought out a social group for mutual defense. The implication: as a group they were more likely to defend themselves and less likely to be attacked. Many experiments have been conducted to test fight and flight and tend and befriend strategies, most looking at the biological responses and the chemicals that flow through our bodies during each mobilised state with testosterone increasing in fight mode and oxytocin rising when in tend or befriend mode. These tests show that when tend and befriend strategies are employed stress is reduced and well being is improved.
I’m more interested in the social, rather than the biological, impacts of tend and befriend strategies and how we might apply them to the adoption experience and to our healing. With the awareness that tend and befriend strategies exist we don’t necessarily have to wait for a biological response to use them we can make a conscious choice to do so. In addition to finding ways to release trapped energy as a result of previous trauma, for examples through somatic experiencing techniques of Dr Levine or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) developed by Dr Francine Shapiro – (and those interested in this pathway can refer to her book, Getting Past Your Past) – we need to consider, as part of our healing strategies, to start replacing fight and flight reactions with the more beneficial tend and befriend strategies.
Tend and befriend strategies can be used to help mend ourselves. For example, to consciously reach out to find a connection with another person (or even a pet), or with a group for mutual support in order to build our understanding and to strengthen our personal resilience rather than instinctively reverting to either fighting responses, which equate to resisting or pushing back, or to fleeing responses which can equate to avoidance or retreating into alcohol or substance abuse. Tend and befriend to mend. Good examples of applying this strategy would be to join a support group in real life or through social networking.
Connecting Through Relationships
Finding support rather than living in isolation is a useful entry point for discussing my second point – connecting through relationships. One of the many long term consequences of closed adoption is that we struggle with relationships which isn’t surprising when our primal attachment, pivotal in supporting our essential emotional needs of protection and support was severed at birth. In that, and subsequent situations, we tend to hit the ‘primal panic’ button a term coined by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, who charted seven emotional networks within the brain one of which, the combination of panic/grief, is highly relevant for people affected by adoption separation and loss.
In recent years I have been introduced to Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) developed by Dr Sue Johnson, a clinical psychologist with over twenty-five years of experience. The principles and benefits of EFT are described in her wonderfully titled book, Hold Me Tight – Seven Conservations for a Lifetime of Love. I was drawn to Johnson not only for her model but also because she is a great fan of Bowlby. She lauds Bowlby for his research and insights into the importance of attachment in our lives and in particular how we develop and shape our closest relationships.
Johnson reiterates what Bowlby and others long advocated, that “our need for others to come close when we call – to offer us a safe haven – is absolute … [that] emotional starvation is a reality… [and that] feeling emotionally deserted, rejected or abandoned sparks physical and emotional pain and panic … [and] there are very few ways to cope with our pain when our primary needs for connection are not met”.
Where Johnson’s work is particular valuable is the recognition that the need for close emotional attachments are just as important for the adult as they are for the child. As adults we need them today just as much as we needed them as a child.
Her therapy model is summarised by the acronym A.R.E. – Accessibility, Responsiveness and Engagement or descriptively, “‘Can I reach you?’, ‘Can I rely on you to respond to me emotionally?’ and ‘Do I know you will value me and stay close?’”. When we view these innate requirements for human connection in relation to ‘clean-break’ practices and the closed adoption system we – that is from the adopted person’s perspective – find our primary nurturer and protector absent and inherently missing from the very beginning. No wonder we have difficulty with relationships and as Johnson notes the, “quality of the connection to loved ones and the early emotional deprivation is key to the development of personality and to an individual’s habitual way of connecting to others”. And in support of tend and befriend strategies I described earlier, ‘keeping precious others close is a brilliant survival technique”.
Acceptance and Commitment
There’s a lot more one could say about EFT but time is not on our side so to conclude I’d like to briefly mention my third, and last area, acceptance and commitment as a pathway to healing.
Dr Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap – Stop Struggling, Start Living, is a highly respected practitioner of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a model of behavioural therapy aimed to enrich life and make it meaningful. It provides people with a variety of skills to develop psychological flexibility to enable them to accept their thoughts and feelings, connect with their values and take effective action. Life does come with pain and stress, as all of us know, what ACT does is provide a model for effectively handling pain and stress to live a rich and full life. Its core message is to accept what is out of your personal control while committing to do whatever you can do to enhance the quality of your life. ACT works with six separate elements independently: connection, defusion and expansion, which are ‘mindfulness’ techniques and the remaining three relate to values, committed action and the Observing Self.
Briefly connection means “being in the present moment: connecting fully with whatever is happening right here, right now”; defusion as “learning to step back or detach from unhelpful thoughts and worries and memories”. Expansion relates to “opening up and making room for painful feelings and sensations”. Values “as what you want your life to be about, deep in your heart. What you want to stand for … What ultimately matters to you.” Committed Action is about “taking action guided by your values – doing what matters – even if it’s difficult or uncomfortable.” Lastly, the Observing Self is a little harder to define, “the part of you that is responsible for awareness and attention … the ‘mind’… [which has] two parts … the thinking self – i.e. the part that is always thinking; the part that is responsible for all your thoughts, beliefs, memories, judgments, fantasies etc. And then there’s the observing self – the part of your mind that is able to be aware of whatever you are thinking or feeling or doing at any moment”.
Working with these six elements offers psychological flexibility to deal with the ups and downs of life more effectively, to be happy, and those who are directly affected by adoption know that during our lives we are constantly presented with challenges, and happiness is often elusive.
Happiness, Harris points out, does have two meanings: the feeling or sense of pleasure, gladness or gratification which we all crave or chase and which invariably slips away. The other meaning of happiness is ‘a rich a meaningful life’ which we get when do the things that truly matter to us, when we move in directions that are valuable and worthy, when we work out what we stand for in life, and act accordingly. When we do these our lives become rich, full and meaningful, we experience a deep sense of vitality, a sense of a life well lived, where we can engage and accept the full range of human emotions as the arise whether they be happy or sad, hopeful or fearful, peaceful or restless. At some point life brings pain and although we cannot avoid such pain a primary task is to learn how to live and adjust to it in ways that are not debilitating, in other words our life is still enriched and meaningful.
Nurture Personal Resilience
Recently, I was asked by a fellow adopted person what strategies have brought me hope, healing and happiness. It’s an interesting question and the answer I give today is very different to one I would have given 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Being adopted encompasses many things that can eat away at our hope or happiness, for example, missing information or not having access to our personal information; mothers and fathers who have passed away before we have met them or mothers or fathers who do not want to meet us; reunions which turn sour; ongoing psychological and emotional scars from our primal wound; being told, or discovering, we are adopted as an adult or having to find a sense of place within two separate families and not necessarily finding a comfortable space with either of them. These and other consequences are challenges, sometimes daily challenges, which erode our hope and happiness and can spiral us out of control. In the face of these challenges building personal resilience needs to be one of the foundation stones of our healing strategies, we need a set of adoptee life skills, our own type of Braille, to assist us in understanding, coping, managing and living life with our inheritance. Once adopted always adopted – adoption doesn’t have a shelf life. It’s permanent.
Part of personal resilience is remaining hopeful; to build healthy pursuits into our life we look forward to. This applies to all people not only to adopted persons. In her book, Getting Past, Your Past, Shapiro mentions there are over one hundred therapies to choose from today. There are many proven strategies we can tap into to support our healing. I’ve given insights into a few models from proven practitioners with a pedigree of good results. Personally, I favour a holistic approach and experimentation. Try different models, draw from them and adjust them to work for you. One of the key principles of Acceptance and Commitment training is workability. If something is not working change it.
Because adoption has biological and emotional impacts strategies which rely exclusively on our rational faculties are, in my view, less likely to provide satisfactory outcomes over the long term. Strategies need to address our biological and emotional centres as well i.e. we have to deal with our heads and our hearts. And that is where the methods of Levine, Johnson, Taylor and Harris, which I’ve introduced in this paper, play a valuable role.
Healing is an active, collaborative activity which requires ongoing attention. As the ACT model shows it requires acceptance and committed action. Strategies that incorporate mindfulness or meditation into our daily lives I have found most useful; the ability to live in the present and focus on the now without been drawn, or locked, into the past is very empowering.
Building a set of healthy life skills to into our daily lives is essential. It is no different in approach to say, an athlete training for a top race, or a musician for an important concert or an academic researching for a significant publication. The quality, and the reward, of their performance is improved through ongoing training, regular practice and learning from their experience. Healing is no different. What is important is you do so with the support or guidance of someone else – someone you can trust – and this could be a medical practitioner, counsellor, personal coach, mentor or simply a good friend.
To conclude, it is highly likely in the current environment as a consequence of the Senate Inquiry Report and the delivery of multiple apologies to those affected that more and more adopted persons will come forward to tell their stories and seek help. Validate their experience and listen to them – in many instances they may be revealing things for the first time in their lives. Remember their initial trauma, their primal wound, and the void they have lived with for all, or for much of their lives. In addition, see them not simply as objects for study, or patients requiring care, engage with them as people you can turn to understand the complex world of living with adoption. We know our world, and in many ways it remains a closed world, we need to work together to break the silence, secrecy and ignorance surrounding the impacts of closed adoption.
(Note this is a reprint of the paper I delivered at the Australian National Adoption Conference, Melbourne, 2013)
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