I Am Grateful To Be Adopted—and Yet, Adoption Is Still Traumatic

Adoption trauma

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

In the middle of a blizzard, my birthmother handed me over to my adoptive parents outside a hospital in suburban New Jersey, three days after I was born.

As I grew older, we moved into progressively larger houses, my Christmas presents were more costly, and the private university I attended expensive.

My parents remained married, and there was never any kind of neglect. (If anything, as a child of the helicopter-parenting generation and an Italian-American mother who didn’t work, I wanted less attention… but that’s another essay.)

My life was so peaceable growing up that being adopted was the only adversity I could think of to write my college essay about. This is fairly common for many adoptees—adoption isn’t cheap, so many adoptees go to families of privilege. 

I didn't suffer any major traumas within my adoptive family, or in general growing up. 

And yet, I have dealt with severe depression, and my psychiatrist monitors me for signs of bipolar because of genetic susceptibility combined with that attachment trauma. I’ve been in inpatient treatment for six weeks, I’ve attempted suicide twice (adoptees are four times as likely to attempt suicide as non-adoptees and deal with mental health issues at a higher rate than non-adoptees). I receive monthly ketamine infusions for my treatment-resistant depression.

Adoption, it would seem, treated me well. Loving parents who cared for me the best they knew how, never wanting for love or anything material.

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It’s Not Black and White 

Adoption narratives, like many other things on social media, paint things much more black and white than they actually are for many people. Anti-adoption advocates paint adoption as akin to human trafficking; adoptive parents and adoptee advocates paint adoption like it’s a fairy tale with a happy-ever-after ending.

But what if it’s somewhere in between? 

Growing up hashtag blessed doesn’t erase the trauma of being removed from my birthmother almost immediately after birth. I didn’t understand this until I was older, but our body stores trauma

I’ve always thought the inner child stuff was a little woo-woo for me, but there is an infant Theodora inside of me who didn’t have words for the trauma of being given up immediately after entering this world. She has been fighting for her life to get her needs met and be heard—and trying to kill me when they couldn’t be met. 

She is responsible for the chaos that is my irritable bowel syndrome, the squeezing of my head with the chronic tension headaches I have. My head frequently aches under the pressure I feel to prove that I’m not abandonable. The premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), as my reproductive system, my own womb, creates a violent storm through my severe mood swings and cramps. 

Anti-adoption advocates paint adoption as akin to human trafficking; adoptive parents and adoptee advocates paint adoption like it’s a fairy tale with its happy-ever-after ending. But what if it’s somewhere in between?

I startle easily, too, such as jumping when I receive a phone call, even one I am expecting. I always attributed this to my undying devotion for coffee, but I recently learned this is hypervigilance, something I only ever associated with PTSD from, well, anything but adoption. 

But if you’ve had that attachment severed at birth, isn’t it natural that you would always be on high alert, nervous of the next rejection?

My therapist says I go searching, and she’s right. I’ve been probing for the reasons why adoption affects me so much—when I know them biologically and intellectually, really—rather than looking at how it affects me. There’s not some big secret trauma I’m missing. There’s not one particular reason that validates my pain.

Intellectually, I do know and believe that my birthmother made the right decision for both me and herself. She was in college and wanted to finish undergrad and go to grad school, and having a kid just wasn’t in her plans—plus I know she was struggling, too, with her mental health, with substance use, with her own trauma.

But if you’ve had that attachment severed at birth, isn’t it natural that you would always be on high alert, nervous of the next rejection?

But I see myself literally curled up in the fetal position, isolating, all while clamoring for love, for touch, for attachment. It’s both never enough, and I freeze up, already anticipating it leaving.

I once did a walk-and-talk session with my therapist, and towards the end, I froze in panic, unable to take another step. I didn’t know why I was suddenly so anxious and she floated that maybe I was anxious because she was about to leave me. Indignant, I said, “Um, no, I’m OK with you leaving.” I mean, I’m an adult, and now a therapist myself! I know a therapy session ends after 50 minutes. I know I will see her next week.

My conscious was OK with her leaving. My unconscious was desperately hanging on to this woman with whom I have such a deep connection, like when my umbilical cord was severed, and with it, I became disconnected from my birthmother for life. 

Nurture Versus Nature

Privilege doesn’t negate not knowing where you came from or erase that always-wondering what’s nurture and what’s nature—something you’ve probably never thought about if you’re not adopted. 

The women on my mom’s side of the family all have self-described “bad feet.” They are prone to bunions, to corns, to myriad ailments of the feet. I remember looking on, envious, in a way that I didn’t fit in there.

Or my heritage. Raised Italian and Irish, but biologically Swedish. I feel like a fraud when I say I’m Italian, with my blonde hair and green eyes; I feel like an impostor when I say I’m Swedish because I know so little about that heritage. (I know these are privileges, too. Not only am I the same race as my adoptive parents, but I look so much like them, weirdly, that people are incredulous when they find out I was adopted.)

My conscious was OK with her leaving. My unconscious was desperately hanging on to this woman with whom I have such a deep connection...

I’ve never felt as much a part of the fabric, rather than the seams, on the edges, as when I visited Stockholm, where I was conceived. Even though I was only there for 18 hours and had never been there before, I felt a part of it, rather than looking at it from the outside.

My parents once briefly thought about sending me to Catholic school, and I sat in on a half day of school there once. I understood what the classes were about, I looked like the other kids, I was able to converse with them…and yet I wasn’t actually a part of the class. I’ve spent much of my life feeling like that—that I was sitting there going through the motions but I wasn’t actually a part of anything.

I don’t fault my adoptive parents or family for anything they did, because we all do the best we can with what we know at the time, right? But with that said, I’m learning there can still be profound effects—without additional trauma—of some of the usual adoption narrative. 

Telling an adoptee that you “don’t think of them as adopted” is a knife that cuts both ways. It’s meant to be an olive branch, but it also discounts that it is my reality, that I was separated at birth from the woman with whom I share DNA who carried me for nine months. It invalidates the reality of the complexity of all those feelings bubbling up just below the surface, pushing them down until that soda bottle bursts, spilling out years of repressed emotions.

It wasn’t until I started regular therapy at the age of 30 that anyone genuinely and earnestly asked me what it was like to be adopted, beyond a voyeuristic way. It’s taken me years to put into words those primal feelings of rejection that live in my gut and show up in so many ways in fear of abandonment, in relationships both platonic and romantic.

In 2017, my adoptive mother died, and it destroyed me. My closest attachment and connection in the world, yanked away from me. She was my ambassador to our family. Sometimes that was her playing puppeteer, as I’d come to understand more after she died, but mostly, it was her helping me maintain the relationships with the rest of the family. 

Telling an adoptee that you 'don’t think of them as adopted' is a knife that cuts both ways. It’s meant to be an olive branch, but it also discounts that it is my reality, that I was separated at birth from the woman with whom I share DNA, who carried me for nine months.

When she died, it was like I was marooned just outside the family but couldn’t get back inside. Especially since losing her, I so deeply envy the women my age who are part of multigenerational biological families—their own mothers, their own daughters/children. I know their lives aren’t perfect, but I see those deep ties, whereas I feel alone.

It wasn’t until I started a graduate program in clinical psychology to become a therapist that I really felt validated in my feelings about adoption—and that I felt permission to feel things beyond being grateful for the life my adoptive parents gave me (which I also am!). Though my views are less extreme than the anti-adoption narratives, I appreciate seeing them to give me words for the feelings I’ve repressed for so long for fear that they might destroy me if I gave air to them. 

Eventually, I learned that I’d been leaving myself my entire life, the way my birth mother had left me so long ago. If I never showed my full true self or even stayed with it on my own, I’d never be abandoned again. 

Our bodies and brains yearn for homeostasis and the familiar. If abandonment is what you know, it becomes “comfortable,” and self-abandonment is something you can “control.” 

If trauma changes the way we are wired, then perhaps my wires got crossed at birth, or even pre-birth. Maybe my nurture did save me from my nature, from avoiding some of the things my birthparents had to deal with that surely would have destroyed me.

If trauma changes the way we are wired, then perhaps my wires got crossed at birth, or even pre-birth. Maybe my nurture did save me from my nature, from avoiding some of the things my birthparents had to deal with that surely would have destroyed me.

Or surely I’d still have issues of a different kind if I’d either been raised by my birthparents or birthed by my adoptive parents.

Either way, these adults made decisions—some that gave me the canvas, some that gave me the paintbrushes and paint. It’s up to me to take those tools from them and paint my own life.

1 Source
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  1. Keyes MA, Malone SM, Sharma A, Iacono WG, McGue M. Risk of suicide attempt in adopted and nonadopted offspringPediatrics. 2013;132(4):639.

By Theodora Blanchfield, AMFT
Theodora Blanchfield is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist and mental health writer.