“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” – Brene Brown
I am not going to sugar coat adoption.
I have been a student of trauma for over a decade now; as both survivor myself, as an adoptive parent, and as someone who walked the path with two different children as they navigate their belonging in this world. It is a messy, complicated and downright heartbreaking endeavor. I was 24 years old the first time I ever even heard the word “trauma” in relationship to what I had experienced as a young child. I never had any definitions or explanations for the emotional land mines I had found myself falling into during my young adult years and the fears of abandonment I found myself battling so frequently in interpersonal relationships. My twenties were emotionally exhausting years filled with a great deal of pain and heartache.
I knew pretty early on that there was a hole inside of myself that did not exist in so many of the people around me – a longing of sorts – to be mothered, to be nurtured, and to belong. I knew I had anxiety, panic attacks, and moments of crippling fear. But I didn’t yet have the language or the emotional intelligence to acknowledge that those clinical manifestations had anything to do with my chemical makeup, the way my brain adapted to survive repetitive and prolonged stress, or the foundational blows of traumatic experiences of my childhood with a mentally ill mother. I just saw those emotions as something that made me broken.
It would not be until I moved in my 10 year old cousin in with me at age 24 and subsequently adopted a toddler from Ethiopia that I would begin to embark on my study of attachment and trauma and it’s long term affects.
Since that time, I like to think I have become somewhat of a master of this topic. I have devoured every study, every article, every book ever written on the subject; determined to become proficient on the complexities and methods of healing these kinds of wounds. They say that our greatest strengths come from our greatest adversities, that we seek to teach what we most need to learn, and in my case I was determined to heal my two children of these wounds without the awareness that I was also simultaneously working to heal myself. Sometimes we attempt to give what we most need ourself.
The world around us has changed a great deal in the past few years, and it is truly remarkable that this research is so much more mainstream and accessible than it was when I originally set out on my journey. Trauma informed therapy and trauma informed classrooms were terms only my adoption community knew anything about for many, many years. Brain scans and research has catapulted and I am so encouraged that so many others such as myself will have accessibility to this life changing information to promote earlier interventions and healing. In my experience, trauma therapy has been been hidden within adoption circles when there are so many outside of that context that are in dire need of these kinds of interventions. Understanding why these symptoms present themselves and the impact trauma makes on the brain is the biggest step in self awareness and self acceptance that you are not broken but a survivor and the key to overcoming these kinds of adversities.
With all of that said, with all of my knowledge and awareness, with all of my tools in my toolbox, and all of my empathetic mastery, there are still some wounds that will never completely heal. I can work like a dog on myself, with my kids, and in the community to undo the chemical wounds of broken attachments and early foundational trauma – but I have very recently come to a place of acknowledgment that my biggest step in this journey is the acceptance that you can not shield yourself or others from the residual triggers and pain that remain even after the healing has taken place.
It has been a painstaking and challenging experience to birth two babies and watch the effects of that experience onto my adopted child and my cousin who I never formally adopted.
And I get it….
I can feel and say and mean in every since of the word….that they belong to ME. That they are mine. They are loved. That the love is NO different.
I have fought with every passionate intention inside of myself to protect them and shield them from ever feeling different, or lost, or alone, or like they do not know where they belong. I can hug them a million times a day, I can tell them they are enough, that they are chosen, they are birthed in my heart, that our skin may be different but our love and our family supersedes genetics and biology. I can carefully maneuver discipline to avoid triggering these foundational wounds and attempt to bypass them feeling from that “they are bad.” I mean these things. I mean them in my bones. After all I set out of my adoption journey to shield my children from feeling exactly the way I had felt in terms of not belonging.
And this is where being an adoptive parent gets complicated….
There is still pain….and it is still different…and trauma is chemical....and some wounds cut deep.
My son still said right after the babies were born that he wished he was birthed from me
and felt the pain of what he has lost. He still drove home with me on vacation and said he wished he was white after living in such a white world. My cousin is still triggered by the birth of the babies and what they have had in a mother from the day they were born and what she was left without. There is this acute awareness of what it means to be created in your mothers womb and breast fed from her body. There is still loss. There is still an unspoken feeling that it’s not the same. I am still not enough some days to shield them. Some days I feel like not enough overall. I could not undo it.
I had to let go of that goal.
And I am learning to allow that pain and that feeling of “not fully belonging” to exist without scrambling to fix it or it meaning that I am less of a mom or not enough. Im not going to lie, it’s maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Watching your kids endure any pain is absolutely gut wrenching; but I know learning to be with “what is” and allowing those feelings, land mines, and triggers to not mean anything is broken but the reality of what we are all feeling is the only way through it all. I still slip at times myself both as a mother and as a survivor myself. I still have days that I overcompensate or feel completely devastated when the loss bubbles up in the kids.
There are still days even as a grown adult that I am triggered and find myself pushing love away or feeling like the other shoe is about to drop. There are days I am convinced there is a threat to my marriage and my family and I am overcome with fear that someone will cheat, or get in an accident, or wake up and leave. I have learned to be honest about those fears and to own them without beating myself up for those insecurities. I have learned to own my triggers and my fears without any shame for the emotions I feel in those moments. I have come to simply say…“its hard to have these feelings and I am doing my best to quiet them and tell my evidential mind that they are wrong.” There is a fine line between self protection and fear keeping you from the love you deserve.
I know now how to honor that I have experienced multiples ACES and that my brain and my body has been affected. I have also come to acknowledge that certain stresses eliminate my cognitive thinking and catapult me into my emotional brain. I have learned how to use my breath and my body to eliminate those hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol and regulate my emotions during times of stress. I have learned how to avoid chemicals such as alcohol and nicotine as methods of dulling those stress responses when they overwhelm me and I need the noise quieted down. I have learned to get acupuncture and take vitamins and drink green juices when I am maxed out. I have learned self care and how to be more gentle on myself.
I may not have been able to stop the triggers, or stop the pain…but I have learned how to cope. I have learned how to be resilient.
Someone very special taught me that I am safe, powerful and connected.
And so that is all I will wish for my adopted children. That they learn to breathe through their triggers. That they can come to build a relationship with themselves that they can recognize when their “attachment” is at play and when their bodies and minds are being hijacked by their traumas. That they can know the difference between what they feel and sense when stress chemicals are flooding their systems and what they feel and who they are when oxytocin and safety grounds them. That they gravitate towards situations and people that bring safety and reject people and situations that leave them feeling small for their imperfections or emotions. I hope that they learn that their big feelings are their superpower and that they don’t give into a social media world where it is more cool to be indifferent and shallow. I want them to be brave enough to have the real conversations and to advocate for their needs. I pray I can empower them to understand that we are primal beings with complex brain chemistries that are difficult to fight against in a world so filled with stress and pain.
Maybe I can’t create a world of complete belonging, but I hope somewhere along the line I will have taught them how to rise. More than that I hope I have given them the courage to own their stories and their vulnerability. To have the courage to see their pain and their suffering as their strength. To see resilience as their gift to the world and to understand that those who don’t understand don’t matter and it’s only through that journey that you become.”
‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
― Margery Williams Bianco,