Adoption is an Adverse Experience

In the coming week I’ll be presenting at a couple of conferences on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). As I’ve been preparing, it got me thinking a lot about adoption and ACEs.

Here’s my disclaimer…my work is currently in the health promotion field and has been in the field of therapy with a focus on trauma, anxiety disorders, and substance use disorders. But that’s not why I’m writing this today. To clarify, I’m not writing about this to espouse some blanket ideas of ACEs and adoption as though it’s evidence-based. ACEs are something I’ve spent a good bit of time studying and I merely want to draw some connections I see with my own experiences.

Content warning: I’ll be talking about some sensitive topics so make sure to take care of yourself.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente conducted a study on Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, and their impact (if you want to nerd out like I do, check out the CDC’s website all about it). ACEs, by their definition, are “potentially traumatic experiences that occur in childhood.” From this study, we’ve been able to see more clearly the impact of childhood events on mental health, physical health, and wellbeing.

There are three main categories of ACEs: abuse, household challenges, and neglect. Within those categories are various types of ACEs that then provide a score of sorts. Researchers used the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System to conduct the questionnaire. The findings showed that higher ACE scores were strongly correlated with lasting impacts on mental health, physical health, overall wellbeing, and opportunity. So those are some of the basics.

For me, I knew that I had experienced hardships and challenges in childhood before coming to live with my adoptive parents, events that fit in each of the above categories. It took becoming an adult before I truly had a name I could call it. In the beginning, it was just trauma. That dreaded word. A word so ripe with a meaning that I wanted desperately to disconnect from. I just hadn’t considered that my adoption itself and the ripple effect it would have was also an adverse experience.

I could mentally flip through the events of my life “pre-adoption” and recoil with the pain of those moments. I could clearly recognize the trauma of those experiences. In my nine short years I had trudged through separation from my mother in toddlerhood, the death and loss of my father at age six, and the instability of moving from one home to another (a grand total of some six different caregivers and 11 different homes). I could reconcile on some level that those experiences rose to meet the threshold of the T-word.

It wasn’t always the same with my “post-adoption” life. By the time I went to live with my parents, I had come to understand to be more cautious and be just a bit more perfect. I ached in my gut from the thought of being unwanted and being “sent back.” Mind you, no one had to put this thought in my mind…I did that all of my own accord. I came to understand through my many moves that if I had just been better, less of a burden, or not so problematic I might have been allowed to stay. I was then so conditioned to do all I could to ensure that wouldn’t happen again.

To parents’ credit, they did recognize some of these immediate things and had me start therapy relatively early on in my time with them. Obvious signs of my anxiety (read: trauma response) became apparent in my calling my mom from the school nurse’s office daily to ensure she would be picking me up from school that day (so I’ve been told as I have no recollection of this), sleep being impossible to find, irrational fear of impending doom on my family, and a stomach pain that refused to be ignored.

I don’t remember that I stayed in therapy long, I cannot say why. I had shoved these events aside as a mere symptom of the experiences I had had not as part of and as a result of my adoption itself. I sometimes wonder how much of this shoving aside I did was out of my own will and how much under the influence of societal expectations of adoption, adoptees, and the narratives that have been created for us.

I think my journey of coming to terms with my adoption, what it all means, and my identity in it all really began when I was preparing to have my first child. There’s been nothing like having my own child that so entirely shattered the carefully erected pseudo reality society had constructed for me. Admittedly, I had helped envelop that illusion with a bubble of my own creation. But from looking at it now, I think in some corner of myself, I was working toward it since my adoption.

Inescapable and cruel reminders did lift that fog, if only for a moment. Such was a time when I was still relatively new to my family and a cousin asked why I didn’t just go back to my real family. Or when, in high school, that same cousin called me a “slant-eyed bitch” out of anger. My family certainly weren’t the only to thrust me into that cold-water of reality. The countless times of being asked where was I really from…were they my real parents…didn’t I miss my real family. We all know those questions and comments.

I wish I could say I felt at home in my own home. In ways, I was…it wasn’t as though my life was awful with my parents…far from it. The daily tinge of not belonging was not of my parent’s doing but rather a simple inevitability when none of the connections I had was a reflection of myself. Born of that tinge was the canyon I built between my Koreanness and myself. In my desire to expel this central part of me, I found myself disgusted with the reflection in the mirror, my internal image of myself marred and unrecognizable, and parroting all the classic, tired adoption troupes of being lucky to be chosen.

As I moved through my adolescence and early adulthood, graduating high school, college, and grad school, I was regularly met with sentiments from those around me expressing pride in all I’d been able to accomplish and do because I had been adopted. Layer upon layer of weight hammering me further into the ground, nearly to the point of disappearing.

As an adoptee, I experienced multiple abandonments early in life but my adoption itself was a form of abandonment. Someone had to make the decision to “put me up” for adoption. Someone made the choice to not keep me part of our family. Someone made the choice to separate me from that and hand me off to someone new. While it opened many doors for me that may not have been opened without adoption, a door also had to be shut.

I also don’t want to stay in the doom and gloom by just focusing on ACEs. Despite my lived experiences, I’ve also built resiliency and been lucky enough to have some critical social supports that have helped to offset the full impact. I’ve also had the privilege of being raised in a stable, middle class family. That’s not to say it’s not a daily struggle.

Like many things, it’s a wave crashing in and flooding back out…a push and pull within myself. It’s standing at the edge of a cliff and, not stumbling in, but rather jumping by choice. I don’t know if there is a full emerging from this fog, it feels more like just finding a way to move through it.

I find great value in the ACE study. It has rightfully had an immense impact on the public health and mental health fields. I also believe it to be incomplete. It fails to recognize other nuances of adverse experiences children can have that might not look typical in researchers eyes. Some studies have been conducted looking at ACEs and adoption/adoptees.

I would say, however, that it’s not near enough as applying the questionnaire as is might not adequately measure the experiences many of us have had. The same is true of BIPOC communities. It’s a significant shortcoming to view the adversity experienced by BIPOC, adoptee, and other communities through predominantly white lenses that lack the depth and understanding of the systems, contexts, and complexities of these communities’ lived experiences.

We cannot look at ACEs and not understand the disproportionate impact on BIPOC communities. ACEs in these communities are not a deficiency of the individuals, families, or communities but rather a symptom of the systemic injustices and disparities that exist. A critical aspect of ACEs is not JUST the experiences of an individual but rather a collective of generational and historical trauma as well. It’s a recognition that adverse experiences don’t just end with one person. It continues on and perpetuates and is compounded by institutional and systemic injustices.

As a parent of two small children, this is what loads me down many days. Making a conscious decision to parent better, to not continue this cycle by going to my default responses just isn’t enough. Maybe that’s a large part of setting out on this journey. The continued healing and rediscovery of my identity isn’t just about me. It’s so I can do and be better for my children so maybe they won’t have to do so much of this as they grow.


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