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PTSD and Post-Adoption Issues–What NOT to Say

         Published May 17, 2013
         By Laura

Sometimes even our best-intentioned loved ones make inadvertent yet serious mistakes when trying to help a trauma survivor. Following a trauma or abuse, survivors sometimes suffer from PTSD–Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In  PTSD, Not Only for Ex-Soldiers, Juanima Hiatt and I discussed PTSD, emotional “triggers,” and how the mental health system failed her. So I wanted to hear from her:

What people do wrong when they think they’re helping someone who is suffering with PTSD, trauma and abuse?

What not to do

Laura — What are the top three (annoying or most damaging) blunders or assumptions people make when trying to help someone with PTSD?

Juanima — Good question.  I recognize it’s agonizing for loved ones to watch a trauma survivor suffer so much, and of course they want to help make things better. I would say the top three worst assumptions are:

(1) “It’s all in your head.”

NO, it isn’t.

PTSD is a very real internal battle that the sufferer has no control over.  It’s intense and horrific, it’s invisible to the outside world, and it’s the darkest place you can imagine. The emotions one feels with PTSD are terrifying and overwhelming as well. It may not look like it from the outside, but it’s happening on the inside. Be sensitive to that possibility.

(2)  “Can’t you just get over it?”

Trauma that brings on PTSD is not just a bad memory that’ll be forgotten over time. This trauma has created a shift in the way that person perceives the entire world around them. This trauma has left catastrophic markers in the brain and body that only increase in intensity over time. Recovery takes TIME; a lot of time. You can’t rush someone with PTSD to get better. It’s a long road, and they need your love, support and patience as they walk this difficult journey.

(3)  “Here’s what you need to do…”

Please do not assume you know what the sufferer is feeling, or what they need to do to “fix things.” Every person’s journey with PTSD is as unique as the prints on our fingers.

You may have heard something worked for someone else with PTSD, but it may not work for your loved one. Talking works for some, but would be detrimental, inconceivable, or impossible for another. You must give them time to figure out what works for them. And please don’t try to force them to talk about their trauma and their pain. Just encourage them, and tell them you’re ready to listen when they’re ready to talk – but they may never be. And that needs to be okay.

What do PTSD and Post-Adoption Issues Have in Common?

Laura – If I had a nickel for the number of times I’ve heard that someone said these same exact things to adoptees … I could buy a lifetime of therapy for each adoptee. Kidding.

But seriously, for adoptees, it’s a little more specific, but the phrasing remains the same. People wonder

Why would you think you have post-adoption issues? Maybe it’s all in your head. Just be happy you were raised by your loving, adoptive family. Don’t be ungrateful, it’s all in God’s plan.

Ohhhh … these platitudes so grate on me.

Post-adoption issues are similar to PTSD, in fact in come cases unaddressed post-adoption issues can turn into PTSD. Losing one’s heritage, mother, ethnicity and biology — it’s a loss, for some the way in which the adoption occurred is a traumatic event.

It’s certainly not the same type of trauma that Juanima experienced, and we could argue about degree and depth and damage … but adoption involves loss and grief nonetheless.

Whether or not the adoptee had a happy adoptive family doesn’t negate the fact that their adoption signaled a loss. Please don’t frame it as “you should be happy you were adopted.” What if the adoptive parents sucked? What then? Is then it okay for an adoptee to have “issues”?

It shouldn’t matter; supporting an adoptee as he or she tries to process emotions does not involve negating their experience.

“Can’t you just get over it?”

I hear this one a lot. I’m in reunion, I have a good relationship with my birth and adoptive families. I’ve processed a lot of my post-adoption issues. I’ve “outed” myself as an adoptee publicly. So people wonder why can’t I stop talking and writing and thinking about it? Why can’t I just get over it already. Juanima said

Trauma that brings on PTSD is not just a bad memory that’ll be forgotten over time.

Similarly, my adoptiee status doesn’t just go away. I am adopted, I will always be adopted. My kids have a mother who is adopted. Yes, my kids have more love in some ways–they have my two moms, and my mother-in-law as grandmas.

But, they have a whole entire side of their biological family tree that wants nothing, nothing to do with them! And my kids are such fun little muffins.

To my paternal biological family, I and my children are persona non grata. Don’t worry, it’s not like I’m crying a river of tears that some close-minded people want nothing do with me or my super-cute non-adoptees. It’s just that adoption doesn’t go away like snap! You’re all better. Snap! You’re not adopted anymore. Snap! You’re over the trauma that led to your PTSD. Nope.

“Here’s what you need to do”

Here’s the truth: I have no idea what you specifically need to do to process yourself. To heal. I have no freakin’ clue. I can only offer suggestions, things that have worked for myself and others. And I can try to provide insight and resources for adoptees (and those who support them) as they emerge from the fog and attempt to deal with their pain, grief and loss.

So, you may be wondering why I’m constantly blogging about adoption, when I feel like I’ve processed my grief, my “what ifs,” and I’m even in a place where I can make jokes about my own secondary rejection.

That’s the thing … It’s because, like Juanima with PTSD, I’ve been at the bottom of the valley. I drove myself crazy, literally crazy trying to be the perfect person, the grateful adoptee. Because of my unaddressed post-adoption issues, I inadvertently let my latent bipolar tendencies emerge and get the better of me. I hit bottom. I nearly destroyed my mind.

But slowly, deliberately and drawing on that (in)famous “adoptee resilience,” I made the arduous trek up the hill. These days, I’m on stable footing; I can reach back and give a helping hand to my fellow adoptees.

That’s why I want to give voice to PTSD and the effects of trauma and abuse. That’s why I write about all this adoption crap all the time.

*  *  *  *  *

Yeeep, you guessed it … This is a dum, dum, dum … series. Catch up on my first conversation with Juanima here: PTSD and Triggers. I’ll be chatting more with Juanima next week about what you CAN do to support a trauma survivor.

Juanima Hiatt is the mother of two girls, a life coach, speaker, and author.  Her compelling memoir, The Invisible Storm, portrays her battle with PTSD and what it takes to overcome the disorder. Her uplifting blog focuses on healthy living, PTSD, and positive life change. Juanima is currently working on a YA novel series, and has a political thriller in development as well, but prioritizes helping people through her coaching practice to transform their life from a place of stagnancy and frustration, to balance, joy, and complete freedom. Contact her at juanimahiatt@gmail.com.

Image “Hooded Person” by Ambro from freedigitalphotos.net

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13 Comments
  1. Laura, I am so grateful to you for your blog. I posted a link to this post at http://www.splitfeathers.blogspot.com today – my deepest thanks for your writing and research. You make my day!

    • Thanks sooooo much, I'm grateful for you, too! Just commented over at your blog — love, Laura

  2. Lee H. permalink

    Laura…so many things in your blog resonate with me. I think I am PTSD-ish…don't know if it is full-blown or not or how I would know. I have been in therapy for over a year, and it has been the best gift I could have given myself. It helps to know that this stuff is "normal" in a context that feels "crazy"…I do believe that my body feels things that it experienced as trauma before I knew what was going on. Now I have more awareness and the tools to help me deal with it…new ways with coping other than the denial I have used for 46 years that suddenly ceased to be effective anymore.

    I don't know if you wrote this or someone else, but it is quite a relief for me to know I won't ever be fully healed…it's like a chronic condition that can be treated and not healed…it takes a lot of the pressure off, and, oh my, don't we all need that!

    • Lee,
      Yes, one of the reasons I want to write about how PTSD can come about is so that people who are dealing with traumatic events and abuse can begin to recognize some of the symptoms *before* it becomes "full blown" PTSD. So yes, I like this phrase — PTSD-ish. Totally! And good for you for getting yourself into therapy. Like you say, the denial just wasn't working anymore.
      Laura

  3. Greg permalink

    Too many times dealing with any grieving others try to resolve the one who is grieving rather than just acknowledging their grieving and be there for them. A simple "I am sorry for your loss" and lets go out for your favorite food or drinks (If they are an adult) will mean more to that person than any "advice" they can give.

    For Laura, Juanima and other adoptees and birth/first parents who follow this blog, I am sorry for your losses and wish you the best on your journeys.

    • I agree — just being there, treating someone like a normal person (i.e. food and drinks) — can mean the world.

  4. Awesome blog, Laura (as usual) .. . . some really great points. I think your writing about all this "adoption stuff" is helpful to others trying to process all their "adoption stuff" and we will probably be dealing with the "adoption stuff" for years or generations to come! I was told I have anger issues by a non-adoptee yesterday and it made me laugh. Maybe I really do–i get angry at the blanket assumptions/statements people make without really thinking. I am angry at the closed-era system of adoption that kept me from my roots for so long. Do I feel it is PTSD? No, but I won't claim that it can be fixed in this lifetime. So I am a proud angry adoptee! Thanks for sharing your insights. Love you:)

    • Yes — and when we can talk about out adoption stuff together … I think it does take us to a new, different place.

      I completely understand your anger, and I'm pissed off on your behalf, as well!

  5. zygotepariah permalink

    "Be grateful". I'll take "What Not to Say" for $500, Alex.

    I recently read an article that had some very pro-adoption replies. One adoptee chimed in to say that often adoptees suffer issues surrounding adoption. Someone retorted with, "You didn't even deserve to be adopted".

    So, not only do we have to be grateful for the removal of our names, mothers, identity, families, etc., we also have to be deserving of it.

    Right. Now I've heard everything.

  6. Congrats to Juanima (what a beautiful name) for your courage and tenacity to get well and then work to help others. This is the silver lining, isn't it? You understand. You've been in the mire and know what it feels like. It must be so gratifying to see others respond and heal due to your counsel.

    PTSD does take time. I can vouch for that. For years I believed I would NEVER be well and I had come to accept that I would go to my grave a wounded person. It's been 20 years and just in the last 3 or so I've felt normal. There are still triggers but knowing what they are and remembering that they're my mind's flawed fight of flight response, helps me calm down and see the reality of it.

    I'm not an adoptee but I've heard the platitudes. Oh how they hurt. I hid from people to protect myself. Most people are well-meaning, just ignorant. They want to help but don't know how so out of impatience, they blurt what they've heard. I'm sure I'm guilty of it as well.

    Great post.

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