PTSD and Post-Adoption Issues–What NOT to Say
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image “Hooded Person” by Ambro from freedigitalphotos.net