Full show notes: https://www.adopteeson.com/listen/hstrauma
Episode Transcription by Fayelle Ewuakye. Find her on Twitter at @FayelleEwuakye
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Haley - You’re listening to Adoptees On, the podcast where adoptees discuss the adoption experience. I’m your host, Haley Radke, and this is a special episode in our Healing Series, where I interview therapists who are also adoptees themselves, so they know from personal experience, what it feels like to be an adoptee. Today, we are talking about when adoption is not the only trauma. Let’s listen in.
Haley - I’m so pleased to welcome, to Adoptees On, Janet Nordine, welcome back, Janet!
Janet - Thank you for having me!
Haley - I’m so glad to be speaking to you again! We really enjoyed our conversations last time and today we’re gonna go back into adoption trauma, most unfun thing ever to talk about. But you know, we had been talking a while ago about how adoptees, we kind of acknowledge now that being separated from our first family is a trauma and it has a big impact on our brains and our systems. And then we’re still living life and have imperfect families that have adopted us or maybe we were in foster care or there’s all sorts of situations that can come up, you know? Abuse, assaults, all kinds of things in childhood and into adulthood. So there’s other traumas that come into our lives. So that’s kind of what we’re focusing in on today. Adoption is a trauma but then there’s also other things that kind of impact our lives. Can you talk to us a little bit about that and what trauma does to us and just especially to adoptees, what you want to say to us about that?
Janet - I sure can. I’ve been working in the field of trauma, I’m here in Las Vegas, for about the past 20 years. I’ve been a therapist for 10 years, and 10 years before that I worked at the local rape crisis center, I worked for a family resource center so I was engaged with lots of families in lots of different situations that involved trauma. And what trauma does to us, is it leaves a fingerprint on our brain Our brains are made of plastic which is the good news because that means they can heal. So our plastic brains have had these things happen to us, where the neurotransmitters in our brains are sending us all these chemicals and we’re having all these responses. And the good news about that, and I like to talk about good news in trauma because it is such a heavy topic, the good news about our brain is that it has this response. It has a fight, flight, or freeze, and sometimes even collapse response, and that’s to keep us safe. So our brain is made to keep us safe. So when we’re experiencing those moments of disassociation or we’re experiencing those moments of, we can’t figure out why we’re so angry and what’s happening, it’s our brain’s response to keep us safe. And safety is what our brain wants the most.
Haley - I like that reframing for us. The flight or freeze, say it again, fight, flight, or freeze.
Janet - Fight, flight, freeze, collapse.
Haley - Okay, it’s a tongue twister.
Janet - It is, it is.
Haley - It’s seen as such a negative thing usually, but you’re saying this is what your brain is supposed to do.
Janet - It is, and I really feel like these emotions, that’s information. What are they telling us about ourselves? How can we focus in on those and say, oh I’m having this anger response, what is this about today? And sometimes when we’re in that anger response, it’s really hard for us to have that kind of a thought. But afterwards, in the 20 minutes that we’re in recovery, we can think back , now what really was the trigger, or the thing that caused me to feel that angry? And we can really work on resolving that and looking at it in a different way.
Haley - Looking at person who was not adopted. They’ve had trauma in their life. We’ve had at the beginning a trauma, plus life trauma. What would you say would be the difference, is there one?
Janet - Well I think the difference would be is, for adoptees like you and I that were relinquished right at birth, our trauma started at that moment. Our trauma started the moment we were removed from our biological parent, our mother. And we didn’t know where we went. In my case I went for the first 7 months of my life, I have no idea where I was. Until I ended up in my family that I’ve been raised with. So for those first 7 months, I have a picture of myself that my parents took the very first day I was with them and I look frozen. And I’ve heard that from many adoptees, that they have this frozen look on their face. So that was my brain’s response to all of the things that had happened. I had frozen. So the difference I believe, and this is just my thought process as a therapist, is adoptees, their trauma starts at the very moment of birth, or even maybe before because maybe we know we’re going to not stay with our mother and there are studies about in utero trauma as well. But other people that experience trauma, maybe the trauma happened as an adult or maybe the big trauma happened in their childhood with domestic violence or abuse from their parents, and so they had maybe a year or two or more before the trauma started to kind of have this normal type of development. And then the trauma occurred so our trauma started very early, where maybe other children and adults, it happens later. So we live in that place of fight, flight, freeze, collapse from the moment we’re born.
Haley - And then some of those things happen to adopted people as well. So there’s, I mean, we’ve both heard terrible stories.
Janet - Yeah.
Haley - So we don’t need to explain those things. But what happens when it’s compounded? Trauma compounded? I don’t know, what do you call that?
Janet - Complex trauma. It becomes complex.
Haley - There you go, that’s the real term, good job. Okay.
Janet - That’s the term, yes. What happens when we have complex trauma, those responses from our brain, they become somatic, they become stuck in our cells, in our body, and we really have to find ways to heal our whole self, not just our mind. I work with the, lots of different children in foster care that are moving towards adoption. And I’ve have kids that have witnessed horrible, horrible things between their parents and I have children that have been sexually abused. And I've worked with children that have been horrible neglect. And the most interesting thing to me is that the children that have had neglect, where they’ve been left sitting as infants in a car seat, they're really struggling to just cope in life, and to make relationships and to make those connections. Because early on they didn’t have that intimacy with a parent or a caregiver, where other children may have had that. And then they witness these things. And they’re able to vocalize and verbalize some of the things that they’ve experienced, but that preverbal trauma, that developmental trauma, it’s really the most difficult part to work with and help children heal from. And I believe adults as well. You know, we’ve had that preverbal trauma so we’re trying to figure out how do we explain that? How do we talk through that? How do we work through that?
Haley - Can you tell us about the, what ACE is? And that—
Janet - It’s the, ACE stands for Adverse Child Experiences. It’s an ACE questionnaire. And it was actually thought of by a doctor by the name of Vincent Felitti and he was doing, of all things, an obesity study. And he was looking at why these people were dropping out of this obesity study. And the people that he was able to contact that had dropped out, they all had these adverse childhood experiences, these traumas in their childhood. And he started to correlate some of the food insecurities and eating difficulties of these study participants with their childhood trauma. So a lot of adoptees, myself included, have food insecurities, because they were undernourished or whatever happened to them at a young age. And he started to look at that and then he talked to another doctor by the name of Robert Anda. And he worked for the CDC and the two of them together came up with this questionnaire and it’s a list of 10 questions. And you answer them and then you have your score. And this is something that gives the person that’s taking the questionnaire information about themselves. Now if you can go online and you can find everything on the internet, and you can go online and you can take this test and you can score it. But a note of caution, some of the questions are difficult, and filling out the questionnaire can cause distress. So if you choose to go online and you choose to take this questionnaire, keep in mind that to keep yourself safe, and if you start to feel that discomfort or that anxiety just close your browser and come back to it, or work through it with a trusted therapist or a trusted friend. But some of the questions, and the one that I really wanna focus on, that’s adoption related, is number 6. And it reads, “Was a biological parent ever lost to you through divorce, abandonment, or other reasons?” and for adoptees, I think most of us would say yes, if we were removed or abandoned by our parent. Other questions, “Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you touch or fondle you in a way that you did not want?” So that’s a sexual question, sexual abuse question. Talks about, did anyone ever hit you, did anyone ever act in a way that made you feel hurt or afraid? Your family didn’t look out for each other or you didn’t feel close or supported by each other, some of these questions are innate to adoptees because maybe we didn’t feel supported by the family that we were adopted by or maybe we did have some of those things happen to us. One of the things I was thinking about as adoptees, we’re always looking for acceptance, we want somebody to love us. And if we didn’t feel we were getting that in our adoptive family, maybe a perpetrator or another family member came along and they offered you that love and support that you were looking for. So possibly you were, and I don’t like this term, but you were easily manipulated to be abused. An easy target is the term I was thinking because you’re really seeking that. Some of these questions as an adoptee bring up a lot of feelings. And a lot of concerns.
Haley - Well I know when I was reading it, I was like, I think a lot of adoptees can say yes to these things.
Janet - Yeah.
Haley - Even if, it’s bad. Even if you weren’t in a really horrible situation, like, I think yeah. Even, “Was the household member depressed or mentally ill?” Like, those kind of things a lot of us would say one or both of our adoptive parents have, if they were infertile they might have unresolved grief from that. You know, like there’s a lot of things that I think just come with adoption for all of us. Not just the adopted person.
Janet - Yes. And that question number 6 that I shared with you earlier about being separated from a caregiver, biological parent, specifically causes some physical problems. And the specific ones are, that it listed, cardiovascular disease, lung disease, diabetes, MS, headaches, lupus. And we’re three times at risk for me than the regular person for depression. So just that question number 6 come with a whole package of prizes that you get if you have had those things, that particular thing happen to you.
Haley - Just, prizes, that’s good.
Janet - I say that with sarcasm.
Haley - I get you, I get you. Okay, so this feels, this feels also depressing. To fill out this form and be like, yep, traumatized at the start and it just keeps going. So where’s the hope in knowing this?
Janet - Well I am always a person that I believe knowledge is power. And when we know what our score is, we can do something about it. You know, there’s lots of adoptees wandering around going, oh I just don’t know what’s wrong with me, I don’t know why I feel this way. This particular question where it gives you information and then you can take that questionnaire to a trauma and adoption competent therapist and say, help me and here’s my score. And I really think that having that knowledge and that information, leads you to the next step which is getting help which leads you to the next step which is healing. And it’s possible to heal because like I said before, our brains are plastic. And we can heal some of those difficult things that have happened to us in the past.
Haley - So we’ve talked before on this show about a variety of healing modalities that therapists can use, trauma informed therapists can use. Like, EMDR, and brain spotting, and neurofeedback, those are probably the most common ones that most of us have heard of. Can you tell us about, I know that you are really trained in this because of your work with foster children. Can you tell us what makes a trauma informed practitioner, what kind of things would we be looking for, to find a therapist that has those skills? And I know it’s more than just, can you do EMDR?
Janet - Right. Right. You know, EMDR is an excellent modality for therapy, with trauma. And the thing you want to make sure that your therapist understands is they understand the neuroscience, how the brain works. Why the brain responds the way it does to trauma. And they would understand the brain chemistry, how things are put together. In my office I have a little model of a brain and it’s squishy and it comes apart and it has all the parts. And the kids love to pick it up and say, what part of my brain is making me feel this way? And I can show them and it really helps them understand, I’m not a bad kid, I just, my brain is acting just how it’s supposed to. So you wanna find a therapist that understands that part of human development and why your brain is acting the way it does. You wanna find somebody that has some tools in their tool belt. Not just the EMDR, but you wanna have, ‘cause not everyone responds to EMDR. Not everyone can manage the big emotions that sometimes comes with that. I do sand tray and sand tray is a form of therapy where you take several different characters and put them in the sand and it tells a story about really what’s going on in your subconscious. And it’s amazing to me the healing that comes from the storytelling, the narrative of the trauma. Some people are talkers. And they wanna be able to tell you the story. I do some narrative storytelling with children where we recreate the story in a book form. And sometimes we’ll change the characters to animals and sometimes we’ll change them to make the story turn out in a different way and it helps them be able to understand what’s happened to them and be able to tell their story. And I think adults need that too. We need to sit down and tell our story. I mean how many adoptees have you had on your show and they start out by telling their story and that’s a huge part of healing. Somatic experiences, being able to feel it in your body, because a lot of us are numb to those emotions, we just shut down, we’re in that freeze mode. Steven Porges in the polyvagal theory talks about collapse and actually people can die from that. Like it’s such a shock and such a trauma that their body just shuts down completely and that can occur as well. So there’s just lots of things you wanna make sure that therapist knows about. And also they need to understand that adoption is trauma.
Haley - Okay, I wanna pause you there ‘cause I really wanna hear. I know you do play therapy. And that you’re trained in it. Can adults do that?
Janet - Absolutely. I’m actually at this moment, while we’re speaking, pending my application to be a registered play therapist. I’m 6 weeks into the 8 week process, so just waiting for that to come through. I’m really excited about that. But absolutely adults can do play therapy. I’ve done sand tray with adults. I have this funny thing I do with pool noodles where we joust with them, and we hit each other with the pool noodles and we step back and we breathe. You step into that aggression and then you step out of it. And you can prove to yourself that you don’t have to stay in aggression, that you can breathe through it. I have musical instruments I play and we do matching. So you have that matched beat with another person and adults do that with their kids and adults do that with me as well. It’s lots of fun. And I build Legos all the time.
Haley - To me that seems like a more easily accessible, especially for someone who is really not super interested in going for talk therapy or you talk about brain spotting and they’re like, that’s a little woo woo.
Janet - Right.
Haley - It’s kind of like an easier step in, I don’t know.
Janet - It is and the thing that’s amazing is, in the process of that, you’re changing the wiring of your brain. You’re changing how your brain is thinking and feeling because you’re having those good chemicals released when you’re playing, you’re have these good things happen in your brain. And you’re able to also speak through and share some of the thoughts that you’re having. And a lot of adoptees, they weren’t real playful as children. I was one of those kids that was like, out of sight, out of mind. And quiet and stayed in the room with my cat. And played with the cat, and put the doll clothes on the cat. So for me to be an adult and playing with children and enjoying that, it’s just really amazing to me, because I didn’t really access that part of my life as a child.
Haley - Same. Totally same for me. I remember, it’s a little churchy reference, but I remember going to youth group and they would play all these different games, just like really crazy made up games, whatever. And I always was like, this is the lamest thing, why are we doing this. Like, we’re practically adults, this is so. But you know what I’ve even noticed, that you’re language includes this. For example, while we’re recording this, we’re going to be seeing each other very soon. And so every once in a while, you’ll say, oh I can’t wait to play. And you use it in your everyday conversation.
Janet - Absolutely. And I can’t wait to play. I may bring bubbles so we can pop them.
Haley - Well I do have two teeny boys at home, so bubbles are a regular part when it’s not winter. Going back to having this complex trauma and you know, you taught us about the ACES questionnaire, is there anything else that you think that we need to know as adopted people that is hopeful and you know, even for people that are like, I don’t even know if therapy’s right for me. Yes, I might have this complex trauma, but I feel like I’m getting by okay. They don’t necessarily want to go too deep into this yet. What do you wanna say to someone like that?
Janet - Well, you know, the musician Pink?
Haley - Yes.
Janet - I love her and I got to see her this last year and one of my very favorite lyrics from one of her songs is, “Change the voices in your head, make them like you instead.” And I think about that and I think, how many years have we all spent like thinking negative thoughts about ourselves? So if we can spend 5 minutes of our day loving kindness about ourselves. You know if we treat ourselves as if we would treat another person who maybe our best friend or somebody that we really care about, what would that be like? Self-compassion, one thing that I do when I’m feeling especially stressed, is I’ll put my hand on my heart. And I’ll think, good heart. Kind heart. And I pat it. I’m doing it right now. And it really calms me. And it gives me that good feedback about myself. Touch is a big deal. A lot of people don’t like hugs or they don’t like to be touched. But if you can find somebody that you’re safe with and you get that normal steady diet of touch, it’s really critical for your healthy development, for your healing. You can get a massage, maybe a reiki, I try to do that once a month. If you’re not a person toucher, get an animal, get a dog and touch a dog. We have one of the therapists that has a therapy dog within our office. And the therapists all love to pet the dog. We all just look for him all the time. Having good nutrition is really important, making sure you’re adding some omega 3s, some fatty acids, that’s really good for your brain. Write a story for yourself or write yourself a love letter to that little child inside of you that maybe didn’t feel accepted or loved. Write ten reasons I love you to yourself, that little child. There’s lots of things you can do to be creative and maybe draw pictures of something that reminds you of joy that you felt in your life, a sunset at a beach or something. Be artistic. Other things you can do is some mindfulness. Bringing those good thoughts into your mind. Doing that every day. Focus on your breath. Sometimes in session when I’m hearing an especially hard story, I have ten toes and I can squeeze 10 toes, 10 times as I’m in my shoes. Nobody sees me do it. But it helps me stay grounded and focused and that's something you can as well when you’re starting to feel that stress. Get release in your body. I just love, we can have loving kindness towards ourselves not just other people. And I think that’s a huge part of our own healing.
Haley - I have said to multiple friends when they’re talking down about themselves. Like, hey, don’t say that to my best friend.
Janet - Right, I love that you do that. That’s awesome.
Haley - It kind of shocks people into being like, oh wait.
Janet - Don’t be mean to my friend like that.
Haley - Yeah, exactly. We need that reminder to ourselves. I have the critic. I understand.
Janet - That inner critic that we all need to remind that critic that we love the critic as well, not just get away. Embrace it, validate it. I get why you’re there. How can I be your friend?
Haley - Okay. Okay. That is a different twist on it to for me.
Janet - Tell your brain to quit being so judgy about yourself.
Haley - Yeah, you know, and this kind of takes us back to what you were telling us at the very start. That the reactions that our brain are having, it’s like, it’s out of protection, and it’s supposed to be doing those things. So how do you train it to not feel scared?
Janet - It’s kind of like when you’re on a diet. And you’re on McDonald’s 20 days in a row. And then you decide to go on a diet and you’re not gonna drive to McDonald’s anymore. And your car still thinks, oh I need to drive to McDonald’s and you have to really steer it somewhere else. It’s just like that.
Haley - Yeah, the ruts are deep, right?
Janet - They are, yes. For sure.
Haley - Oh thanks Janet. Is there anything else that you wanna tell us, teach us, or anything before we close out?
Janet - Well I think something that’s really important that we need to know is that we are resilient. Wave been hurt in relationships and the way that we heal is in relationships. This show is building relationships between you and million, I don’t know, a lot of adoptees.
Haley - It’s not millions, it is not millions.
Janet - Not there yet.
Haley - No.
Janet - Someday millions. But just think about the impact this show has on one person who talks to another person as the ripples in the sea. But we are resilient people. Our brain is made to heal, it’s plastic. You know, I am not perfect at this, I have days when I fall apart. I have days when I want everyone to get out of the pool of my life and leave me alone. And then I have to like, kinda repair and repent and make up for that day that I had and it takes time and it’s difficult. But as I said, if we have been damaged or hurt in relationships, we can heal in relationships, and that doesn’t mean reunion. It means relationships with other people.
Haley - Wonderful, thank you. Where we can we connect with you online?
Janet - Well I have a blog. It’s ExperienceCourage.com and my email is email@example.com.
Haley - Alright, thank you so much Janet.
Janet - You’re welcome.
Haley - It was just a pleasure to talk with you as always.
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