April 26, 2013

Significant Loss & Trauma Related to Adoption:
Interview with Bonnie Martin, MEd, CACS, LCPC

Photo Credit: KetuGajjur, FlickR
When I started this blog, I expected to gather some adoptees together for healing, and hopefully educate some Christians in the process. I've been overwhelmed and humbled by unexpected responses. Many educators, social workers, licensed professional counselors and therapists (both Christians and non-Christians) have reached out to me to thank me for what I write here. 

Over and over I hear, "You're doing an important work here, Deanna. Please, don't stop." 

I believe adoptees are the experts on adoption because we are the ones who actually live it. But we're not alone in understanding the complicated realities of adoption.  Many experts possessing specialized education, professional experience and licensing also believe and declare what many of us adoptees know to be true.
I am going to feature them in a series of posts to come, entitled, "Ask a Therapist".  I'm incredibly excited to introduce the first therapist to be interviewed -- a personal friend of over 25 years. I admire her so much, for many reasons, one of which is the work she is doing all around the world in bringing hope and healing. 
Bonnie Martin, MEd, CACS, LCPC is a therapist specializing in psychotherapy for adults, young adults and adolescents. Her more extensive bio is featured at the end of this interview.

Deanna: Bonnie, I am so honored to have you share today at Adoptee Restoration.  Speaking from personal experience as well as hearing many other adoptees' stories, it can be difficult to find Christians and even Christian therapists who understand the significant loss and trauma related to adoption. Why is this? 

Bonnie:  There is a little known psychological term called “spiritual bypass”.  Spiritual Bypass is when we engage in religious beliefs and activities in order to avoid or cover up unmet needs, deep wounds or hidden fears.  In the church, adoption is most often viewed as a righteous, selfless act of rescue or a ministry or higher calling. The glorification of the act of adopting unfortunately results in “bypassing” the fact that separation from biological parents, at any stage of development, is traumatic. 

It is also often the case that adoption meets a significant need in those who seek to adopt.  This places a great responsibility on the adoptee. Any expression of trauma, loss or grief, or identity exploration by adopted children can be misinterpreted as rejection of the adopted parent(s).  When this happens, the result is usually an inappropriate role reversal in the parent/child relationship. The child is responsible for the parent’s unmet needs instead of vice versa. Such a child will either comply with the rules of engagement, suffering tremendous anxiety or the child will refuse the role reversal and act out, appearing as angry/rebellious/ungrateful.  

Acknowledging and accepting that emotional pain and identity confusion can be significant for the adopted child will mean a paradigm shift for the church. It will mean viewing adoption more as a painful separation of the relationship that God intended, and less as a glorious act of salvation.  I would encourage anyone seeking help to find a state licensed therapist who is a Christian as opposed to a Christian counselor who is not licensed by the state governing body. Licensure usually ensures a level of education and specific course work appropriate in addressing the complicated emotions and psychological implications of adoption.

Deanna: In your practice/experience, do you find that attitudes are changing at all? Are people starting to embrace the idea that trauma is related to adoption? 

Bonnie:  The church, in particular, has done a lot of changing the last 30 years. In general we are doing better at acknowledging and addressing emotional and psychological pain as more than just a “spiritual problem”. 

The rights of the adopted have been and are continuing to be heard and changes in policies are reflecting a more compassionate and empowering approach.

 The church is guilty of engaging in collective spiritual bypass when it comes to understanding the trauma of children separated from their parents. Abuse and abortion are two issues of particular relevance. We often downplay or deny the painful experience of adoptees by comparing adoption to abuse or abortion. We have a long way to go to remedy this unfortunate approach. When we make such comparisons we do much harm to the very children we seek to save.

Deanna:   If you could say anything to people, Christians in particular, about those dealing with significant losses, what would it be?

Bonnie: Never say, “God will be glorified in this.” 
Say instead, “I am so sorry. I know you are hurting. Talk to me.”

Never say,“Everything happens for a reason.”  "All things work together."
Say instead, “This never should have happened. It is not right.”

Never say,“Forgiveness is a choice. It will set you free.
Say instead, “You have a right to be angry.”

Never say, “You need to have faith. God has a plan.”
Say instead, “I am as confused by this as you are.”

Never say, "All you need is Jesus."
Say instead, “I am here. And I will be here tomorrow. I am not going anywhere.”

Never say,“How are you feeling, I have been praying for you.”
Say instead, “Let’s go get ice cream. I have been thinking about you.”

 Deanna:  Amazing wisdom there!  There are those who say, "Even if adoption has trauma attached to it, this happened when these adults were children. They need to just build a bridge and get over it." What would you say in response to that?

Bonnie: I would say to look carefully at the cross. Really look at it. Satan did not just want to kill the Son of God, he wanted the Son of God to suffer and he wanted to shame him. He stripped Jesus naked, spit on him, mocked him, pulled out hair from his beard, beat him, nailed his hands so he could not cover his face. All on the highest point in town on the biggest holiday of the year. Christ suffered immense physical and psychological pain. But Satan did not stop there. He knew the most pain he could cause to the Son of God would be emotional. It would involve Jesus feeling abandoned by the one whose life was inextricably tied to his, and feeling rejected by the one who loved him most. The most painful moment of the crucifixion was when the Son of God felt abandoned and rejected by his own father.  It was Satan’s most triumphant moment. 

Understand that, like all effects of life in a fallen world, there is no “getting over” such a foundational loss. There will be moments of reprieve but the grief, the shame, the trauma will revisit time and again. Such waves of pain are normal for such abnormal separation. Learn to be comfortable in the suffering of your adopted son or daughter or friend and you will be a continuous balm in a wound that will really never heal this side of heaven.

Deanna: Do you have any advice for adoptees that are looking for therapists who will understand the loss related to adoption?

Bonnie: I would advise a state licensed professional counselor who has studied complex trauma, psychodynamic theory, attachment focused therapy and/or complicated grief.

Finding a good therapist is like finding a good pair of shoes. You may have to try a few on for size until you find the right fit. 

Healing will be cyclical and developmental milestones or major loss can trigger emotional states that you thought you had moved past and healed from. This is normal, so building a long-term relationship with one therapist is helpful. You may not need therapy for long periods of time, but when you do you can go to someone you trust and who already knows your story.


Bonnie Martin, M.Ed., CACS, Director, Seraphim Global, Mental Health and Psychosocial Services, is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Therapist Supervisor in Maryland and Virginia. Bonnie specializes in complex trauma and has an extensive background in working with victims of violence, exploitation and human trafficking. She has worked internationally for 13 years to reduce the effects of trauma on interpersonal relationships, learning, and rule of law in stress-affected societies. Her work focuses on building the psychosocial capacity of community based organizations.

In order to break cycles of conflict and instability at individual, community and society levels, Bonnie incorporates culturally specific strength-based approaches for motivating behavioral change and building trauma resiliency.  Bonnie spent seven years in the field, developing a culturally sensitive, holistic model for the prevention, intervention and treatment of traumatic stress that is based on the most current neuroscientific research.  She provides systemic training for corporations, government agencies, professionals, paraprofessionals and grass roots organizations. She also provides consultation and quality assurance measurements for stakeholders and funders. Her field experience includes the countries of India, South Africa, Swaziland, Serbia, Russia, Bolivia, Colombia, Thailand, Haiti, Nepal and the United States.