May 1, 2013

Ask a Therapist: How Do We Get Our Friends and Family to Understand Adoption Trauma and Pain?

Sometimes my adoptee friends share their pain with me and I tell them something in an effort to help and they say, “Wow. That’s profound. How did you come to understand that?” And I say, “Well, honestly, I can’t take credit for coming up with that. I became aware of it when my therapist shared it with me.”  Some have responded, “Your therapist sounds amazzzzing. If I lived in Tampa, I’d go to her!” 

Well, it’s not a possibility if you don’t live here but I did ask if she’d be willing to share as a part of my “Ask the Therapist” series  on the blog and she was delighted to help.

Some of you might be surprised that I’ve just admitted I have a therapist and am telling you who she is.

No secrets, friends. That’s how I live.

Her official bio is at the conclusion of this interview, but for now I will just say, thank you, Melissa Richards of Restoration Counseling Center,  for all that you've done to help me in my journey of restoration.

Deanna: Melissa, I can’t fully describe to you how special it is for me to have your input here on the blog. The help you have given me and continue to give is invaluable. Having you share with my readers is a huge honor. Many adoptees I meet are frustrated that their pain is dismissed or there is an attempt to invalidate it by the people in their lives. This really hurts even more when it’s a family member or close friend. In your professional opinion, are we banging our heads against the wall, and even causing ourselves more trauma, by trying to get them to understand? Are we better off to stick with talking to a therapist and running to our adoptee friends for solace or should we keep trying to get our family and close friends on board with our journey of moving forward? (I know that’s a loaded, compound question!)

Melissa:  [Laughing] I’m glad you acknowledged the complicated nature of this question! While I'd really like to give you a simple, concrete answer, it truly differs for each person. What I can say with certainty is that it is ALWAYS important to have people who DO understand. If you do not have those people in your life, speaking with a therapist and/or other adoptees is a good idea. we all need validation, and lack of it always brings pain. It is important to find acknowledgement in multiple, safe, supportive places.

Many people simply lack education about the pain and loss an adoptee experiences.  Because adoption is portrayed as such a joyful experience for all, the lifelong grieving process that adoptees continue engaging on varying levels is often overlooked.  For those who are willing listeners and eager learners, education is a simple solution.  But many have other unacknowledged reasons for rejecting the adoptee’s pain (for example, unresolved personal pain, cultural indoctrination, religious ideologies).  For the latter, it may be important to accept their limitations and seek support elsewhere. 

It is very important that you validate your own experience as an adoptee.  Until you do, there will exist a vacuum in which you are looking for someone to fill.  Once we allow ourselves permission to feel our pain, the misunderstandings of others, although still painful, are less impactful. If it will burden you not to speak, then say what you must in a productive and respectful manner.  If a misconception or diminutive comment costs you little, it may be fine to let it pass.  Each person must pay attention to their own internal and external cues to determine the cost of speaking or silence. Each person ultimately has to decide for themselves when it becomes unproductive or harmful to continue looking for validation from a particular source.  

Deanna: In my experience, and observing what others go through, people view emotional pain entirely different from physical pain. If I had a broken leg, for instance, people would very readily accept my need to make adjustments. Emotional pain -- not so much. There appears to be a lack of respect for those who have experienced trauma. How does a person who has experienced and is experiencing emotional pain convey it to people in such a way that they will respond in a helpful manner?

Melissa: Using analogies, as you just did in your question is always helpful!  Analogies allow us to use commonalities between ideas or things to generalize principles to other areas. There is a general misconception we battle in the mental health field; it is the idea that “If I can’t experience it with my five senses, then it doesn’t exist.”   When we lack something tangible, like a broken leg, whereby to concretely measure how debilitating a thing is, there is a tendency to make immediate judgments about how impactful someone’s experience “should” be. We form these judgments based on our experiences and a number of other factors.  

When attempting to communicate your experiences and needs, it is always best to take responsibility for your thoughts and feelings.  “I” statements are more easily received than “you” statements.  It is also important to tell the person what you want/need from them.  This means you must first figure out exactly what it is you need!  It is best to instruct the listener with SPECIFIC direction.  Here are some examples: 

“I feel lonely.  I’d really like to talk with you, but I would really like it if you listened without offering advice or opinions.” 

“I feel sad. Will you hold my while I cry?”

Sometimes ideal communication still does not achieve desired results.  You may ultimately have to be satisfied with your own acknowledgment of pain.  In the same way you instruct another of the desired response, you must decide to make appropriate adjustments on your own behalf.  Others are responsible for how they adjust around that.  

Shun the “shoulds”! Do not fall into the trap of attempting to justify the “rightness” or “wrongness” of experiencing pain and of the degree to which you “should” experience it.  Approving of your own pain or having another person approve your level of pain will not change that it exists or the degree to which it exists. Acceptance does not require approval. You simply need give yourself acknowledgment, validation, and permission.  That is the best others can offer, as well. 

I find that Christian adoptees find great comfort in the idea that our High Priest is “touched with the feeling of our infirmity”.  He sees your pain and does not mind to be present with you in it, even when no one else is capable of holding that safe space for you.  He sits with you for as long as you need, not pushing, not questioning.  Just present. When no one else understands, He knows more completely than you what exactly is troubling you. And He has much compassion and identification with the adoptee experience of being misunderstood, displaced, and rejected.

Those who experience the grief of losing a loved one have decreased performance in many areas, so we lower our expectations of them.  Understanding that the same is true of grief in all forms will allow us to proceed as we need, offering ourselves kindness, patience, and understanding, when no one else does.  Our body and our psyche are comprised of overlapping processes and systems; if you don’t tend to your “emotional broken leg” eventually your suffering will spread into other areas. 

Deanna: Let’s talk for a minute about perpetual trauma. Many adoptees I meet, have gone through this, myself included. It is really hard to heal from one trauma let alone multiples. Some adoptees face perpetual trauma as they navigate what can be the rollercoaster ride of reunion and various ongoing challenges with their original and adoptive families. I know this is a very broad question, but how does a person put themselves in position to move forward, from perpetual trauma? I speak of the kind of trauma where they are trying to bandage their emotional wounds and while they are doing it, along comes a situation that wounds them all over again…

Melissa: This requires becoming very self-aware, learning to decipher what I need and when I need it.  This requires a lot of mindfulness—a challenge because we tend to detach in response to pain.  Sometimes a person may need to give themselves space from the source of trauma to let their wounds heal.  Other people are able to find healing within the on-going trauma.  Internal boundaries will have a lot to do with whether we can heal within or need to remove ourselves from the trauma.  Regardless of the route chosen, healing tertiary trauma will involve both a solution-focused assessment of how to proceed in the present and heal the current wound, accompanied by the slower job of processing and healing old wounds.  

When a person has shored up old hurts, new ones are not usually as impactful, as there are less wounds to re-open.   Touching a deep gash on your arm would be excruciating when it is first formed.  We flinch back if any attempt is made to come near.  We will defend ourselves at all cost as long as the wound is still raw, but as a scab forms and healing begins, touching the “issue” is less painful than before.  In fact, once it is healed, the area is less vulnerable than when the original injury happened!  The same is true of the psyche.  We have to address the most recent, easily-visible trauma initially, but eventually the older, deeper traumas are processed in a somewhat overlapping fashion. When a person has developed coping skills to process in the present, they can go back and re-apply those skills to old wounds. 

Melissa Richards is a therapist at Restoration Counseling Center, in Tampa, FL. After receiving a Psychology major and Church Ministries & Bible minor from Clearwater Christian College, she earned her M.A. in Professional Counseling from Liberty University. Her passion for certain populations has been born of her own life experiences and the experiences of those she loves.  She has a great deal of compassion for the hurting and patience with the slow and sometimes uncertain process of healing deep wounds.  Melissa works with clients on issues including but not limited to: trauma, anger, anxiety, coping skills, depression, eating disorders, grief, relationship issues, sexual abuse, and more.  A more extensive bio listing other areas of expertise within her practice, can be found here.