Trauma Begetting Trauma
by JS LEE
Something terrible happened in the adoptee community and we can’t talk about it. The lack of discussion around it is additionally traumatic and familiar. When we witness or experience something disturbing and are required to repress it—out of uncertainty or fear of upsetting others—it interferes with the process needed to heal and it mimics the damaging dynamics of many of our childhoods.
How many of us recall feeling a deep sense of pain but even as children, knew to stay silent to keep “the” peace? Of course, the peace we kept excluded our own. This conditioning led to feeling disconnected, unworthy, and broken.
I have a chapter in Keurium titled “Good Fortune” that describes the high of finding our first sense of belonging and falling prey to noxious group mechanics. Community can both encourage and delay our healing.
Perhaps one of the biggest issues is that anyone with a Facebook (or other social media) account can create a group and with it, a false sense of security. I owe a lot to online support groups and have witnessed how toxic they can be. Most of the time, there are no mental health professionals moderating support groups that are teeming with the unprocessed traumas of multiply-marginalized people. Things can and do go awry. I’ve been in more than one group where members I interacted with died by suicide. When this happens, it can’t help but leave surviving members feeling loss, guilt, anger, and unresolved.
Last week, I witnessed what I perceived to be harmful group dynamics in action. Two members were making what should’ve been a personal issue between them semi-public. Oftentimes people closer to one of the parties will rush to defend them, which can unintentionally create a pile-on effect. Days later, news came that the one who was outnumbered in that particular incident was reported to have died by suicide. Personally, I was distraught by this news. My entire day was spent coping and tending to my emotions surrounding the events. I berated myself for not stepping in and calling the thread out as potentially dangerous, despite the logical reasons I didn’t.
Adoptees were processing their grief on various social platforms. As I sometimes do, I tweeted out my thoughts while trying to be mindful not to implicate anyone. Many took to spreading awareness of the prevalence of suicide attempts in our communities—which is roughly one in four, and four times the reported rate of non-adopted people. Some shared photos and quotes, begging for people to understand that adoption isn’t just the one-dimensional feel good “solution” that’s widely believed. At first, an adoptee who was known to be closely connected to the deceased showed appreciation for these efforts. In our community, this is how we mourn any untimely death that occurs by suicide or murder. In fact, this October 30 was dubbed Adoptee Remembrance Day by Pamela Karanova of Adoptees Connect. I participated but found it as grueling as it was necessary, and decided to sit out the entire month of NAAM (National Adoptee Awareness Day) which was invented to flip the script from NAM (National Adoption Month). However, the same modes that were considered respectful grief and awareness the month prior were suddenly labeled as capitalizing on someone’s death. People were shamed, blamed, and misrepresented. This only compounded the pain.
Late Sunday night, an adoptee who saw my conversation on Twitter sent me a DM. There was no reason for me to believe she would spread false information, but what she shared seemed implausible and even offensive. I considered the possibility of her words all night. The next morning, I learned it was likely true by additional credible sources. It was said that the person our community was grieving never existed. His photos were apparently swiped from an Instagram account and his Facebook profile, concocted. This profile is said to have been used to create a persona over the better part of a year. Who was behind it, I can’t say for sure but there’s speculation. That’s all I feel is my place to share, given that it’s what I was privy to or involved in firsthand. Of course, some may feel I shouldn’t reveal what I have, but I do so out of respect for those who are harboring complex emotions around the untruths. My feeling is that no one should feel broken or guilty over a death that never occurred.
What I will discuss is that this news left me feeling thankful that a real adoptee hadn’t died. It also filled me with a deep sense of emotional betrayal, shock, and anger. I had interacted with this fictitious person. My heart went out to him when I saw what I thought was unfair treatment by peers, and I became overwhelmed when I heard he had died. Sometimes news of one adoptee losing their battle can have a ripple effect in which more lives are lost. I was shaken and livid that anyone would abuse our community this way, risking real lives for whatever they felt they had to gain. Yet, if the person suggested to have been behind it was, I also felt a rush of compassion for them as I’d been interacting with their account for a while, too. I’d seen their heartbreaking posts and felt an affinity towards them. I’m utterly confused and upset over how they could’ve done what it seems was done. I’m trying to keep an open mind and heart—which is admittedly challenging, given that I’m still recovering from a more personal but similar community manipulation by another adoptee.
Maybe it’s the weight of the racial and viral pandemics, financial instability, future uncertainty, the grief hangover of Adoptee Remembrance Day trailed by a full month of NAAM…but this year has revealed more toxic community behaviors than usual. There have been relentless outlandish situations that leave too many of us afraid to speak lest we be plagiarized, vilified, or wrongly accused. For whatever reasons, those who create these situations do so in ways that leave us looking ridiculous and cruel when we speak the truth. Misrepresentation lives in the heart of adoptee identity crises. And, of course, these dynamics too closely resemble the pain of being an unfogged adoptee in a society that denies our lived realities. For adoptees who are brave enough to have come out of the fog and were rewarded with a sense of belonging, it’s once again painful coming out of another fog when it’s revealed that our community isn’t quite as safe or honest as we’d hoped and believed.
There are more adult adoptees connecting than ever and we’re sharing demographically diverse online spaces. While many of us are working towards creating a world that understands we need less adoptions, those of us who are here can learn from and give so much to each other. But I believe it’s time to rethink our community spaces. We need to find ways to ensure they’re safer and healthier for all who take refuge within them, and reconsider how we interact with group members—even out of support. I’m excited to see budding new ventures meant to support one another, but they will fail without better admin and mentor vetting, proper training, and solid conflict resolution practices in place. We should also be cognizant of the cumulative effect of adoptee activism and how sharing or viewing so much at once affects our mental health. Until we make some necessary changes, we will continue to witness trauma begetting more trauma. Too many are suffering from the communities that are supposed to protect them. Once again, this is all too familiar. We needn’t cannibalize ourselves. I want to have faith that we can operate at a higher level. It may take some work to get there, but I’m certain we can do better. We must.