Interview by Livia Montana
Livia Montana: The Primal Wound is an integral book for many adoptees, as well as adoptive parents and birthparents. What originally inspired you to explore the ideas that you talk about in that book?
Nancy Verrier: When I gave birth to my second daughter, I thought about what it must have been like for my older daughter, whom I adopted, and her mother to have been separated. I wondered how that separation might affect adoptees and their birthmothers, because I couldn’t imagine being separated from my daughter after giving birth.
LM: And you also have a second book, Coming Home to Self.
NV: Yes. I wrote Coming Home to Self because everybody said, “Okay, now that we know why we feel the way we do, what can we do about it?” It’s important for adoptees to recognize that they often use coping behaviors—these are behaviors they use to cope with the original loss and the fear of another loss. While the first part of Coming Home to Self is a clinical explanation of separation trauma and how it affects the neurological system, the second part of the book talks directly to adoptees about how they can recognize behaviors they might want to change and how to become more authentic.
I talk about the “The Three A’s” which are awareness, authenticity, and accountability. Awareness is vital because you can’t change things until you’re truly aware of them.
LM: Unfortunately, there are still many mental health professionals that aren’t aware of the effects being relinquished and growing up adopted can have.
NV: I know.
LM: Many therapists don’t see the experience of being adopted as something that needs to be explored. The counselor wants to focus on the behaviors and issues the adoptee is trying to change, but not on that original loss and displacement. Even when adoptees want to discuss their feelings about adoption, many counselors will respond by saying something like, “Well, a lot of people who aren’t adopted have the same issues you’re dealing with.”
NV: Yes, and this is very dangerous. Many adoptees are being misdiagnosed as bipolar due to that tendency not to recognize the effects of adoption. There’s always a “diagnosis of the week” and bipolar is it right now. It used to be borderline personality. Even though many of the symptoms of borderline personality and bipolar can be very similar to the coping behaviors adoptees might exhibit, the source for the adopted person is a real separation—a physical and psychological separation from the mother. Therefore, the treatment must be different.
LM: Why do you think many mental health professionals are still reluctant to discuss adoption issues?
NV: It’s due to the culture of adoption we have in this country. Adoption is only looked at as such a wonderful thing. Many therapists have bought into this belief, this idea of “Well, you were adopted, so if you had good parents why should that be a problem?” Everyone thinks the substitution of another parent makes everything okay, but that’s just not true. There is no worse time for a baby to be separated from a mother than right at birth because the baby knows nothing but that mother—she is the whole world. Cutting the umbilical cord doesn’t untie the psychological connection. So when the baby is separated from the mother and that psychological guidance is cut off, it feels like chaos. There are a lot of things that need to happen to a baby after birth. For instance, the birth hormones need to recede. If the baby is anxious, that’s not going to happen. The result of this trauma is that the child’s neurons actually connect in a different way. This is why many adoptees always have a lot of adrenaline pumping through their body; this is why they’re quite often experiencing fight or flight symptoms.
LM: Can this be changed?
NV: Yes, but it takes patience and deliberation from everyone. The first thing that adoptive parents need to do is acknowledge that the baby is suffering from the loss of that first mother. Then they need to empathize with this loss. Acknowledgement and empathy can build a strong connection between adoptive parents and adoptees. When I did interviews with adoptees, there was such a depth of pain and sorrow in the loss they spoke about. And they felt totally alone in that sense of loss all the time they were growing up. So empathy is powerful. For instance, if you empathize, your child won’t need to act out because he or she will feel understood. Acting out is just a form of communication.
LM: What would you say to people who were adopted when they were older or parents that adopted older children? Does being adopted when you’re older make the separation easier?
NV: No, it doesn’t. No matter what caused the mother to relinquish, the child always feels abandoned. Being left by your mother, no matter when it is, is traumatic. The problem is that a baby will have no conscious memory of what happened. There will be cellular memory and implicit memory, but no explicit memory, that is, no conscious memory. I do think it’s a little easier to work on the trauma if the child has a conscious memory of being separated from the mother. On the other hand, in some ways it’s more difficult. Someone who was adopted when he or she was older will think, “Mom knew who I was and she still left me,” whereas someone who was adopted as a baby can think, “Well, she didn’t know who I was.” Of course, that thought really doesn’t make much difference in the way the person feels.
LM: You mean they’ll still believe they weren’t good enough?
NV: Yes, that’s right. That feeling of not being good enough always goes back to the original separation. The belief is “I wasn’t good enough to keep.”
LM: What are some important things for adoptive parents to be aware of?
NV: One of the things people need to recognize is that there is no biological mirroring for the adopted child. They don’t see physical and personality traits reflected in the biological relatives around them. (These are inherent genetic traits; they’re not things you just pick up from living around people.) People who are born into biological families and stay in them take biological mirroring for granted. But this isn’t present in an adoptive family. So the adoptee is always trying to figure out how to be in that family and the family is trying to figure out how to be around that child.
LM: What’s one of the ways that adoptees react to this?
NV: Adoptees become very good observers of behavior and mannerisms in order to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing. Again, people who stay in their biological families don’t have to do this kind of observing because they see themselves reflected in the people around them.
LM: What advice can you share with adoptive parents?
NV: Your child is going to observe you in order to figure out who they think they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to be interested in. It’s your job to discover who your child is, and to figure out what their talents and interests are. You must nurture and encourage those talents and interests so that they feel comfortable becoming who they are. Remember that adopted children can feel like they’re on trial. Adoptees think that they’ve already been sent out of one family, and now they’re full of anxiety about whether or not they’re going to be able to do whatever it takes to stay in their second family. Never, ever threaten abandonment of an adopted child in any way because that child will absolutely believe you.
LM: You said before that those people who grow up in their biological families take biological mirroring for granted. But sometimes they will respond by saying, “Well, even though I grew up with my biological family, I was nothing like them and they didn’t understand me. I felt like I was adopted.” How would you respond to this?
NV: In a biological family, even if you are the black sheep, there’s always something of yourself that you recognize in the relatives around you, though you may not want to admit it. So I would say to those people, “You cannot even begin to comprehend what it’s like to have absolutely not one gene in common with the people you grew up with.” Now, I have met adoptees who were fortunate to have other things in common with their adoptive families. For instance, an adoptee that’s artistic having an adoptive mother who’s an artist. But that biological mirroring will never be present.
LM: In the beginning of Coming Home to Self you have a quote from author Salmon Rushdie, “Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to retell it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as time changes, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.” How can adoptees have “power over their stories”?
NV: In order to have new thoughts about your life, you have to accept that nothing is going to change what happened. Blame is not going to change what happened. Anger won’t change what happened. Attitude is a very big determinate of what direction you take in life. One thing that disturbs me a great deal about some adoptee support groups is that people can get stuck in their anger and never get out of it. The problem with anger is that as long as you’re stuck in it, you’re also stuck feeling like a victim. And leave no doubt, as a baby or a child every adoptee was a victim—they were taken out of their biological family and had nothing to say about it. But you cannot be a victim your whole life because victims always have somebody to blame. When you have somebody to blame, you always have an excuse for not going forward in your life. You have no power.
LM: So how might a person who has the story of “I am a victim” begin to change that?
NV: Well, it’s not going to happen by saying something like, “I guess it was all for the best;” it’s not about sweeping your feelings under the rug. But you do need to ask yourself, “What can I take away from this experience that makes me a stronger person?” For one thing, adoptees are usually pretty good observers of life. Now, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get in there and be part of life, but being a good observer is a useful talent. People need to become aware of the behaviors they developed while they were trying to figure out how to be a part of their adoptive families. Then they need to assess which behaviors they can use as strengths in their adult life, and which behaviors are hurting them and those around them.
LM: We’ve talked a little bit about the “culture of adoption” that we have in this country, a culture that sees adoption as only a blessing. I know you’ve given talks in different countries. Are there different viewpoints elsewhere?
NV: Absolutely. In this county, if something is difficult, we just don’t want to talk about it. Certainly there are adoptive parents and adoption professionals in the U.S. that appreciate the information I share, but unfortunately there are those who respond by saying, “You make adoption sound like such a negative thing.” They don’t hear the part about how they can do something different and make it better for the children. But when I go to England, Scotland, Ireland, and Australia I find that people have a much easier time discussing this. I gave a talk to adoptive parents in Ireland and they all told me how much they believed in what I was saying and how they could see the truth of it in their kids. The adoptive parents there are much more open.
LM: That’s very interesting. Well, we’ve gotten more open about adoptees searching for their birthfamilies in this country.
NV: Yes, but we’re doing it painstakingly—state by state, trying figure out if adoptees should have their birth records. In some other countries, all adoptees have access to their biological information.
LM: Do you think that reunions can be an important step for adoptees in “having power over their stories”?
NV: I do. That’s not to say that all reunions go well, but I think that comes from a difference in expectations. I do believe that when adoptees meet their birthfamilies, it can help them feel grounded. There are many reasons why this is so. One thing that adoptees who have been reunited with their birthmothers often speak about is finally feeling like they were born. Even thought they knew it logically, they never believed it. You know, we have intellectual understanding and we have beliefs. Those two things often have nothing to do with one another. You can’t force yourself to believe something.
LM: What do adoptive parents need to know about search and reunion?
NV: From the day they bring their child home, adoptive parents need to realize that the child has two sets of parents and always will. It’s important for them to recognize that their children’s need to find their biological family is not something that’s meant to hurt them. In fact, it has nothing to do with them. Searching is about an adoptee finding out about his or her identity. You know, as much as we adoptive parents love our children, we need to accept that they’re not biologically related to us. And everyone has the right to know who their biological family is.