World Mental Health Day! Adaptation: The Key to Understanding Adoptees, and Ourselves and 10 Ideas to Feeling Better

Today, October 10, 2020 is World Mental Health Day. This day comes during a time when we, collectively, have had our lives stalled, changed and upturned so much due to the Covid 19 Pandemic. There have been so many changes in our lives, and now, change now seems to be the norm. Many have lost loved ones and livelihoods. Many have felt isolated and alone. Many have felt hopeless and suicidal. (if you feel suicidal, please call 911 or click here to chat with a Suicide Hotline professional)

It has been a hard many months. For me, as a Therapist, I have found myself busier and working more than I have in my 13 year career. I have clients via tele health and I am now seeing some in person. My in person routine now included a wireless thermometer, lots of and various forms of disinfecting agents, masks and placing myself as far away from the client as possible, while still working to maintain connection and attunement.

Mental Health professionals are often left off the list of Essential Workers when the media or others pay tribute to those working to keep things going during this pandemic, but we are all here, doing our best to support.

I have been pondering and thinking about what I do as a therapist. I have been really wondering about what Mental Health means and how we, as a society, view those who seem to have “Mental Health Issues.” I have been thinking about Adoptees (people who are adopted) and how there are so many who find themselves trying to just “be ok.”

There are many ways to describe Mental Health. It can be seen as an illness or a shortcoming. It can be seen as a strength and a positive trait. I find it so interesting, and I am curious about how society views human’s Mental Health. My views as a therapist have changed over the years. These days, I view Mental Health as an Adaptation to our Life Experiences.

Those who work in the Mental Health field are taught to diagnose using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth addition, or DSM 5. We spend time in school learning about all the finite details and what to look for in order to have diagnostic clarity. We have a medical model in the USA that requires a diagnostic label in order to bill insurance and ultimately be paid for working with the client.

I am good at diagnosing. I have spent lots of hours pondering and looking at the pages in my manual to “get it right” for my clients. My diagnostic thoughts have changed quite a bit over the years. These days, I look at the whole lifespan more fully and not just at the here and now presenting issue. I look for those moments of discord, difficulty and trauma responses of the client. I no longer look at the current behavior of the adult or the child, but the events leading to the behavior; I am trauma focused. I ask myself, “Did they feel safe? Was there something that unsettled their attachment? Who took care of them?” And many other questions that lead me to the word = ADAPTATION.

My own therapist first said adaptation in a session many months ago. I had not thought off we humans as ADAPTING to our life’s circumstances as a starting point to look at diagnosis before. But now, I think about my client’s ability to adapt and change as a miracle. I also look at my OWN ability to adapt and change as an adopted person as a HUGE miracle.

I will use adoption as an example of how the adopted person adapts to their life circumstances.

3 scenarios:

A baby is relinquished to be adopted at the time of birth. This is confusing and this confusion makes an cellular (implicit) memory in the body of this baby. The baby may cry and cry and cry because it is confused as to where the mother who carried the baby and delivered the baby has gone, and the baby feels abandoned, scared and confused. The baby may feel this EVEN THOUGH it is in a loving home with adoptive parents who love and care for the baby.

The baby grows to be a child. The child starts kindergarten, but gets an upset stomach often and begs the school nurse to go home. The child is picked up at school, taken home and cared for. Or, taken home and is in trouble for being sick…again. This child is not manipulating the adults. They are not feeling safe in their body, and the urge to go home with a parent or caregiver is part of the ADAPATION to being an adoptee. “I don’t feel comfortable (safe) without my parent close, because my first mother left me,” is what the body is communicating to the nervous system. So, the body kicks in and provides the stomach ache so the child may be with the parent or caregiver. To solve the problem, the parent rewards the child for staying in school with a treat. Then, the child starts having tantrums at home when it is time to leave for school, instead of the stomach ache at school. A therapist may diagnose Separation Anxiety or Oppositional Defiance Disorder without recognizing the child’s adaptive need to feel safe because they were relinquished as an infant, or removed from their first parents.

The adult adopted person may have difficulty in relationships. They may struggle with connection. They may push people away or not be vulnerable, or self sabotage. The self sabotage may show up in not only relationships, but jobs, school and goals or it may show up as self harming behaviors. It may feel like a never ending cycle of disappointment and injury. A therapist may diagnose Borderline Personality Disorder. The label stays with the adoptee. What is missed is the adult adoptee is adapting, still, to their relinquishment and abandonment of their first mother.

In each of these situations, the person is seeking to feel safe. “Safe” means they feel that they are calm, connected to themselves or another person. Because all humans are constantly seeking safety via our nervous system, it is not at all surprising that those who are adopted feel unsafe or unsettled so much of the time. Human lives are set up to be connected. When the first person you were literally connected to by an umbilical cord and blood is removed from you and you from them, this removal starts the lifelong cycle of unsettled or unsafe responses. Bottom line: The removal is traumatic.

What can we do about all of this hard, human stuff??

  1. We can work at acceptance of ourselves.
  2. We can work at acceptance of all our parts; our scared parts, are small parts, our parts that do not fit in, our parts that holds all the anger, our parts that still want the nurture we expected. (The list goes on and on)
  3. We can work to feel our bodies in a more positive way.
  4. We can BREATHE and then BREATHE some more.
  5. We can look in the mirror and tell ourselves we matter.
  6. We can make friends with ourselves instead of “going away.”
  7. We can LOVE and LOVE and LOVE ourselves.
  8. We can tell someone we feel sad or unsafe or happy or angry.
  9. We can keep trying when we want to give up
  10. We can remind ourselves of the miracle we are. That we survived all of life’s experiences and that we matter.

We have ADAPTED to our own lives and found a way to be OK, even when we are not OK

This is Mental Health. This is Humanness. This is Aliveness. We are Miracles.

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Robyn Gobbel, LCSW

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