Mental Health Matters: Psyche of an Adoptee (I)

I never heard of the word “adoptee” until a few years ago. This is for two reasons. One, that’s when I began researching specific mental health topics, and two, most conversations about adoption are centered on the benevolence of adoptive parents. For the most part, adoptees are left out of this discussion. Like mental health, I’m on a mission to also de-marginalize adoptee’s voices*, which sometimes go hand-in-hand.


As I’ve explained before, after I discovered I was adopted, my parents never mentioned it again. It was just a blip in that day. After my mother died, my grandmother would frequently mention my adoption. Sometimes she’d reminisce about them searching for my receiving blanket and then remembering that they didn’t receive me in a traditional way. Other times, she’d marvel at how much she and other family members thought I looked like my mother, even though I did not.

In retrospect, I believe my grandmother’s comments and others’ interactions were unconscious ways to ensure I was perceived as a part of and not different than them. However, after reading several bits of information on adoption, I’ve learned that adoptees, no matter how loving and accepting their adoptive families were, have similar issues.

Identity is one. It is common for adoptees to not know who they are, literally and figuratively. According to Erikson (1968), identity begins in childhood and develops over adolescence, right around the time I’d found out about my adoption. For me, identity formation included accepting I wasn’t biologically a part of a family, being told this was my “family,” and being asked to accept someone else’s definition of who I was and where I belonged.

I never verbally expressed my identity confusion, but I definitely showed it.

I switched identities with everyone and everywhere. I used to wait and observe those around me to understand not only how to speak, but also how to act, how to be. And if it was behavior with which I was unfamiliar, then I simply remained quiet for fear of not fitting in. This continued through adulthood. For years, I showed very little of myself around my husband’s immediate family. He and his golden-brown mother, father, and brother seemed to be paper-doll perfect, and I wasn’t quite sure where I was supposed to fit into their picture.

This behavior continued in other ways. At our wedding reception, the DJ played a popular Detroit house music song. I’d been living there for a year and had grown used to their brand of house. I began dancing and Tima, my friend from high school scrunched up her face and said, “Kathy, what is this shit?”

Dwight said something about this being my song. He was right. But I remember almost freezing in place because two worlds had collided; two of my identities faced one another. Do I say, yeah girl. This is my song? Or, do I stop dancing and return to my Chicago House music roots? I think I stopped dancing.

These examples may seem slight, but when you don’t know who you are or what you like, or how to be yourself in every situation, small things can turn into frenetic anxiety-induced happenings. And, they can add up.

IMG_2990At the beginning of our relationship, Dwight introduced me to comic books and cartoons about superheroes. I began watching Batman just because he did. I stopped wearing red lipstick because he re-told a story about his father’s experiences overseas with women and red lipstick. I thought he didn’t like it. I grew my hair past my neck and to my shoulders because he’d once admitted his preference for long hair. He and his family watched movies a lot; subsequently, he and I could be found at the movies almost every weekend.

I did very little that I liked to do, not because my husband forced me to do things he liked, but simply because I hadn’t explored who I was or what was enjoyable to me.

These are just a few instances of how a lack of clear identity affected me throughout the years. Trust me. I could write a novel of examples woven well into the 2000s.

Instead, I’ll end here. But I invite you to comment. Can you relate to this issue? Are you a person who lived with identity issues even though you’re not adopted?


*Disclaimer: I only speak for myself. I’m sure all adoptees have different experiences and perspectives.

17 thoughts on “Mental Health Matters: Psyche of an Adoptee (I)

  1. Oh, yeah, I was an expert and figuring out who people wanted me to be and then being that person. Sometimes it didn’t work, and then I worried about whey someone didn’t like me. I’m not adopted, but I was raised in a home where differing opinions weren’t especially valued. I knew I was loved, but I was told what to think and believe (although I honestly don’t think my parents realized they were doing that). So yeah, I can relate to what you’re saying. I’m so sorry for what you went through, and I’m glad that you figured this out so that you could discover who you really are and learn to be comfortable with being that person. That’s a big accomplishment, and it doesn’t happen without work!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ann, sometimes I answer comments in my head and not actually online lol I think I did that here! So, yes. I can completely relate about being “an expert…figuring out who people wanted me to be.” Having been a parent for 21 years now, I can safely say that most of the time I don’t think parents consciously realize what they’re doing, not most of us anyway.

      And to your point, it does take quite a bit of work over time. There was so much I had to unlearn and this was definitely one of the lessons.


  2. As usual, great piece! I once had an ex who was adopted and though he never voiced his feelings, I noticed some of what you spoke to. Your mention of switching identities also makes me think of code switching and other cultural issues.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! So yes. Think of it like code switching times 20 lol I felt like I was in constant flux and eventually it was my normal self…if that makes sense. It’s funny how these things surface, like your ex, without us noticing.


  3. I can definitely relate to silencing myself because I was never heard growing up. I still find myself avoiding sharing for doubt that I’ll be heard or taken seriously.

    I’ve missed your writing and my blogging community! You know i appreciate your transparency and lessons in The History of Dr. G

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Heeey kelley kelley! I hope you’ve been doing well and staying safe up there!

      So, yeah. I still get little butterflies in my stomach sometimes when I’m afraid to say something. I was on a call the other day and had to MAKE myself speak up for what I thought was the right thing to say. It’s like an ongoing process.

      Glad you see you back! And thank you ❤

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It is an ongoing process. I think sometimes we expect ourselves to get it right every time after that first time. NOT!

        I am back BACK now. I’ve been well but not in a mood to create. But I’ll be catching up on my reading. Hope you and your loved ones are staying safe and optimistic as well ❤︎

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Very thought provoking post, Katherin. My issue while growing up was that although I had very loving parents, my mother was obsessively religious. I wanted to please her, but at the same time I didn’t have any feeling for the religious rituals she foisted upon me. I really had to break away in my twenties and am still confused sometimes about who I am. I did give my own children a similar foundation of religion, in order to please my parents. It was much more watered down and not nearly as demanding as what I had gone through. To this day, they feel the same way I did – it wasn’t anything they believed in or cared for. So interesting!
    So I guess, I don’t really have a religious identity like my mother would have hoped – but I consider myself to be loving, spiritual and a good person. That is enough for me!
    ps. I know this is off the topic of adoption, but I thought it was another perspective that might be interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Judy! I think it’s very on-topic because I’ve learned that we have varied identities that have been shaped by someone, somewhere. So, even a religious identity is something that we can assume and take on from our parents, even if we don’t feel it at all!

      I appreciate this example.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yeah, totally relatable. For me, it was change in culture, grandmother as guardian to then meeting my p parents, and a really secretive, toxic family leaving me a always second guessing that id let something slip or that id reveal how uncool or weird I was cause I was never sure I could maintain the standards I was sure were out there but never quite sure what they were. Still working through this shit but also increasingly ok with probably not ever being able to work it out…it is very complex.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Aha! I can see how a cultural change can make you not completely know who you are, plus all the other stuff you’ve mentioned. You don’t think you’ve worked it out? You seem pretty confident in who you are to me…but then again, I don’t see you on a daily basis.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m not adopted, Kathy, but this post resonated with me. You said you did very little that you liked to do, not because your husband forced you to do things he liked, but simply because you hadn’t explored who you were or what was enjoyable to you. I think a lot of women feel that way. We are hardwired to please others by doing what they want us to do and being what they want us to be. After years or decades of kowtowing, we feel vaguely unhappy, discontented, and we can’t put a finger on it. I started seeing a therapist a few years ago, convinced there was something ‘wrong’ with me. I complained about everyone making demands of me and he asked how I felt, what I wanted, what was important to me. His questions stopped me in my tracks; I truly had no idea. I began journaling, composing poetry, blogging. Words welled up from a place so deep it startled me. It sounded like they were coming from a different person. I’m getting to know her. And I like her a lot. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Joan, I agree that women are typically conditioned to function this way. We lose ourselves in everything, except ourselves, many times not realizing it until we’re 40+ years old I also agree with that last bit. I LOVE myself so much now and sometimes I feel like I missed out on knowing who I am, but I suppose it’s never too late to come into an understanding of who we really are ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Though I’m not adopted, I would wish I was because I lost my identity when my siblings and I was taken away from our parents. When we was left with our much older cousin around a side family we had barely gone around. Since then I could never be myself but who they wanted me to be. Thanks for sharing with us, Kathy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So, you kind of have the same experience, right? It’s that abandonment, not feeling like you know who you’re supposed to be or how feeling. I get it. You’re welcome and as always, thank YOU for reading, relating, and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, at first I felt abandoned by our parents because they could no longer keep us. Then feeling like I was faded into the background when we was hauled off to our cousin. When I would try to be myself I get looked at like I’m crazy so I had stopped trying. So yeah, but you’re welcome, Kathy.

        Liked by 1 person

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