Identifying Trauma and Its Ties to Adoption

By Sarah EllisNovember 15, 2021

November is Adoption Awareness Month. Here in the US, 7 million people are adopted with one in every 50 children being an adoptee. We know those who are raised with their non-biological families have a suicide attempt rate four times higher than their peers. To acknowledge these challenges and combat stigma through talking about them, TWLOHA’s very own Sarah Ellis wrote about her experience as an adoptee. 

I was adopted when I was nine weeks old from Colombia by a single mother who has put me first for almost my entire 34 years of existence. I’ve only started to unpack the effects adoption has had on my mental health in the last couple of years. Sure, from an outsider’s perspective, I should be happy, grateful, and filled with an overwhelming amount of love. And when I think about what adoption looks like from the outside, I am. I am fortunate. I’m thankful. And I love my mom.

I’ve learned to acknowledge that gratitude because I know my life could’ve turned out vastly different. But those very obvious outward differences don’t capture my inner experiences and feelings.

I was given up at birth, which my brain equated to be unwanted.

I was told my birth mom loved me so much that she wanted what was best for me, a family that could care for and give me the life I deserved. That’s why she gave me up. As I got older, my brain associated deep love with the chance for abandonment.

I’ve struggled the most with that word.


It’s as though my adoption hardwired me to expect everyone in my life to leave eventually. To make things “easier” or at least more apparent, I tend to either test the limits of those around me to see if I’ll be abandoned again and to prove to myself, I am, in fact, unlovable. Or I withdraw from the friendships and relationships I value most because it’s less painful and heartbreaking to abandon someone before they abandon you.

With abandonment came pain, and with pain came anger. Anger was a cover for the unspeakable grief that I struggled to articulate. It arose from feeling and looking different from my family, not knowing who I really was, and questioning my worth—all while people reminded me how “lucky” I was. The pain I carried was a burden. A burden I didn’t want to put on anyone else, especially those who gave me the life I was told I should be grateful for.

So I tried burying feelings of any kind through drugs and alcohol for most of early adulthood, but it ended up deepening my shame and guilt over how much I hated being adopted. How much I hated myself for being ‘unlovable.’

I thought being grateful meant I had to be unaffected by the trauma.

I didn’t know then that all of this is perfectly “normal” for adoptees. I didn’t know then that most adoptees share similarly raw emotions of insecurity, pain, anger, loneliness, and low self-worth at some point, if not throughout the course of their lives.

It often makes me wonder: Does a truly happy adoptee actually exist?

Currently, I don’t have an answer. I’m still uncovering my self-identity and self-worth. I’m overcoming complex emotions and struggles stemming from profound pain that I never knew was tied to my adoption. But my therapist tells me that I’ll get there.

Adoption isn’t just a moment in time. It will impact your entire life’s journey, and everyone experiences the feelings surrounding it uniquely and at a different pace. Like most things humans struggle with, it helps to talk about it. It erases the stigma surrounding what adoptees feel compared to how we’re told we should feel.

I guess I share my story to remind you that it’s OK if your adoption story isn’t all rainbows and butterflies. Adoption can be both beautiful and traumatic. You’re allowed to love the family you have while still facing pain, anger, and even guilt over how they became your family.

You are strong enough to heal from the heavy you carry. We encourage you to use TWLOHA’s FIND HELP Tool to locate professional help and to read more stories like this one here. If you reside outside of the US, please browse our growing International Resources database. You can also text TWLOHA to 741741 to be connected for free, 24/7 to a trained Crisis Text Line counselor. If it’s encouragement or a listening ear that you need, email our team at

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Comments (8)

  1. Tara

    Sarah, Thank you for sharing this. I have experienced similar emotions as an adult adoptee who was adopted as an infant. I’d love to connect, if you’re interested. Much love, Tara

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  2. Sara Trapp

    Thank you for this. As a birth mother who has reconnected with the child I gave up for adoption, I know he feels this pain. I see it in his eyes. I see it in his relationships. Through therapy he is working on it but like you said, he will always carry this with him. Not to take away from the adoptees pain, but I too struggle with abandonment, guilt and shame for the decision I was “forced” to make. I would have given anything to keep him and he knows this, but does he really know it or believe it? That’s what I ask myself. If I had known 25 years ago what I know now, I would have done more to fight my parents and keep my son. All I can do now is to heal and encourage the same for my son. Thank you again for sharing.

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  3. Jessica

    Your thoughts are beautiful. You are special and thank you for sharing your story and feelings.

    Reply  |  
  4. Hannah

    I appreciate you sharing Sarah. I have been considering fostering and adopting and I often struggle with the question you poised… can a truly happy adoptee exist? Can I be enough? Thank you for sharing and emphasizing that “adoption can be both beautiful and traumatic” at the same time. I wish you the best on your journey.

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  5. Judith Sullivan

    You are very loved Sarah. I’m so sorry we see so little of each other.please know how much I care. You are beautiful inside and out!!!!

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  6. Lisa

    I cannot thank you enough for this article. I often think about how I felt thrown away as a child. And then when I was in college the mother that adopted me stopped talking to me because I dated a black man… making me feel thrown away again… so I appreciate you taking the time to write this.

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  7. Mare

    I was adopted at birth by a seemingly great family…fast forward ten years and I’m now the daughter of a broken home, ripped away from my friends and perfect life, replaced by wife #2 while dad busy reliving his 20’s and starting a new life while mom is devestated and attempts to take her own life. I witnessed all the fights, the cops, the ambulance,
    the begging, the packing, the tears & the I dont forward 10 more years, I graduate high school, start college, I’m no longer what he included in his picture perfect new life, bc I chose to make myself happy, get married & start a family rather then live up to his expectations. Mom stops making excuses for him and supports me in my hardest moments for the next 10 years…then when life seems to be going better, I’m now divorced and happy with my own blended family of 4. The day my whole world caves in, 3 missed phone calls and a voicemessage from my brother’s exwife urging me to call…as an unknown number calls for the 3rd time, to tell me my mother has died from an apparent gunshot wound to the head…all I could do was scream. It wasn’t possible, I spoke to her the evening before, she was supposed to take my daughter swimming that morning, she promised her yesterday, we had a family dinner planned for the next night…my Boyfriend just held me as tight as possible, rocking with me while I continued to scream. I tried to call dad that night 3 calls went unanswered before I left a voicemail…to this day hasn’t been answered…now I’m parentless andy daughter is grandparentless (my mother has spent everyday with her since the moment she was born, rocking her so i could sleep, babysitting her so i could work, tutoring her for school, taught her to swim, she had her own room at grannys always), heart broken, holding onto 3 decades of pain and not feeling good enough. my birth parents apparently don’t want to be found. I live 2 hours away from where I was adopted from, and have taken 2 dna tests since my mom’s suicide, and nothing closer then a 2nd cousin, (whom passed away since they tested) and too many secrets taken to the grave by everyone. Sealed birth certificate, agency has lost my adoption records, vital statistics can only confirm my birth and that I was indeed adopted. I’ve known my whole life I was adopted, it’s never been something I’ve gave much thought to until the only family I’ve ever had that signed a contract stating they would always be here for me, would always love me, and would always be my family, are no longer holding up their end of the deal…I just want to know what would my life had been like if she would have kept me, or even just my birth dad, would i have experienced as much pain or maybe more, maybe less? Would I be where I am now? Would my mom and dad have stayed married? Or would the two of them have had the same fates without me?? I personally couldn’t ever walk away from a child I spend 7 years waiting for prior to the 18yrs+ raising, in comparison to 9 months gestation, before the 18 yrs or more…to each the same, that’s my child, and nothing could ever change that, but if I somehow ever found myself feeling like that was my only option for the betterment of both my life and the baby as well as making a chiless couple happy for however long, and if abortion was off the table as an option(which I’m not so sure I could do either) then I would be counting down the days till that child turned 18 and would put myself out there as much as humanly possible to be able to be found if she chose to want to find me…and I dont underststand why anyone wouldn’t do the same.

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    1. TWLOHA


      You are incredibly strong and resilient for not only finding the strength to continue living but for having the courage to share what you’ve experienced. Our hearts go out to you for so many reasons. We hope the trauma you’ve endured can be acknowledged and cared for through counseling. If you aren’t seeing someone right now, we invite you to use our FIND HELP Tool to find out what’s available near you: You can also email us at if you ever want to share more of your story as well. We’re here, we’re thinking of you, and we’re rooting for your healing.

      With Hope,

      Reply  |  
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