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 (6)

  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!!!!

    Reply  |  
  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.

    Reply  |  
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