Adaptation and self-image

One supposes it must seem strange to someone who was never adopted to consider what it is like growing up around people who look nothing like you. Adaptation is the key to adoptee survival, adapting to a world that is out of joint, a world that is filled with cracks, fissures, where an identity can disappear, only to be replaced by a legal fiction. A world where international adoptees can be disappeared as non-citizens, non-entities, adrift in a liminal legal state between countries. Adapting to this world as an adoptee does set one apart from the ‘normal’ experiences of family and society. One must adapt, as there is a kind of warping between one’s personal expectation of one’s eventual appearance and the actual appearance one naturally develops into… I did not know, when I was fifteen, what I will look like when I turn fifty.

As I aged, and my appearance changed, I felt the fracture between myself and the adopted family within which I’d been placed grow ever keener, sharper, hard-edged. I felt my social circles expand in directions that provided escape, freedom from a space that increasingly seemed confining, suffocating. Realistically, I am unable to tell if my experience was tied to any one trigger, or if it was a cumulative pressure of a number of factors. I am certain that I would have given up, lost the will to live, actively pursued self-destruction, if it weren’t for my friends who found ways to extract me from the home environment I felt trapped within.

Now, years after that time in my life, and a full beard or two later, I know who I look like and what to expect. Discovering that information was painful, and grueling, and worth every moment of anxiety and confusion. To lack a sense of identity is to be unmoored from the very fabric of society. Not having that internal sense of how I could expect to age, to know how I will appear given enough time, was one constant source of dissociative stress.

Now, accentuate that disassociation that a person adopted into a family of a different culture, skin tone, or country. Imagine the impact that the lack of genetic mirroring must have on an infant, a child, an adolescent throughout their life. I acknowledge fully that I have had it easy, compared to an adoptee who is ‘transracial’ or who was adopted from another country. Spare a moment to consider why adoption must appear as itself traumatizing, when there is such a life-long compounding of the lack of physical identity, a mirroring that all non-adopted individuals take entirely for granted. I survived, but not without scars and a great deal of emotional strife. I’m a lucky one, there are adoptees who have had much, much more difficult lives… and all too often, those lives didn’t need to be so disrupted.

Published by

Jeffrey Wes Unruh

Adoptee, born at the Magic Valley Regional Medical Center, April 15, 1974. I spent 23 years trying to figure out all the details, concluding my search in 2019 after meeting my biological father. I'm working on a book that encapsulates my thoughts on adoption in general, and the experience of being adopted.