Q&A with Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker and IAMAdoptee contributing editor, Emma
Q: COVID-19 might trigger some latent issues for adoptees in particular, for example with challenges surrounding food and food scarcity. People are posting all over social media about grocery shopping, being stocked, or having anxiety of not having enough. Some are making grand elaborate meals. Others are wondering if they will be able to eat three meals a day. How do you think this isolation, long waiting lines, and issues of food abundance could be a sensitive area for us?
Chaitra: I [am] looking at it from two lenses: from the idea of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and then through the Seven Core Struggles like Silverstein and Kaplan. Start[ing] off with the seven core struggles, it seems like in some ways, adoptees were almost built for this type of global trauma because so many of us have experienced this trauma that’s been internalized. And now it’s like the whole world is experiencing what we’ve experienced on the level of unpredictability and lack of control and trauma and not being able to know what comes next. I think in some ways, this can feel familiar to a lot of us, which, depending on the individual, that may be comforting. In other ways that may be triggering. But I think that even though there may be struggles during COVID-19 and a lot of social distancing and sheltering in place, I also think that some of the bigger struggles might come afterwards when we return to whatever normal is and we’re not in survival mode anymore. That’s when a lot of those common reactions or bigger emotions may have the time to surface.
When I think about it from the lens of the Seven Core Struggles, I think about loss. This whole situation is sort of reinforcing that sense of a lack of permanence and feeling like everything is temporary and having a hard time trusting that things will stay the way that they are or the way they’ve been. I think [that] leads to that fear of, when we go back to normal, trusting is it going to stay this way or is everything gonna go away again? That can really impact our sense of whether things matter, the meaning that we take from them, how invested we get. Maslow’s Hierarchy touches on that love and belonging aspect, that fear of loss and losing loved ones to the virus or losing jobs or losing stability, being able to shop for food, those kinds of things; that sense of loss and not being able to know what comes next [or] trust what comes next.
If we look at the next struggle of rejection, I think for some adoptees who feel disconnected, especially if they’re living alone or they’re living with family that they don’t feel very connected to, if no one is reaching out to them, it may reinforce that sense of rejection or isolation. But in some ways, there’s that recognition that everybody’s missing out on things right now and everyone’s feeling disappointment in some way, so that sense of rejection is less prominent. But then again, looking at Maslow’s Hierarchy, with love and belonging, there’s that fear of losing people they love that may lead to them sort of pushing people away or rejecting first out of self-protection.
With guilt and shame, I think with some adoptees, that’s going to lead to [a] really excessive sense of responsibility, that they need to save the world, or maybe their first family, whether they are in touch or not. There may be this sense of needing to rescue or save people or keep them safe. And maybe even feeling badly about privileges they may have compared to their first family or birth country. Just grappling with feeling undeserving: why am I in a safe place when other people are not? A lot of those [types of] questions can come up.
I think that relates to the next struggle of grief, and that question of “why me?” around circumstances or privilege, or even “why me?” as far as adoptions that have not been very easy or have been traumatic in some way. Why am I having to deal with one more thing? Or why am I in a situation where I don’t have family to support me through this? It brings up [an] exacerbation of all the “what if’s.” I think that can lead to some hopelessness around what returning to normal might be like, whether it’s going to look different or feel better or if it’s just gonna be sort of a continuation of the same. Along with that, there can be that sense of, how do I make this a productive time? Or what is it supposed to be like? And with grief too, I think there’s that idea of our ghost life, and just wondering what could my life have been like if I was with my first family right now? Would I be safe and healthy? Would I have a place to belong while all of this is going on, or would I still be isolated? A lot of spiraling into those “what if’s.”
[Regarding the] next struggle around identity, this whole situation [is] redefining people’s sense of belonging and purpose. With Maslow’s Hierarchy, on those levels of esteem and self-actualization, there’s this sense, for some adoptees, [that] they really need to contribute in a meaningful way. They feel like they do want to save everybody or they need to do something big to support people who are struggling right now or people who may not be as safe as them. Again, I think it leads to sometimes that sense of feeling like, I have to be productive. I shouldn’t have the privilege of being safe. Or if it’s that sort of opposite scenario of, why don’t I get the privilege of being safe? What’s wrong with me that I haven’t earned that or don’t deserve that?
With that struggle of intimacy, to relate it to attachment, there could be a lot that gets triggered right now for people who are with their families, whether they’re teens or adults who are with parents or if someone is a parent [and] they have their own children or partner. Forced physical proximity could be really triggering in some ways, and there may be that push-pull of being needed or needing other people. That might feel kind of frightening on a base level, as far as safety and survival. And especially for teens or young adults who are sort of forced to be at home right now with their parents, there may be this sort of superficial sense of emotional closeness, but it’s sort of a self-protective or survival mechanism that may go away when things return to normal and they have more space. That can be confusing for them and for the people around them. Then again [there is] that fear just of losing people that they love, on the level of Maslow’s Hierarchy with love and belonging.
Then, with that last core struggle of control, everybody’s feeling that lack of control over things on a global level right now, which can be triggering or feel really familiar. Some people may be thinking, wow, now everybody knows what it’s like to be an adoptee and to not have all the answers and to not know what’s coming next or not really understand why this is happening. In some ways, because [of] social distancing and sheltering in place, our worlds are sort of forced to be smaller, which may feel more controllable, safer, and more predictable. So returning to whatever normal looks like may feel really anxiety provoking and scary because there are a lot more factors that are outside of someone’s control. Related to Maslow’s Hierarchy, on that physiological level, that’s where just our basic survival [comes into play]. [For example], I don’t have control over what food looks like at the grocery store, whether I have access to certain things, whether I can maintain being in a safe space, or when I’m out, being able to tell who is safe to be around, where the germ-free places might be. On that safety level, [some people may be experiencing] anxiety over potential symptoms that may come up and what they mean: I’m getting a tickle in my throat. Does that mean I have the coronavirus or is it something else? There may be some denial as self-protection or anxiety increasing, feeling like they’re wanting to do a lot to try and fix things right away and maybe overreacting a bit. Those are some of [my] thoughts around the kind of the latent issues that could be coming up.
Q: Could you speak to some of the general strategies people might be able to use to manage these potential issues?
Chaitra: In general, staying connected to the support systems that you have in whatever ways that are possible [is] going to be really important. Whether that’s family or friends or therapists or people in the community, religious leaders, being able to stay connected with them by phone or email or video calls is gonna be really important because we don’t want isolation to take over.
Being able to create routines that can be flexible enough that you don’t feel like you’re stuck in something that’s rigid but also something that you can depend on enough [so] there’s some sense of what to expect [is important]. Being able to create realistic expectations for yourself [is also important]. Acknowledge that this isn’t going to be the time maybe when you write your first novel because things are stressful and you brain may feel already overloaded internally. If there are things that you want to accomplish, make sure that you’re not comparing yourself to others or what you’re seeing on social media but really focusing in on breaking things down into smaller steps that are accomplishable in a realistic way.
At the same time, mak[e] taking care of yourself, listening to what your body and emotions are telling you you need, [a] priority and part of your daily schedule, so it’s not an afterthought. It’s part of what needs to be happening for survival. If there are other adoptees that they can connect with, even if it’s through social media, I think that’s really helpful as well to normalize and validate all of the things that we may be feeling or experiencing. Continuing to be able to set boundaries around people who may not be healthy for them, even if those are people that they maybe have forced physical proximity with right now [is also important]. Especially for college students returning home unexpectedly or teens who are at home more, recognize that boundaries can be set for your own self-preservation and self-protection. It’s ok to try and keep those in place and it’s not about taking care of your parents or caregivers or other people right now. It’s about being able to focus on your needs and taking care of you. Really [trying] not [to] fall back into old habits of allowing gas-lighting, that type of thing.
Q: Are there other areas that might be points of specific concern for our community that you would want us to consider?
Chaitra: I think it’s the isolation piece that I worry about most, especially if there already are mental health concerns prevalent. [This] would be true of any population where there are mental health concerns. But [a specific concern is] related to racial identity, especially for adoptees who are East Asian. Knowing that there is a lot of racism occurring right now because of coronavirus [causes] a lot of hyper-vigilance and [need for] extra safety precautions. Being able to separate out truth from myth [is important]. Acknowledging especially that if, as an East Asian adoptee right now, you’re not feeling safe when you go out, that is not paranoia. It’s a real concern. It’s valid. Give yourself permission to find ways to make yourself feel safe, whether that means having things delivered or having someone else pick it up and bring it to you and drop it off. [Don’t] let people gas-light around that or minimize those concerns. Trusting your instincts is key.
Q: What is your job, and what’s your connection to IAMAdoptee?
Chaitra: I’m a licensed psychologist, and I have a private practice in Denver, CO called Beyond Words Psychological Services. All of my work is really related to adoption. I do pre-adoption evaluations for prospective parents and a lot of coaching for parents who are preparing. I also do post adoption work with families. I do evaluations for kids and counseling, play therapy, EMDR [Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing], just kind of all focused on adoption related issues, attachment, trauma, racial identity. I’m also an adoptee from India. I was raised in a transracial family, grew up in Minnesota. And I am also a parent to a son from Ethiopia, so I’m a transracial adoptive parent as well.
- Loss: The lack of permanence or predictability may feel like a loss that also brings a fear of returning to “normal” post-COVID. Additional feelings of loss may arise in relation to concerns over losing loved ones to the virus.
- Rejection: Being isolated and disconnected can reinforce feelings of rejection, although it may be comforting to know everyone is experiencing this to some degree. Some may attempt to reject relationships with those who they fear they may lose.
- Guilt/Shame: Presence or lack of privileges may induce guilt surrounding one’s own situation, either as undeserving or unfairly disadvantaged. Feeling responsible to save one’s family, adoptive or first, or the world as a whole is common.
- Grief: This situation can exacerbate the questions of “why me?” or wondering about the “what if’s” regarding how our own lives may have been different sans adoption. Some may also grieve over the hopelessness about returning to “normal.”
- Identity: Many people have been forced to reexamine their life’s purpose and where they belong as a result of COVID. This can lead to a struggle with feeling the need to be productive or helpful.
- Intimacy/Relationships: Forced physical proximity, especially in challenging or abusive relationships, can be emotionally draining. Issues around attachment or superficial emotional closeness can be triggered here.
- Control: During a time when we seem to have little control over many aspects of our lives, including safety, health, food, and relationships, it is common to experience heightened anxiety.
- Racism: Many people of East Asian descent are experiencing overt racism due to the framing of COVID. Understand that fears for your own safety due to racism are legitimate. Do what you need to do to stay as safe as possible from racism.
- Support/Healing: Stay connected to people in whatever way possible, especially other adoptees. Create a routine that is predictable but flexible with the goal of self-care. Set goals that are realistic. Create boundaries to protect yourself from people who may not be mentally/emotionally healthy for you.
Part II of this interview is continued HERE
Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker provides support from her unique “trifecta perspective” as a licensed psychologist, transracial adoptee, and adoptive parent specializing in adoption, trauma, attachment, and racial identity work through her private practice in Denver, Colorado. She is a frequent speaker and trainer at adoption agencies, camps and conferences throughout the U.S., and is the author of “The Adoptee Self-Reflection Journal,” as well as the creator of the National Adoptee-Therapist Directory. Learn more about the services and educational resources she offers at www.growbeyondwords.com.
Emma, Contributor, is an editor for IAMAdoptee. She enjoys art, music, sports, traveling, and bubble tea. She was adopted from Hunan province in 1995. Emma has returned to China a few times and has been attempting to learn Mandarin for many years.