Survivor’s Guilt

I have just spent
the weekend with family. People who, as much as they might annoy me,
will still have my back if I need them. Who love me, even as the flawed
human being that I am. Who, despite my flaws, ultimately believe in the
best parts of me.

I think about the kids I work with who don’t have this soft landing
called a family. Or, they do but their families are too lost in their
own problems that they can’t or aren’t willing to care about them. So
they’re in substitute places; institutions like residential treatment,
or shelter, or group homes, or with foster families who never fail to
treat them like second-hand people.

Some days I feel it’s wrong for me to have anything good in my life,
when there are so many others who don’t. It’s survivor’s guilt. It’s
the trauma of having been one of the "lucky" ones through none of my own doing. For having been adopted to a family who treated me with kindness and love instead of being adopted by a family who abused and neglected me.

I know too many kids who were abused and neglected and abandoned by their families of origin. But I also know too many adults who were abused and neglected and abandoned by their adoptive families.

Some days I have a hard time being able to say adoption is a good thing when I know so many people for whom it wasn’t. Yet, I don’t believe it’s better to grow up without family either. And some days it’s
terribly difficult to look in the mirror and be thankful for the
blessings you feel you don’t deserve. After all, only the luck of a
draw separates you from them.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

15 thoughts

  1. This feels sooooo familiar. And I wonder if this is behind my desire to be a foster or adoptive parent. Hmm. Much food for thought this morning; thank you again, JR.

  2. What about gratitude instead of guilt? Gratitude is much more positive and encouraging.
    All of us have a safe place to land, more or less, even when it doesn’t appear that way at first glance. It’s a matter of appreciating what we do have, whether it be a loving adoptive family, compassionate caretakers at a residential treatment center, or “Chosen” family.

  3. Faith, you come to work with me and say this to the youth in foster care who I work with.
    Somehow I have the feeling you’ve not spent time in foster care or in a residential treatment center.
    I find your comment very demeaning and shows your ignorance of the term “survivor’s guilt.” I’m sure your privilege is speaking through here but frankly I’m too offended to comment further.

  4. I went through hell as a child because of my ex adoptive mother. I was tortured, starved, drugged, humiliated, and made to feel like shit every day of my life for 12 long years until the authorities stepped in and removed me.
    And then I hear shit like the comment that this ignorant Faith person left. No, I’m not looking for sympathy and this isn’t a pissing match of who had it worst. I want people to wake the fuck up and acknowledge that it does in fact happen and for regulations and laws to be applied so that it stops.
    Another response I get a lot when I disclose to people that I was abused is “that’s terrible! but thank god it’s so rare”. I’ve never been able to find numbers but there’s this sinking feeling that it happens more often than not. It goes on because nobody wants to believe that an adoptive parent can abuse their child.
    The tendency to martyrize AP’s who’ve passed their home studies as saints who love their adopted children unconditionally is part of the problem. In fact, I would say that misconception and white privilege play more of a part than any draw of luck.
    I’m surprised that you feel guilt, because you’re helping to reshape those biases into a more realistic picture and refocusing things into putting the needs of the child ahead of the adopting parents. Going back to school to become a social worker, an adoption professional, and a real advocate is more than one person can be expected to do in a lifetime. Yet you’re doing just that and you’re making a real difference.

  5. Jaye, I know you’re not looking for sympathy; I just want to say that I’m sorry for what happened to you.
    Faith, with all due respect, I think you completely missed the point of this post. Furthermore, to make such a bold statement as “all of us have a safe place to land” is not only totally dismissive, but also insulting to the many, many, many people who have no safe place to land whatsoever, as if it’s somehow their fault for not looking hard enough to find what others think they should be grateful for.
    Jae Ran, this post hits close to home. Sometimes the “Why me, but not them, too?” is really difficult to reconcile.

  6. Jae Rae,
    The work you do has always amazed me. Not many people have the fortitude to be able to handle so much suffering that goes on in this world at such a personal level.
    I feel that everyone deserves the blessings you have, and the fact that so many don’t have them is a horrible tragedy. Do you really feel that you are more or less deserving of any other person? From the work you do and the thoughts and issues you bring to light here, perhaps you are all too deserving.
    Keep up the hard work. I have my own guilt from the holidays, that I can’t seem to reconcile- thank you for your thoughts.

  7. I’m surprised that all of you would jump on me as “ignorant” immediately. It just goes to show how you immediately make the assumption that I’m speaking of “happy and grateful”. That’s not what I’m speaking of, at all. I’m sorry you misunderstood that.
    You know what? FUCK YOU and your assumptions. You jump on things and take them personally, that’s YOUR problem. I’m a fellow KAD who grew up in an emotionally sick and abusive family who betrayed me time and again and I am currently mentoring a child who is living in a residential treatment center due to the insensitivity of his adoptive parents (who undopted him). Don’t you dare try to make assumptions about me.
    You immediately assume something else. Well, I feel sorry for you, then. I’m just talking about the fact that, despite I am not fortunate enough to experience Harlow Monkey’s guilt, I choose to focus on what I do have, and to make the life of another adoptee living in a treatment center better, too.

  8. Once again, I’m sorry that you all misunderstood me. I am a KAD myself who comes from an emotionally abusive family. Contrary to what you’ve said about “privilege”, I am not speaking from a privileged position. I am speaking from a the p.o.v. of abuse and betrayal.
    What I meant is that, despite the hell that myself and others I know (my Chosen Family) have gone through, we choose to focus on the small things that make our lives better and brighter – like friendship and people who do care about us and feel compassion.
    I have, in fact, spent time in a residential treatment center and it has upset me a great deal, which is why I am trying to be encouraging to a child who has to live there.

  9. I guess the point is that I am sorry for publishing a post about my FEELINGS instead of just the usual commentary on news articles or research.
    I chose to share some feelings I have about my adoptive experience and that of working with youth in foster care who have had a crummy life thus far. Not to solicit pity from anyone but to share so others who may recognize those feelings would know that someone else has them too.
    Faith, I made some assumptions and they were based on what I felt was a condescending comment. What you and most of the others who read this blog don’t know is that when I share these feelings about certain things in my life that make me sad or angry, it’s not to say that I am never grateful or feel joy or that it’s all hopelessness all the time.
    Perhaps it’s just different styles but I do not tell the youth I work with who live in foster homes or residential treatment centers to feel grateful. I don’t think you encourage your friend in this way either. I’m sure you have a compassionate way of talking about building on strengths. That’s a different thing than what was stated in your comment which is why I took it the way I did.
    I use the term “chosen family” myself, I like that term. However angry you are at me for my assumptions, I would never tell you to F-off. And what made me most angry was that it seemed you were invalidating my feelings (and anyone else who has ever felt survivor’s guilt). I do not write this blog for therapy and for unsolicited advice. Next time, if there is a next time, I choose to write about my FEELINGS, I will close the comment box.

  10. Dear Jae Ran and others,
    I’m sorry that you feel that way and I apologize for flying off the handle. It made me indescribably angry to be accused of being ignorant of something my close friends and I understand much too painfully and intimately.
    I realize the word “gratitude” has a thorny side among the adoptee community that is prone to misinterpretation. I now wish I had chosen my words more carefully and I am sorry that you took them as an insult. My comment was not at all intended to discount your feelings.
    Honestly, the reason I brought up gratitude is because some days, it has been the only thing that keeps me going when there doesn’t seem like very much to be grateful for, at all. That word used to insult and degrade me, as well, but I have somehow come full circle to using it as a tool of survival and a reminder to focus on the positive.
    I really did not intend to discount your feelings of “Survivor’s Guilt” and it is wonderful to see someone with your compassion and fortitude working among the adoption community. I enjoy reading your blog and I am sorry that we got off on the wrong foot.

  11. “it’s not to say that I am never grateful or feel joy or that it’s all hopelessness all the time. ”
    Jae Ran, that was not my assumption at all. I understand that adoption is a Penumbra and have put much effort into explaining this to adoptive parents and others who do not seem to understand.

  12. Faith,
    Tone is tricky isn’t it? We both clearly made assumptions because we read each other differently.
    To me, gratitude is something that each person needs to come to on their own. Maybe I’m just a little oppositional but I really dislike when one person uses the “gratitude” angle to try and force someone else to accept a bad situation. I think each person individually matures and is able to look at gratitude and what the word means to them personally and that means more to them than when someone uses it as an insult (for example, how many of us were ordered to “be grateful!” by our adoptive parents? too many -)
    Gratitude is a tricky, sticky concept.
    For people like you and I, we know how much those connections with adoptees in residential centers or group homes mean to us and to them. Your own life experiences more than anything make you an asset in your friend’s future and I wish him/her the best.

  13. To Faith: I apologize for calling you ignorant. After a lifetime of the aren’t you lucky/be grateful/you’re exaggerating, adoptees are wanted children routine, I’m too ready to jump to assumptions and put the hackles up. It’s funny how people change their perceptions of you once you disclose your painful past, something I’m all too familiar with.
    And to Jae Ran: Your post really has struck a chord in me, even if I started out ranting and raving. I’ve probably told you this before but during the worst times of my childhood, I clung to the idea that the other “little Oriental girls” were happy and being doted on and not going through what I was. As an adult, it’s really messed with my head for the longest time that that’s not true. So it’s a surprise that you have guilt. For what it’s worth, I think you deserve any happiness that comes your way. All of you.

  14. I just think some of us feel guilt, even if we shouldn’t. Really we should only feel guilt for events we had some control over and in the world of adoption, control is something only a few have. I have guilt all the time that my daughters birth Mom doesn’t know she is safe. That she may worry about her. I would do anyhting to be able to communicate with her. I just wish she knew how much we think of her. I feel guilty for being able to raise the daughter that she made sure would be found. I just recently learned of another fmaily that had turned their 2 year old daughter, adopted at 9 months, over to social services. The mother claimed they weren’t bonding. I was furious, yet felt guilty because I couldn’t apply to foster her at this time. I can’t control when children get hurt and it pisses me off, then I have guilt. However, I can’t change what happened to this child in China, nor can I change what is happening to her now. Every child deserves to be loved and protected and the truth is, that is not how it is. Maybe it’s not guilt, but sadness.

  15. An amazing post and a courageous one too.
    I came into adulthood without that feeling that anyone at all had my back. I lived in foster homes for several years, then briefly with my father and step mother, leaving at 15. Escaping an abusive situation.
    Do I feel gratitude to the foster families? Yes, I do, but they were simply a place to sleep and adults that really didn’t understand what I was going through. Still, they made a difference.
    But the other emotions I had to deal with back then were overwhelmed by anger and grief and shame.
    And guilt.
    The guilt I still feel to this day that I was unable to protect my younger siblings, that I abandoned them to protect myself when I fled is something I could never really relate to anyone but them. And even they cannot really talk about it.
    And guilt that I managed to make a life for myself despite a lack of support, and because they cannot accept me as I am now because they cannot understand how I got here. Not to mention most of them believe I think I am “better than them” after all of this.
    Jae Ran, you have what I happen to think is the kind of personality we NEED in social workers. I know it hurts. It has to in order for you to be there for the right reasons. Otherwise you end up jaded and just another cog in our broken system.

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