Dexter Tackles Adoption Trauma

Last night’s episode of Dexter: New Blood was super emotional for me.

Without giving too much away, my favorite serial killer’s son has tracked him down in his new life in upstate New York. Since Dex faked his death when Harrison was 5, their reunion has been a bit bumpy. Last night, they went to therapy together.

Fans of the show know that Dexter suffered extreme trauma as a toddler: His mother was brutally murdered – in fact, dismembered with a chainsaw – right in front of him. This happened in an abandoned shipping container, and Dexter spent some time literally crawling around in his mother’s blood before being rescued by his soon-to-be-adoptive-father, Harry. That “born in blood” thing has always been held up as the reason Dexter has a compulsion to kill.

So, on the therapist couch, it comes out that Dexter is adopted. The therapist takes interest in this, telling both father and son that they therefore have “abandonment issues.” Because even without the bloody backstory (which neither the therapist nor Harrison know about), simply being separated from your birth mother is traumatic. Being adopted, Dexter automatically has trauma. And that trauma is often genetically passed down from father to son.

Next up, since Harrison is completely disappointed with Dexter’s lack of openness during therapy, he visits his girlfriend, Audrey – who is also adopted – and shares his frustration. She shares her story of how her mother abandoned her and her father and how that felt. That when he met Angela (Audrey’s adoptive mother) and married her, she thought things were going to be fine. But then her father died, and she was abandoned again. And since he was Native American (as is Angela) but the birth mom was not, Audrey feels like a perpetual outsider. She and Harrison bond over being outcasts angry at the world.

Of course, Harrison is more “angry at the world” than she is, but that’s something you need to watch this season for.

Separation At Birth Is Inherently Traumatic

Until somewhat recently, I thought my adoption-related trauma was a down to the individuals involved – abusive adoptive parents and birth parents who rejected me as an adult. But I’m learning there’s more to the story.

Turns out, babies in the womb do bond with their mothers. As early as the second trimester of pregnancy, a baby learns it’s mothers voice, the rhythm of her gait and heartbeat. At birth, only the amygdala is functional. This means babies are pure instinct and emotion. Yet, they turn their heads to the sound of their mother’s voice. They immediately recognize her smell and know her breast from an imposter. Instinctively they know they are dependent upon her for survival.

Being separated from her feels life threatening. She is everything the baby knows. But the brain is undeveloped, and an infant has no way of processing the shock of separation or the fear it causes. Instead, with fight-or-flight reactions firing and no way to act on them, adrenaline and cortisol bathe the developing brain, making it impossible for it to develop normally. Of course those hormones don’t stop in the brain – they course through the entire system and this experience is stored deep within every cell of the body.

Even worse, some studies indicate that babies can feel rejection even inside the womb. If the mother is under the tremendous stress and trauma of an unwanted pregnancy, making the necessary arrangements to surrender the baby for adoption, her stress hormones impact the fetus. Is it possible the fetus can feel animosity or resentment from the mother? Some researchers think so.

No “Normal” To Return To

Most people who experience trauma have some sense of a “before time.” Before they were assaulted, before the abusive relationship, before the life-threatening accident; at some point in the past most people with trauma knew what “normal” felt like. But for an infant separated from it’s birth parent (or any other victim of early childhood trauma), the trauma happens well before “normal” is ever established. There simply is no pre-trauma existence they can refer to when trying to heal. And how are we supposed to know how to heal if we have no idea what “normal” is? There is no pre-traumatized state to get back to. Trauma is literally all we know.

How on earth do you decide what healing looks like in that case?

Some Ideas Moving Forward

Well, I’m not going to develop my own “dark passenger” and start strapping criminals to a table with seran wrap (not that I haven’t thought about it…) So, short of becoming a serial killer (JUST JOKING!) what are some things those of us with adoption trauma can do?

First we want to face the reality of what happened. Being separated from our birth parent(s) IS inherently traumatic. We are wounded. Damaged. We have to acknowledge that before we can ever begin to heal. For some, it helps to understand why and how something that happened long before we can remember has such a big impact. I recommend the following resources:

This video by Paul Sunderland, a psychotherapist and addictions counselor, is long but so well explained and understandable. He really explains everything in such a validating way, it should be required viewing for anyone touched by adoption in any way:

If you’re looking for a book, Nadine Burke Harris’s The Deepest Well covers not just research on adoption trauma but many other forms of childhood adversity, as well as exploring methods of coping with the effects and working towards healing:

If you’re on Facebook, there’s a great community of people touched by adoption at: Adoption: Facing Realities

And of course, there’s lots of info on this blog about healing from trauma, especially for those on a Pagan or similar spiritual path.

Do you have any experience with adoption? How has it impacted you? Sharing your story in the comments can feel good and help others know they’re not alone <3

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