Last night I binged the whole season of Life After Death With Tyler Henry. Concurrent with the various readings Henry gives to strangers, the season details the emotional drama surrounding his Mom’s newly-discovered adoption.
Obviously, I had a lot of feelings, and there was a lot that I related to as the season progressed.
Theresa Koelewyn (Tyler’s mom) and Tyler both took 23 and Me dna tests in 2019. When the results came back, both were shocked to discover that Theresa had an entirely different biological family. Her mother, whom she refers to as Stella (never Mom, something I can soooo relate to) never told her she was adopted. She now has no contact with Stella, who in addition to being horribly abusive to her and her siblings as children, spent over 30 years in prison for double homicide. Again, except for the homicide part, totally relating here.
Understandably, this discovery sent both Theresa and Tyler into emotional tailspins. It’s bad enough to discover your life is a lie as an adult, but even worse when the person who adopted you was by all accounts a genuinely horrible person. The “what-ifs” are endless.
Over the course of the season, Theresa is shown with her biological siblings, who remembered her birth and had been looking for her for decades. They told stories of growing up in New Orleans, with their single mother who while poor, was loving and involved. Theresa shows classic CPTSD symptoms, stiffening up almost visibly during these stories only to break down back in the hotel with Tyler. It’s heartbreaking to watch her as she compares the life she had with what she should have had with her biological family. She clearly struggles with this, even though I couldn’t help but think that if she had been kept by her bio family, it’s highly unlikely she’d have met Tyler’s dad or had him. And Tyler is clearly her world.
Adoption Trauma Plus Abuse
We’ve talked about adoption trauma here before. In a nutshell, being separated at birth causes deep trauma for a baby, who has bonded with the mother in utero, and depends on her for survival. Separation feels like mortal danger, and the stress response becomes encoded in the child’s body and brain before a “normal baseline” is ever established.
You take this trauma, and throw in an abusive caregiver, and you get a very toxic stew. In one episode, Tyler reports hearing his mom in the next hotel room in the middle of the night saying, “I’m scared!” over and over in her sleep. He talks about her PTSD, and how she is a master at “compartmentalizing.”
And boy do I relate. I have to say that Stella sounds worse even than my mom, who was not physically abusive. My dad, however, was physically abusive to her, and a few times to me. He mostly used his large frame and unpredictable temper to scare me into submission.
Did Stella Steal Theresa?
I wish I could speak to Theresa regarding this one point. Because Stella lied so much about everything possible, and used Theresa to con donations out of various church congregations, (and because she’s human) Theresa believes Stella somehow stole her from her bio mother.
Having known all my life that I was adopted, I’ve had more time to delve into the practice as it existed in the 60s and 70s in America. The period from the end of WWII to about 1973 in the US is known as the “Baby Scoop Era,” because so many children of unwed mothers were placed for adoption. Theresa was born in a Catholic hospital in New Orleans in 1964 – smack in the middle of Baby Scoop. I’ve seen story after story of mothers in this era being pressured, convinced they’d done something shameful by getting pregnant out of wedlock, and pressured to believe they could not care for their child.
At the time, society believed there were no psychological repercussions for either mother or baby from separation. And I may be biased, but Catholic hospitals and nuns are especially known for pushing mothers to relinquish babies. I would put money on the hospital itself being responsible for Theresa’s mother giving her away. Further evidence for this is that the investigator Tyler and Theresa hire to research her birth confirms that her birth certificate is not forged, but is what the hospital originally filed.
How Stella – also unmarried at the time if I understand correctly – came to adopt her is still highly questionable.
The Pain of the Adoptive Family
Another part of the show that broke my heart came near the end, when Tyler and Theresa spend time with her adoptive siblings. She wants to tell them that no matter what, they will always be her siblings.
It’s clear that the trio share quite a trauma bond. They’ve been through literal hell together, and did their best as children to protect each other. Seeing the love and support they share is truly beautiful, even if it was born of such horrific circumstances.
As an only child in my adoptive family, I bore the brunt of abuse alone. Seeing the love this family shared was bittersweet for me. I always wanted siblings, but I would not wish my childhood on my worst enemy.
Adoption is Trauma
Even adoptees with good parents have trauma. Unfortunately, it seems all too common that children are placed with damaged parents who become abusive.
In the adoption group I belong to on Facebook, adoptive and hopeful adoptive parents do not generally acquit themselves well. It seems that being unable to have children makes some people so desperate they’ll do about anything to get a baby. Something about the idea of taking in an “unwanted” baby from another family seems to attract or bring out narcissistic tendencies. There’s a “savior complex” that’s all too common, causing adoptive parents to expect gratitude from the children they’ve “saved,” despite the trauma they’ve experienced and the mistreatment they may endure.
In my own case, my adoptive parents had a very dysfunctional marriage. As mentioned, he was an alcoholic who was often physically abusive when drinking. He is a narcissist and emotionally abusive to women in his life, including his mother, wife, sister and me. Hes been unfaithful. She was unable to carry a pregnancy. She’s codependent, worshipping the ground he walks on. She thought a baby would fix the marriage. It did not. Hope turned to resentment and a lifetime of abuse.
My heart goes out to Tyler Henry and his mom Theresa. I know all to well what she’s experienced. I hope she’s able to find healing in her relationship with her bio siblings, and I look forward to seeing that on upcoming seasons of the show.