Adoption and the Primal Wound

The Day I Realized My Primal Wound

One adoptees journey to discovering, learning about, and beginning to heal from the primal wound of adoption


By: Caroline J. Sumlin


I will never forget the day. The day. The day my adoptive mom handed me a thin manilla folder with a few papers inside that forever changed my life. Inside the folder were my adoption papers, my original birth certificate, and my current birth certificate. I remember holding both of my birth certificates side by side. On one document, I saw names I recognized – the name my adoptive mother had given me and my adoptive mother’s name on the line that read “mother,” as if she had been the one to carry me for nine months. On the other document, I saw the names of strangers – the name I was born with, resembling a girl I did not know and would never meet, and the names of a man and a woman next to the words mother and father. A man and woman who created me, carried me, birthed me, and were strangers to me. I did not know them, and they did not know me. 

I stared at the two documents for a long time, glancing back and forth between these two estranged worlds somehow representing the same little girl. Me. I felt like I had been through the witness protection program. In a way, that’s what adoption is. You are stripped of your “original” identity without consent and immediately cloaked in a new one. I would never meet this unfamiliar girl whose birth certificate I held in my hands, even though, she was me. And, she would never meet me, even though, I was her. 

It felt as if the wind had knocked out of me. For the first time, I felt the immense physical ache of the dark, empty hole that was my origin story. This ache had always been within me, but this time, I felt its physical presence, confronting me in my living room, daring me to continue ignoring it like I had grown accustomed to. I could barely look at the name next to the word “mother” on my original birth certificate without feeling as if I would faint. 


“IT’S NOT FAIR!” I wanted to scream. I wanted to let go of the grief I had been carrying for then-16 years and melt into a puddle on the floor, kicking and screaming about how unfair it had been that this was how I had to enter the world. But, I didn’t. I didn’t kick, scream, or cry. I clenched my jaw to not let any emotion leak out of me and continued to stare at the names of these foreign people whom I would never meet, yet, were all a part of me. 

Something was unearthed inside of me that day. I didn’t have a name for it at the time, but I now know that it was the realization of my Primal Wound. Before that day, adoption was something I brushed off, as if it was as insignificant as that one time I fell off my bike and scraped my knee. It was a fact about me that I recited on command as if I were telling someone I met that I happened to be left-handed. Like, “Oh! Fun fact: I’m adopted. And I’m left-handed. And in case you haven’t noticed, my hair is curly.”  I thought that my adoption was something I was supposed to be confident in and never question. It just happened to me. It was just the way it was. I just so happened to go about a different way of getting parents than most kids. These were the things I told myself as a child. It just was. There was no need to question it. There was no need to think about it. There was no need to allow my mind to wander off into the land of what-ifs, whys, and I-wish’s. There were no answers, and whatever answers there were, I already knew. 


My origin story had not been withheld from me. There weren’t a ton of details, but I was told the truth early on. My biological mother and father were intellectually disabled. At the time, the terminology, “mentally challenged,” was used. The term intellectually disabled didn’t exist in the ‘90s and the R-word was just becoming a slur, though that was their official diagnosis on my adoption papers. I had no grasp of what being mentally challenged meant as a child. I also didn’t know how to ask for clarification. It somehow felt wrong to do so, so I kept my confusion to myself. I was told that my biological mother didn’t have a formal education nor basic functioning skills, such as feeding a baby a bottle, and didn’t know how to read and write. “So how did she know how to have a baby, then?” I’d rebut in my head. I never dared to ask out loud. Once again, it felt inappropriate to question the answers I was being given.  But, it didn’t make sense to me. Even though my childhood brain didn’t know the scientific process behind making and having a baby, it knew that actually having a baby must have been harder than feeding that baby. Right? If she could carry me and give birth to me, why couldn’t she learn to feed me? Is it that she didn’t want to feed me? Did she not want to learn how to feed me?

Uh-oh. My mind was doing that wandering thing again. That thing I had convinced myself was not worth it. “Remember, Caroline. It just is. There is nothing you can do about being adopted,” I continued to tell myself. So, I brushed those thoughts away and accepted my reality. I was adopted. My parents were “mentally challenged.” End of story. 

Except, it wasn’t the end of the story. No matter how hard I tried to make that the end of the story, the gnawing pain that lived in the depths of my soul would not let me forget its existence. It had moved in, rent-free, and taken over my entire being without apology. This pain was my Primal Wound, but I didn’t know that in my little girl heart and mind. I just knew that something hurt. Badly. And it wouldn’t leave me alone. 


The hurt instituted fear that my mom was going to send me away if I wasn’t good enough. 

The hurt caused me to wonder why I was alive if I hadn’t been wanted or planned for.

The hurt crafted feelings of being an isolated outcast even when surrounded by family I knew loved me dearly.

The hurt sometimes wished I could fall asleep permanently so that I would never have to feel its anguish again. 

The hurt longed to feel that connection with a mother that seemingly everyone else felt beside me. I loved my mom, of course. She was my mom and the only mom I’ve ever known. But, I could tell a difference between the bond she and I had versus the bond my friends and peers had with their mothers. I couldn’t articulate the differences, but I felt them. And it hurt. All my little girl heart and mind knew was that it hurt. 


As I grew, the wound deepened. It intensified and seeped into every area of my life. It evolved into self-hatred and hiding sharp objects in my desk drawer so that I could feel a puncture of pain the moment the house was quiet at night. Ah, to feel pain externally. I craved to feel my pain externally. I needed to let this pain rupture from my soul and into the arms of someone who cared. But, I was alone. I knew if I told anyone the truth about how I was feeling, it wouldn’t be well-received. Plus, I didn’t have the words to accurately express my despair. Again, the phrase “primal wound” was a stranger to me. I just thought I was crazy. Crazy, and selfish, and ungrateful. I had a mother and father who loved me dearly. I had a family. I had godparents. I had cousins. I had a few friends. I had a home. I had food on the table. I was safe. I was lucky. So, I concealed my pain and let the sharp objects do their thing. 

By the time I was a teenager, I had a somewhat grasp on what my life could have been had I not been adopted. And I was grateful to have been adopted. I couldn’t imagine myself living on the streets of New York City, where I was born, living a very different life. Actually, I could imagine it. I had been to New York a few times and I never felt comfortable there. Perhaps it was the trauma response. Perhaps if the trauma had never occurred, New York City and the New York City way of life would have felt like home to me. But whenever I had to step foot in that city, I knew I didn’t belong there and I was so glad I didn’t have to live there. I was so, incredibly thankful that my journey brought me to Minnesota and to the homes of the parents who opted to call me theirs. And yet, that pain did not disappear. I tried to continue stating the facts of my adoption. I tried to continue focusing on the gratitude and love for the life I was so fortunate to live. I tried to ignore the wound, but you can’t ignore a wound that continues to ooze. 


The day my mother showed me my adoption papers was the day that I finally acknowledged the wound. I had recently turned 16. Seeing those papers made what I had been trying to fight, bury, avoid, and even gaslight myself into not believing existed, real. It was real. The wound was real. The pain, the hurt, the agony. All real. I couldn’t fight this any longer. I was not okay. I came into this world as one person and lived my life as a completely different person. A woman carried and birthed me. I was in the safety of her womb for nine months – never knowing what was ahead of me once I vacated the premises and landed earth-side. Every infant searches for its mother following the trauma or difficult work of their birth. Every infant immediately searches for her smell, her voice, her familiarity. Every infant knows its mother. Every infant only trusts its mother. And every infant deserves to be immediately placed within the only home they ever knew once they are born. No infant deserves to be ripped away from its home and placed in the arms of a stranger, never to be reunited with their home again. 

I still didn’t have a name for the wound, but I now understood the magnitude of what had happened to me. Just seeing the names of my biological mother and father was enough to solidify the fact that just 16 years prior to that moment of me sitting on the couch and looking at those papers, a woman had given birth in a hospital in The Bronx, just as billions of women had done before her and would continue to do after her. She would give birth to her daughter, yet her daughter would become a stranger. Just like that.


I didn’t find out the terminology for the Primal Wound until I was 22. I was a recent college graduate and for some reason, grief for my biological mother and my adoption had taken over me like a hurricane. I think this happens with a lot of adoptees. Milestone moments trigger grief for the mother who was supposed to be there to witness them. I don’t remember exactly what happened. It’s a blur now. I just remember the tears and the gasps for air as I sobbed alone in my apartment. I just wished I could know her. I wished I could have been born to the same woman who raised me. I wished I didn’t have this dark hole inside of me that, no matter how hard I tried, would never be filled. 

Something clicked for me during this sob session. It wasn’t my first adoption sob sesh and it most certainly wouldn’t be my last. This session, however, was different. When the tears finally stopped, or my body ran out of water to even form tears, I realized that I needed help. I knew that therapy was not a viable option for me. I barely had health insurance. But…maybe…a support group? I’m not sure why this had never crossed my mind before, but now it was so clear. There had to be a support group out there for adult adoptees. I couldn’t be the only one wrestling with insurmountable, confusing, isolating adoptee grief. 

As it turns out, I wasn’t. There was a support group. A free one. It was 45  minutes away from where I lived and they were meeting the next week. I registered immediately and put the event in both of my planners. (Yes, I had two planners. I still do. Miss me with your judgment.) I could not miss this. I remember the journey to that adoptee support group as if it were yesterday. The Metro ride, the nerves, the fact that I passed my favorite coffee shop as I walked to the meeting place from the train station and was so bummed that it was closed. I was scared but hopeful. I had a deep sense of peace. I knew something was going to change that night. 

I entered the meeting and was greeted immediately upon arrival with a warmth I didn’t know I was craving until I received it. Within minutes, the meeting began, and I sat back, listening to each adoptee share a bit of their story. I introduced myself to the group and gave me usual recitation of my adoptee journey that I had committed to memory since age five: “I’m Caroline, I was adopted from New York, my parents were mentally challenged so they couldn’t take care of me.” The end. Except, this time, even just my short description of my adoption story was met with a response I had never experienced before. Every adoptee responded with…empathy. I heard “Awww!” and “That’s so tough,” and “We’re here for you.” Any time I had ever recited that story to a non-adoptee, which had been every other time I had recited it before that moment, I had been met with, “Wow, you’re so lucky!” and “Your parents are amazing for saving you like that,” and “It must be so cool to be adopted!” I didn’t know it was possible for anyone to see right through those few lines and feel the pain I was trying to bury with my voice. I didn’t know it was possible for anyone to see me. 

Once we dove into the conversation, adoptees began sharing their struggles and areas where they each needed support. As they spoke, I felt as if someone had placed a camera into my soul and had pressed record 22 years earlier. Every single word each adoptee spoke was something I was also experiencing, wrestling with, or wondering. “I’m not crazy after all,” I thought to myself as I sat listening to their stories. After a while, the facilitator of the group responded to something that was said by another group member and mentioned the Primal Wound. 

“The what?” I interrupted. 

The other adoptees were all shaking their heads as if this was something they had PhD-level knowledge of. I was just plain confused. 

“What’s a primal wound?” I asked again, with a bit more confidence in my voice than I’d had all evening. 

The facilitator explained that a primal wound is the wound that a baby who is adopted experiences when they are ripped from their biological mother upon birth. It was akin to the loss of a parent and research showed that the psychological brain response to both losses were nearly identical. I sat with my mouth gaped open. 

“You mean there is a psychological alteration to my brain because of my adoption?” I asked in disbelief. I felt the tears creeping in, but my conditioning to not show emotion swallowed them quickly.  “Yes!” they all replied. They proceeded to give me a lesson about what the Primal Wound is and how its permanent alteration to my brain chemistry has affected every aspect of my life. 

And then, everything clicked. My life, my doubt, my unworthiness, my fear of abandonment, the unexplained dark hole of grief I could never seem to get rid of, my triggered response to seeing my adoption papers and both of my birth certificates at the same time – it had all been my Primal Wound. My primal wound had been intensifying, increasing, and oozing from within me for 22 years and I had never known it existed. Until now. 


This was everything I didn’t know I was searching for. I wasn’t crazy, I was wounded. Now that I knew I was wounded, I could finally begin to heal. 


Author Bio: Caroline J. Sumlin is a writer, speaker, and educator with a passion for helping all people reclaim their self-worth and their humanity. A former foster child turned adoptee, Caroline brings awareness, healing, and liberation to the topics of toxic white supremacy culture, systemic injustice, mental health, faith reconstruction, and bold, purposeful living to her growing audience. Prior to writing full-time, Caroline served as a special education teacher in the DC area for five years. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from Howard University. Caroline resides with her husband and two daughters in Northern Virginia.

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