Identity Crisis of Being Adopted

TJ shares her identity & mental health challenges of adoption.

Caitlin Whyte: The process of adoption can affect a child well into their adult years. So today, we are diving into the feelings of alienation and identity crisis that adoptees may experience. We are joined today by TJ, who will share with us a bit about her identity and mental health challenges following adoption.

This is My Miracle Radio by Sierra Tucson Alumni Relations. I'm your host, Caitlin Whyte. All right, TJ, thank you so much for joining us today. To start off our episode, as an adoptee, can you please explain to us what it means to struggle with an identity crisis?

TJ: Yeah. Well, I was adopted internationally from China, so I was actually adopted into a Caucasian family with no records of my life before the orphanage. I don't know my birthday nor who found me when I was abandoned on a sidewalk in a cardboard box. So when I was a teenager, I didn't understand how I could understand where I'm going without knowing where I came from. I was pulled in different directions, like my entire family is Caucasian and I feel most comfortable with Caucasian people because in the town I grew up in, that's all there was. I live in the Midwest, so, oh, well, it is what it is. But I feel most comfortable with Caucasian people, but I look like I don't belong. But with the people I do belong with, by the way I look, I don't have the same culture, I don't speak the same language, so I don't even have their customs. So I've never felt like I've truly belonged anywhere if that makes sense.

Caitlin Whyte: No, absolutely. So with that experience, can you share with us what mental health challenges you've had to deal with?

TJ: Yeah. So from a young age, like I loved my parents, and they were a product of the times in the '90s when adoption wasn't very well known and they didn't understand the psychology behind it, where my mom would always say that my biological mother loved me so much, she gave me away. So, I just accepted it, like this was early 2000s, you know, I was just a kid. But as I grew older, it became harder and harder to have a close relationship with anyone. And I didn't understand what was happening.

Since then, I've come to understand that when my parents told me that, I internalized the thought that if anyone truly loved me, they would abandon me. And I didn't want that, so I always kept everyone at an arm's length away. So from that, stemmed anxiety and depression. I never felt like there was any hope for me changing the way that I thought and, you know, making my life better. But at the same time, I thought everyone was going to leave me in the end anyway, so why try? But then, I also loved a lot of people and I wanted them to stick . But I felt like I would always do something stupid and they would leave me, so I tried to be like the perfect person and never let them down, and that caused a lot of anxiety.

Caitlin Whyte: Well, it sounds like, you know, you've done a ton of work and you're very aware of those thought patterns. So when did you kind of determine that maybe professional help was what you needed?

TJ: Well, it all came to a head in 2019. In 2018, I started my first teaching job out of college. And I was so excited to be able to teach in a town a little smaller than what I was growing up in which, looking back now, was really dumb because I really didn't like the little town that I grew up in because it was all Caucasian, middle class, I guess, higher middle class. And they were all a bit older. So I guess I chose this little town because it felt comfortable for me, not that it was like safe for me. It was just comfortable.

So at the beginning of the school year, I was kind of like a celebrity because I was a new teacher and I was an ELA teacher, an English language arts teacher, and they really needed it because the last three teachers had taught one year and then moved on. So I kind of felt like I belonged there. But as the school year kind of went on, parents started questioning my abilities and credentials because of the way I looked because who has an Asian teacher teaching Caucasian children English? Which blows my mind because English is my first language, people. And I mean, I'm bilingual, but American sign language is the other language that I know fluently, so, I do not speak any Chinese, like just don't assume, which I thought was kind of ridiculous.

But yeah, in 2019, in early 2019, it really like hit me. I was trying my best and I was still failing, like trying to get these parents on my side. I was an overachiever in school, like perfect everything. And I just realized like, if I wasn't succeeding at something, I wasn't trying hard enough, and because I always succeeded when I tried at anything. So what really got to me was I was trying my best and still I wasn't getting any results. So I just tried harder and I stopped eating, I stopped sleeping. I just spent hours and hours at the school. I remember I would get to school at 4:00 AM in the morning. This is crazy. But yeah, I got to school at 4:00 AM in the morning and I wouldn't leave until 7:00 PM at night. So like ridiculous things that I tried to do to fit in and be accepted.

But I pushed myself so hard, like I got myself down to 90 pounds, which is definitely not healthy because I didn't eat, I didn't sleep. I was paranoid, because I live in a small town of like 300 people. If I go out to the grocery store, a parent's going to see me and want to talk to me about how terrible I am. So I was too paranoid to leave my house. If I needed to go to the grocery store, I drove an hour and a half away to my parents' town, because people knew me there and "accepted" me maybe, to buy groceries. And I went to the grocery store one time and I put wine in my basket, like just, "Okay..."

Caitlin Whyte: Any adult would.

TJ: Any adult would. And when I'm reading their kids' terrible book reports, I need something, man. Yeah, I would do this thing where I'm like, "Okay, sit down. I have 50 papers to read. This bottle of wine is my friend," you know, just, "Whatever. It's fine." But I got judged so hard, like they looked in my cart and took inventory of everything in my cart and then judged me that I had alcohol in my cart where I'm like, "I'm a human." You know, "Why am I held to a higher standard?" I don't know. I got to the point where I couldn't do it anymore, like I was physically, emotionally, mentally done. So I attempted on my life, because I was just done. I couldn't do anything more. I was hopeless. You know, I didn't have any friends. I was just completely alone. And that didn't work, that sounds bad. But when that didn't work, a month later I tried to run away from everyone, because I felt like I was hated or unwanted or that I was a failure. So the people in that town hated me, so I just wanted to get away from them. But then I couldn't go back to my family because I felt like a failure and I've never failed before. So I was like, I can't be around them either, so I decided to take off. But they found me. The police are really good at finding people, like "What?" So they found me and brought me back. And three days later, they sent me to Sierra Tucson. And I mean, that was the big breaking point. So it was a positive thing, even though I hated everyone's guts at the time. But it's fine, I wasn't healthy.

Caitlin Whyte: Well, tell us a bit, if you don't mind, you know, as much as you want to share about your time at Sierra and kind of what helped you kind of process and move forward from the emotions and everything you were dealing with?

TJ: Yeah. At Sierra Tucson, man, they say expect a miracle. And I was like, "Well, that's dumb." Like, "I don't need this nonsense that they're like trying to feed me." But I mean, afterwards, definitely think that's true. I really don't like admitting that because it sounds really cheesy.

Caitlin Whyte: I feel you.

TJ: But, yeah, I can't just say, "Well, I went to this place and there was a miracle." People are cynical and they discount that as soon as they hear it. So I try and not say that, but it really was. I met the most amazing primary therapist and I never knew that there was a good therapist until I went to Sierra Tucson. She just was amazing and heard me and saw me and validated these feelings and was able to talk to my inner child. But at the same time, being able to meet me where I was, and just look for the best of me instead of looking at all the problems. It was wonderful. And it was such a great experience with all of the support that's there. Every staff member was there to support me, and even the other residents. Everyone knew everyone needed to be there, so everyone supported each other in what they were going through. And that was just amazing, because I'd never been in such a supportive environment before. I don't know, my parents are boomers. Yeah, there's not a whole lot of emotional connection, but whatever, it's fine. I got it when I needed it. But yeah, I really like peg Sierra Tucson as the change agent in my life to completely 180 turn my life around and be able to start again.

Caitlin Whyte: Well, that leads me into my next question at, I guess the risk of sounding too cheesy, like you said, what does life look like today? And what are some ways that you continue to take care of yourself?

TJ: I always think that recovery is a process, not an ending point. So I definitely still go to therapy, still have a psychiatrist, you know, still do my monthly checkup, you know, just making sure that I'm still where I want to be and I'm moving forward in the progress of my recovery, because I'm always learning new things about myself and working on new things.

Yeah, so I also have learned to take care of myself, instead of thinking that I'm nothing, prioritize myself and my wellbeing and my mental health. So, that's kind of what I do. I usually read books, play board games. Since 2019, I got married last year.

Caitlin Whyte: Oh, congrats.

TJ: Oh, thanks. I have two golden retrievers. So I like spending time with my husband, I guess that's normal. And then my golden retrievers, I love spending time with them. So I really take time away from my work, which I'm teaching at a different school, which is so much better. It was outside of my comfort zone, but it's just a good risk that I took. So it's still really hard, but I love it. And when I need to take a step back, I just do my mental health self-care. And I just love being able to disconnect my life from my work life, which I wasn't able to do before.

Caitlin Whyte: Oh my gosh. Yeah. So that's so important.

TJ: Yeah. And that's a big thing.

Caitlin Whyte: Well, wrapping up here, TJ, thank you so much for sharing with us. What would you say to people who might be listening to your story and it feels very similar to theirs? Maybe they're kind of in the place you were before and don't know where to turn for help or at that tipping point, you know, just some advice as you come out the other side.

TJ: I think it would just be like, there are people out there that will accept you no matter what, whether that is in your personal life. Or if you are going into a residential treatment, that's where I found people who accepted me. And I was able to carry that over back to my personal life. But it can go the other way, where you find people in your personal life and then they push you to go seek residential help because they love you. So there are people out there even though sometimes it feels like you're all alone.

Caitlin Whyte: Well, TJ, again, we can't thank you enough for taking the time to be on the show and for sharing your story so openly. I'm sure it will make a lot of people feel less alone.

This has been My Miracle Radio by Sierra Tucson Alumni Relations. For more information, please visit And thank you so much for listening. I'm your host, Caitlin Whyte. Be well.