Preventing Adoptee Suicides

I was already aware that the statistics are worrisome. I didn’t know there was a month dedicated to focusing on this particular issue. Suicide is a sad and desperate choice no matter who chooses it but it is an individual choice and yet affects everyone who ever knew the person.

Attempted suicide is more common among adolescents who live with adoptive parents than among adolescents who live with biological parents. The association persists after adjusting for depression and aggression and is not explained by impulsivity as measured by a self-reported tendency to make decisions quickly.

You may be fortunate enough to be an adoptee who does not struggle with suicidal thoughts. But some adoptees struggle in silence, feel shame or feel disenfranchised and marginalized. I am seeking to share what some adoptees know, and the broader public should know, that suicidal adoptees are not an abnormality.

There is a need to talk about this issue more openly and in the mainstream. This is so important because adoption is sold as a “win-win” scenario. Talking about suicide is hard and uncomfortable. Talking about it in connection with adoption – which often has much joy but is more complex than most people realize – is challenging.

Generally, people would not have any reason to know that some adoptees struggle. The issues are real, and should be discussed more openly. Dismissing adoptee related suicide or mental illness will not help anyone. It will however further disenfranchise vulnerable adoptees.

If you are an adoptee with suicidal thoughts, know that you are not alone, other adoptees have felt this way too. Please reach out for help and know that you deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. If you know of an adoptee who is at risk, please do not be afraid to likewise reach out and help them to access appropriate support services. Do not be afraid to ask direct questions about suicide. You can’t put the idea of suicide in someone’s head by talking about it. Asking direct questions can help you to determine if they’re in immediate danger and in need of assistance.

So much of the messaging around adoption is invisibly supported by the interests with a financial stake in promoting it. However, the separation that precedes the placement of a baby or young child into adoption causes a trauma that may be subconscious and not consciously recognized by the adoptee or the people who have adopted them.

4.5 percent of adopted individuals have problems with drug abuse, compared with 2.9 percent of the general population. This is striking because it is a far higher a percentage than the 2% of the population who are adopted. Despite what adoptive parents are told and hope for, no matter how loving and nurturing an adoptive parent, no matter how deeply loved an adopted child may be, many adoptees will say, that “Love is not all we need.”

One adoptee describes their own experience this way –

“So what does it feel like to be adopted? A weird amalgamation of rejection and acceptance. Someone’s trash is someone else’s treasure… It’s been difficult for me to accept that my parents actually love me, and that they’re not just putting me on a shelf somewhere to gawk at and to call their own. I’m still figuring it out.”

Often, adoptees don’t want to upset their adoptive parents with concerns about depression or anything that could be seen as ingratitude, including normal, healthy curiosity about their own genetic, biological roots. This is very common among adoptees. No one mirrors you while growing up to assist you in forming a sense of identity and self-worth. Many adoptees describe intense feelings when they give birth to their own child. Finally seeing a human being who is biologically and genetically connected to them for the very first time. Adoptees lack a recognizable source for personality traits, temperament, and abilities. It’s difficult to feel connected without knowing where you inherited your love of playing music, or curly hair, or shyness, or why everyone in your family is athletic but you.

Another adoptee notes –

“There is a certain detachment to adoption. Being ‘chosen’ rather than ‘born to’ does it. Because we did not arrive by natural means, and so much mystery (or outright lies) are our baggage, we often feel not only that we do not fit in, but that we are disposable. That’s the thing about being chosen, you can be unchosen. And some adoptees aren’t going to wait for the dismissal; they are going to finally take control of their life by ending it.”

It is true that some adoptees (my dad was one of this kind) have the resilience and temperament to lead perfectly happy lives. He simply chose to accept that his adoptive family was the only family he needed and was quick to dismiss any curiosity my mom had as an adoptee as ill founded. I believe that he had a deep-seated fear of knowing the truth regarding why he was adopted.

If you love someone who is adopted, be aware of this risk factor. The best thing we can do for our adopted children, friends, siblings, and spouses is listen and validate their sadness as a normal and natural need to know why. I am grateful that my mom had me to share her feelings with. Someone who understood that these feelings in her were valid and reasonable.

Genetic Mirroring

People often see what they expect to see. It is natural to expect to see some resemblance among family members. I remember comments flowing from my adoptive maternal grandmother to the staff of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society about how much alike the two children, one boy and one girl, she adopted from them looked like “real” brothers and sisters, ie had a family resemblance.

Today, someone in my all things adoption group wrote –

A frequent occurrence throughout my childhood was that someone would stop and tell my to my adoptive mother how much I look like her. Now, I’ve seen pictures of moms and daughters, who look like each other. But me?? I don’t look much like my mother, aside from dark hair and pale skin and glasses. I can’t see my features in anyone, or in my mind’s eye even. I may have connected with a biological uncle and I’m looking through his friend’s pictures and I can’t see me anywhere. I don’t know what I look like well enough to try to compare. I’m about to take a selfie to try to help myself out. I usually think about genetic mirroring more in the context of TransRacial Adoptees (which I am not), so this is really messing with me.

One response, totally mystified, writes – Why did this happen to me too??? My mom is white and I’m native with dark skin and dark hair.. she is white with light skin and blue eyes, like why did people say that….

I have seen this said of husbands and wives, who obviously are not genetically related, that they grow to be more alike in appearance the longer they are married. So one comment noted – Children will take on the facial expressions of their caretakers, which can make them appear more like adoptive parents than they would otherwise. I believe that this is possible. Genetically, often mannerisms and personality traits are more similar among biological family members.

So, I do agree with this person’s perspective and experience – People will see things, if they think they have to. I remember my adoptive father telling someone I was his son, when they asked who I was. I couldn’t be more different than him and this guy squinted his eyes and looked at me for a while before saying, yeah I see the resemblance.

I do look like my brother who is a biological child of my adoptive dad and stepmom. I’m the adoptee. We are 17 years apart. I helped raise him and he also mimics me a lot. I’ve heard everything from jokes that my adoptive dad had an affair and adopted me so my adoptive mom wouldn’t suspect, people laughing their asses off when they say we look alike and I reply I’m adopted, then finding out – it’s true – and of course, that’s awkward… or adoptive mom getting jealous and trying to find traits to pretend we look alike and “it’s just the same”. To me it is messed up because they fail to acknowledge my difference. They’re trying to fit the square peg into the round hole with all they have, instead of celebrating my differences.

Celebrating our individuality and differences. Isn’t that what we all should always be trying to do ?