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.

Birthday Blues

My birthday usually falls near the Memorial Day weekend. Many years, I had a L-O-N-G celebration of existing. It was a happy and self-affirmative occasion.

However, when I began to learn about the trauma associated with adoption, I discovered that the day an adoptee was born is not a happy occasion for many of these persons. It is a reminder of abandonment, rejection or at the least, that the parents from who their life descended are not raising them.

Until an adoptee matures and begins to break through the fog of how wonderful it was that they were adopted narrative, many wonder why they act out or sabotage their own birthday celebrations. What is wrong with them ? Everyone else seems happy to celebrate their birthday.

And now I understand better and can see the difference between my own birthday and an adoptee’s. I remember as well there was some confusion about my own mother’s actual birthdate, though eventually it settled on January 31st and now that I have her adoption file – I see the errors and their eventual correction.

Yesterday, I watched a youtube video the Birthday Episode by My Adoption Story by Lilly Fei and the conflicted feelings, which I remember my own mom having about her adoption are so obvious. Two things stood out for me – when she said she was “found” and how she described the way some international adoptions of transracial children involve the child having birth dates that are estimated based upon physical characteristics because the actual date of birth is unknown.

One adoptee writes – One reason I hate my birthday is because its a celebration of the day I was born and then placed in a nursery just sitting there because my birth mom didn’t want to get attached by holding me. It annoys me that this reason even bothers me, but it definitely does. People who aren’t adopted have great stories about the day they were born and how all these people came to see them and hold them and there are pictures. Yeah that doesn’t really exist if you’re adopted.

Many adoptees feel anger and negative emotions that are understandably directed at their birth family…It is not actually the birthday itself. Yet unavoidably the birthday is a reminder of what happened – back then – so each year, when that birthday rolls around, it all comes back into sharp and painful focus. It is what was done to that baby, for whatever reason at the time of birth, that is the actual problem.

One possible strategy for an adoptee is to change the focus of their birthday. Take a few or even several hours of time out on your birthday. Just you – go somewhere you really like, and reflect, alone, on your current goals and how you hope to achieve them. Keep your thoughts written down. Look at them a few times during the following year. Then when the next birthday rolls around, go over your thoughts again and revise them for the current reality. One adoptee found this kind of birthday event to be helpful in overcoming the birthday blues.

One other suggestion is to deal with all of your negative feelings BEFORE your birthday. Don’t avoid them because then you will feel sad that day. By acknowledging your feelings and seeking to understand what they are trying to tell you, you can then let them go for that day and celebrate the fact that you are resilient, you are a survivor, you are worthy to be loved and celebrated, you rock this life (even though you have that trauma of having been adopted).

For more insight, you may wish to read this Medium essay titled Birthday Blues. Adrian Jones says – “There is one certainty with my birthday: I will find a way to sabotage it. As sure as the sun rises each morning, my birthday will somehow become a fiasco. For most of my life it has been like this. I wish it would stop, but it won’t.” He goes on to write what he has discovered is the source of his pain and the anxiety he feels as his birthday approaches –

“You see, I’m adopted. Born a bastard, I was separated from my biological mother at birth. The woman I spent nine months preparing to meet was gone in an instant. In my most vulnerable state, I was motherless. Without mother. At the time, I was overcome by a high degree of trauma, a trauma that cannot be undone. Worse, this trauma is precognitive. I, like millions of my adoptee crib mates, do not know what life is like without trauma, as we were introduced to life in such a traumatic state. Due to recent scientific studies, we know this to be true. Babies are born expecting to meet their mothers, hear their voices, smell their scents, taste their milk.  When their mothers are not available, they become traumatized. If puppies and kittens must stay with their birth mothers for a few weeks before being adopted, why is it okay to separate a newborn from her mother at first breath?”

There is much more to read in that essay. I highly recommend it.

When School Becomes Home

On the car radio on Sunday, I caught the tail end of a To The Best Of Our Knowledge episode – Was The Art Worth All The Pain ? – that was an interview with the visual collage artist, Nathaniel Mary Quinn. What really got my attention was, even though he was not an adoptee – abandonment and trauma issues – were quite similar to what most adoptees experience. And his resilience and maturing perspective on what happened to him in his earlier childhood was inspiring and remarkable. At the end of the episode, he indicates the abandonment he experienced gave him faith in a larger reality that he interprets as Divinely guided in which what happened to him was necessary for him to become what he was capable of.

When he was 15, his family simply disappeared, leaving him to fend for himself at his boarding school. He had earned a scholarship at a really high quality school. His mother had died and when he came home for what he expected to be a Thanksgiving shared with his 4 older brothers and father, he found an empty, abandoned apartment. It was traumatic not knowing where any of his family was but he returned to school and worked hard. Really hard. He developed a study schedule and stuck to it because he knew he was one bad report card away from losing his scholarship and becoming homeless.

At school, he was fed 3 or more meals a day and had to wear a uniform so clothes were not an issue. On Sundays, the school band he was part of at Culver Academy in Chicago would put on a parade performance. Afterwards, when everyone else went to lunch, he went to a mound of grass on a golf course and grieved to a song by Al Green – on repeating loop 10 times – for 4 full years.

Today, he is an acknowledged artist with works included in the collections of The Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. His first solo exhibition was at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Quinn’s work is a complicated blend of painting and drawing that achieves the appearance of collage, a combination of human faces with comic book figures and other provocative images. Quinn describes his art as “luminism.”

“The technique of light,” says Quinn. “It’s the torch that I’m carrying from the platform of cubism. Cubism was a technique designed to show multiple angles and viewpoints of a particular object, but to show it on the same plane. “Well, luminism is designed to show the multiplicity of viewpoints and dispositions of the internalized world of that object.”

“Whereas in cubism one would paint the multiplicity of viewpoints of a cup, luminism will show the multiplicity of viewpoints of the internalized world of that cup,” he says. He applies a perspective of luminism to collages of human, often family, figures from his life.  His art draws on a difficult upbringing spent in an impoverished public housing project in Chicago with a broken family.

It can be uncomfortable to look at. His collaged and fragmented figures are meant to demonstrate that we are all the sum of our experiences. In his words, “I hope to convey a sense of how our experiences, both good and bad, operate to construct our identities. I also want to portray a mutual relationship between the acceptable and the unacceptable, the grotesque and what is aesthetically pleasing.” Formed from an amalgam of family photographs, images from articles and advertisements, and his own furious brushstrokes and charcoal marks, the men and women who populate his compositions appear as hybrids, at once monstrous and delicate. For Quinn, they are portraits of his fractured family and images of all human beings’ multi-faceted selves.

Who Is Really To Blame ?

Most infants develop secure emotional attachments to their caregivers at an early age. This is often not the case for adoptees. Many infants show a healthy anxiety when their caregiver is absent, and they show relief when they’re reunited. Adoptees often do not respond that way and are labeled as having a disorder.

Some infants are not able to develop attachment disorders because they have been separated from the mother who gave birth to them. These babies are unable to bond with their adoptive parents and they struggle to develop any type of emotional attachment throughout their lives.

As they get older, they are often told that they are not grateful enough for having been adopted. Saying they have a disorder seems gentler than admitting they have trauma.

That first separation is where an adoptee first experiences a “CONFUSION” … and it takes hold of the rest of their lives.. if some adoptees have supportive adoptive parents, that’s better than not having that. Too many adoptive parents are seriously narcistic. Yet they somehow make it through adoption screening. If the truth were known, many of these “parents” should never have been allowed anywhere near children. One thinks, maybe when God made them infertile, God actually knew what she was doing. Some adoptive parents are tyrannical and rant and reprimand these children. They didn’t adopt a child for the child’s well-being but for their own gratification. Nothing an adoptee goes through as an adopted child is actually normal. No one should expect normal under the circumstances of an unnatural arrangement.

And where the adoptive parents were good, an adoptee can admit that. Know that they loved the adoptee but always felt like they didn’t belong in that family. The guilt is feeling like these “good people” deserved someone who loved them, the way they loved the adoptee. Guilt is a horrible weight to carry.

Often the original parents, or even more often the single mother, and the adoptee are experiencing a situation where, because our society doesn’t support families so they can stay together, there may not have been a lot of choices. And for the adoptee, they had no choice in the situation. Facing facts, they truth is that there are those who are profiting financially from this suffering that both mother and child have inflicted on them.

In the case of a single mother, if there had been “parents”, it may be that most newborn-adoptions would never have occurred. In the case of my maternal grandmother, she was married but for reasons I will never know, my mom’s father was nowhere to be found in the moment my grandmother needed him to be there for her the most.

Some adoptees were told as they grew up that they were a challenging baby, hard to console and sickly. Some adoptive parents then blame the birthmother and even make off hand remarks about the possibly she was using “substances”, or blaming the doctor for not recognizing whatever may have been a source of being sickly, like perhaps a milk intolerance. In times past, the adoption agency often handed a baby over to the adoptive parents several months old, 4.5 or 6 or 8 months old, without any written instructions about the baby’s routines.

An adoptee is left to deal with the fall-out. There is nothing they can do to change the past but it makes me incredibly sad to think about a baby, only looking for comfort and finding nothing but frustrated, ill prepared parents. This has a huge impact on that child’s life; and the impact can still have both bad and good effects. Like being able to survive less than ideal circumstances is a form of resilience.

The Effect Is Catastrophic

This is what happens inside children when they are forcibly separated from their parents.

Their heart rate goes up. Their body releases a flood of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Those stress hormones can start killing off dendrites — the little branches in brain cells that transmit mes­sages. In time, the stress can start killing off neurons and — especially in young children — wreaking dramatic and long-term damage, both psychologically and to the physical structure of the brain.

“The effect is catastrophic,” said Charles Nelson, a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School. “There’s so much research on this that if people paid attention at all to the science, they would never do this.  To pretend that separated children do not grow up with the shrapnel of this traumatic experience embedded in their minds is to disregard everything we know about child development, the brain, and trauma.”

Nelson has studied the neurological damage from child-parent separation — work that he said has often reduced him to tears.  As the children grew older, Nelson and his colleagues began finding unsettling differences in their brains.

Those separated from their parents at a young age had much less white matter, which is largely made up of fibers that transmit information throughout the brain, as well as much less gray matter, which contains the brain-cell bodies that process information and solve problems.

The activity in the children’s brains was much lower than expected. “If you think of the brain as a lightbulb,” Nelson said, “it’s as though there was a dimmer that had reduced them from a 100-watt bulb to 30 watts.”

The children, who had been separated from their parents in their first two years of life, scored significantly lower on IQ tests later in life. Their fight-or-flight response system appeared permanently broken. Stressful situations that would usually prompt physiological responses in other people — increased heart rate, sweaty palms — would provoke nothing in the children.

What alarmed the researchers most was the duration of the damage. Unlike other parts of the body, most cells in the brain cannot renew or repair themselves.  The reason child-parent separation has such devastating effects is because it attacks one of the most fundamental and critical bonds in human biology.  From the time they are born, children emotionally attach to their mother.  If separated from her, a caregiver can mitigate some of that damage but not all of it.

“Our bodies secrete hormones like oxytocin on contact that reinforces the bond, to help us attach and connect,” Lisa Fortuna, medical director for child and adolescent psychiatry at Boston Medical Center said.  A child’s sense of what safety means depends on that relationship. And without it, the parts of the brain that deal with attachment and fear — the amygdala and hippocampus — develop differently.

The reason such children often develop PTSD later in life is that those neurons start firing irregularly, Fortuna said. “The part of their brain that sorts things into safe or dangerous does not work like it’s supposed to. Things that are not threatening seem threatening,” she said.