“To be so wanted and so unwanted at the same time can carve a fault line in you.”
So writes Jillian Lauren in her memoir Everything You Ever Wanted, an account of how Lauren and her husband adopted an Ethiopian child with special needs. Lauren, an adoptee herself, writes poignantly about adoption trauma from both the child and parent perspective.
Adoption: Joy and Pain
So often society emphasizes the positive aspects of adoption: the creation of new families, the hope for children who had none. And while these are certainly real and true and important, there’s more to the story.
For many adoptees, there is the anguish of never knowing a birth parent, as well as the belief that they were unloved or unwanted by their birth family.
In adoption – as in birth itself – there is pain and struggle running alongside great joy. Since World Mental Health Day is happening on October 10th and Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day is October 15th, now is the time to talk about the mental and emotional impact of adoption.
What is Adoption Trauma?
There’s a strong link between addiction and trauma. In our view, psychological trauma is entirely subjective. Trauma is something that was shocking and disturbing to you personally.
Specifically, adoption trauma is defined as the shock and pain of being permanently, abruptly separated from one’s family member.
By this definition, a birth parent whose child is adopted can struggle with adoption trauma, particularly if they carry shame and self-blame about the adoption.
Likewise, the child being adopted can struggle with adoption trauma as well. However, the level of mental and emotional difficulty can vary greatly depending upon the child’s age, level of maturity, and other circumstances.
Compounding the pain of adoption trauma is the societal expectation that it shouldn’t exist at all. In the words of the Reverend Keith C. Griffith, “Adoption loss is the only trauma in the world where the victims are expected by the whole of society to be grateful.”
The Link Between Adoption Trauma and Addiction
Individuals who are adopted do have an increased risk for both substance use disorders and psychiatric disorders later in life, according to researchers at the University of Minnesota Medical School (“Substance Use Disorders and Adoption”). Overall, adoptees are 1.87 times more likely than non-adoptees to deal with drug abuse of some kind.
Current adoption statistics show that more than one million children in the US live with adoptive parents, and the University of Minnesota researchers did note that most of these adoptees are healthy and well-adjusted. Adoption is associated with important positive outcomes for children, such as stability and medical care.
In short, adoption is associated with both positive outcomes and negative outcomes. Like so much in life, it’s not either/or, but both/and.
Why Substance Abuse is Higher for Adoptees
Unresolved adoption trauma is an underlying core issue that can lead to addiction.
Depending on the circumstances of your adoption, you may have unresolved emotional pain arising from your separation from your birth parents. Though your adoptive parents may be very kind and loving, their wonderfulness doesn’t preclude experiences of deep grief and anger at the loss of your birth parents.
You may also have a good deal of mental anguish emanating from the painful stories you tell yourself about your adoption.
For example, you may blame yourself for the fact that you didn’t grow up with your birth parents. You may believe that you were not “good enough” to stay with them.
This shaming thought can exert a lot of negative influence over your life and choices. If you believe you’re not good and valuable, then you’ll act accordingly. You’ll make choices to hurt and devalue yourself.
As one of the core principles of Spiritual Psychology says, “What you believe determines your experience.”
Your Whole Being Wants to Heal
The pain of these harmful thoughts only increases as you hold them long-term. This is actually good news, because the increased awareness gives you an opportunity to work with them.
Why does your consciousness keep turning up the volume on that which doesn’t serve you? Because at the deepest level, your whole being wants to heal.
But if you don’t know how to offer yourself love and compassion when emotional pain arises, then you’ll reach for your favorite addictive substance or activity in order to mitigate the internal suffering. That’s how addictions begin.
Narratives of Strength
Often people are scared to do the work of healing because they fear they won’t be strong enough to face the powerful emotions that arise.
Having worked with hundreds of Participants in our Program, we can assure you of this: you are strong enough to feel your own feelings and face the reality of your own life. You have the power to co-create a positive, healthy, and happy life for yourself if you choose.
(Want a practical place to start? Check out our blog post on Addiction and the Anger, Hurt, Loving Model.)
As Jillian Lauren notes in Everything You Ever Wanted, “Adoption is complicated, but also rich with narratives of strength.”
It’s our hope that you will feel your own strength today, that you will face the complexity of your life and know yourself to be both fully capable and fully human.