Can Adoption Create Addicts?

By Laura Barcella 06/23/13

Adoptees in recovery tell The Fix that early experiences of abandonment or feeling "different" can have a major impact on developing addictions. Many experts agree.

Adoption profoundly influences a child's sense of identity. Photo via Shutterstock

For as long as she can remember, Jess has felt different. “I’ve just always felt kind of lost,” she says. “Like I never got the memo on how to live or be happy and ‘normal.’” Though she’s always felt painfully conscious of an invisible line dividing her from family, friends and colleagues, she says she feels “weirdly guilty talking about it, because I know overall I had a really good upbringing and amazing parents.” She continues, “What right do I have to complain about how alien I felt?”

The thing is, Jess actually IS an alien. OK, not literally. But as an adoptee, the 33-year-old New York native has always felt somewhat foreign from the family that raised her. “My parents were loving; I don’t remember ever not knowing I was adopted,” she recalls. “But I also don’t remember ever not feeling ashamed of it. It felt like something that made me inferior to everyone around me.” Why? “My real mother didn’t want me,” she explains.

"Before I got to AA, I hadn’t known many adoptees. But now I know a bunch."

It’s not surprising that Jess internalized that early loss as a paralyzing abandonment—or that she’s struggled with depression and low self-esteem ever since. In junior high she began experimenting with alcohol and drugs, and by the time she got to high school, Jess felt pretty sure she was an alcoholic: “I drank pretty much every night. Not even because it was fun, but because I needed escape from my fucked-up thoughts.” A crippling fear of rejection has been the adoption-related issue that’s haunted her most. “I don’t do relationships,” she says. “I don’t know how, because I feel so completely destroyed when they end.” 

But Jess began experiencing some relief a couple years ago, when she got sober and entered the 12-step world. “I’m still crazy, but at least now I have other crazy people to hang out with,” she laughs. And lucky for Jess, lots of the “crazy people” she’s befriended in-program also happen to be adopted themselves. Jess was pleasantly surprised to find so many fellow adoptees in the rooms: “As I got to know people and heard their stories, I realized adoption was a pretty common thing there. Before I got to AA, I hadn’t known many adoptees. But now I know a bunch.” 

It’s not a particularly shocking notion that addiction—whether fueled by genetic predisposition, mental illness, escapist urges to flee the crush of one’s mind, or a combination of all three—might be pretty common among adopted folks. Sharon Burns-Carter, a certified addiction counselor and co-founder of the Wellness Resource Center in Boca Raton, Fla., says of the recovery groups she’s facilitated, “There were times when half [my] clients were adoptees.” 

But when it comes to large-scale research, scientific conclusions about adoptees’ addiction rates are inconsistent. Some studies have found that adoptees’ rate of alcohol abuse is pretty much on par with adults in the general population; other research contradicts that. One 2012 study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, based on more than 18,000 Swedish adoptees, determined that about 4.5 percent of adopted people abused drugs, compared with just 2.9 percent for all people born in Sweden during that period. The researchers also found that adopted folks were at higher risk of drug problems if their biological parents or siblings had similar histories. Adoptees whose biological parents were alcoholics, had a serious psychiatric illness, or had criminal records were also found to be at greater risk of substance abuse. 

Of course, many adoptees don’t know their biological families’ health history, which adds another layer of uncertainty to the mix—lots of addicts and alcoholics who were adopted simply aren’t sure whether they were genetically predisposed to substance-abuse issues.

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