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.

Nina Anderson, LCSW, a San Francisco-based therapist who specializes in adoption, makes a point of noting that there are different kinds of adoption—and that type of adoption a person experiences can play a big role in their mindset, even their propensity for addiction. “In the last 20 years [or so], open adoption has become the trend,” she says.

Open adoption—in which the child’s biological and adoptive families have access to each other's contact information and health records, sometimes forging and maintaining relationships as the child grows up—is now “considered the best practice of adoption,” according to Anderson. In open adoptions, she says, adoptees “have all the pieces of the puzzle” as they grow up and develop their identities.

But closed or confidential adoptions, in which information about the child’s biological family is kept sealed, were the norm until fairly recently—and the secretive nature of closed adoptions is notorious for fostering painful unanswered questions. “The missing pieces [of not knowing anything about one’s birth family] can cause a lot of grief...the closed adoption system can lead to so much stress, loss, secrecy and shame,” Anderson says. 

“I thought all my issues with alcoholism and unhappiness would go away, if I only met my birth mother.”

Closed adoptions can also be more problematic for a child’s budding identity and sense of belonging—or lack thereof. As Nancy Verrier, author of the pivotal adoption book The Primal Wound, writes on her website, adoptees’ “trauma occurred right after birth, so there is no ‘before trauma’ self. [They] suffered a loss that [they] can’t consciously remember and which no one else is acknowledging, but which has a tremendous impact” on their sense of self, emotional response, and worldview. Verrier also notes that, even in adulthood, adoptees may unconsciously perceive the world as “unsafe and unfamiliar,” remaining in a near-perpetual state of heightened anxiety and “constant vigilance.”

She writes, “Separation from mother is the ultimate loss.”

For her part, Linette, 29, an AA member in Oakland, California, says she never felt especially “different” growing up. “I never felt like I didn’t belong in my family or like these weren’t my parents,” she said. “But still I drank.” She loathed the idea of being unique from her peers, so she didn’t really talk about being adopted—despite her parents’ best efforts to normalize it by taking her to “adoption picnics” and reading adoption-related books with her. “I was adopted into a very nice, loving family; they really wanted me,” she says. But despite her best efforts to feel “normal,” Linette says, “There’s still that deficit of being given away, which I wasn’t able to acknowledge as a child.” Linette’s issues around her birth history manifest most clearly in loaded situations that spark her seemingly innate fear of being left or rejected. “When I get into arguments with people and they leave, I feel panicked in a way I don’t think other people feel. I think the base of my existence is this abandonment and fear.”

Megan, 32, a recovering alcoholic in San Francisco who was adopted as an infant, says she’s vividly experienced that grip of fear and loss when it comes to her own closed adoption—but adds there were positive aspects, too: “I felt special, chosen, lucky and unique. I also felt ashamed, confused, different and curious.”

As she grew up, Megan struggled with identity issues, often wondering what her birth mom looked like and what, if anything, they had in common. Drinking and drugs helped soften the sting of that painful question mark where her roots should be. Later, as she began studying psychology and counseling in college, Megan says she “learned that alcoholics and addicts tend to suffer from grandiose thinking about their ‘destiny,’ and magical ideas about relationships.” Her own “magical ideas” translated to a fantasy about her birth mom being a sort of omnipotent “fairy godmother” figure with the potential to save her from her own life.

Jess, who also had a closed adoption, cops to a similar fantasy. “I thought all my issues with alcoholism and unhappiness would go away, if I only met my birth mother,” she says. Unsurprisingly, that wasn’t the case (Megan and Jess have both tracked down and met their birth moms in person). Megan, who met her mother when she was 19, found that she didn’t love or even like everything about her—she was stunned by the reality that her mom was a live, flawed human, not some “perfect imaginary being.” Jess had a similar experience. “Meeting my birth mother was great in some ways because it helped answer some of the questions,” she explains. “But it was also disappointing, because she didn’t live up to the fantasy.” 

So, what can sober adoptees still struggling with identity and self-esteem issues do to feel more connected and safer in their skin? In addition to regular counseling or therapy, Sharon Burns-Carter suggests they deeply ground themselves in their own recovery, and commit to working on their addiction above all else. Why? Because without sobriety, she asserts, the “emotional problems surrounding their adoption are moot.” She believes “there is no better place for these individuals to belong than in a 12-step group...especially [because] they have [mostly] been living isolated lives based on self-sufficiency and self-loathing.”

Laura Barcella is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about Secret "Sober" Pot Smokers.

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