Adoption and Addiction

This week, I had the pleasure of watching a lecture by Paul Sunderland on addiction and adoption, specifically, the correlation between the two, which I found utterly fascinating. Paul Sunderland is a specialist addiction counselor, with over 25 years of experience in the field, and in his lecture, he brought up several points describing what he believes are the main causes of addiction in adoptees, whom he says are overrepresented in treatment for recovery. Mr. Sunderland went on to elaborate that, while there are a number of genetic factors when it comes to addiction and adoptees, he believes that the initial seeds of addiction begin when an infant is relinquished at, or shortly after, their birth. Human infants grow inside their mothers for roughly 40 weeks. During that time, they hear their mother’s heartbeat, and her voice. They spend 40 weeks growing, and waiting to meet this person, awaiting her breastmilk, which they now know the scent of. And then, they don’t meet this person. And they know that something is very wrong.

It is fairly common knowledge that mother/infant bonding has an enormous impact on brain chemicals and neuro transmitters in newborns. Mr. Sunderland states that when an infant is relinquished, and is taken away from the mother, they can feel instinctively that without mother, they will die, and this causes a sort of trauma. Regardless of the type, during instances of trauma, cortisol and adrenaline levels in the body are raised. Without that initial mother/infant bonding, the infant would also experience reduced serotonin levels, so right away, babies of relinquishment have different levels of chemicals in their brains, and if does affect them for their entire lives. In fact, Mr. Sunderland claims that roughly 90% of adoptees are diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, as well as various anxiety conditions, because they are constantly living on red alert, hyper vigilant, due to the levels of chemicals they experienced from the trauma of separation at birth. Many adoptees also experience varying levels of depression, due to a lack of serotonin, which Mr. Sunderland believes stems from this same early trauma, as well as the inability to self-sooth. Many adoptees, especially those who suffer with these conditions, as well as an inability to self-sooth, turn to drug, alcohol, gambling, and even love and sex addictions to try and self-regulate the chemicals in their brains, to make themselves feel “normal”.

Many of the adoptees that Mr. Sunderland has spoken to and treated have an addiction, which he refers to as “love addiction”. Love addiction, according to Sunderland, is the need to regulate mood by having the positive regard from a significant other. This type of mood regulation, similar to a drug or alcohol addiction, is all about regulating anxiety and depression. It sort of works for a while, and then it doesn’t. While addiction is generally genetically proposed, and environmentally disposed, love addiction stems from issues of abandonment, as well as the trauma of relinquishment. For an adoptee, the issue of abandonment is a lifelong trauma, which can, and generally does, affect the relationships they have with those in their lives, romantic or otherwise. 

According to Mr. Sunderland, one of the reasons that 12-step programs have been so successful is because the 12-step program itself is a shame and anxiety measurement program. These programs themselves are mood altering programs, which alter by keeping you in reality, through use of fellowship, self-reflection, and other methods. All addictions are about shame and anxiety, and for adoptees, shame and anxiety is magnified. Mr. Sunderland mentions that “Bad Baby Syndrome”, where it is hypothesized that a newborn baby, who has just been relinquished, feels as though the reason they are being given up is because it is their fault. This carries with them throughout their lives, where they constantly feel shame and anxiety, over things that are normally not in their control. Many adoptees, from very early on, spend all of their time reliving these feelings from their initial trauma, and trying to make sense of the unimaginable. These particular adoptees carry with them a wound, which occurred very early on in life, from the trauma of relinquishment, and that now controls every aspect of their lives. There is not yet a category for this type of developmental PTSD that Paul Sunderland has described, but after learning about the horrible, traumatic impact that it has on the lives of so many, I firmly believe that it should absolutely be more widely recognized as a form of PTSD, so that we can help adoptees get the unique kind of help that they so desperately need.