We all face challenges in our lives. These challenges, no matter how big or small, shape us. Imagine, if you will, that all you have ever known in your life is challenge. Those numerous challenges would certainly shape your life to be much different than the life of someone who has never experienced such an abundance of challenge. An abundance of trauma. Adoptees face more traumas, and more challenges, than many other people, and it affects their lives in ways that we are just beginning to understand. Though I am not naïve to the hardships and complications that can arise within an adoption, since I started working with Search Angels, I have had a chance to peek into the lives of adoptees from all around the world, and I have learned that there is more pain, trauma, and struggle with adoption than I ever realized, and adoptees are desperately trying to educate others about it.
This week, I stumbled across a website, consideringadoption.com, and read through a post that detailed some of the specific challenges that adoptees face, at various stages of their lives. Recently, I wrote a post, speaking at great length about how addiction, in all of its various forms, is all too common among adoptees. In this post, I want to dive deeper, and talk to adoptees about their experiences, good and bad, and see how it has shaped them personally. Experiences such as grief and loss, self-esteem and identity issues, substance abuse and addiction, mental health, and the types of relationships that can be formed between adoptees and their adoptive families.
In preparation for writing this post, I decided to seek out three, different adoptees, which all have had very different experiences when it comes to their adoption. I want to bring to light just a handful of the challenges that adoptees face in their lives, that aren’t often talked about. For their privacy, I have changed the names of those who wish to remain anonymous. I reached out to JJ, Callie, and Ethan and asked them to answer some questions, which were shaped around the information that I learned from the website, so that I could better understand their journeys when it comes to adoption, and how it has shaped them, and their lives.
JJ, the youngest adoptee that I spoke to this week, was adopted at the age of twelve, though she spent several years off and on in foster care, between the ages of five and twelve years old. She and her two sisters were all adopted together into a family that already had biological children. Callie was adopted at eleven years old, after spending a total of nineteen months in foster care six of which were with the family that eventually would adopt her. Callie, along with her brother, was also adopted into a family that contained biological children. The final adoptee I spoke to this week is Ethan. Ethan was adopted as a baby, and knows very little about the circumstances of his relinquishment. He never spent time in foster care. He was adopted into a family with no other children, but his family later adopted another boy. Ethan knows very little about his biological family, and has never attempted to search for them, though he told me that he is open to it.
According to the Considering Adoption website, adoptees deal with feelings of grief, separation, and loss for their biological parents and birth families, even if they never knew them. They may also feel these emotions when thinking about previous foster families, friends from old neighborhoods, schools, and other people and places that had become familiar to them. While some adoptees, like Ethan, may have been adopted as babies, and never really experienced moving from family to family, they can still grieve the separation from their birth families, and feel strong feelings of grief, often times wondering what might have been if they hadn’t been adopted.
Other adoptees who were adopted as older children, such as JJ and Callie, may have experienced living with several foster families, moving to different towns, and changing schools multiple times, and this has quite an impact on how they form relationships and friendships. Each time they had to say goodbye to a foster family, or their school friends, or their favorite park, they experienced loss and grief. These feelings latch onto them, and cause fears of abandonment, rejection, as well as negative self-esteem. All of these things can cause problems when it comes to forming bonds and friendships with those around them.
When I asked all three adoptees whether or not they thought they had experienced feelings of grief and loss in their adoptions, they all answered with a resounding, “Yes.” In terms of issues with commitment, abandonment, and forming lasting relationships with people, both JJ and Callie, who were adopted as older children after spending time in foster care, said that they suffered with this. Callie went on to tell me that, while she doesn’t feel she has commitment issues, she has had a hard time staying in a relationship for long periods of time, and that she had moved around numerous times since living on her own. She also mentioned that while she tries to open up to people to form friendships, she has a hard time forming meaningful friendships, and often falls out of touch with people, which makes her feel feelings of rejection and abandonment. Ethan also told me about how difficult it is for him to form long lasting friendships, mentioning that he has only really had one friend who has stayed in his life since high school. All three told me they have always struggled with self-esteem issues, and feeling as though they don’t belong, even within their adoptive families. All three also currently struggle with both depression and anxiety, and two are actively seeking treatment and therapy.
On the topic of addiction, which as I mentioned before is a prevalent issue in the adoptee community, both JJ and Ethan told me that they have struggled with addiction in the past. While Ethan does not know if either of his biological parents struggled with addiction, he shared with me that he struggled with alcohol addiction and methadone use for the majority of his 20’s. JJ told me that her biological mother is an addict, and growing up, she witnessed her drug use on numerous occasions. After her adoption, she later reached out to reconnect with her biological mother, but feels as though she always chose drugs over her daughters, even after her aunt died due to an accidental overdose. Callie, whose biological father was an alcoholic, as well as an addict, chooses to stay away from all addictive substances, telling me, “I don’t want to repeat many of the mistakes he made.” While Ethan’s adoptive family was very supportive in getting him help for his substance abuse issues, JJ’s family, unfortunately, was not as supportive.
Finally, I spoke to all three adoptees about their adoptive families, and the relationships they formed with them. The answers were varied, and somewhat upsetting, to say the least. Sometimes, I feel like the world outside looks in on adoptions, and showers the parents with praise for rescuing these helpless orphans from horrible situations, and giving them perfect lives, but in so many cases, this just isn’t how it works out. Sure, some people have pure hearts, and want to make lives better for these children of unfortunate circumstance, but in many cases, that’s just not so. Adoption, in many aspects, is selfish. Oftentimes, a couple adopts because they have experienced their own loss and grief, whether that grief is infertility, or the loss of a child, etc. They get into a situation, where they think that adopting a child will heal these wounds, and make their lives whole, but are unprepared to deal with the many issues that come along with bringing in a child who is already dealing with their own trauma from relinquishment. And this can cause so much conflict within the family.
When I asked each of these adoptees how their relationships were with their families, both JJ and Callie responded that, overall, their adoptions were quite negative experiences. JJ, who was adopted along with her two sisters into a family that already had biological children, told me that she never felt as though she belonged. She often felt as though her adoptive parents only wanted her youngest sister, and that she and her older sister were never really wanted. She often felt left out, and treated unfairly. Her adoptive family was also not supportive when JJ brought up reaching out to find more about her biological family, and she told me that they made her choose between them, or her biological family members. Because of this, both JJ and her older sister left home at young ages, and no longer feel welcome back. Their adoptive mother will also not allow them to contact their younger sister. Today, she has very little contact with them at all.
Callie’s story had some similarities. Callie was adopted into a family that had several, older biological children, and each one of them made her feel unwelcome, and unwanted, often by telling her that she was not part of the family, and never would be, and for a long time, Callie distanced herself from everyone in the family. She feels as though her adoptive parents were not properly equipped to deal with a child who came with PTSD, as well as untreated, high-functioning autism (Callie was later diagnosed with Asperger’s), and that caused a lot of tension between them. Callie was also adopted with her older brother, who was later removed from the home due to severe behavioral issues. After her brother’s removal, Callie says that life started to improve for her, and she began to thrive. Although her adopted life was not ideal, and she faced her share of hardships with fitting in with her new family, Callie remains optimistic, and believes that had she not been adopted, her life would have turned out much worse. She informed me that she and her brother had gone into foster care from an abusive background, and unfortunately, also faced numerous instances of abuse while in foster care. She told me that both she and her brother are doing much better, now that they are older and on their own, although her brother struggles with some substance abuse issues.
Ethan’s story is quite the contrast. While he often wonders what his life might have been like had he never been adopted, Ethan tells me that his adoptive parents have always been nothing short of supportive and nurturing. Though he has struggled with substance abuse and addiction, and currently is in therapy, seeking treatment for depression and anxiety, he tells me that his adoptive parents have always stood by him. When Ethan came out as gay at sixteen years old, he faced even more hardships, and feelings of not belonging, but says that he always had their support to try and figure out who he was, and where he belonged in the world. Ethan has never really talked to his adoptive parents about seeking out his biological family, but wants to sit down this weekend to talk to them about it.
As you can see, adoptees experience adoption in different ways, and are dealt far more challenges than those who remain with their biological families. Adoption causes trauma. Even in stories that have a happy ending, and pages filled with love and support, adoptees often face overwhelming feelings of grief, anxiety, depression, and feelings of abandonment and rejection, to name just a few. Adoption can be messy, and traumatic, and unforgiving, and we need to start seeing adoption for what it really is, and not for the fairytale ending that we simply wish it would be.