We Need To Talk About Adoptee Suicide, Now

by Lina Vanegas adopted from Colombia to the USA, MSW.

It is imperative that we start talking openly and honestly about adoptee suicide. Adoptees are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide. This is an alarming number and most people are not even aware of this fact. Too many adoptees are dead and dying. Adoptees are not seen as a marginalised group. Our lived experience of vulnerabilities and being exposed to complex trauma is unacknowledged by society. Adoptees are thought of as “lucky”, “saved/rescued”, having been given a “better life” and many expect us to be grateful which is really the narrative we need to dismantle for society to see us, validate us, support us and create an inclusive, safe and affirming world for adoptees.

Suicide is such an uncomfortable and tough topic to discuss. Society tends to avoid  conversations when they are uncomfortable. Change and growth happen from discomfort. The community needs to lean into these conversations quickly because adoptees are dying. The discomfort that community members feel is nothing compared to the immense pain, loneliness, sadness that people who contemplate suicide, attempt suicide and die by suicide feel. People who have lost a loved one to suicide are also in a lot of pain.

Our conversations around adoptee suicide needs to be framed for community members around the fact that being separated from our mothers is trauma which can predispose us to mental health issues such as PTSD, depression, suicide and also addiction, eating disorders, self harm, and toxic relationships. Once people are able to grasp the trauma from separation, I think they will be able to understand how it predisposes adoptees to mental health struggles. There is a conflict between what people hear about adoption and believe to be true and the reality of adoption. Once people learn the reality of adoption, I think it will be easier for them to grasp the mental health crisis adoptees are experiencing.

In order to support adoptees, we need to have community members that understand adoptees. Community members need to understand that the symptoms they see in adoptees that are mental health related are most often a result of our trauma. If people can understand this, I think that empathy and understanding around adoptee suicide will be much greater. Adoptees also need to be understood in every system and institution so that they can be seen and helped. For an example, if an adoptee goes to a psychiatric hospital or emergency room because they attempted suicide or have a plan of suicide and the providers there do not understand adoption trauma, then there is no way they can help the adoptee with their trauma. The provider will most likely diagnose and prescribe medication to the adoptee. This will do nothing to help the adoptee deal with their trauma and begin to heal.

It would be beneficial if there were adoptee support groups that were readily available and advertised. Many of us are a part of these groups but they generally function through word of mouth. It would be great if the mental health field professionals would do more research on adoptees. We need the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention to do research specifically on adoptees. The research would then be able to inform awareness, education, prevention and support around adoptee suicide.  It is important that the barriers for adoptees seeking medical, mental, therapeutic or psychiatric help are evaluated and then solutions are made to make things more affirming, inclusive and safe for adoptees. If adoptees are not seeking help, then they will not be able to receive help and we want to make sure they are seeking help when needed and that it is easily accessible. For example, it is very triggering and scary to go to the doctor without a medical history and it is a huge trigger to be asked each time -”Do you have any updates on your family medical history?” or “What is your family history?.”  It is also triggering to hear providers commentary on adoption when we tell providers we are adopted. I have spoken to many adoptees who have told me they avoid the doctor because of these reasons. I too have avoided appointments because it can be very triggering and taxing to continually explain myself and be in the place of having to feel like I need to educate the provider. Sometimes providers are receptive and other times they are very patronising which adds a lot to an already triggering situation. This kind of negative interaction can be a deterrent for any adoptee seeking further care.

Photos: Queensland Council

 It would be amazing if there was a crisis line for adoptees. A crisis line would be very validating because the adoptee would not need to explain themselves or adoption. Adoptees need resources and support that are safe, inclusive and affirming. Sometimes people feel more comfortable texting or picking up the phone than going in-person or on a zoom virtual call. It would also be really beneficial if when suicide deaths are recorded, that the adoption status of the person is included in the data. The information could be further broken down to include race, transracial domestic or intercountry adoption, or foster care experience. This would  give us an idea of how to better shape awareness, education, support and prevention. It will also give us more accurate statistics on adoptee suicide.

One of the ways that the community can support adoptees living with suicide loss would be to first understand adoption and trauma and how suicide attempts and deaths are high in the community. That would be a huge step for adoptees to feel seen and heard. It is so painful to go through a suicide loss and it would be extremly validating to be understood. Experiencing suicide loss as an adoptee can bring up a lot of similar topics that one may struggle with around adoption such as abandonment, not being worthy or good enough, grief, trauma, loss, feeling alone, and many other things.

For families that have lost an adoptee to suicide, it would also be helpful for the community to understand adoption and trauma and the alarmingly high rates of suicide. Families should also have support services available to them which should include trauma informed and adoption competent mental health providers and support groups. We all need and deserve support dealing with suicide loss.

It would be great to have community members that can support adoptees and family members who are living with suicide loss by listening to them without judgement. Suicide loss for an adoptee is super complicated because we have already experienced so much loss and this is another trauma that can be very triggering. As a suicide loss survivor, I really appreciate anyone who can listen without judgement. It is essential to not ask questions like, why did they die, how did they die, did you know they were depressed, did they leave a suicide note. Again, listening is really the most validating and important thing that people can do for each other. If we do not understand suicide, then we should do our part to educate ourselves by reading, listening to blogs and attending events. We should not ask someone who has just lost someone to suicide to do the emotional labor of educating us. They are grieving and need our support.

We need to start talking about adoptee suicide now. It is not going away and the numbers are alarming. If we create awareness and education in our community, it will lead to a more inclusive, affirming and safe world for adoptees. Too many of us are dying or are dead.  If we are feeling safe and comfortable, I encourage people to have these conversations with others when the time arises.  Every conversation can be beneficial and is an opportunity to plant seeds, create change, educate, create awareness, talk about prevention and begin to address the issue of adoptee suicide which will lead to saving lives. I would love to live in a world where the suicide statistics for adoptees are greatly reduced and ideally non-existent. 

Read Part 1 of Lina’s Adoptee Suicide Series: Coping with Loss from Adoption Suicide

Other Resources on Adoptee Suicide

Dealing with Adoptee Suicide
ICAVs Memorial Page
Adoptee Remembrance Day
It’s a Black Week for Adoptees in Europe

From Thailand without an Identity

by Lisa Kininger, adopted from Thailand to the USA.

Lisa’s earliest photo

My name is Lisa and I am an intercountry adoptee. Thanks to my wonderful parents, they have given me a beautiful life that I’m forever grateful for. There is only minimum information about my true identity. What I do know isn’t enough to find out who I was and where I came from. Although I’m forever happy with who I’ve become and my beautiful family, I have always been curious about my true identity, as anyone else would be. I have tried absolutely everything from phone calls and emails to traveling to Thailand more than once, searching helplessly. So, when I turned 18, I decided to start my journey of searching.

I had reached out to the Thai doctor and his wife, from whom I was adopted. They were not interested in helping me but did explain that they put up 40 non-biological children for adoption. They would have their cooks and maids sign as fake biological parents. In effect, they also told me that they came up with my birth name “Malai” and the birth date 20 December 1972. They told me not to contact the people on my birth certificate as they would lie to me and take my money. With only the people on my birth certificate to reach out to, I desperately did so in hopes of finding more information. I eventually stumbled across DNA testing and used it to my advantage. 

My story starts with my father being an aircraft electrician as a Sr. Master Sergeant in the USA Air Force. My parents were married and stationed in Utapao, Thailand in 1974-1975. They were unable to have children of their own and were in the process of adopting in the USA but had to put it on hold due to being stationed in Thailand. 

One day my mother went to Bangkok to go grocery shopping at the base commissary. She ended up talking to a woman about the prices of meat and the woman had mentioned how she just had adopted a Thai baby girl. The woman said she knew of another Thai baby girl who was up for adoption. My mother said she would love to but unfortunately, they were leaving soon to go back to the USA, so there would be no time. While checking out at the shop, the same lady approached my mother with a phone number. The phone number was for the Thai baby girl who was up for adoption. My mother decided to call. She spoke with a woman who said unfortunately, she was adopted already. So sadly, my mother hung up the phone. Then suddenly, over the loudspeaker at the store, they announced my mother’s name. They said there was a phone call for her. On the other end of that line was a lady asking my mother to share about herself and my father. The lady said she didn’t know what came over her, but she felt the need to call. The lady said she had a Thai baby girl at her house who was very sickly. She wanted my mother to see the baby girl right away. So, the lady sent a car to pick up my mother from the store in Bangkok.

My mother arrived at the house. The people at the home were a Thai doctor and his American wife (this was the lady on the phone I talked to when I started my search, which is years after). They explained to my mother that the baby girl was very ill, only weighed 13 pounds and was rescued from the jungle. They also told her that the baby girl’s 5-year-old sibling died of malnutrition and the baby girl was going next. That baby girl was me. 

Soon my mother was able to meet me for the first time. She put me in her lap and I started to play with her watch. That’s when the people decided it was the perfect match. They did however also have a Dutch couple that was going to visit me in the morning. If the Dutch couple didn’t want me, then I was my mother’s. So, they put my mother up in a hotel suite that the doctor had organised. 

This was during the Vietnam war in 1974 and when my mother called my father to explain where she was and what was going on, my father became very worried as it was dangerous for civilians to be off base. Fortunately, the next morning the Dutch couple wanted a boy, and I could go home with my parents! The next step was for my father to get me adopted in Thailand. Adoptive parents had to be a certain age to adopt in Thailand and my parents were too young. The Thai doctor wanted my father to lie about his age and bribe the consulate with a bottle of whiskey. My father didn’t want to do such a thing because he was in the US AirForce and could get into substantial trouble. The Thai doctor then had to get ahold of my “biological mother” to sign a release form for my new parents to take me back to the the USA. The doctor arranged a visit with my father and my bio mother at a restaurant outside of Bangkok. The doctor explained to my father that she came from the south and that my father had to pay for her travel expenses. When they met at the restaurant, the doctor and my bio mother only spoke Thai; she signed and left. My father had no idea what was said. 

We happily left for the USA and I had a fantastic childhood. I had the privilege of seeing and living in different parts of the world, thanks to my father serving in the US AirForce. Throughout my childhood, I always had the desire to search for my biological family and to find the truth about myself. I remembered what the Thai doctor and wife told me which was to avoid contacting the people on my birth certificate as they would lie and take my money. I took a risk and didn’t listen to them. I decided my only choice was to find the people on my birth certificate so I contacted them. In the beginning they had said yes they are my family. They proceeded to ask if I was Mali or Malai. I then said I was Malai but asked who Mali was? They told me Mali was my sister. They said to call back the next day because they knew someone who could speak English. So I did and then they told me they were not my family, but knew of my family because they were neighbours at one time. They told me the family name and said I had an older sister who died in a car accident and the family had moved away. They asked me to call back in two weeks and they would help me try and find this family. They ended up not being able to find them.

As a result, I hired a private investigator in Thailand to find them and the investigator was successful. This family acknowledged I was part of their family and that my immediate family passed away but could locate my aunt, uncle and cousins. I was able to receive pictures of them and they were able to finish the story about me and knew the Thai doctor, so I believed them. 

This was in the early 2000s before DNA testing was well known. I took the initiative to take my first trip to Thailand to meet them. I gave them money because they were poor. My aunt had a stroke so I bought her a wheelchair, medication and food. I set up an international bank account so they could take out money when needed. They would even write to me and ask for more money throughout the years and said my aunt would die if I didn’t pay for her blood transfusion.

I decided to do a DNA test with my late sisters’ son and the results showed there was no relation at all between this family and me. Sadly, I gave up searching for a while. Eventually, as time passed, I contacted the people on my birth certificate again and they told me I am possibly theirs after all. So I did a DNA test with the biological mother on my birth certificate (this was when I booked my 2nd trip to Thailand with my family). Unfortunately two days before leaving for Thailand, the results revealed I was not related to her. We went on the trip anyway and met with her. When I met her in person, she told me that the doctor paid her to sign as my biological mother and that she was the one at the restaurant who met my adoptive father. 

Since then, I have done DNA tests with her husband’s side of the family and no luck. Unfortunately, I’ve done countless DNA tests only to find 3rd to 4th cousins and they have all been adopted as well so no help there either. The hard part with my search is that my identity in Thailand is fake. My true identity seems like it’s been erased from existence.

It has been challenging throughout my life, wanting to know the truth but being lied to consistently with no explanation as to why. I don’t know how old I am, my real name, or where I came from. Everybody that knows some truth REFUSES to help or tell me anything. I have a beautiful family with three grown children and I’m happily married but I would love to share with my children and one day, my grandchildren, my own biological family.

Through my journey, I relate to other adoptees feelings and emotions and so I have dedicated my time to helping other adoptees find their biological families for 20 years. I am a private investigator for adoptees. I understand both sides of the story and can empathise. Even though I haven’t found the end to my story, I find joy in helping others in their journey and I’ve also found what I was looking for via the actual journey itself.

Lisa can be contacted at lkininger@live.com

Adopted to Spain

by Andrea Pelaez Castro adopted from Colombia to Spain. Andrea has written a masters thesis that investigates adoptions in Spain with a focus on how to prevent adoption rupture/breakdowns. You can follow her blogspot Adoption Deconstruction.

INTERNATIONAL ADOPTION IN SPAIN: DECONSTRUCTION OF AN ANACHRONISM

Some might think how lucky I am because I didn’t lose my mother tongue, nor my biological sisters and the fact that we blended in with our parents. Along these years, a lot of people dared to tell me we should thank whoever is in charge of this world that we weren’t on the streets drugging or prostituting ourselves. It was my parents who put that idea in our soft brains in the first place. Those words marked my entire childhood, but I’ve always felt something was wrong. I didn’t felt grateful for all those things I was supposed to be. On the contrary, I kept asking myself why we were in country that wasn’t our own, why we were treated so different from others kids, and why we couldn’t claim our mother (something we stopped doing because of the punishment we received). This constant fight between what I was supposed to feel and what I felt turned out to be, was the longest period of hatred and low self-esteem that I’ve ever experienced. I couldn’t bear the anger and loneliness that comes with what I was told: my mother abandoned us because she didn’t love us. Repeated word after word like a mantra, I embraced that idea in order to survive and be accepted. However, being conscious of the situation I was living, I eventually reached the turning point when I left the nest.

My life was about to change again thanks to my determination to know the truth, frightening as it might be. In 2015, I lived in London for a year, my first independent experience which allowed me to think about my origins and my mother. When I came back to Spain, my adoptive country, I decided to start my journey along with my professional career as a lawyer. As a way to understand why I hold myself back for so many years and why my parents didn’t want to speak about adoption, I began my studies on Family and Children Law in Barcelona. I devoured every book and article about adoption, emotional regulation, relinquishment, trauma, ADHD, attachment disorder and first families that landed on my hands. I became a sponge absorbing every bit of knowledge that could help me to comprehend this exchange of children happening all over the world. I named my final thesis “Adoption in Spain: assessment and support to prevent disruption”. Finally, a critical thinking about adoption emerged to answer all my questions related to my parents and the way I was educated.

When we arrived to Madrid, Spain, after the long trip from Colombia, I marvelled at the big city, our new home and the kindness of those strangers. What I never could have imagined was the solitude and lack of acceptance of the people that were supposed to care about us. What I am about to tell I’ve never shared before (besides my chosen family). Our first ten years with our parents can be summed up with one word: isolation. We only knew physical and emotional pain, treated as if we were savages or from ‘la guerrilla’ (FARC members), insults they used to call us. With constant threats of being relinquished again and reminding us about their regrets for adoption. The entire building heard our crying and screams. We told some adults, but everyone looked the other way. This abuse upon our bodies and minds left us hopeless and developed into an attachment disorder, afraid of physical contact but longing for any kind of sign of love.

We could only understand what was happening being young adults. We aimed for their recognition of the trauma they caused, trying to comprehend why they didn’t reach for help or psychological aid. Still, I made an effort after I finished and shared my thesis with them so they could understand about international adoption and the effects of the affective bond broken in the first place. But every attempt was in vain. In that moment I perceived the causes of their own distress and grief, such as their unfinished mourning of infertility or the absence of care and attachment from their own families. They were raised under violence and depriving circumstances, therefore that’s the only kind of love we knew from them. However, even being aware of this, I didn’t quite accept the current situation and I persisted in fixing my family, longing for a tie that never existed.

While I specialised in children, family law and adoption, I started to peel the first layer: looking for my origins and my mother. For this purpose, the main step was to educate myself and deconstruct why I ended up here. I was adopted in Spain where adoption is a legal construct that is meant to protect children who have no families or when their relatives cannot provide for them, but I figured out that instead, adoption is preserving others’ privileges and interests, inherited from favoured families thanks to colonialism and Catholicism. The first stirrings of adoption occurred after the civil war in 1936-1939, leaving the defeated side subjugated under a dictatorship, which ruled the country until 1975. We all know this period as the time of ‘bebes robados’ (stolen babies). The opposing families were diminished and punished by the government, sending men and women to prison and taking every child they could to place them in ‘suitable’ homes. This undertaking was possible due to the collaboration between the dictatorship itself and the Catholic Church. Hospital personnel and maternity residences (run by nuns) were connected and instructed to register and hand over the babies, previous payments were made by the priest of the village or the district. This vast network kept going until the 90s. Associations estimate 300,000 babies were abducted in 1940-1990 in Spain after Justice was served for the first time in 2018. Most of those adults and their mothers who claimed their rights weren’t able to know the truth considering those crimes were historic and there was no one alive to take responsibility nor documents to prove it.

From this perspective and the generalised conception of nuclear family (one mother-one father), but also a restricted moral view that encourages sexism and undermines single motherhood, the adoption was and has been assimilated as the biological filiation. I’ve heard so many times one phrase from people who want to adopt: ‘Why must we get an assessment of our abilities as parents and yet a 17 year old girl doesn’t need it in order to be pregnant?’ There is another one that arises: ‘What if the child comes with issues?’ And the gold mine: ‘Shouldn’t international adoption be permitted without restrictions? Those children need to be saved’. These statements are from common people, well-educated, with economic and even emotional resources. Despite these sentiments, there is so much to be taught and learnt about adoption and adoptees. Our voices and stories must be heard so we are no longer represented as ‘forever a child’, which prevents us from acknowledging our experience as a life long journey.

I would like to address and comment on those phrases:

  • First of all, privileges from prosperous countries and poverty or lack of resources from first families are the reason why someone can afford to raise an adopted child. Therefore, if impoverished countries could receive those funds set aside for an adoption, children could be raised by their parents and would stay in their communities. In addition, when a child is born from others parents the affective bond doesn’t grow magically or in the same conditions as a biological one because his/her roots are stated, so prospective parents will always need to learn from scratch what is to grow without knowing our beginning.
  • Adoption comes from trauma, considering the emotional wound left and carried within ourselves, caused by deprivation from the primal protection, nourishment and affection of our mother and sometimes caretakers in orphanages/institutions or foster homes. Mainly, the issue is not the child, but the adult that wants to adopt thinking about himself, concerning how things or events would effect on one when the purpose is no other but the person separated from their origin. We are not meant to be suitable for adoptive families, it is meant to be the other way around.
  •  Finally, but not less important, international adoption is a veiled and corrupt purchase and we do not need to be rescued from our birthplace. Our families could have less or be in a temporary crisis, but it shouldn’t mean these circumstances may be used as an advantage by privileged families. It is a widely-known vicious circle, where a child can be taken by authorities or abducted by organisations. There are stories where even a poor family could have received threats and/or money in order to give up their child so others can be fed. I insist, those resources could be exactly the required aid, but still white saviours and the colonialist debt find their way out. It is a burden our countries keep suffering. As well, international adoption creates a psychological shock and sorrow. It means our pain and grief are only moved to another place, which are not accepted because those feelings have been denied in our adoptive countries since ‘we have been saved and thus we must be eternally grateful’.

In Spain, and other countries, sometimes people who approach adoption as a way to form a family do not realise and/or aren’t even interested in deconstructing their own desires and the consequences. Yes, here we speak about adoption, there is news about it on TV, there are associations from adoptive parents and adoptees, but it is not enough. What needs to be care about is the critical view on this matter. We can no longer ignore that this system doesn’t protect children nor save them. Especially plenary adoption, which is the most outdated contract to ever exist. Yes, it is a contract where one signs and pays to give their name to a child and gain rights over another person so he or she can be raised by someone else and in another country. That being said:

WHY DO WE HAVE TO LOSE OUR FIRST FAMILY TO BE PROTECTED OR RAISED BY OTHERS? WHY MUST THE AFFECTIVE BOND BE BROKEN? WHAT IS THAT FEAR THAT PREVENTS US FROM BEING ABLE TO STAY CONNECTED WITH OUR ORIGINS?

THE AFFECTIVE BOND

International adoption is a success precisely because of this reason: people being afraid of losing someone that is not theirs to begin with. What an archaic concept! Back to the assimilation of adoption as a natural filiation. The affective bond cannot grow if our roots and our past are rejected. Still there exist a type of movie within the terror genre which speaks about this fear, where adoptive children rebel against their family or the first mother comes back to claim what is her own. Fear and rejection cannot be the seed of any family. This is the reason my thesis wasn’t quite appreciated at that time, because I addressed an important subject and pointed out a fear we were born with (not being accepted). This clean break concept within plenary adoption is outdated and must be removed from our communities. Society might not be ready to abolish this figure due to economic, fertility and mental health problems, but adoptees should not be the ones to suffer others’ choices. Adoption must come from a place of stability and acceptance of our own limitations, otherwise generations are wounded and anguish created over issues that are not our duty to fix or responsible for.

Now that I’ve found my family and I understand the circumstances that led me here, I can start my healing process, which doesn’t mean being static, but moving forward through sorrow and all kinds of grief. The next layer I’m trying to live with and didn’t accept at the end of my research is that there is no affective bond or a concept of family in my adoption. At some point I had to endure the pain that comes with it, but finally it set me free. In the words of Lynelle Long, my contract with them is over. Reading those words and relating to them at this time, is the beginning of a crucial period of my life. I highly recommend others to initiate the search of our origins, only new wisdom can be spread into ourselves, and also do not be afraid of sharing your story. Don’t deny yourself or your wounds. They are just a reminder that we are still alive and we can heal together.

THIS IS MY STORY

I’m 32 and I was adopted at age 7 years old, along my two little sisters (5 and 3 years old) by Spanish parents in 1995 in Colombia. Our Colombian mom was 20 when our Colombian father died in 1993. His death was related to a drug/paramilitary organisation. This event changed our whole life. I’ve been in these stages of grief, negation and hatred, but now I think I’m in the negotiation phase of the loss of my family, my mother and this whole different life I could have lived if things would have been distinct, even just one thing. Due to this violence, the male members of my father’s family were wiped out in case of a possible revenge. This way, my mother lost contact with his family, therefore she couldn’t take care of us while trying to provide for us. The ICBF (Colombian Central authority that protects children) found out about this situation and intervened. My Colombian mother didn’t have any economic or emotional support (at least, nobody cared enough to look for the rest of our family), so she had to make a decision with both hands tied.

Two years later, we were moved to Madrid, Spain. Our adoptive parents were old-fashioned not only in their thinking about education, but also in their emotional intelligence. They didn’t really empathise with us or accept our past and origins. As a result they wouldn’t speak about adoption. Until I flew the nest, I wasn’t able to think about my first mother or family. It was too painful and I wanted to be accepted by any means. I never felt close to my adoptive parents, but they took care of us three children and we never knew what is to be separated from each other. In 2016, I decided it was enough and I started this scary journey. My sisters never felt prepared to do it with me, but they have been by my side looking over my shoulder, and as they like to say: this is like a telenovela (soap show). However, I did my own research and became my own private investigator. I only needed our adoption file to get her ID number, and with a little help from contacts in Colombia, I found her in 2018. I wasn’t ready to make contact at the beginning, but I overcame this difficulty by writing a letter with my sisters. Then in December 2020, I got to find my father’s family on Facebook. One name was missing that my mother told me about, but it was the key to unlock what was holding me back from truly knowing my family.

I realize, especially reading other adoptees’ experiences, how lucky I am. I’m aware of the consequences of adoption, its trauma and wounds, the scars we have to learn to live with; the deconstruction of my origins and my own personality, the necessities and defences required in order to survive. This whole process has taught me something more valuable that I’ve could never imagine: accept myself and others. I have always had my sisters with me, who are learning from this growth with open minds, knowing it is not easy and they are not ready to go through the same phases as I am, but they are willing to listen and walk with me as far as they can. Recognising and understanding that this was not possible with our parents has been the most painful step, but we’ve managed to take control of our lives and choices. Now I’m preparing myself for this trip, physically and emotionally. At this moment I’m reading ‘Colombia: a concise contemporary history’ to finally know my country, which I ignored for so many years. Thanks to my Colombian mom, I’ve discovered that I was really born in Muzo, Boyaca.

My birth town, Muzo, Boyaca in Colombia

Original Spanish version of this article here.