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

Deep Truths

by Anonymous, a followup from My Game Changer.

Note: ICAV does not condone the use of illegal substances. This post is shared in the spirit of highlighting how everyone finds different pathways to healing and the depths of the trauma in relinquishment.

Annotating my immediate thoughts following that first psilocybin experience were purely to adhere to the same process developed for the clinical trials at John Hopkins. There were indeed things I experienced during that trip that were revelatory, and articulating those experiences on paper were an important part of the integration process.

I guess they were the proverbial shovel that unearthed some deep truths that, had I not written them down, could have easily lost their profundity over time. At that time though there was no intention for others read about my psychedelic experience, though I understand it may have use for others exploring treatment options for similar situations, so I write these additional thoughts bearing in mind others may read this also.

The period of months following the first trip were of immense contrast to life before that day. But as some years have now past, I can see that the level of contrast was relative to that particular point in time.

My first trip revealed pain, pain caused by separation, and how the weight of that pain created its own undertow of suffering for decades. Looking back over the years, and through discussion with health professionals, I can see thought patterns, behaviours and feelings going all the way back to my teenage years that exhibit signs of depression, post trauma stress, loneliness and grief.

Having these things revealed to me, was the first corner turned that gave me some clarity about my “issues”. When you first turn a corner, it’s when the contrast is so apparent because it’s still just behind you while the new line of sight reveals a different perspective. There is some relief in seeing a different viewpoint for the very first time.

I was under no illusions a shroom trip was to be the only silver bullet I needed. As a health professional of many years myself, I had no expectations further progress would be consistent and linear, despite this seemingly momentous kick start. I tried to apply some faith in the process of healing, and hoped that this corner turned was the first step in that process. I knew I had to be patient. I knew I had no choice but to be patient, but the choice to feel hope for the first time seemed like something I actually had a little control over for the first time.

Immensely helpful to that process was sharing this first experience with selected friends and family who showed curiosity, care and support. Decades of relationships with these people, watching the evolution of my life and its flaws unfold, was the perfect exposition that allowed them to comprehend the significance of a psychedelic ego death experience and proclamations.

However, contrasted to this was my adoptive mother. Having suffered the loss of her husband of fifty years to Alzheimer’s a few years earlier, and still what seemed to be living a life of mourning, I was still extremely disappointed and hurt by her lack of curiosity, open mindedness and sympathy. Perhaps my expectation was too optimistic for a grieving widow, lifelong Christian fundamentalist and conservative anti-drug pundit. Many attempted conversations to be open and share myself with her about my mental health and the efficacy of psychedelics generally resulted in silence or a perfunctory and benign remark such as, “Well, so long as it helped you and you are feeling better now.” Such trivial framing. It could well have been a remark in relation to having a headache and taking some Panadol.

This made me realise some hard truths about her. Yes, I have all the thanks and gratitude for the life she gave me. But now she has nothing more to give me, whether due to limited emotional and mental capacity, religious virtue, or simple lack of obligation. I have to accept that. She tells me she loves me as her son. But it feels like a sentimental love for someone that no longer exists. It was a fictitious person anyway. She never really knew me all those years before. Now she will never know me, damn it.  She may still love me in her own way, but not the love you have with someone that comes from sharing one of life’s paths together where you will argue and fight, laugh and cry, or miss each other. My mother and I do not share any paths anymore. It really feels like a rejection. A second rejection by the second mother. My conversations with her now are as superficial as with the barista at the local coffee shop. If she asks me how I am, I don’t tell her the truth. She’s not interested. Talking through this with a psychologist, and unpacking my mother’s pre-adoption history, we deducted I was a sort of replacement child for a first birth child lost to post-partum complications. If you then throw in some fundamentalist religious framing, such as being rescued from a war-torn country was all God’s plan, then one can realise how de-validating this is and how it delayed unpacking and processing the whole adoption experience.

The following months since the first shroom trip sensitised me a lot more to emotional situations. My previous years of working in emergency health, had developed a capacity to disengage emotionally from difficult situations which was a common protective mechanism a lot of paramedics develop. But now, I saw and felt everything, particularly suffering and grief. Watching things like a woman on the news cry about the death of her child, or a soldier grimace in pain, struggling with rehab exercises became unwatchable for me. That genuine deep pain and anguish instantly connected me to the pain that now lived inside me. I started to feel sorry for the world and myself. I saw so much pain and suffering in the world. It seemed to be what the world was made of. I always found children beautiful and fascinating, but even now there was something sad about being around them. Maybe it was seeing them with their own parents. Seeing that connecting gaze they make with their mothers and it being returned in kind. That primal non-verbal connection and communication. Seeing loving mothers and children do this, crushes me inside.

For the first time I felt anger towards my birth mother and later my adoptive mother. Over the years there had been attempts to locate my birth mother through search programs and personal connections. I had watched plenty of documentaries on parents and children reuniting after many years of searching and often it was not a fairy tale ending. Intellectually I could empathise with a young desperate mother in a third world or war-torn country, giving up her child for adoption. But things were different now. I often thought how things would be if we found each other now, what sort of relationship would we have, or want to have. I know culture and family tradition usually dictate how a child parent relationship operates. But things are different now and would be different. I can almost feel the aggression inside me as I kick back against the expectations of a person and situation that may never come to pass. A future relationship would be on my terms, no one else’s. Certainly not someone who left me with nothing. But it’s all hypothetical. I’m older now, so she is probably dead anyway. I think I can let it go. But it will take time.

As for my adoptive mother, her indifference and judgements still stick in my neck every time we engage in polite and perfunctory conversation. I know the suffering she has gone through nursing her only life partner, my father, through the long goodbye, but that is the cycle of life. Her textbook life. She had everything I will never have. The life I will never have. For one who professes to live in the hope of religious promises and myths, it makes little sense to me the self-centred world view she now holds, the lack of joy in her life, and distancing from her own family.

I think I’ve always been a disciplined person when it comes to doing things I need to do. I knew things like exercise, sleep, eating well, all contribute to good mental health. Reading James Gordon’s “The Transformation: Healing Trauma to Become Whole Again” encouraged me to add meditation to my self-maintenance routine. Coupled with reading Sam Harris’s “Spirituality without Religion” I was able to approach meditation as a self-authoring and awareness tool without any useless religious or esoteric fillers. Here I discovered how to find the pleasure in just breathing. We breath constantly yet we never take notice of how this simple automatic function can just feel good at. Meditation also allowed me to descend deep back into the sub-conscious on numerous occasions like a mini-psychedelic trip. With the right breathing patterns and environment, I could reach that place and further explore the depths of my own consciousness. It often brought me more tears, and pain, and new insights about myself, but also allowed me to isolate my pain to a physically definable space. Prior to the shroom trip, it was diffuse, below the surface, always dragging me down. Like treading ocean waters with the black expanse just below your feet, waiting for you to weary and sink down into in the dark depths.  Since then, with more meditation, it’s now much more apparent and explicit, like a heavy brick lodged in my chest whenever I recall the space that mediation or psychedelics allow me go to. It no longer grasps at me from below. It’s here with me now, carried close in my chest – heavy.

I continue to be patient. Putting faith in the healing powers of the body and mind. But things seem to take forever. It’s like being in a flight holding pattern. I know where I want to go but I can’t land so I keep circling, hoping the fuel doesn’t run out.

I started Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu martial arts which proved to be a great source of distraction and mental therapy, plus it’s more therapeutic trying to strangle someone than talking to a psychologist about my feelings for an hour. Being so tired and sore after training means I collapse into sleep with utter exhaustion, with no energy for the mind to start stupid conversations with itself. But as my aching joints and limbs attest, age is starting to take its toll. It seems the body cannot always cash the cheques the mind wants to write.

Before the mushroom trip, my relief was the thought of having the control to end things whenever I chose to. Whether I did or not wasn’t the point, it was the feeling that I could. After the trip, I couldn’t locate that feeling. It felt like that capacity within me had gone. It seemed like a good thing at the time. But now some days I’m not so sure. Thinking I don’t have the capacity to free myself, means I’m trapped here. The one hope I had before, the idea that gave me relief, is gone. I’m in two minds some days about whether I regret the trip or not, as it took away the one hope I had that carried me through these last decades.

Would I do shrooms again or recommend them? Definitely. It gave me a diagnosis. It got to the core of my problem. But after a few years, I needed to re-evaluate my position. I needed a prognosis of the situation because it seemed things had stalled, or possibly regressed a bit from the contrast I first saw.

I planned another day for a psilocybin trip. But after twenty minutes of looking at the dried ground up dose on my kitchen bench, I couldn’t bring myself to do it again. Last time was so heartbreaking.

I had a small tab of LSD in the freezer, as I do, and decided to take half a tab and do some meditation. LSD has the same effect on the mind as psilocybin. I only took half as I didn’t want a heavy trip like last time. Just enough to shut down the default mode network and let me evaluate things.

I think I’d forgotten the concentration of the tabs as the effect came on the same as the mushrooms, stronger than I was prepared for. Perhaps the equivalent of about ¾ of the original dose. I could feel myself slipping into my own mind like before, not as deep, but enough to see myself.

This time, there was a house and I was sitting in it alone in the dark. There was no feeling of angst, urgency of escape. Only resignation. This house was me. A representation of myself and my life, but it was off kilter and unsafe. I had to build this house by myself with no help and without the right tools. I still managed to put something together that looked like a house. But I knew it was incomplete and had missing foundations.  From a distance it appeared okay, but when I got up close and inside, I could see it wasn’t right. No one would want to stay here. It’s too late to tear everything down and start again.

What a disappointing prognosis. Perhaps I’ve been overestimating myself and expected too much too soon, so it’s back to business as usual. Keep doing the things the experts say I need to do.  I have no choice really. I can suck it up for a while longer, even though it feels like I just want to go home. That’s how it feels now, like I’m waiting to get home wherever that is, this life or the next. I just want to go home. I can’t wait to go home.