My Journey as an Alcoholic and Adoptee
(A version of this piece was originally published in the January issue of http://www.keystorecoverynewspaper.com/)
Addiction & Adoption
Before there was my adoption, there was my relinquishment. And here is something I have believed about myself since I was a child, since before I knew I was an alcoholic: My birthmother took one look at me and knew that I was worthless and unlovable and unredeemable. She didn’t want to keep me because she knew something was wrong with me.
(I know that this absolutely isn’t true, and that my birthmother loved me very much and made a very difficult choice. But this is what I have told myself.)
For me, as an alcoholic and an adoptee, the feelings of loss, uncertainty and identity that come from being given away by my birthmother can be as cunning, baffling and powerful as alcohol. And as I’ve been trudging our road of happy destiny, I’ve met a lot of other adoptees with similarly persistent feelings.
It’s why we started Adoptees & Addiction. It’s at the intersection of 2 triangles - the AA triangle – unity, service, recovery – and the adoption triad – birthparents, adoptive parents and adoptees.
For adoptees in recovery, our root causes and conditions stem literally from our origin, from our birth and the circumstances around it. There’s often an unexplainable feeling of loss that haunts us and a fear of abandonment that persists throughout our lives. (source: The Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier.)
From some estimates, adoptees are 5 times more likely to become alcoholics than the average person, 10 times more likely to be in therapy, and 10 times more likely to be in prison.
Suffice it to say, we have problems.
It’s said in the rooms that there’s a God-shaped hole that we as alcoholics try and fill with booze – not to mention drugs, sex, shopping, eating, gambling, etc. For me, as an adoptee that hole has always been shaped by that initial separation from my birthmother. You could say that the God-shaped hole inside me was also a birthmom-shaped hole.
Adopted or not - many alcoholics/addicts say we feel like we never fit in. For adoptees, we often felt like that from the beginning, from the families that raised us. We looked different – height, weight, hair color, skin tone – and often grew up alongside biological children of our parents. We feel like we had to be grateful for this new home we were given – and that at any moment we might be relinquished back if we didn’t behave.
Yes, adoption gave me a home with two loving parents who did their best. They did enough wrong that I need therapy but not enough for a best-selling memoir. And today as a sober man I will tell you they’re my mom and my dad and I love them very much for who they are and how they raised me.
But adoptive parents - no matter how great - can’t heal that initial break from our birthmothers. I’ve probably read as much adoption literature as I have recovery literature. I strongly identify with both. There’s a book called The Primal Wound about that break in which I recognize more of myself than in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The Primal Wound - Trauma, Addiction and Adoption
I don’t think the 12 steps are particularly great at treating trauma on their own. They absolutely give you the chance to stop all of the addictive behavior you’ve piled on top of the trauma, and to establish a connection with a higher power. I don’t think there’s any hope of getting better without getting sober. So recovery gives you a chance to heal. But then there’s still more work to be done.
And being separated at birth from your mother is certainly a trauma. For many adoptees, we were then shuttled off to an orphanage while waiting weeks and months for our adoptive families to get us. While there, we weren’t held as often as is necessary for the health of an infant. There’s even been studies that show a baby will die if it is not touched or held. (Which is an insane study if you stop to think about it.)
So how do I heal that hole in my heart? How do I start feeling lovable and worthwhile?
For me it started as I was detoxing from alcohol at a psych ward. I don’t know why I did it but I tried to connect with each individual in that facility as a human being experiencing pain and to show them compassion and care. Like Bill W. relating to Dr. Bob, one sufferer relating to another. I saw each fellow patient as a real human being worth loving as someone who had something good in them. I wasn’t going to throw them away or relinquish them, even if they’d ended up in this psych ward.
It’s what I always desperately wanted to feel for myself but never did or could never take in. It’s when the healing for me began.
As I entered the rooms and began sharing my story, I found that whenever I spoke at a meeting, invariably there would be at least one adoptee that would come up to speak with me afterwards. And as I began collecting their numbers and seeing them around campus, it became clear that we could really help each other.
I’ve found healing through compassion and projection and from telling my story as an adoptee and an alcoholic. When my friend Darrylynn – an adoptive mom of an alcoholic - heard me speak, she understood that not everything her daughter was suffering through was her fault as a mom.
And when I’ve heard from AA birthmothers who gave away a child, I got to hear about how they never forgot a birthday, never went a day without thinking of that son or daughter and how much love and heartache they felt for that relinquished child.
Out of that, and some sober experience working through some of my issues, we started Adoptees & Addiction. At first, we met physically once a month, but thanks (?!?) to the coronaivrus, we've gone virtual and meet weekly.
As I’ve been going to different groups and announcing the meeting, on more than one occasion, an adoptee would come up to me after the meeting and say, “I’ll take your flyer, but I’m not coming to your meeting.”
Which I get. We adoptees don’t like joining things – because we fear that group will eventually reject and abandon us. It’s also a very emotionally fraught subject to deal with – like opening up a page of your 5th step that you’ll deal with but never truly eliminate.
So it’s a big deal to go to a meeting like ours.
The spiritual, maternal hole
Adoption didn’t give me the physical allergy to alcohol. (Though indirectly, it did through biology– both of my biofamilies have addiction issues.) And I probably would have been an alcoholic even if my birthmom had raised me.
But it definitely helped with that mental defect. Emotionally, I tried to fill that mom-shaped hole inside of me with whatever I could. The grief of never knowing her felt like it would never end and was a raw open wound that would never heal. For example, any time I watched a movie where a mother would protect her son from danger, I’d end up sobbing – why didn’t my mother have the courage to raise me, to protect me from the dangers of the world with her love?
And feeling worthless and unlovable, believing that anyone who would see the real me would see that defection and then bounce, that contributed to a giant case of the fuckits.
To me, one of the greatest things about AA is that it’s a program that’s based on the concept of one sufferer relating to another fellow sufferer. Bill and Dr. Bob shared their common problems related to alcohol in that way. There’s a common bond in that, and it’s my belief that there’s a spiritual connectedness that happens when we share our vulnerabilities, our strengths and our weaknesses and our shame that allows for something divine to move in us.
With Adoptees & Addiction, we can do that on 2 levels. As addicts, and as adoptees.
In many ways, we're much more like a support group than a typical 12 step meeting though we do rip off a lot of the format. We have so many similarities – struggles forming and keeping relationships, feelings of not belonging that have stayed with us into our adulthood. Oh, and the abandonment issues. All the abandonment issues.
Some of us have met our birth families. It rarely meets the fantasy we had of that family as kids, and it doesn’t make everything suddenly better. Sometimes it’s complicated, and sometimes it’s worse than that.
We’ve had families of our own, and had the chance to see another living relative for the first time. We have our regular addict problems of wanting to drink or numb out or isolate, too.
As Dave R. said, “I have about 100 issues around adoption, and I’ve dealt with about 40 of them.”
But every Saturday, we leave feeling better, and most importantly feeling understood. We’ve found a place where we are a part of, not apart from. For someone who was taken away from the first family they were supposed to know, that’s immensely powerful to feel a sense of belonging.
“No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.”
I want our meeting to be there when someone comes into the 12 Step rooms (or zooms), when that primal wound from adoption is no longer being numbed from alcohol and drugs, but bleeding and aching and raw and horrible, I want to be there for them. Because life does get better. The feelings around adoption can be cunning, baffling and powerful. They may never fully go away, but we want to show that you can be sober, full of life, and still have that peculiar pain and struggle that we adoptees face. But you can manage them and find some measure of peace.
It’s my hope that we can grow our meeting and that word gets out enough that when a newcomer says that they are dealing with feelings around their adoption that enough people in the rooms of can send them our way.
If you've been nodding along at any point (and my goodness, if you've spent this long reading this long article) or it sounds like someone you know, please have them contact us. We’d be thrilled to welcome you to the group.