I have no way of knowing if I would be a person suffering – and now recovered – from addiction had I had a different life. Were I never relinquished at the age of seven days old, would I have experienced the loss of identity and challenges that I have? I will never know. I will also never know if my biological mother would have perhaps remained sober had she not given her baby up for adoption. I will never know if being raised by a birth mother who drank would cause me to drink – or would it turn me off drinking so hard that I would never try it myself? All I know is that I was relinquished, and I grew up with a loving mom and dad and siblings. Yet, I felt a sense of shame and difference so great that it eventually caused me to reach for alcohol. Was my family’s love not enough to stop what was genetically encoded in me? (Both biological parents most likely have suffered from addiction.) Or was my family’s love enough, yet I was too traumatized by my relinquishment that no amount of it would be able to arrest me from medicating with booze? The permutations are, frankly, endless.
But what I know today is that there is an increasing and strong body of research that supports the belief that the more troubled your childhood, the higher your risk for later health problems, including addiction. Much of this research has been centered around a massive Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study conducted 20+ years ago (from 1995-1997) by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente. Having studied more than 17 thousand people, it is one of the most extensive investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and later-life health and well-being ever conducted.
The ACE score is used to assess cumulative childhood stress, which leads to increased risk of later-life health problems – physical and mental. Some of the questions ask if you were sworn at as a child, if you were hit, if you felt unloved, if your parents have been separated, and so on. There is no direct question referring to adoption or relinquishment. Still, I will venture to say that number 4 comes close: Did you often or very often feel that … No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? or Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?
The ACE score is meant as a guideline and is not inclusive. Relinquishment and adoption experiences are a part of ACE. If you experienced separation from your birth mother and/or other types of toxic stress over months or years (like adoption and difficulty attaching and attuning to caregivers and others that should be trusted), then those would likely increase your risk of health consequences. Perhaps a more complete question is not if adoption or relinquishment is an ACE, but are they traumatic? And if they are, do they affect how people cope – for example, in self-sabotaging ways such as through the use of alcohol? Yes, and yes.
Like many mental health disorders, several factors may contribute to addiction development – in other words, they may predispose one to addiction. It is believed that the main factors are genetics and environment, or nature and nurture. These are predisposition, but not the cause. Genetics and environment make people more inclined to experience addiction, but they don’t guarantee that a person will experience addiction. We’re still working on what exactly causes addiction.
Q: But did the trauma of being relinquished as a newborn cause my addiction to alcohol?
A: It predisposed me to have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.
Q: Did the struggles I had attaching and trusting my adoptive family, and as a result, most of my relationships, cause my addiction to alcohol?
A: I believe it certainly predisposed me to addiction.
And did something else predisposed me to recovery? I certainly hope so. And although I have no proof if it was genetic or environmental in nature, I am happy to share my experience with you as it might help you discover the same truth. The truth is that my recovery and subsequent health depended on developing my identity and relentlessly pursuing Reality on its terms. That truth also means that I see myself as complex, unique, and worthy, and that I no longer wonder about things I will never have answers to – all the what Ifs of my life beginning differently than it did. I got what I got, and I did the best I could with it. And my work is far from over – I hope I continue to grow and develop on this fascinating journey of getting to know myself.
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