“Here is something I have believed about myself and my adoption since I was a child, since before I knew I was an alcoholic: My birth mother 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 birth mother 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 I started AAA. It’s a new group focused on AA & Adoption. 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.
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 – and drugs, sex, shopping, eating, gambling, etc. For me, as an adoptee, that hole has always been shaped by that initial separation from my birth mother. You could say that the God-shaped hole inside me was also a mom-shaped hole.
Adopted or not – many alcoholics 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 – AA, Trauma 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. It 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 have 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, as someone 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 desperately wanted 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 afterward. 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 AA&A at the beginning of this year. We meet on the first Sunday of every month (on the weekend, so anyone in LA can get to the meeting without fighting traffic.)
As I’ve been going to different groups and announcing the AA&A 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– my birth dad is likely on the streets and an addict if he’s still alive.) And I probably would have been an alcoholic even if my birth mom 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 AA&A, we can do that on 2 levels. As alcoholics, and as adoptees.
The AA&A Meeting
When we have our meetings, we do a short ‘moment to remember why we’re there’, and then we dive right into sharing. In some ways, it’s more like a support group than a typical AA meeting. Questions are welcome, and we definitely cross-talk in the sense of acknowledging when we relate to how someone feels or clarifying some family history. 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 alcoholic 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 month, we leave feeling better and 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.
The Future of AA&A
“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 Alcoholics Anonymous 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 I 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 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 AA can send them our way.
If that sounds like you or someone you know, please have them contact us. We’d be thrilled to carry the message to another alcoholic adoptee.
Celia Center Support Group for Adoptees on 4th Saturday of every month at 2pm at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Studio City MORE INFO HERE
Adopt Salon was developed and is supported by the CELIA CENTER, a non-profit Adoption, and Foster Care Support organization.
An open support group for all members of the Adoption Constellation: First-Birth Mothers/Fathers, Adoptees, Former Foster Youth, Foster Parents, Kinship Caregivers, Siblings, Significant Others, Legal Guardians, & Adoptive Parents. $20 Suggested Donation
A place for the Adoption & Foster Care community to come together to share stories, thoughts, feelings, ideas, receive psycho-education, process grief/loss, learn about search and reunion, and build strong bonds/connections.
This group will be facilitated by Adoption Psychotherapist, Adult Adoptee Jeanette Yoffe, MFT. and Anne Bonura, Adult Adoptee, and First Mother
Participants: Members of the Foster and/or Adoption Constellation are allowed ONLY.
First mothers, First fathers, (pre & post-adoption)