Understanding Addiction in Adoptive Families - Guest Post

{When I think about aspects of adoption that are in need of awareness, one that comes to mind is the increased prevalence of addiction among adoptees as compared to the general population. While most adoptees statistically do not develop an addiction, certain risk factors contribute to the likelihood of substance use and abuse in adoptees. Though it's more widely expected that addiction would come from biological risk factors, and that is an element to be considered, what is not as understood is the link between attachment, adoption, and addiction:

"Data suggest that early stress and traumatic attachment experiences may hinder the development of the endogenous oxytocinergic attachment & human development system, increasing vulnerability to future addictive behaviors" (Alvarez-Monjaras et al., 2019, p. 625 626).

In light of this, the increased risk in adoption for addiction may not only come from inherited biological factors from family members, but also the act of early separation and attachment injury itself which primes the brain for addictive behaviors, whether with substances or otherwise. This is an observation Paul Sunderland explores more in depth in his lecture on adoption and addiction, a lecture which made it clear to me that this is a topic which deserves more attention when speaking about adoption and the adoptee experience.


I was familiar with Sunderland's lecture when I first heard David Bohl present at the 2018 (formerly) Indiana Adoptee Network Conference (now the National Association of Adoptees and Parents). His presentation made an impression on me, as did his 2021 NAAP Conference lecture on the restorative power of community. Among other endeavors, Bohl currently hosts weekly addiction recovery support groups for adoptees on zoom. For more information on joining, click here. I encourage you to read this post and then check out his various lectures, writings and website in the links below.}



Understanding Addiction in Adoptive Families

David B. Bohl


Addiction is a symptom, not a cause, and the sooner we accept that, the better equipped we are in treating it. For people who deal with the double whammy of addiction and adoption, the idea of treating the latter as a direct or indirect (or both) result of the former, might bring some relief. This is because there still exists the prevalent idea that falling prey to addiction equals moral and personal failing, where in reality, many people suffer from it because they’ve been set up to experience it. They’ve been set up to experience it because of an early trauma.


This might be a controversial line, but bear with me: Addiction works. How? What does addiction do that serves its sufferers so well? First of all, it helps them cope. It helps them self-soothe, it provides respite from everyday troubles and in the beginning, it gives the illusion of belonging and connection, and for many it’s helpful in overcoming their trust issues. High or drunk, people suddenly don’t seem scary or suspicious any more; a body and mind under the influence experiences the sort of artificial warmth that makes many feel very much at home with others. At least temporarily, while a drug is being used.


Unlike a real solution to trauma or psychological distress - such as therapy - substance use is only a band-aid solution and it is short lived. Yet, for people who have suffered developmental trauma, any relief from pain is welcome, no matter how hurtful in the long run. For people who have begun this life from the position of mistrust - after they were abandoned by the very individuals designed to care and protect them - being able to relax and forget their constant vigilance (seeing others as threats) must be a relief. That’s why I’m saying addiction works - at least, in the beginning.


For parents of children with addiction, understanding the mechanisms of broken trust and how addiction itself might seem like a solution is crucial when trying to get help. Threats, anger, and/or manipulation are not what get people sober. Education, compassion, and understanding are. So is patience. If you’re a parent of a person currently struggling with addiction, know that there are many of us who have been able to overcome it and that there is a solution to your and your loved one’s problem.


As someone who has struggled both with addiction and trauma related to my adoption, I can tell you that having people who supported me, treated me with respect and offered me unconditional love was what helped me overcome my problems. I used drugs and alcohol to be able to connect to people. Like many relinquishees I felt at odds with the world, I felt that I was being watched, judged, shamed because of where I came from. I grew up thinking that there was something defective about me because my biological mother gave me up. No matter how reassuring and loving my adopted family was, I could not shake off the feeling that there was something missing. So I reached for drugs and alcohol to feel whole, albeit very temporarily. When I got to my breaking point, I no longer felt whole, and I used the substances to maintain my baseline and stave off anxiety (it didn’t work). It took a few years, and a lot of inner work with the help of social support systems (my family, my groups, therapy) in order for me to feel truly complete. It took many trials and errors too - not all of the groups I’ve joined aligned with my needs - but once I committed to my recovery and once my loved ones did too, that ordeal became much easier.


If you’re reading this and you just want your loved one with a problem to “snap out of it” or simply “get better,” please know that they cannot do this on their own. Just as it takes all of you to create a family (an adoptive one), it takes all of you to create a recovery. Having adopted, you understand that family doesn’t always mean biological ties - it means people having something in common, people coming together in unity to create a functional group. When one of you suffers, the rest have to find the strength to help - that’s because everyone in a family unit depends on each other.


I encourage you to peruse my blog (https://davidbbohl.com), and some of my lectures, as well as other writings online where I go into more depth about what it takes to fight addiction, raise awareness, and help your loved ones in an environment that’s respectful and full of hope.



A catalyst, immersionist, chronic malcontent, empath, conscientious persister, solitudinarian, itinerant introvert, and often complexly hypervigilant, David B. Bohl is also a relinquishee and adoptee, a professional independent addiction and recovery consultant, and a former consumer of substance use disorder and mental health services. He’s also the author of Parallel Universes: The Story of Rebirth, a memoir that chronicles the intersection of adoption and addiction in his life.


David lives in southeastern Wisconsin and works around and outside of the U.S. He enjoys spending time with his wife of 37 years, and relentlessly pursues Blue Mind (that mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peace, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment) that comes from being in and around the water).


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