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The Troubling Intersection of Mental Illness and Adoption

by Laura on October 24th, 2012

It was my husband who came up with the title idea—Adopted RealityWe liked the wordplay and felt it aptly described themes from my memoir:

  1. Being adopted was in fact my reality growing up, and
  2. While struggling with a bipolar breakdown, I “adopted” my own version of reality, believing I was a bionic spy for the “evil” Illuminati who had perpetrated 9/11.


I know, crazy, right?


A Brief Bout with Insanity

I knew my story would have value to the adoptee community. Even so, after I first published, I was a little naïve.

When someone in the adoptee community commented that my title implies that all adoptees are mentally ill, I was taken aback. Being accused of perpetrating damaging adoption stigmas was really upsetting.

Then I thought about it a little more and tried to explain myself. Turns out, the guy didn’t read, or even read about, my book. So I decided … well, how do I put this delicately? Ummmm … I call bullshit.

Was having been adopted a traumatic experience that caused mental illness?

For me, no, being given to a strange family as an infant was not a traumatic experience.

However, being adopted did create specific issues for me growing up. When those challenges went unacknowledged and unaddressed, I buried them and coped by striving to be a ‘perfect little ballerina.’ This perfectionism lead to unhealthy habits (disordered eating, manic behaviors, recreational drug use, I could go on).

Did reuniting with my birth mother cause my mental breakdown?

No. My reunion was one of the most eye-opening, amazing experiences of my life.

But come on now, six months later, you did spend a week in a mental hospital. You were pretty eff-ing nuts.

I say: Sanity is relative. Hell, I might be a little cracked up now; I do seem to be currently interviewing myself.


Adoption Advocacy & (Possibly) Mental Health Activism

Seriously, though, I’ve been really inspired by writing as an adoption activist. It seems I have a lot to say. Even so, I have been reluctant to talk about bipolar, or become involved in any type of mental health advocacy.

Why? Because I feel like a hypocrite.

I was diagnosed with a “temporary” bipolar disorder brought on by too many life changes in too short a time period. And even though my husband blithely encourages friends to just read the book to understand my particular brand of crazy, I might not actually be bipolar.

On the other hand, most friends and former colleagues will likely agree, I do kind of do things, “Everything. All-the-time. Now.” If that’s not a “manic” tendency, I don’t know what is.

The other issue with talking about bipolar is that I haven’t taken prescription medication for over ten years. People who do suffer from serious mental illness need to take their meds. I’m loathe to advise unhealthy or dangerous behavior.


Tracking Mental Health in Adoptees

Studies showing that adoptees are more likely to struggle with depression and anxiety (and have a mental illness diagnosis) are controversial in the adoption community.

Some surveys themselves are fraught: adoptees from closed adoptions at birth have different potential issues compared with transracial or foster care adoptees. Lumping everyone together fails to recognize nuances within each experience.

The fear is that showing any connection between adoption and mental illness will keep families from adopting a possibly “troubled” child. Just because a child is adopted, doesn’t mean she will need mental treatment in the future. Adopted kids aren’t de facto damaged goods.

Nevertheless, there are issues related to being adopted that can be addressed through counseling. This would reduce the chance adoptees might have psychological issues down the road. (Me! Me! Adoption counseling during adolescence would have helped me!)


Talking about Sensitive Subjects

The truth is, I’m not exactly sure how to talk honestly about the troubling intersection of adoption and mental health. If you have any questions or input, please, comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


From → Adoption

  1. Be honest. You've said even in this post that your experiences are your own. I'm finding as a birth mom that writes about her own experiences that I've even had a comment or two that implies my passion about certain subjects means I'm trying to speak for everyone in "adoption-land." I'm not, of course, but my point is that the more you (we) speak out about some of the potential issues surrounding adoption, the more likely you are to get a few comments like that. However, I also strongly believe that it's important to take into account experiences like yours just as it is to take in the more traumatized and the less traumatized as well. The more information we have about possible pitfalls (so to speak), the more likely we are to be prepared for them. If they never happen, great. But if they do, a little preparation couldn't hurt.
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    • Laura permalink


      Thanks, and you're right–even if we're passionate (as we should be) that's not to say we're claiming to speak for everyone!

      I guess I've also learned that some people don't take the time to read the entire article and then just post their opinion, without regard to the nuances of the issue. So, my skin is thickening!


  2. Also, I have a friend who is an adoptee. She's recently reunited with her birth father, and has been in reunion with her birth mom for several years. She also has a daughter that she adopted from foster care and she and her daughter have an ongoing relationship with her daughter's birth mom. She has a blog called Love Is Not a Pie. ( I love the way she writes and her connection to the different sides of adoption is a powerful one. I really think you'd enjoy her writing.
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    • Laura permalink

      Yes! Rebecca and I are both part of TheLostDaughters blogging project. It's been so amazing getting to know different people who are connected to adoption. It's great to "meet" you, as well, and I'm looking forward to getting to know you better through the interview project!


  3. Paul Hedg-peth permalink

    Thanks for your insightful, balanced, and sensitive comments. I am an adoption professional who adopted internationally an older child. My wife and I are also parents of two biological children (both now adults). That child (now legally an adult, but living with us) has significant mental health issues. Some but not all of those issues are related to adoption. I am blessed in that he is extremely open about his feelings regarding adoption-and everything else and I strongly encourage that level of open-ness even though at times it is very painful to hear. (And, obviously, painful for him!)

    You implicitly raise the issue of stigma which pervades any conversation about mental illness. Even prior to my personal experiences in caring for a person with persistent mental illness I was an advocate for divorcing mental health diagnoses from the extreme negative stigma. Unfortunately until more progress is made in this arena (divorcing mental illness from stigma) rational and fact-based dialog about the role of adoption as it may relate to mental health issues will be mired in political and often irrational rhetoric. Your comments are a step in the right direction, and I applaud your courage.

  4. We're raising a now 6 year old daughter adopted from Russia. She's been psychiatrically hospitalized 3 times. She has had a hard beginning and we're just trying to do all we can for her. She was almost 2 when we brought her home.

  5. Laura permalink


    Thanks so much for writing. I appreciate the balanced and nuanced insight you've provided.

    I agree–it is really hard for people to divorce mental illness from stigma, and I personally fed into this by remaining quiet about my mental health issues for ten years. I told no one at my job, and hardly discussed my breakdown even with the people who did know me during that time. I didn't want to come across as unstable.

    And you're right, I wish it was easier to encourage discussion about the role of adoption as it may relate to mental illness. I like how you said this — "may."

    I applaud you for being supportive of your adoptive son, opening communication even when it may be painful. I hope you'll continue to stay in contact–I'd love to hear how your son progresses, as he grows into adulthood I hope that he is able to better manage his mental health issues.


  6. I appreciate your candor and your perspective immensely. I wouldn't listen for a moment to someone who hasn't read your book. Your experience is yours, for certain, and I never got the feeling that you were speaking for anyone else. It's typical when an adoptee speaks about a difficult subject, someone (usually not an adoptee) tries to shut you down, marginalizing your story as "unimportant" measured against the "happy, dominant narrative." *eye roll*

    Some of adoptees struggle with depression and mental illness. Some don't. Some of us feel our mental illness it is tied to the experience of separation from our mothers. Some of us don't. For some of us it is genetic and triggered by other experiences in our lives.

    For me, the root of mental illness is impossible to tease out from everything that has happened to me. I definitely have genetic predisposition to it on my maternal side, as it turns out (although no one in my first mother's family likes to talk about that history of mental illness, and they don't really know what to do with me, as a consequence). I was separated from my mother at birth, yes. I was in the NICU without a caregiver for six weeks and poked and prodded and given psychotropic medications as a neonate to stop me from crying (this was protocol in the 60's, but not very kind, in retrospect). I have always had high levels of anxiety and a startle reflex out of the stratosphere. At work (I am an RN) the MDs laugh at me in a friendly way when they come up behind me, touch my shoulder, and I jump to the roof. They know it's just how I react, but they even say it's not "normal."

    Who knows what part of this was my brain being rewired at birth (if it was) or just part of my physiology with its depression and anxiety? I cannot find answers in the past, only look forward and deal with what I have. I don't want to place blame. I have to live in this body and make the best of it, which isn't to say I have to like it all the time, just that I have come to peace with it.

    I dislike that adoption made my medical history unavailable to me until I was 40+. I dislike the secrets and lies of adoption, and I dislike the twin pathologization of adoptees who speak out and of mental illness. Not all adoptees have mental illness, to be sure, but those of us who do have it should not be seen as less than, or Othered. I hate being compared to the "happy, well adjusted adoptees" who are the benchmark for what adoption/adoptees "should be." There is no one-size fits all.

    Thank you for sharing your story!

  7. Laura permalink


    What great insight. Your comments about the "be grateful for being adopted" narrative–that disavows any talk of pain, loss, grief and possible mental illness, reminds me of the "angry adoptee" debate. On the one hand, happy adoptees resent the angry ones–just get over yourself! Not everything is about adoption! The people who own their anger, who are trying to work through it are marginalized. I guess there will be sides within every community.

    I think this is the complicated thing about mental illness. I feel the same about my bipolar–it's impossible to narrow down the causes to just one thing. And I think competent mental health professionals won't try to pin patients into one category, one cause.

    You know, I'm so sorry you suffered as an infant. Of course, I know you can't remember the actual experience, but knowing that that happened to you must be very sad to know. That you were without your mother, alone, poked and prodded and drugged. We can't say that one experience directly caused mental illness, but it's hard not to see the connections between being abandonded and mistreated, and now having such a strong startle-reflex. Do you find any solace working as a nurse–that you can help others?

    I hope you'll stay in touch, it's great to have "met" you.


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  14. Ruth permalink

    Hi Laura,

    great blog – thank you for sharing your thoughts and your story!

    I do agree that every story is different but I also think that generally, the seperation of mother and child is some kind of traumatic event for both of them.
    A lot of good would be done if only this was acknowledged by everyone involved in adoption as well as society. That could result in a societal mindset that adoptees might need counseling growing up (just like everybody nowadays is ok with the idea that soldiers coming back from war will benefit from counseling to integrate their experiences).

    Correcting the myth of the happily-ever-after-adoption and coming to a more real and honest view of the almost always tragic circumstances that lead to the relinquishment of a child would have many positive effects for adoptees and birth mothers and maybe long term even the adoptive parents (although to many of them this still seems to be hard to believe).

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