Adoptee Suicide


When L’wren Scott took her own life, those of us in the adoption community said, “Another.”

L’wren Scott Hated Adopted Life

It was so recent that Charlotte Dawson had done the same:

Adoption Trauma: Farewell Charlotte Dawson

These two celebrity deaths made us take notice of a recent study, although many of us did not need “proof”:

Risk of Suicide Attempt in Adopted and Non-Adopted Offspring

Adoptees are four times more likely than the non-adopted to attempt suicide. And those who attempt suicide are much more likely to actually die that way.

We are the lucky ones, aren’t we. The fortunate. The chosen. The ones who weren’t aborted, as we are so often reminded. So we’d better be grateful. By the same line of reasoning, we were thrown away. Abandoned. And to even think about “those people” is betrayal to the ones who raised us, our real parents.

So why are we killing ourselves?

L’wren Scott and Charlotte Dawson should have been Successful Adoption poster children. Both beautiful, smart, talented, with self-made wealth. Even if teetering on financial straits, they had earned money before – they could certainly do it again. They could overcome. They could triumph. But they didn’t. They opted out instead. Why?

I cannot tell you what was in their minds or their hearts when they made their fatal decisions. But I can tell you how I have felt.

First, you should know I was much-loved by my adoptive parents, and I loved them. My birth mother loved me as well. And I love her. I never felt abandoned and was never made to feel abandoned. We are enjoying a reunion that will never end. And even though my birth father rejected me, I am at peace with it because I understand the circumstances.

I’m not rich, or beautiful, or talented, like L’wren or Charlotte. But I understand why they could end their own lives.

Because adoptees often feel as if they were not born. And when you were not born, it’s not so hard to die.

It was Betty Jean Lifton (“Twice Born”, “Lost and Found”, “Journey of the Adopted Self”) who first wrote that adoptees feel they weren’t born, only adopted. I remember reading that line in one of her books as a teenager. I was sitting in the shade of our golden chain tree in May when I read that sentence and it hit me like lightning out of a clear blue sky. It was why I hated my birthday. It was why I could not imagine having children. It was why I felt expendable. Because I had not really been born, only adopted.

When you are not part of a chain, it is so easy to just float away. To go back into nothingness. To that void that you were, before your life began – the day your adopted parents brought you home. Before you were Real.

In the movie “Blade Runner”, I identified with the android. She was not born, either. She was merely the collected memories of another person. She couldn’t “die” but existed with the knowledge that her time was short, regardless. She would just cease to be. The main character could treat her like a human, and love her, but she would never be as “real” as he was. So it didn’t matter if she was “off” or “on”.

When you are adopted at birth, as I was, you are taken from your life-giver. It is incomprehensible as a baby that your mother – your everything – is gone. To then be given to genetic strangers is even more bewildering. “The Primal Wound” by Nancy Verrier has become the adoptees’ bible, as she speaks to this very real, severing pain.

I never felt my mother abandoned me. I never felt abandoned. But I have felt keenly alone.

Enough to kill myself.

Hope that there was “something” worth living for was the only thing that stopped me. Having children, being responsible for them, is what kept me from it in my darkest hours as an adult. But that plan has always been in the back of my mind. My emergency escape clause. Even after reuniting with my mother. Even after finding the love of my life. Even knowing that killing myself would certainly break my adoptive father, who had done so much for me, more than most fathers would for their biological children. Even then.

Because really, it’s so easy to die when you were never born.

Elle Cuardaigh is author of The Tangled Red Thread and contributor of The Adoptee Survival Guide

32 thoughts on “Adoptee Suicide

  1. Thank you so very much for your deeply moving and insightful piece Elle and for the link. I think the points you make are incredibly important, especially when you point out that if we do not really ‘exist’ it is easy to die.

  2. Just re reading this again Elle, I am moved further by your words. I also identified with the android in ‘Blade Runner’ even before I found out I was relinquished/adopted…my body knew. And Nancy Verrier’s book was a pivotal moment for me too. I read it a couple of years after I found out and was astonished at its accuracy, as if someone had written specifically about my life, especially because I had lived it all before I even found out. And Lifton’s writings are, as you say, conjure heart wrenching recognitions. I stand with you sister in understanding…thank you again so much for sharing your experiences…

  3. Thank you Elle. I can relate to everything in this post. The only thing that stopped me from suicide was the thought of hurting my adoptive parents, and the Buddhist belief that if we end our lives we just take our suffering into the next life (so I may as well work it out in this one!)

    I feel like I’ve moved through my life like a living abortion – a ghost child – unreal and invisible, as though I died when I was separated from my mother at birth.

    • “I feel like I’ve moved through my life like a living abortion – a ghost child – unreal and invisible, as though I died when I was separated from my mother at birth.”

      Mary, that is so powerful. It took my breath away.

    • Very interesting that you mention a ghost child. I’m a KAD and saw a Korean film a few years ago called “Ghost” in the English translation. Nothing lead me to believe that it might be an “adoption” movie, it was advertised as a comedy. Afterwards, when I was trying to have small talk with my friend (non-adopted) who saw it with me, I was shaking, trembling, and couldn’t stop crying.

      Another KAD wrote this piece on Korean adoption – highly recommend:

      • Thank you, anenomekym, for referring to the above link on Korean adoption. This article felt especially validating to me, as it beautifully describes the haunting “ghost child” feeling I’ve carried with me since I was a child:

        [Avery Gordon describes it in her book, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, “that which makes its mark by being there and not there at the same time” (6). Growing up, this absence was sometimes overwhelming, the way silence can be more deafening than noise. However, although the absence was acute, as I grew older, its constant presence eventually made it nearly unnoticeable, ever-present white noise relegated to the background of my consciousness.]

        When I visit my adoptive parents in the house that I grew up in, especially when I walk down the hall and go into my old bedroom, a cold, deep feeling sometimes moves through me. This has happened intermittently my whole life. The only word I can come up with to describe it is “haunting.” It feels very real and usually stops me in my tracks. This paragraph seems to describe something similar:

        [Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War, Grace M. Cho
        “[a] haunting effect [that] is produced not so much by the original trauma as by the fact of its being kept hidden. It is precisely within the gap in conscious knowledge about one’s family history that secrets turn into phantoms” (11). Adoptees, perhaps more so than any other group, are haunted by the absence of knowledge regarding our family histories and the secrets of our pasts that can’t be known.]

  4. I tried to kill myself a number of times as a child. My adopted father hated me as he didn’t want to adopt. He threw me out the house as a teenager. My birth mother wrote me a horrid letter telling me where I was conceived. I nearly lost my own child to adoption as my adopted father was a pig to me in my pregnancy. I feel a terrible loneliness yet I was always informed that I had the best possible upbringing and made to feel like I had to be grateful.

  5. As an adoptee who was raised by adoptive parents who loved and cared for me, I still always felt like I fell from the sky, or was hatched from an egg, rather than feeling like I was born. I had to come to terms with the fact that there was a time after my relinquishment but before my adoption that I belonged to no one. I could have been given to anyone. This feeling of unreality is my reality. To me, it’s a separate thing from the love of my adoptive parents, and in no way negates the love they had for me. I don’t think they realize it’s not from any lack of love on their part. It just is. And that’s one of the big ol’ lies the adoptive parents were (are?) told. That if you love your adopted child enough, they won’t feel any different than natural born children. But it’s just not true. We grow up feeling like we were never born, no matter how much you love us.

  6. (Sorry, long post to follow. This topic rings so true for me.)
    Is it any wonder we adoptees are so much more likely to end our own lives? When that small dark voice inside the deepest depths of your being tells you that you are ‘a Mistake’, ‘a Secret’, ‘not Real’, ‘a Thing to be Forgotten’, ‘a Shame’, ‘Unwanted’, ‘a Replacement’. And if any other segment of our population were identified as so much more prone to suicide, drug addiction, and violence, wouldn’t there be some huge outcry? People wearing tee-shirts and colored ribbons on their lapels? Organizing Awareness Marathons, National Days of Mourning, and passing laws to make sure this doesn’t happen to any more people??? But adoptees are told they must appreciate that they were not aborted.

    • That is so very sad. I can tell you from experience as an adoptive mother, that I love all my children unconditionally, biological and adopted alike. Yes, there were and sometimes still are challenges with all my children, but I wouldn’t change our family unit for anything.
      An adopted child once tried to describe her feelings of being adopted and said “It feels like my heart has a whole in it”. As an adoptive parent, the whole in our hearts heal, when you are placed in our arms.
      It is my prayer for all adopted children, that your hearts can heal.

      • Claudia, without meaning to, you just summed up what is inherently wrong with adoption. That the supposed hole in adoptive parents’ hearts is filled by the adoptee, but that “hole” is transferred to the adoptee (and birth mother). The joy of adoption that we see comes at the expense of the grief of others.

        With that in mind, saying you hope our hearts can heal is rather ironic, since adoption is a deliberate act. Rather like deliberately infecting someone with a painful disease, then saying you hope they recover.

      • Elle, thank you for pointing that out. I was thinking the same.

        Claudia, I wish I could be as happy for you as you seem contented, but honestly, if you had a heart, you would hope that adopted children wouldn’t have to have a hole in their hearts in the first place. Adoption oftentimes isn’t necessary, but when a hopeful adoptive parent’s emotional needs are too great, then the child has no choice. In those cases, adoption is selfish.

        And as this adopted child and you know, the child’s heart now has a hole. To be content about that is cruel (“I wouldn’t change our family unit for anything” – even if your child could be reunited and have his/her heart once again complete?). To only look at how adoption has affected you and your family, without reflecting on how your choice to adopt affects your children and their families, your heart seems still lacking. You don’t seem to love all your children equally. You seem to love yourself.

        If any of your children have other needs and aren’t in a position to cater to your heart’s needs, I wonder if you will still claim to love them “unconditionally”. You seemed to have chosen the adopted ones to heal your heart, no matter the cost to them.

  7. As a late discovery adoptee, I have never wanted to kill myself. But I certainly did not have an easy, carefree childhood. I felt like an outsider in my parents’ home. I knew there was something different about my family. It didn’t matter that my parents loved me. The best part about my childhood was growing up with my sister, Melissa, who was also adopted (and didn’t know it.) We are closer than many biological siblings. Thanks for posting this, Elle. Very eloquent.

  8. As I read this post, via a Facebook link, my phone rang. It was a cousin, distantly related to me through my natural mother. He was shaken up; told me that his daughter called to tell him that her 19 year old friend had killed herself. She was adopted. But that wasn’t the reason he called. My cousin knew that I had been suicidal for many years. He called to tell me that “you are precious to me” and that he would be hurt if I were to ever think of leaving this earth by suicide, if I were to ever complete the act. As I listened to him, I pulled his photo near me, and tears welled up in my eyes. He told me he loved me. I promised him I would not kill myself. I told him I loved him, too. Then we said “bye for Now” and hung up. I tearfully lit a candle for the nameless young woman in Boston who killed herself. Her adoptive parents, her friends, including my young cousin, are at a loss right now. And her natural parents might never know. Her mother might search for her someday, only to find depression and adoption took another life.

  9. Reblogged this on FORBIDDEN FAMILY and commented:
    The author of this blog post, Elle Cuardaigh, states: “I never felt my mother abandoned me. I never felt abandoned. But I have felt keenly alone.

    Enough to kill myself.”
    It is the alone-ness that eats at me. Adoption did not provide for me a better life. Sure, during my childhood, I had it good. But I was raised as an only child. I was alone. Meanwhile, my adoptive parents and all of my extended adoptive family knew I was not alone. I was really the youngest of five children. I was intentionally kept apart from my full blood siblings. And then they found me. And the bickering between me and my adoptive parents began. And me being attacked by the rest of my adoptive family, save but a few. And then the attacks upon me by the very siblings who found me. I was different, not like them, spoiled, they said. I should shut up, do not write about my adoption-reunion. Too bad. I am. Because I stand up for myself, I am alone.
    I promised my cousin a few nights ago that I would not kill myself. With a handful of relatives who love me, I realize I am not alone. They know what adoption did to me.

  10. Although you wrote this two months ago, I’m just now reading it. The first time I mentioned suicide in my diary, I was 11 years old. The idea was always present in my thoughts, though the closest I ever got to trying was leaning over a bathtub, razor blade in hand, crying hysterically. I was 13 or so.

    Like you, suicide is my “escape clause,” but I have no illusions that I’ll be greatly missed. Multiple childhood abandonments left me feeling unwanted, unloved, and utterly insignificant. And alone. Always alone.

    I’m just SO tired of it all.

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