And why not suicide?

Ben Harper, in Fly One Time, sings:

It’s pounding at my door
screaming for more
In a world that owes you nothing
you give everything, everything

And now I’m caught in between
What I can’t leave behind
and what I may never find
So fly one time
Fly one time

Depending on my mood, I can either hear in these lyrics a call to rise above one’s circumstance and put the pain of life behind oneself. Or else I hear something completely different, much darker.

I’ve always been troubled by the statistics and studies of adoptee morbidity, suicide, depression, substance abuse, etc.; especially for adoptees in completely homogenous environments such as the Scandinavian countries where adoptees stick out much more obviously and where entry into the national social structure is quite limited for racial and ethnic reasons.

One study I found states:

International adoptees had clearly increased risks for suicide attempt (risk ratio 4.5 [95% confidence interval 3.7–5.5]) and suicide death (3.6 [2.6–5.2]) after adjustments for sex, age and socio-economic factors. National adoptees had lower risks than international adoptees, but had increased risks compared to non-adoptees (suicide attempt, 2.8 [2.2–3.5]; suicide death, 2.5 [1.8–3.3]). Biological parents’ morbidity explained approximately one third of the increased risk for national adoptees. Female international adoptees’ risk for suicide attempt was elevated to an even greater extent than in male international adoptees, when compared to the general population.

Another reads:

Adoptees have an increased all-cause mortality compared to the general population. All major specific causes of death contributed, and the highest excess is seen for alcohol-related deaths.

And another:

Adoptees in Sweden have a high risk for severe mental health problems and social maladjustment in adolescence and young adulthood. We advise professionals to give appropriate consideration to the high risk of suicide in patients who are intercountry adoptees.

The adoptive culture wants us to be “grateful”; I think adopters should be grateful we don’t off ourselves in greater numbers.

How do we cope? How do we keep it together?


12 thoughts on “And why not suicide?

  1. I feel the need to add something here, because “Why not suicide?” keeps showing up in the search engine stats, and this is really getting to me.

    Given my hindsight now that I’ve left the States, and given my luck in finding a place here and a community here that has welcomed me beyond any of my expectations, and given a lifelong battle with these thoughts, I think it is fair to say the following:

    Certain cultures focus on the individual to such an extent that we cannot fathom nor are we allowed to question the role of that culture in the behavior of an individual.

    Yesterday, I called my sister and she said she was at a movie theater to see Batman. I asked if they were checking people on the way in; reminded as I was of the mass shooting a few weeks before. I was only half kidding.

    She laughed at me, since her vision of Beirut is skewed in a way that is the mirror image of how my vision of the States is skewed in another.

    But in all seriousness, I find it disturbing that American culture sees fit to blame the individual as an abberation if he is white, while blaming a whole ethnicity/culture if the individual is Muslim, black, etc.

    This ties back to ideas of how things like Islamophobia are projections of a culture onto what it perceives as its antithesis.

    And so the suicidal individual. What if we were to say that this desire is not a function of this individual? Not a function of chemical imbalances, or psychological disturbances? What if we say that this is a projection of a culture that sees fit to “cull” members of its own population, in a kind of Lord of the Flies existence of Darwinian proportions?

    How to turn this into something pro-actively resistant to such efforts by that culture?

  2. (as a preliminary, the length of this response may imply it should be an independent post; I leave it up to our collective intelligence to determine that.)

    I more appreciate the notion of questioning suicide as a non-individual phenomenon more than a culling thing. So, in the view of suicide as systemic, rather than individual:

    I want to avoid right off the temptation to offer as the “opposite” of “individual” any notion of “environmental”. This is the nature vs. nurture trap all over again, so I don’t want to go there. Someone I know put it this way (vis-à-vis crime): “Let society be arranged in such a way that the needs met by the crime may be met in another way.” Maybe it’s not clear (even to me) how exactly that relates to the point I want to make.

    I’m suggesting, starting from your starting point, that suicide may be viewed as a systemic event, one where it is not the (nature) of the individual or the (nurture) of the environment, but something more like what would be described as a homeostatic regulator.

    Ignoring this framing entirely for now (excuse me for proposing it then abandoning it), what the statistics cited above indicate is that adoptees are at greater risk for suicide. (In general, males commit suicide more often, but females attempt suicide in notably higher numbers; so the greater risk of female adoptees to suicide is a significant, alarming finding.)

    (PS: “adoptee” and “adoptees” are not recognized by this browser’s autospellcheck.)

    I take these statistics to mean that there is a will to suicide on the part of the receiving culture and/or parents. By the doctrine of labeling, the label implicitly carries an expectation of its own fulfillment. You call a child gifted or special needs, and they rise or sink to the occasion. (This is one point where the utter perniciousness of IQ comes into play.) Just as capitalism guarantees poverty (as a necessary condition for operating), just as patriarchy valorizes rape (like religion) as useful, the increased rate of suicide amongst adoptees suggests that it is an expected response by the adoptee.

    Inasmuch as I am getting in the habit of saying that the child is the fundamental salve unit of the current organization of the world, Suicides by children (particularly queer ones) is a general response to an homeostatic expectation. (What the roots of those are, or why they developed and/or exist is not so crucial to me at the moment, but it may have that “culling” quality mentioned above.) When we factor out this, we are left (again) with the statistically higher rate of suicide of adoptees, and so it is only sensible to conclude that there is a greater demand for self-destruction being (homeostatically) exerted on the adopted child.

    I’m quite comfortable to say that a sort of xenophobia in culture is at work in this. Everywhere, the specific way that the Other gets amalgamated into community is a complicated, hierarchical process which puts the Other at a (sometimes insuperable) disadvantage. (This is not quite the devil’s bargain, inasmuch as it may be found everywhere, but it is certainly a sort of a bargain where the “petitioner” is not in an equal position for demanding recognition of her right, as an existent human being, to acknowledgment, not just presence, in the social.) Here again, it might be pertinent to remember the derivation of “orphan” is said to come from a Hittite root “to change allegiance”. So, in terms of the prejudice of this (or the paternalistic generosity of “ignoring it” in the interests of the adopted child), one can trace various cultural hedges.

    The more damning moment must come from the (homeostatic, systematic) role of the adopting parents in this will to suicide. Obviously, they are in a more complicated situation. If the culture can simply say of the new interloper, “we’re not sure if we should trust you, i.e., suffer you to persist in our midst,” for the adopting parents they are not only also the recipients of this looking askance but may also embody a personal redaction of this xenophobia (that emerges problematically in RAD circumstances or in the kind of discourse I identified in one adopting mother’s discourse about her adopted daughter). And this, of course, is coupled with all of the emotional muddle that parents and/or adopting parents have about the small human beings in their care.

    It may be, in fact, a bit terrifying to imagine that adoptive parents re, on some level, asking their adopted children to destroy themselves. I have no doubt that adopting parents would deny this to the high heaven. And yet, I find it eminently imaginable that, after an adopted child has killed herself, that parents could find an easier consolation, could find a shorter route to being “at peace” with this catastrophic occurrence, in the knowledge that the child was adopted—or more pertinently, “wasn’t really theirs.” So, it may not be that adoptive parents are microwaving their adopted children into committing suicide in larger numbers; it’s merely that, on some level, parents are more willing to be “be okay” with the fact than if the child was “their own”.

    Self-destruction is, as an act, no joke—by which I mean, the consequences of it are about as total as it gets. And the annals of suicide prevention hotlines show that it frequently doesn’t take that much at all to nudge someone back from the brink. As a teenager, I semi-regularly called suicide prevention hotlines—I want to note in passing that though I lived in Washington State, I almost invariably called suicide prevention in Kansas because in my imagination Kansas had a certain amount of romanticism for me, which I’m still at a loss to explain why; I mean, Wizard of Oz, the band Kansas, tornados, and the vast flatness of the place may have given it a quality of “home”; my home “over the rainbow” perhaps. In any case, it was suicide prevention in Kansas I would call, and looking back on it, the whole tenor and thrust of those calls was simply to have someone to talk to who would listen. I don’t remember at this point if it was really my sister I came out to first, or a safe stranger in a Wichita suicide prevention phone bank.

    So, given the relative “ease” of prevention, given the perfectly sensible willingness of people pondering self-destruction to back away from that dire resort at the least provocation, the higher incidence of suicide amongst adoptees may be a particularly damning snippet of evidence pointing to a relative absence of such “effort to prevent” (or “resistance to the act”) by adopting parents.

    In a (world) context where children are the de facto (if not the de jure) emblem of slavery (and I’m applying this across the boards, not only in those places where the more grossly articulated Anglo-Saxon notion of children as property prevails)—and by “slaves” I mean “human beings who are not accorded elemental human rights because they are not recognized as members of the community” … that is, whether perversely sentimentalized (as they are in the western world, to the point that sexual predation is a necessary concomitant of that idealization) or where they are simply taken to be “not yet adults” in less inhumane cultures, this distinction of “child” as something (in terms of basic human rights) categorically different than adults puts them already in an oppressive, colonizing circumstance, which some children (especially queer children) may then rebel against in the name of their human identity (however inchoately), even to the point of self-destruction. That is the baseline. Against that background, the adopted child appears.

    What I’m getting at with that last paragraph is that it becomes too easy to—or better still, it may seem almost vanishingly impossible—to separate the (universal) existential abjection of the child generally from the specific, exacerbated reactions of the adopted child. As adopted children, we get to be sunk in the conundrum of trying to decide, for instance: am I gay because I’m adopted, or just because? Was my desire for self-destruction just me or somehow related to my being adopted. Whatever soul-searching we might do, the larger social issue is how these “problems of childhood” (if the dominant discourse can even bring itself to acknowledge its inhumane treatment of children as slaves, if it can, even for a moment, not hide under the banner of a specious “necessity” the brutal and self-serving indoctrination, the colonization, of the little humans in their care—again, this is exceptionally obvious in the case of religious brainwashing) … In trying to “debunk” the anti-adoption critique, there will be a tendency to file the critique under the general heading of “the problems of childhood” (again, if this is even acknowledged at all). But the greater rate of suicide in adopted children refutes such an attempt. Systematically speaking, speaking in terms of the homeostatic regulation of life and culture, the numbers point to a distinction in adopted children (just as the markedly higher number of suicide in teenagers tend to be related to issues of sexual identity) that transcends the baseline “problems of childhood”.

    Having explored this at this point, perhaps I can summarize the emergent point this way: systematically (not as a matter of the individual or of the environment alone), the adopted child lives in a world where suicide is deemed more permissible (if not even more desirable in some way). From the culture’s xenophobic standpoint, suicide represents a sort of authentic “solution to the problem,” all the more so since it validates the xenophobia in the first place—“see, we were right not to trust them; they’re the type who kills themselves”. The suicide, that was asked of the adoptee, then becomes the “proof” that adoptees should be treated xenophobically. To offer at least one answer, then to “How to turn this into something pro-actively resistant to such efforts by that culture?”
    To put it in a blunt way, we were told by culture (and our parents were the first carriers of culture), “You must assimilate” (this is told to all children, who are the first colonial project of their parents), but for the adopted child, there was the additional injunction, “And if you can’t or won’t do that, you should kill yourself.” We were perpetually irradiated with reminders that our desires were hopeless, foolish, misguided, infeasible, and certainly never to come to fruition. Yet there was something in us—perhaps it was naïveté, stupidity, doggedness, or even a total inability to come up with any course of action at all—that resisted that message, by accident or by design. Whatever that inextinguishable (if you will) spirit was, there is our source for finding a proactive resistance to the world’s message, “we don’t want you to exist.”

    In one respect, I admire those who took their own lives—they were obviously more intrepid, more determined, more tenacious, more imaginative than I was. It was my failure to imagine a painless suicide and my fear of attempting it and waking up again that ultimately prevented me. I don’t envy those who killed themselves, and I would never in a trillion years judge them for taking that course of action. I’d rather each had the opportunity to live happy and fulfilling lives, but to the extent that they (even reasonably) reached an opposite conclusion. Meanwhile, I condemn absolutely the circumstantial (homeostatic) conditions that prevailed that made such a resort necessary. I would rather that society be so arranged that the needs that were met by suicide could be met in other (nonself-destructive) ways. The courage of their act, the inhumanity of the system that demanded such courage from them—these can be both inspiring. And at the same time, our own unregenerate belligerence or inertia or cowardice in the face of that demand is another inspiring triumph. If we can get at, if we can mine out how that came about, we may be tapping into a very authentic source for activising change in the world around us.

  3. Summarizing a bit, we are saying that suicide is not perhaps so much an act of desperation and disempowerment, but one of agency and actual empowerment. Meaning, when we give ourselves over to the “tenders” and “occupiers” of a culture that itself is designed to destroy the “painted bird” within the flock, what can we expect except to feel that this is the logical conclusion of all that, a kind of ultimate “fuck you” to those who pretend to be on our side, but who instead wish to expel us from their realm? The alternative is to find modes of empowerment that do not reflect a diminishment of self, and do not rely on the very pillars of society who would otherwise define for us our “depression” or “suicidal tendencies”.

    • Hmm…I don’t think that, in most cases, suicide is a political statement. I don’t think suicide or suicidal tendencies need any justification at all – it just is/they just are.

      For me, my adoptee crisis came to a head primarily because the psychic pain I felt was excruciatingly physically manifest and chronic. I didn’t even recognize it had anything to do with adoption at the time, but it turns out all my maladies could locate their roots there. It felt like an un-named slow and terminal affliction that had no remedy with only unrelenting pain. A no cure prognosis can feel hopeless. Suicide offers itself as a relief from the pain. It is the result of not being able to name the pain in order to have the agency to defeat it.

      Empowerment comes with knowledge. Allowing myself to once-and-for-all say all the things that oppressed me about being abandoned and not being grateful to be adopted that society wouldn’t allow me to, and the responsibility of being around for my children, that kept me from becoming a statistic. We adoptees aren’t free to truly express ourselves. That’s an invisible torture. It’s a life-threatening stress. One that all the culture-now-heritage-camps aren’t going to address…because they are part of the system which placed us into a life of public gratitude and prescribes how we should be. I think Snow Leopard is right on the money about adoptive parents and our society systematically destroying our essential us…in that regard I’d agree with the original poster about it being a wonder more adoptees didn’t off themselves.

      Naming my affliction and working through its many consequences has taken me four years of solid attention. Now that the confrontation and untangling is over, only now am I free to live the life I envision for myself. My life. Not the life I was given. Not the life I should have had. But one of my own making.

      The injustice which created this pain still exists and still creates pain. As “soldiers of assimilation” (I really like that, btw) empowering ourselves is really key, so we have the strength to not only understand the forces that oppress us, but to prevail, thrive, and create a better world where no child subjects of trauma have to be traumatized again by international adoption, assimilation, racism, gratitude, etc. This is how we cope. Because we have a mission in life greater than ourselves: either to our own children, or to the children of the world in general. We’ve seen/felt the damage of self interests and want a world that doesn’t operate on those principles. We just need to find ways to love each other so we don’t despair when self interest rules.

      I don’t find the act of suicide reprehensible nor admirable, btw. My experience taught me that it’s just about one’s pain/ tolerance threshold and nothing to be judged. It’s a loss for the living, mostly. And a solemn lesson.

    • The unembellished part that I want to say here is precisely in demanding of the social (the community, if you will) recognition of our right to exists as we are, rather than imposing a demand that we must somehow conform in some way in order to be granted “the prize” of collective membership. Already, merely as human beings, we ARE members of the community but recognition is withheld, under the guise that we have yet to prove ourselves in some way.

      The manifest levels of irony involved in this “prove yourself” trope are, of course, exacerbated by the devil’s Bargain–that people who, as few as one or two generations ago, have taken up the oppressive hammer of “conform” perhaps sometimes even more aggressively than members of the dominant culture. But, the degree isn’t so important as the imposition of the hammer.

      What I’m getting at is that there is no one (and certainly even less than among those who are trying to fulfill the devil’s Bargain) who fit in. This is the cruelty of the notion of the social in general.

      Now we get to the more embellished part, but I’ll keep it succinct.

      In the (ultimately) fruitless analytical dichotomy that interprets culture from the standpoint of “self” (that society is a collection of individuals) or “society” (that individuals are particles of a society), a whole bunch of intellectual cul-de-sacs then crop up. Jung, in contrast, insists that we are already collective creatures but that our collectivity can only manifest in a usefully social way to the extent that we individuate. By this, Jung does not mean “become individuals” (int he sense of independent of the social; he saw this as a growing danger for culture, and these days, we are overrun to death by extreme individualism in the US). On the flip-side, when there is an emphasis only on a collective norm (i.e., when one interprets culture as “society”), then one ends up in equally dire straits.

      That each of us expresses a collective norm (i.e., the values of a given culture) provides the necessary social variety to permit an avoidance of social stagnation on the one hand and an over-inflated destructiveness and entitlement due to individualism run amok. With respect to any collective norm, no one an “fit in” because no one can perfectly represent a collective norm, just as no Hindu avatar actually expresses the whole of the Inconceivable that the avatar is a manifestation of.

      If a reformist wants to change a policy, and a revolutionary questions the very basis of the policy, then it is true that an adoptee is, in a sense, a revolutionary–because their presence is a living symbol that the cultural premises of those who surround them are not absolute. The Devil’s Bargain is, in a sense, the demand to the adoptee to become, at most, a reformer, rather than a radical, a conformist. However, the existing culture, to the extent that it concretized and established itself out of the matrix of human lived experience in general, has within itself at least the kernel of the argument to recognize the human in the adoptee. It is only by degrees of violence that I can sustain the notion that someone whose skin is darker than mine isn’t human, etc. Failure of culture to make that admission can lead to alienation, isolation, and finally suicide, etc.

      To me, the demand is not for the ego-centered individuality I express as the core of my demand for recognition from society, but (1) against the culturally arrogant presumption that only what is recognized by culture can or should be recognized as human, and (2) in favor of the expression of the human that I do express, however it transcends what is culturally recognized. In terms of “fitting in,” this means that the jigsaw of culture that culture (in its dominant mode) already sees actually does contain the fitness of my presence, even when culture can’t see how.

  4. This article, “Excess Mortality Rate During Adulthood Among Danish Adoptees” [link], was on an adoption list I subscribe to:

    In conclusion, compared to the general population adoptees have an excess all-cause mortality. All major causes examined contributed to the excess mortality, and the excess was highest for alcohol-related deaths and suicide.

    • The Interwebs tell me the link you provided doesn’t work.

      Here is an alternative version of hte link:

      I appreciate that the authors’ attempt to bracket out adoptions for any purpose in other studies to generalize about population generally. Nonetheless, they seem to make no distinction about when the adoption occurs. Talking about possible genetic mechanisms (in, say, suicide) for someone adopted at age 11 seems addlepated–certainly, to consider “time of adoption” would add value to the analysis.

      The language employed in the Discussion section bears close reading. One could conclude that this study “proves” adoptees really are “broken”. It shows how deeply problematic the nature versus nurture dichotomy is in terms of influencing the interpretation of data, despite my sense that the researchers would consider themselves sympathetic or allies of adoptees, which shows how findings get distorted even with well-intentioned people. Here’s a sample:

      In general, excess mortality in adoptees may be the result of an excess of risk factors in the biological family or a long-term effect of the adoption itself. The family factors in the causal chain resulting in adoption may include risk factors leading to long-term adverse health effects in the adoptee. These factors may include poor physical and mental health in the biological parents and associated genetic predisposition in the adoptee. Another factor is poverty and social problems causing suboptimal gestational conditions and thereby adversely predisposing the adoptee. Adopted children were typically born to young unmarried mothers and unplanned pregnancies may have been the most common immediate reason for adoption (in a subsample of Danish adoptees, examined by Eldred and co-authors, 82% of the biological mothers of adoptees were unmarried [11]). Unplanned pregnancy and single mother status may be associated with both psychological and social risk factors and there is some suggestion that having a biological father from a low social class is associated with increased mortality from natural causes in the adoptee [12], although the effect was small. The adoption process or the handling of disclosure of the adoption to the adoptee might cause long-term effects of the adoption itself leading to excess mortality. Depending on the specific circumstances, including timing of transfer, the adoption process may involve disruption of already formed attachment relationships and substantial changes in the social environment with possible long-term effects on personality development and social functioning [13]. Disclosure of the adoption may have psycho-pathogenic consequences, especially when revealed in adolescence or later, and when revealed by others than the adoptive parents [11].

      • I should be clear and say that I treat these studies like I do diagnoses of psychological illness—as coming from the same society that institutionalizes adoption as a practice, and therefore with a need to support such practice. That some of these studies report on the “negatives” or here, the “ultimate negative” as it were are like glitches in the Matrix, for want of a better analogy. Because any of the other factors we might shift the blame to are equally failures of society, and so even in that shifting, adoption is categorized among these failures, not absolved of blame.

      • I understood that the intention you describe above informed your intention in sharing the study.

        So the methodological failure to disaggregate adoption age (unless that’s what the authors mean by “calendar time”) shows that the object “ultimately” does not involve characterizing (much less understanding the effects of) adoption but determining the degree of effect the class of adoptees has on the generalizability of data.

        Even in this conception, adoptees remain a problem that may, with such research in principal, cease to be (or become less) unaccountable.To add “time of adoption” would, in that effort, serve mainly to refine or articulate the “accountable effects” that influence the validity of generalized findings. So that perhaps one day, within the usual roster of analytical terms taken as statistically factual and in need of consideration in one’s modeling methodologies, one might be able to (may even have to) bracket out “adopted as one of the correlates.

  5. By accident–meaning, I don’t remember how I first hit upon the idea–I got in the habit that, when I felt oppressed about HAVING to do something, I’d tell myself, “You don’t have to do it; you could kill yourself.”

    (As a little kid, I promised myself that I would never commit suicide for “emotional” reasons, and I’ve kept that promise to myself.)

    By reminding myself I could commit suicide, this radically recontextualized whatever it was that was oppressing me–having to go to work, pay a bill, whatever. And at the same time, it made me realize unambiguously that, if dead, there might be whole bunches of other things I’d not be able to do. Obviously!

    In essence, I turned a (false) “unavoidable” sense of “I have to” into a (more proactive) “I have a choice to …” and this helped to engage my willingness to voluntarily undertake whatever “needed” doing.

    In theory, I could simply have gone through this mental reminder itself, without having to go over-the-top and tell myself, “You could be dead instead,” but either because this was simply the habit I developed or because doing this really generated a sufficient sense of urgency or ultimateness for me, so that I took seriously the “need” to change my attitude, this use of (the availability of) suicide for me became a way to cope.

    Certainly to this day, me holding in reserve the right to “check out” any time I decide to makes continuing on despite so much of the disheartening backwardness of the quality of life in the United States a tenable premise. I don’t HAVE to live among these people; remembering this helps me remember that I am voluntarily choosing to.

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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