Self-worth and suicide are delicate and seemingly untouchable topics in the adopted child’s world. And yet, in an unwelcome way, the two are related. Just like the band’s drum major twirls a silver stick with two rubber ends, adoptive mamas must do much the same–always marching, moving forward, and directing. The two ends of her baton are adoptee self-worth and suicide, which in my adoptee mind, are untouchables. Mamas are ultra aware of this tension..in fact, hyper-vigilant. They hear about rising adoptee suicides and can’t imagine such pain coming upon their teen, or their family. Secretly, they may wonder if they were really meant to adopt. Was it a mistake?
So, what are adoptive and foster mamas to do? Can they prepare for it? And, if they do, can it be averted?
Non-Existent Self-Worth Perhaps the initial adoptee struggle would be with self-worth? I think we’re born with it. For a lifetime, I ached with an all-consuming non-existent self-worth. There aren’t many adoptees I’ve met that haven’t struggled with this commodity. When I graduated from high school, I asked a girl I admired if I could wear black velvet dress with the white silk collar for my senior picture. Without hesitation, she granted it. Also, her cute pixie haircut motivated me, so I got mine cut like hers. Maybe if I dressed and looked like her, I’d feel good about myself and others would admire me, like they did her? But, it didn’t happen. I felt more desperate than ever. Peg Jordan says: “I feel scared about my child’s self-worth. In some ways, I believe she is a poser, acting like she is invincible and has everything under control. The truth of the matter (I believe) is that she is afraid to let herself be vulnerable and truly let people close to her. She has a massive wall up.”
Lauren Whiting, Mom to a 22 year-old daughter, and shares, “My daughter’s self-worth is LOW,LOW, LOW, like the saying “how low can you go” “limbo question. It seems to drive many of her decisions as a young adult. The part of her brain that has lost rational thinking, the fight or flight mode kicks in. Here are a few examples of her low self worth…she recently got a tattoo on her arm that goes from about her elbow to her wrist with the word “fighter”. She says it is that big to cover the scars she has from cutting. As a young teenager, she sought out strange men online and gave out our address. With therapy, she can now tell me what she lies about me to her friends so that they will feel sorry for her. She has told her birth family and others I have abused her in order to gain sympathy from them. She recently told me she stays away from me to protect me. She is aware she does things that are not “pretty” and causes harm to herself and others and doesn’t want to hurt me anymore. How powerful is that? I do not get to be a part of her life because she wants to protect me. It makes sense on some kind of level, but not to my heart.”
Secret Adoptee Fear
I must reveal something here that’s not pleasant. In all my years of working with adoptees, I know that this is a haunting thought most adoptees have: “I wonder if my life is a mistake.” When you consider the various circumstances surrounding our conceptions and adoptions, it would be logical to think this. If you ask your adopted child, “Do you ever wonder if your life is a mistake?” he’ll blow you off in anger. I wouldn’t recommend saying it initially, but if your child is in a suicide mode, I believe this would cut to the chase. It would be something you’d want to share with his psychiatrist. Keep this fact as the key to your child’s heart.
Because I live with an adoptee heart, I can pull back the layers and identify the cause of suicidal thoughts. Remember, I”m not speaking for all adoptees. Just throwing out fodder for you to consider with your child. Here’s what I think–mysteriously woven together in the untouchables (suicide and self-worth) is that basic question many adopted kids keep repeating: Was I too small, too large? I will die without her. Or, What was wrong with me that they had to take First Mom to jail? Or, Why do I get sent to family after family and none of them wants me? There has to be something inherently wrong with me.” Or, God must not like me. He took away the only parent I had. How can I go on?”
Do you hear the shame here? It’s like a fog horn, blaring through dark clouds. Keep in mind the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt results when our consciences tell us we’ve done something wrong. Shame is all about the person, not what they’ve done. Shame’s message is: “There’s something wrong with you.”
Many adoptees are stuck here, no matter what their age at adoption. How I wish Retha (my mom through adoption) could have heard the fog horn of shame. I wish she knew how to deal with unspoken shame, but who could have taught her? Retha had no idea about my lack of self-worth. If she did, I probably would have attacked her with a defensive attitude–”You don’t know anything about me. Why are you pretending like you do?”
Don’t you just wish you could get inside your beloved child’s heart and know the dynamics that cause desperate actions? Don’t you wish there was a 1-2-3 formula to give your child a glimpse of the wonderful life she could someday enjoy? How I wish Retha would have planted that seed inside her rascal kid. She might have said, “When I watch you grow, I can’t help but imagine the wonderful possibilities in store for you. Maybe you’ll be an art teacher or an artist that paints pictures for those you love?”
So, what are adoptive and foster parents to do about this dilemma? Can they prepare for it? And, if they do, can it be averted? No, in my experience, there is no fix by humans. But humans can be instrumental in the hands of God. It won’t be you, Moms, but someone God sends into your child’s life-a friend, counselor, clergy? Give them room to be an influence.
For me, permanent self-worth began as I pulled my car over in tears. A word and a phrase came to mind–“Jewel”, and “On the day you were born.” When I found it in my Bible, it was an exact description of my relinquishment…and how God sees me–a jewel among jewels.” (Ezekiel 16: 4-7)
Whatever your choice of faith, mamas, I encourage you to pray that your child will see himself/herself through God’s eyes. Not only does this implant self-worth, but also erases shame.
Friends, this is something I created years ago to help parents of young children understand where their life really began.