INDEPENDENT. RESILIENT. DETERMINED.
Everything I know about my “beginnings” is what I was told by the adults in my world and sometimes their stories didn’t quite align. I just have to piece it together until I can get to the point where I have conscious memories. Even then, the memories are through the lens of a child.
The story that was told is that she was 15 years old and homeless, living in a van, and making a lot of poor choices as many troubled teens do. She didn’t have adult supervision, and drugs and parties and a little bit of crime-ing seemed like good ideas to her at the time. On one winter day, as she was being arrested for “breaking and entering”, the police found me in a pile of dirty clothes in the back of her van. She went to juvenile hall and I went to the hospital. They say, I weighed only 2 lbs and diagnosed me as “Failure to Thrive”. The doctor told the social worker, “It will be a miracle if this baby lives through the night”. I guess I wasn’t ready to “give up” because I lived to tell the tale.
From the hospital, I went to Hillcrest Receiving Home in San Diego, California. After some time there, I was taken to a foster home. I have bits of memory from the foster home… Like I remember when the social worker would show up, I would sneak out the back door and climb up onto the roof to hide from her. Because when those social workers showed up, sometimes they took children away, and we never saw them again.
I also remember my foster mom telling me that my mother was coming to visit me and I would put on a dress and sit out on the curb, holding my stuffed monkey George, and wait for her to show up—but she never did. This happened time and time again. Until I just didn’t bother with the dress anymore, but I would still sit out on that curb with George.
When I was a few months shy of my 4th birthday, we went to court (again) and this time my mother did show up. It was a cold, rainy day, and I remember using the umbrella to poke holes in the chair of the little room I was waiting in. Eventually, the social worker took me out to the courtroom. I remember seeing my mother there. She was telling the judge, “They can have her now and then give her back to me when she’s about 10”. He tapped his papers on his desk and said, “I’ve seen enough”. And with that, he ended her parental rights, and I was now eligible to be adopted by my foster family.
Being adopted wasn’t so bad. I mean, except for the side pity glances and whispers, “oh… she’s adopted” like that explained everything. Doctor visits were always weird because I had to remind them every visit that I was adopted and therefore did not know my family’s medical information. Every. Dang. Time. But I think the worst was the school family tree assignments. I swear, it felt like that was an assignment in every grade. I just made stuff up. One year, my family were missionaries in China and lived off bugs in the forest. Another year, my parents were in hiding from the Mexican mafia and we were in the witness protection program. Every year, the stories become more outlandish. And not one adult asked me what was going on with me—maybe because they all knew I was adopted and didn’t want to talk about that because people just didn’t talk about adoption back then.
When I was about 12, I saw an Oprah Winfrey show on “Adoptees and Happy Reunions” and I distinctly recall wishing I could have a “happy reunion” with my mother. I mean, I figured enough time had passed so surely she was more mature and sober. There were no computers or internet back then, so I walked down to the library and looked through phone books. I copied down ALL the people with her last name and then I snail-mailed letters to all five of them. One ended up with my birth mother’s grandparents and one with her sister. Naturally, I hadn’t told anyone I was even going to look, so imagine my parent’s surprise when one night my great-grandfather called.
My parents took me to meet my great-grandparents and they were nice enough. He showed me some of the genealogy he had done, and I was instantly fascinated. From that moment on, I’ve loved genealogy and researching ancestry. They told my parents not to allow me to meet my birth mother because “She had a lot of problems and it wouldn’t be good for me to meet her”. So, just like that, the adults in my world decided it wasn’t in my best interests to meet her without even bothering to ask what I wanted or thought.
It wasn’t until many years later that I fully came face to face with a harsh truth about my great-grandparents. They knew about me when I was born. They knew I was in foster care. They knew Sharon was “trying” to get me back. And yet, they left me there. They didn’t help her. She was 15 and living on the streets. They let their great-grandchild spend the first four years of her life in foster care. Then they met me at age 12. Once. And never called or wrote or anything after that. I will never understand why they made those choices.
I’m not sure it even bothered me back then because I remember making a conscious decision while sitting on that curb with my stuff monkey George that I was on my own. It was me against the world, and I would rely on no one. I believe that was the moment I emotionally distanced myself from the entire world and refused to have any expectations of anyone so I would never feel that level of disappointment again.
That makes it even more of a mystery why I chose the field of psychology as my career path. Or perhaps it’s a great explainer. I did have the ability to have empathy for others and I had the desire to help them walk through their pain. Also, it was the perfect “cover” because as a psychologist we are taught to stay emotionally removed and not self-disclose to our clients. And I have perfected that layer of protection.
In grad school, I once again had that dang family tree assignment. This time I decided to do it with real people and real information. So, I dug out my bio aunt’s phone number and called her for help. She agreed and we arranged a day for me to drive down to San Diego to meet her. On that day, she decided it would be a good day for me to meet my bio mom, her mother, and her brothers. The only problem was that she neglected to tell me. I walked into a family reunion of sorts and I was not prepared. It was very, VERY, overwhelming. I was 21 and I simply did not have the emotional maturity to withstand all the emotions that flew at me and in me and around me and I was stunned into silence.
I remember the moment I saw Sharon and she locked eyes with me—she had no idea who I was. One of her brothers went over and told her and when recognition hit her eyes, so did something else. From where I was standing it looked like shame and guilt and an intense desire to flee. I’m not sure how we crossed the distance, but we did hug and she kept saying, “you’re so beautiful”. And I felt nothing. And I felt everything. And time stood still. And the past rushed in. It was the most confusing moment of my entire life.
That night she told me Michael was my father and everything she remembered about him. I had never ever considered my bio father. It’s like I forgot it even required one to make a baby because he never crossed my mind growing up. But that night I decided to find him and meet him. Don’t ask me why. I was acutely aware of how unprepared I was to meet Sharon and the last thing I needed was the other half of that equation.
I did find him and met him. He told me he remembered Sharon and a baby, but that he wasn’t my father. Michael was with her the day she got arrested and I was taken away. Later he ran into Sharon and she told him the baby died, and he went on with his life. Then I showed up 21 years later claiming to be his. Leaving his house one day he said to me, “I’m not your father, but I will be one if you need one”. He really was a sweet man who had made a lot of mistakes in his past, but he married an amazing woman and had two lovely children. And for 26 years, I thought he was my bio father.
After the night I met Sharon, we did develop a pretty good relationship. I drove down to visit her a few times a year and we even traveled together a couple of times. Our relationship was complicated though. She sometimes wanted to slip into a “mother” role and sometimes I would let her, but mostly we were friends.
A gazillion years ago, I decided to take an AncestryDNA test, you know just to “do a little genealogy research”. Perhaps I missed those family tree assignments after all. It turned out that Michael was right. He isn’t my father, but rather Thomas is. He was 35 and she was 15 when I was conceived. And just like that, my entire world shifted again. Like the earth just opened up and swallowed any sense of self I had developed over my lifetime. This one rattled me. I’m not going to lie.
I immediately called Sharon and asked her who Thomas was and she just started crying. She never said a word, but just cried into the phone. My half-sister who was living with her at the time texted me a few days later and said Sharon hadn’t stopped crying and asked me how I could do this to her. Really? I was so hurt and so angry and I refused to take responsibility for any of their feelings. I let Sharon know that I would be willing to speak with her when she was ready to tell me the truth.
I never spoke to her again. She died unexpectantly a few months later and took her secrets to her grave. Well, not really a grave per se. Some of her ashes are now in my closet sitting right next to my stuffed monkey George. She was 62 years old. I teetered on the edge of guilt and self-preservation. She lied to me. She lied about so many things and yet she was my mother and I loved her.
This emotional terrain was too big and too uncharted for me to even begin to navigate. I needed help and on my quest for finding a therapist or support group or anything that could help me, I came up mostly empty. The clinical community was not addressing this NPE discovery or the myriad of people impacted by it. There weren’t any books or therapists that specialized in this area of counseling. There really weren’t very many resources available. So I set out to figure it out myself. I reverted to that “me against the world and take no prisoners” attitude. I did most of my clinical research from sources outside of the U.S. primarily because there were little to no resources here). The U.K. had quite a bit of data (clinical studies) to pull from. I began to formulate a really good sense of how to define what I was feeling and put some contours around my experience and then I was able to identify healthy, impactful ways to walk through this NPE landscape. Solo. I didn’t have a single person who could identify with what I was going through.
I emerged from the dark cloud and I was that much more determined to provide a path for others, on all sides of the NPE equation. I am the CEO of a nonprofit counseling center based in Orange County, California. Ironic, isn’t it? I was surrounded by therapists through this whole thing. Heck, I am a therapist. And yet none of us knew what to do. Now I train other clinicians who are interested in working with this population. I’ve opened up virtual support groups for NPE (adult and adolescents), NPE Dads (bio dads), and NPE Wives (those whose husbands discover a child). I also work with people one-on-one. I’ve worked with people across the U.S. and other countries. And there will be a major clinical study here in the U.S. starting in the very near future and I am very honored to be involved with that.
With the advent of home DNA kits, it’s not a matter of IF your secrets are revealed, it’s a matter of WHEN. And now there are more resources; books, podcasts, support groups, and places for people to get help. This is THE biggest thing I have ever dealt with and some days, it’s still hard. The “recovery” isn’t necessarily linear, but it is survivable. I promise you that.