‘I felt like I was holding a familiar hand. I’d been waiting for this moment my entire life.’: Adoptee shares meeting biological dad, processing adoption trauma

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Disclaimer: This story mentions suicide ideation and may be triggering to some.

Early Life

“My sense of humor has always been my life raft, so it did not surprise me to hear that at age 4 when I asked my adoptive mother about her pregnancy with my younger sister, I asked if she was ‘this fat’ when I was in her stomach. Like most children do when they come into self-awareness, I was becoming curious about my origin story. My mother decided to tell the truth about my adoption on the spot. From what I understand, at the time, this caused problems between my parents. My father had preferred to share information of that magnitude with me when I was more mature. My mother wanted me to learn more about my ‘adoption journey’ without the hindrance of any deception. Ironically, as time would reveal to me when I did my own investigating as an adult, the true beginning of my story starts with many lies and adoption fraud. So, as an adult adoptee, I respect her for her transparency.

Much like people with other serious traumas, some adoptees find themselves at a place in adulthood reflecting on their ‘story,’ processing each major life experience through the lens of an adopted person. When this event occurs, we refer to this time in our lives as ‘coming out of the FOG’ (FOG stands for fear, obligation, guilt). This phrase was originally applied to coming to terms with and recovering from narcissistic abuse. Many adoptees who have found themselves in support groups online have gone looking to make connections with each other to help one another through this process, as many of us have experienced emotional abuse within our adoptive families.

A year and some months after my first line of questioning (and for many other reasons), my parents separated, and shortly after, divorced. I was 6. This pattern of abandonment that began at separation from my biological mother would continue and never seemed to relent until I met my therapist when I was 30. With her guidance and a lot of painful self-reflection and challenging work, I eventually discovered and embraced my authentic self. This is not to say I was not surrounded and shaped by other strong women who showed up with the intention to support me along the way.

On December 8th of 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, my biological mother informed me during a phone call that I was not aware of my true birthdate or some of the details surrounding my fraudulent ‘Baby Broker’ adoption. This information hit me like a torpedo at age 37. While I have always struggled with mental health and the ups-and-downs that come with being ‘in reunion’ with my biological family, this strike at my identity took my brain to a place that felt outside of my body. It was a place I had a comfortable familiarity with from being a child raised in toxic households. Dissociation had always been a way to cope with parents who did not know how to regulate emotions, and a third parent who had designated me as the family scapegoat.

mom and daughter
Courtesy of Emily Alber

Depressive Episodes

This was day one of a major depressive episode, something I believe I had experienced before, but could not be sure of as I had gone through so much trauma masked by drug and alcohol abuse at points in my life. I had a clearer sense of awareness on this day, as I had undergone surgery to remove my uterus and ovaries before the virus hit the US, in an effort to eliminate Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD). This gave me enough time before this event to make headway on understanding the true nature of my psychology. I was coming out of both FOGs.

A month earlier, in November, I had a big creative opportunity as a new artist. Ruth Bader Ginsburg had passed that fall, and I was inspired to commemorate her life and accomplishments in my own way. The first outstanding creative woman who has ever made me feel ‘seen’ was a woman I befriended while I was working in Park City, Utah in 2019. Her name is Lynne Ganek, an original creator of the 1980s children’s television series ‘Reading Rainbow.’ She and her husband, Jeff Ganek, generously donated the painting and print I created honoring Justice Ginsburg to the College of Education at the American University in Washington D.C.

Art opportunities would keep presenting themselves and I would continue to need help. I was discovering the surgery for PMDD was not the simple fix I hoped it would be and that it was far from the end of my struggle. I was Bipolar II, and that disorder alongside my chronic pain syndrome stemming from separation trauma at birth was not going to make my life any easier. My doctors worked endlessly with me to find medications that might be effective for me, but I was allergic to a lot of drugs that should have been able to stabilize my condition. I desperately wanted to thrive. When hypomania would hit, I would create explosions of art and feel on top of the world while simultaneously battling my inherent hatred for narcissism. During periods of discomfort, I would practice the yoga and meditation routines that my friend Amber had taught me while we were working on pushing me out of the Fibromyalgia flares I experienced alongside depression after ‘the birthday episode.’ There were days my productivity would soar and days when I couldn’t pull myself together to brush my teeth.

woman touching her work
Courtesy of Emily Alber

At points, I became devastated that my surgery for PMDD was not the simple answer to my complicated mental health problem, but remained grateful I had a support system revealing itself to me, showing me I was loved. I have not always had that available to me without conditions placed on how I showed up. What I have learned from my friends now about love is not what I was taught by my family. You can be loved just as you are. Just for simply existing.

Meeting Biological Family

A true breakthrough point was in April when I received an alert from AncestryDNA. I knew a humid summer was coming and I wanted to leave Michigan for the benefit of my body. I could tell things were shifting and both events would include an about-face for my ADHD hyperfocus back onto my adoption journey. A first cousin I was unfamiliar with appeared on my match list, which is unusual for someone who is already ‘in reunion’… and he lives 50 minutes away from me and has for his entire life. Despite our immediate connection and complicated feelings regarding our intentional separation, I left for Wyoming to begin writing my adoption memoir. I needed a quiet place to attempt to focus and to get to a drier climate.

I accepted a job at a guest ranch where I had a small room attached to the main roadhouse, giving me enough private space to focus on writing for part of the day while collecting a paycheck. To be honest, I barely wrote. I was a nervous wreck driving out west and spent most of my time negotiating thoughts on my sobriety with my sober support friend, Lisa, almost the entire way. Something big was about to happen and without a sounding board to keep me sane, I knew I could not take that on. I wanted to get to know my cousin, Jordan, virtually and to begin processing my severe early childhood trauma, and that I did.

woman ready to paint
Courtesy of Emily Alber

During this time, I also met my closest adoptee friend online, Greg. We spent hours day-in and day-out talking about coming out of the FOG. We were doing it at the same time; baffled that this was part of the adoptee journey for some and that we were experiencing it together. Earth-shattering paradigm shifts were a regular part of our interactions, and the more we went through the experiences we shared, the more we connected other experiences we had in common in other areas of life.

Meeting My Biological Father

Greg and I talked a lot about the day I met my biological father. I was working in management at a ski resort in Utah during the previous winter season and caught word he had a massive heart attack. I remember thinking I may never get to meet this man, and if I didn’t in this lifetime, I don’t think I’d ever truly be OK. I packed a few things and jumped in the car heading through a storm up through Gallatin National Forest toward Billings, Montana. My biological father and I had only spoken on the phone, as he found out about me as a late discovery through a second cousin’s DNA testing. Given his own estrangement from family, he had some apprehension about the meeting; I was a complete surprise. Unaware of what I might have heard from extended family about his past, there was a lot of anxiety surrounding the event, but this was not his first heart attack, and due to other chronic health issues, it began to feel like it was now or never.

Without confirmation of whether it was going to transpire or whether it would be in his best interest at this time, I posted myself up in Bozeman for a couple of days, waiting for his wife to let me know if he would be open to seeing me following open-heart surgery.

Everything was a blur apart from walking into the hospital room. ‘Kevin, someone is here to see you,’ his wife told him. ‘My daughter?’ he asked in a weak but raspy voice from a body that looked like it had been through life in a way I will never experience. He could not take his watery blue eyes off me as I crossed the room. I sat in the large wooden chair next to him. I grabbed his arm and said hello; I felt like I was holding a familiar hand. I had been waiting for this moment for my entire life.

There are few times in my days that I have felt unconditional love, but this was one. My biological father made very clear to me he was ready to pass after this event and following years of chronic health struggles, but held onto life for me because he knew we had to meet. Our journey was not finished on the day of his heart attack and in many ways our journey has yet to begin, even today. We are still learning so much about each other and ourselves through sharing extremely complicated medical information and our unique perspective on life, given our struggles; a connection I will never share with anyone else. Had he not held on, I may never have experienced feeling ‘seen’ in a way that made me feel less alone in this world. This is a sentiment many adoptees and neurodivergent people can relate to, I imagine.

I concluded my time in Wyoming and headed back to Michigan to meet with my psychiatrist, and my therapist, and to revisit an old conversation I had with my adoptive mother (who, to be clear, is my best friend and one of my fiercest supporters) about autism. I contacted my biological mother to share with her my findings after the evaluation had concluded and it had been determined that, similarly to Greg, I had also been living undiagnosed with level one autism and OCD.

I was now commencing my journey as a multiply-neurodivergent adoptee.

couple taking a selfie
Courtesy of Emily Alber

My core friends, who I call my family, were baffled, but have never wavered for a moment in their support. In fact, they seemed to look at me in a new way that I cannot exactly explain. I do not want to say they respect me more for having discovered these challenges, but they make sure to let me know how strong I am and how important my work will be as an artist and a future writer for other people with similar struggles. In a way, it’s like they chose to live in my reality with me when I’m around, or at least that’s the way they make me feel. I believe in my heart there are more people living out there like me who are afraid to speak, come out of isolation, and live authentically. I want them to know they can.

When I began making art, I used to throw away anything that wasn’t immediately perfect. As I have grown, I have learned to sit with my work; to wait and see if something beautiful will reveal itself with time. This took a lot of practice and committing to sit with a lot of uncomfortable feelings. Being reactive used to be a big problem of mine and every part of my life suffered from it. Teaching myself how to live through my paintings and to apply that to my friendships has helped me manage relationships in a new way that has created a meaningful life with my mother and my friends that I had no idea could become part of my trajectory.

My Advice

To anyone reading this who is struggling, if I can do this, you can do this too. It’s not easy to unwind and begin healing from trauma amidst multiple mental health issues, but it can be done.

selfie of woman in red lipstick
Courtesy of Emily Alber

I would be remiss to omit that suicidal ideations are part of the territory with what I experience. It’s important when sharing my story to remind others to reach out to a trusted friend, family member, counselor, or hotline if you are thinking of harming yourself in any way. There is absolutely no shame in asking for help. There is a brighter future on the other side of every dark day if you can remember some people’s minds have patterns much like the weather. It’s incredibly challenging, impossible-seeming at times, but it’s worth living for the beauty you experience on the brightest of days. We never know how we impact the world while we walk our path, so please try to remember your life is more valuable than what you may be able to see during any difficult moment in time.”

selfie in a leather jacket
Courtesy of Emily Alber

This story was submitted to Love What Matters  by Emily Alber from Grosse Pointe, Michigan. You can follow her journey on  Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Submit your own story hereand be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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