Mental Health Matters: Acceptance (Part II)

I began Mental Health Matters with the acceptance of my own mental health issues, and so, as I shift to share how I’ve developed healthier coping mechanisms, I’m returning to acceptance.

Accepting my adoptee status has been no easy feat. I was ashamed for a long time that I didn’t know who my parents were. Everyone around me seemed to be raised by their biological families. Why wasn’t I? Also, I grew up in the 70s and 80s, where we watched TV shows like, Diff’rent Strokes and Webster and movies, like Annie. Each depicted adoption by wealthy benefactors. My mother was a woman who went to dialysis three times a week and received a disability check; my father was a pharmacy technician at Northwestern Memorial. Many times, I questioned why I got the seemingly short end of the adoption stick.

Accepting my mother’s death and my father’s abandonment has been challenging. I frequently wish that I had “regular” parents and a typical situation. I understand that many families are dysfunctional, but I also know that some familial relationships function with what most would deem normality. Some people have two living parents who call, visit, and have healthy relationships with their grandchildren. I know this exists because I’ve seen it with friends and other family members. Again, I believed I’d been gypped.

Accepting I don’t belong with my biological family has also been tricky. While I didn’t think each would hold me in a long embrace, I did think most would recognize me as part of their “family” and attempt a relationship. I figured they’d want to know what I’d been up to the last forty or so years. But I was wrong. I ignored the fact that I was entering the middle and end of their lives. With my father, specifically, it seemed I’d disrupted the carefully crafted lie man he’d constructed himself to be. For his wife and three of his children, my existence symbolized indiscretions and his flawed human beingness. It was too much for any of them to face.

But by the time I’d found my biological father, I was too grown to be ashamed of anything else.

Years ago, I began unravelling who I was and how I got here as a way to accept myself and my narrative. We…all…have…a…story. And each one is different. My story includes a schizophrenic mother. I mention her mental illness a lot because it’s a part of acknowledging her existence as a part of my own. Without my mother, Joyce, I wouldn’t be here. Equally important is my father, Jerome. During our initial phone conversations, he apologized profusely for inviting my mother up to his apartment that day. I assured him just as many times that there was little reason to feel regret. Without his lust, I wouldn’t be here.

In 2011, I decided to stop interacting with my adoptive father. He’d never understand my point of view or be the father I thought I deserved. Before I ceased communication, I created a ritual to forgive and accept the way he cast me aside during adolescence. A year later, he developed Stage 4 throat cancer. Two years before he actually died, he offered a face-to-face verbal apology. Accepting his “I’m sorry” helped me to accept our circumstances. My adoptive father was who he was, with his own set of challenges, and our lives had intersected and happened the way they were supposed to. In kind, I accepted my adoptive mother for who she was. She wasn’t always physically fit or financially secure, but she was mentally sound. And who am I to judge anyway? The same way I bore children with my imperfect an unhealthy self, she chose to adopt and raise me as her own with her imperfect and physically unhealthy self.

Accepting each of these parental parts has made it easier for me to accept myself. Additionally, acceptance for me has meant acknowledging my origin story. It doesn’t mean I have to like it, but I do accept the reality of it. Every now and then, I relapse into dream-like thoughts of the “perfect” family. But the majority of the time, I now know being me is nothing to be ashamed of.

Mental Health Matters: Acceptance (Part I)

Monday Notes: Who is Family?

Being adopted has shaped the way I view who is family and who is not. When I found out I was adopted over thirty years ago, I saw the people around me in a different light. I saw them as strangers, yet I still accepted them as family because they had taught me to do so. I instantly realized that any combination of people could make a family.

img_8185In this way, I accepted my mother and father as my family unit. These were the people who’d decided to raise me from infancy as their own. They loved me, and I them. But when my mother died and my father gave up his parental rights, I began to question the definition. Was my adopted father not my father anymore simply because the Court said he wasn’t? I mean the Court deemed him my father in 1974, and so he was. Was he not in 1990 because they said he wasn’t? He was the only father I’d known. Could the Court demolish sixteen years of relationship?

At the age of seventeen, I was briefly orphaned, until my adopted grandmother assumed responsibility. She became my legal guardian. I never called her mother or mom because I’d already had two of those. Plus, she was simply my Grannie as she’d been before. She was family, not only because she was my mother’s mother, but also because she’d provided love and comfort throughout my entire life, and at a time when I’d most needed it. She’s been the most consistent relationship I’ve had.

img_8191As I grew older and had children of my own, curiosity about my own background grew. By the age of thirty-two, with a lot of hassle from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, I found my birth mother’s family. My biological mother had committed suicide five years after I was born. Few family members were easily contacted. One of her older sisters, Aunt Catherine, was found and I immediately felt connected.

Our shared name was odd. But what was stranger was the point of her nose and the idea that her face looked like mine. It’s a luxury adopted children don’t have. In fact, people who didn’t know me asked her daughter who I was, making sure she knew that I looked exactly like her mother. Aunt Catherine and I held long phone conversations and that lady, although I didn’t know her fully, felt like family.

My sister, the woman whom my mother had birthed five years prior to me, did not. She was cold and distant and didn’t seem interested in establishing or maintaining a sisterhood. Today, we’re friends on social media, but similar to former grammar school classmates, that’s the extent of our relationship. Our genes are stronger than our connection, yet we are family.

Fast forward thirteen years later, and I’ve found my biological father by accident via DNA website. When I looked at this man’s face, I knew he was my father. The parts of my face that Aunt Catherine and I didn’t share, were seen in him. Our eyes. Our smile. Our demeanor. He is my biological father and we are family.

After our first conversation, I learned that I have another sister. We are the same age. We look like twins. Pictures reveal the same wide puppy dog eyes as youth and the same curvature of our backs in our twenty-something wedding pictures. We are family because genetics says so; however, we’ve found that we are also family because we relate similarly. Conversing with her is like talking to myself. And once again, I’m left wondering, what is family? This newfound sister certainly is. It’s like I’ve found part of me I didn’t know I needed. Our immediate love for one another is evident.

I share all of this to say that family is whomever you make it. Being adopted has taught me that family is but another societal construct, but relationship is something altogether different. Like other relationships, familial ones can be maintained simply because two people want them to be. I’ve also come to believe that being born or adopted into a family is but one component of actually being family. For me, relationship, caring, and commitment are true connectors, and consequently what makes a family.

That’s my final answer. What’s yours?