For the ten year anniversary of finding out about and getting in touch with my biological family, I wanted to do something special, but I’ve been struggling with it. Every year I write a sweet little happy anniversary note to my family, and we celebrate. Last year we celebrated it together in person for the first time, which was an incredible and emotional experience as it also involved my sister’s and my birth mother’s birthdays, trick or treating with my nephews and niece, and a Dia de los Muertos festival. But ten years is a big milestone, especially with adoptee/biological family reunions, so I wanted to do something bigger.
I realized a few days ago that I never wrote my story in full, just bits and pieces. I’ve shared my emotions regarding specific adoption-centric issues regarding either my own adoption or more general issues, I’ve shared my outrage for other adoptees, my own perspectives regarding my story, and how it all went down that day on October 31, 2010. But never the full story in its entirety. Though, to be fair, that would take a book (which I’ve been working on).
So I decided to do something for myself and write my story, shortened as much as I could, with truth. Blunt, honest truth. It’s long, it’s happy, it’s sad, it’s angry, it’s lonely, it’s traumatic. Just like adoption. But what I took away from writing this was peace, and a settling in my soul, in my heart. It felt good to get this out on paper – or, rather, a screen, and it’s something I can use for my book.
I still feel all of these emotions, of course. They come and go in waves as healing and grief are not linear. But writing my story, thoughts, and feelings is part of my healing journey. Thank you for walking it with me.
I grew up a “normal” kid. I went to school, did my homework, struggled with bullying, had dreams, an overactive imagination. I played in dirt, climbed trees, fought with my parents, both about dumb shit and about things I stood for. My parents had dreams for me that I fulfilled, and others I rejected or failed. I snuck out at night a few times one summer and dated when I wasn’t supposed to. You know, “normal” things.
But what really is normal? I never liked that word. It’s situational, judgmental, personal, and individual. It has negative and positive connotations and energy depending on who you are, who’s judging you, and what situation is being judged. Or what traits you have. Your behavior, the way you dress, what you love, what you hate, who you associate with, where you live, the house you live in. How many parents you have, what their genders are. What your gender is. Your sexuality. Whether or not you stick to society’s gender norms.
I did not grow up a “normal” kid, according to society’s ridiculous norms.
I’m adopted. That alone sets me apart, among all of my other reasons for sticking out like a sore thumb. At least from every other kid who isn’t adopted. Other than my gender, sexuality, skin color, tomboyishness, and odd behaviors, I was separated from my first mother 8 days after my birth. I spent nine months growing inside her, bonding with her, taking on her accent, fusing energy with her, feeling her emotions. I spent 7 days being fed by her, loved by her, and held by her, my birth father, and a select few relatives. I have this proof in my hospital record notes.
I spent all this time bonding, only to be ripped from her at 8 days old. Torn from the first person I ever bonded with. Given away by the first person I ever bonded with. Suddenly she wasn’t there, and I was thrown into the arms of two strangers who smelled, felt, looked, and sounded different from that person. I developed anxiety, depression, abandonment issues, attachment issues, fearful and anxious attachment tendencies, intense emotion that explodes out of nowhere, anxiety and panic attacks, alexithymia, adjustment disorder, and a slew of other things.
Because I’m adopted. Because I was abandoned by the very first human I had a connection with and experienced what’s called early childhood attachment trauma. I’ve never held any ill feelings toward my birth mother. Even after coming through and out of the adoption fog, I can still say that. I have abandonment issues, which was a slap in the face to admit to myself, but still no anger toward her for the decision she made. Bitterness maybe, but I feel like every adoptee has that somewhat, even if we don’t believe it, don’t feel it, don’t recognize it. We have so many emotions locked away and we have no idea they’re there. Our inner child has been working hard every second of every day of our lives to protect us from that.
My parents love me “as if I were their own” – because I was their own. I am. It made no difference to my mom that I didn’t come from her body, despite society and adoption stigma shoving toxic positivity about adoption down everyone’s throats. Whether biological or not, when you have a child, they are yours. Many adoptive parents don’t feel this way, on a subconscious level even if they do believe it consciously. My parents and I had our issues. As all families do. Mom and I worked ours out before she died, thank the gods. My dad and I have had some serious differences and issues, but even when we weren’t speaking and I was one hundred percent certain that we never would again, I still knew that he loved me. He expected a certain life for me, certain behavior, poise, intellect, schooling, and values. If I didn’t adhere to his expectations, there were consequences. We have had countless fights about this and stopped speaking to each other two separate times. He thought he was doing his best for me, while I needed to do things at my pace on my terms. We clashed. Hard. We hurt each other. I have written in the past about emotional trauma from this, but the chapter of writing about that has closed. We’re both working on it. I know that the issues we’ve had, on his end at least, were a result of his own upbringing and he has changed. We both have. I fully believe that he would have had the same issues with a biological child if he had one. We are closer than we’ve ever been – and I used to be a daddy’s girl, so that says a lot. But closeness isn’t measured by how things look on the outside, it’s measured by how deep you can get with someone. And if it takes a lifetime to get there, at least it happened.
Adoptees are often last resorts for people who wish to become parents. My parents never made me feel that way, even though they adopted a child because they couldn’t have one biologically. They always made me feel loved and wanted, even when we disagreed. Even when we fought. They told me about my adoption before I understood what it meant and they continued until I finally understood it at age seven. They told me they didn’t know anything other than my birth mother’s first and last name, that I was born in San Antonio, my weight at birth, and the time I was born. This may be true, and I do believe it at least on my dad’s end (as I can’t ask Mom), but I have a thick file that includes all of my hospital records with notes from the nurses explaining that my birth mother Cindy held me and fed me every single day we were there, my original birth certificate calling me Baby Girl Sanders, letters of recommendation from my parents’ friends in favor of them adopting a child, and the adoption agency’s forms that my birth mother filled out with information about both birth parents – their siblings, their parents, their two sons, that they were married, that my grandmother was Mexican, that my birth father was half Mexican American, their addresses, and why they gave me up for adoption.
When did this appear in my house? Was it there all my life? Did it arrive after my parents agreed that their then adult daughter could get in touch with her sister who was looking for her? Did my mom order them from the agency?
I have asked my dad about this. I broke my two and a half year silence with him in October 2020 to ask him for the truth. He insists that he never saw those records, and I believe that. So I ended it. I don’t know what to believe about my mom. All I do know is that I found these in her apartment when I was cleaning it out after her death. I know that she had them, though for how long I have no idea. I don’t believe I ever will know; I can’t ask the agency if they sent them to my parents when my sister contacted them because the agency disbanded two years later in 2012 after getting in trouble with the law for fraud.
I have spent a big chunk of my life trying to fit in, trying to figure out who I am, what I enjoy doing, and what my passions are while also vying desperately for my parents’ approval. To this day, I still cannot say why I needed it so much. I have a theory, but it’s just a theory. Theory and feeling are very different. I have no idea what I feel about it; I have alexithymia, a disorder that makes it extremely difficult to understand what emotion you’re feeling at any given time aside from the easy-to-detect happiness, sadness, and anger. I have trouble with the harder emotions that go deeper than those three. As for my theory, I believe that I needed my parents’ approval on everything because I was abandoned by my birth mother. Because my trust took an enormous hit at the beginning of my life and never recovered. I probably felt scared that my parents would leave me if I wasn’t who they wanted, what they wanted, in a child. I have never consciously thought this, or consciously felt abandoned, for the record. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there, hidden deep within me.
Growing up adopted is no easy feat, and it’s mostly a subconscious one with subtle conscious thoughts until you grow up and discover what adoption really is. That’s called coming out of the fog. Not all of us get the privilege of knowing we’re adopted. I say this with salt and sarcasm, as knowledge of your own story should not be a privilege; it is a human right to know where we came from, especially considering we were ripped up from our roots and a family and transplanted into another that was unfamiliar. We had to grow new roots then, weaker roots. Thinner roots. At first. Roots don’t grow back; new ones take their place. And how can they be as strong as the first ones? More often than not, adoptive parents are possessive and fearful so they cut off everything having to do with the biological family and story. Some of us never get this information. Our backstories are usually kept from us, whether at the adoptive parents’ wishes, the birth mother’s, the state’s or country’s laws, or any combination of these.
Locked. Our records are locked. Not even adult adoptees can get a hold of them without a fight. Sometimes they unlock when the adoptee turns 21, sometimes they stay locked. Sometimes there is no identifying information available to the adoptee at all. This is maddening. Can you imagine your own information being kept from you? Medical history, records, your original, unaltered birth certificate, or anything else that’s rightfully yours? Can you imagine having to fight to obtain it, knowing you might lose?
Can you imagine being in lower and middle school, doing family tree homework? Having no idea who you came from? You don’t want to list your parents since they aren’t related to you by blood, but you don’t want to tell everyone that you’re adopted. And if you do decide to tell them, to speak up, then everyone knows and you’re the odd one out left there not knowing how to do the assignment. Can you imagine yourself in high school genetics class filling out charts of dominant and recessive traits and getting stuck with your answers for your parents, or which one gave you what traits, because you don’t match their looks, because your genes don’t come from them?
Or having to navigate comments from other people such as, “You look so much like your mom!” or, “Wow your daughter looks just like you!” and having to worry about hurting your parents by telling those people that you’re adopted. Or searching for your biological family on the internet while hiding everything from your parents. Or being from a time before the internet existed and not knowing where to begin your search.
Can you imagine?
I’m one of the lucky ones. My sister found me and connected with me when I was 23. My entire biological family not only accepted me, they celebrated. I have not experienced rejection. I’ve experienced being left out and not being thought of when certain big things happen in the family, but not rejection. Once this connection occurred, so many questions were answered. So many things clicked into place. If my parents had not allowed this connection to happen, I have no idea where I’d be today.
Let that sink in. My parents allowed this connection to happen. Can you imagine being an adult, and the adoption agency contacts your parents for permission to contact you because your biological family members are trying to get in touch with you? What if they said no? What if they never told me? Halloween would be just another day for me every year. I wouldn’t have had ten years of memories. I might not have ever met my birth father.
It makes me ill.
Thankfully, my parents told me the truth. But that is not something I should have to be thankful for. That isn’t something anyone should have to experience. The fear of the ‘what if’s’ or the spiraling thoughts of what could have happened. Because that information was MINE. It did not belong to them, and I was an adult when it happened. They no longer made decisions for me. The agency should have contacted me, and it was my right to make the first contact with my birth family. But that was taken from me.
I’ve always longed to know who my biological parents were and if I had siblings. Even if I didn’t make any lasting connections, I needed to know who and where I came from and their stories. I had a deep desperation to know what countries and ethnicities made up my DNA, and no one could understand it. They either placated me by guessing and saying I look Irish or French or that I have Native American cheekbones, or they asked me why I cared, why it mattered. And I didn’t have words for it, because that wound is so deep and happened before I could have words for it. When my therapist asked me recently why it mattered so much to me (a legitimate question that I am not angry about), I asked him, “Are you adopted?” He said no. I said, “So you’ve always known your ancestry and ethnicity. It was never a pressing desire for you to find out. If I had grown up with my biological family, I don’t think I’d have that desire, either. I don’t think I’d care all that much about celebrating Dia de los Muertos or that I’m part Mexican American. But I didn’t grow up with them, and I do have that desire.”
I know that my dad is either German or Polish. I know that my mom is full blooded Irish, first generation Irish American in her family. I know that my mom comes from a long line of ancient royal blood (the O’Neill line) and I’ve even been to the tiny island in Ireland where her mother grew up. But I didn’t know what I was. My mom offered to buy me a National Geographic DNA test when they first started coming out. We were in a store somewhere and my eyes lit up when I saw it. I shook my head and said no, because of the price and because I didn’t want to hurt her. I was always afraid of hurting their feelings regarding my adoption. She asked me again and I said no. So we moved on. I finally got the courage to tell her I wanted her help in finding my birth family when she asked me what I wanted for my 23rd birthday. She said she didn’t feel that was an appropriate birthday gift but that she’d help me anyway, and get me something else for my birthday. So I asked for Thanksgiving dinner because it was my favorite meal, and I never brought up finding my birth parents ever again. Not that I needed to wait very long.
I searched for years for Cindy. From early high school through to my graduation from college. I searched for her name online, though I didn’t know she’d be listed as Cynthia. I called every hospital in San Antonio, but they only keep records of births for ten years, after which they are sent somewhere to be locked away. In my senior year of college I contacted about 30 or so people on Facebook named Cindy Sanders until Facebook warned me and flagged my account because I was sending the same message to too many people. Facebook’s system thought I was sending spam.
So I gave up.
Almost a year later, after graduation and during one of the coolest things I’ve ever done – present my research on a prehistoric fish with my college advisor in Denver at the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting – my life changed, and I got what I was looking for. Except it found me.
My parents came to support me for that convention, so on October 31, 2010 at dinner, five months after asking my mom for help with finding my birth parents, my dad told me that my biological younger sister – also named Amanda – had contacted the adoption agency that handled my adoption. He said she was looking for me and that I had two older brothers, that my birth parents had been married at the time of my adoption and were still, and that my siblings were full siblings. It was one of the most incredible moments of my entire life. I remember the tidal wave of emotion that surged through me. I covered my face and cried. I couldn’t believe it. I had siblings. I had three full siblings. And one of them had come looking for me. My birth parents wanted to meet me. They all wanted to meet me.
How loved I felt in that moment. Special, wanted, accepted. It was both a moment I waited for my entire life, and completely different than anything I’d ever imagined or fantasized. It’s far more common for an adoptee to find their biological family, not the other way around, so I think I feel even more special than I would have had I found them. I had so many questions that my parents couldn’t answer. They told me they had Cindy’s and Amanda’s phone numbers but Mom didn’t know which was which. She said she spoke to them both on the phone already (which, again, should have been my decision and speaking to them should have been up to me; I would have wanted to be the first to talk to them). My dad said he already had background checks done on them all, and that they received the agency’s letter telling them about the contact one month prior. One month prior. They had known about this for an entire month and said nothing. To “protect” me, to see if these people were safe and worthy of me. Me, a 23-year-old adult.
I couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel. Telling me during the beginning of dinner before we even got our food was almost cruel. I rushed to the business center because we didn’t have wifi in the room, and friended all of them on Facebook. As many as I possibly could, immediate family first. I picked a number at random after Mom gave them to me and called. I spoke to Cindy, Rick, and Amanda for four hours. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my entire life that spawned some incredible relationships with people I never thought I’d get the chance to know.
Following that were a ton of other experiences that were equally amazing, or close to it. I have a rare adoption story, one full of love and happiness. They took my parents into their family and treated them as their own. It didn’t matter to them that my parents weren’t biologically related to them. They didn’t care; they were family. My grandma threw a huge party the first time my mom and I went down there to visit. We met aunts, uncles, great aunts, great uncles, my grandpa, nephews, cousins, second cousins, third cousins, and a bunch of other types of cousins who I can’t even begin to explain how we’re related. There was even another adoptee! A cousin of mine adopted by my great aunt, grandma’s sister. One of my great aunts baked a cake for me, welcoming me to the family, and my birth father Rick wrote a speech. It was an emotional trip, for everyone.
My mom and I regrettably became very distanced after that. I could not understand what she was going through, just as she couldn’t understand what I was going through. We fought a lot in the months following. We didn’t speak for two to three weeks after that trip because we had an enormous fight in the hotel the night before we left. Neither of us could use proper words for how we were feeling. She was fearful, terrified of losing me. I was angry with her, furious because she was acting possessive, jealous, and scared, and I was baffled. I thought, how could she possibly believe I would ever leave her? Why did my happy reunion with my biological family equate to abandoning her in her mind?
It was rough. And it got worse when my ex and I broke up because she was close with him and because I’ve always been such a private person, never opening up about my private life. That has always bothered her. She wanted a daughter who would confide in her, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t allowed to make mistakes in my family.
My break up with my ex threw her. We fought harder than ever before. This was why we started going to therapy together, something that I was previously against because I had been forced into therapy for most of my life. I had over-coupled negative experiences with therapy because I didn’t want to be there and I didn’t have a choice. But this helped us, immensely. We both got to say what we needed to each other in front of a mediator, and our relationship drastically improved.
Again, I’m one of the lucky ones. I didn’t lose my second mother, my only mom, the woman I’ve looked up to my entire life, over meeting and connecting with my biological family. Because we were able to work through our problems. But there was a breaking point where we were both pushing each other away. This is unfortunately common between adoptees and their parents. Fear is such a strong, dividing force. It’s destructive and damaging, to all involved. This is one of the main reasons why adoption needs more education, more resources, and more adoptee voices involved. It is why therapy should be offered to adoptive parents, adoptees, and birth parents from the beginning.
A lot has happened in ten years. Births, deaths, new family members, celebrations. I lost my birth father six years ago in July, 2015 and my grandpa (his dad) in October, 2020. I lost my mom to a virus that ransacked her pulmonary fibrosis in January 2018, which was the most traumatic experience of my life. I can say that confidently because even though I don’t remember my adoption, I feel that losing my mom again, the one who has been present my entire life, was a hundred times worse. I’ve gone to reunions in Texas, vacationed with them at the coast, went to my sister’s wedding, and had some of them up for my wedding. I have a bunch of new nieces and nephews, and found two new cousins who were adopted out of the family. Last year I celebrated my first Dia de los Muertos with my family in San Antonio at a festival, I’ve been getting into my Mexican roots, and I attended my grandmother’s 90th birthday party earlier this year before Covid hit. I found my adoption file in a drawer in my mom’s apartment when I was cleaning it out after her death and wasn’t able to process what that meant. I stopped speaking to my dad 2 and a half years ago (September 2018), though we have since reconnected (at the end of 2020) and it’s going better than I could have ever expected.
I’ve also been diving headfirst into my trauma, facing it so I can heal. I read The Primal Wound as well as a few adoptee books and one about having narcissistic parents. I joined a bunch of adoption groups, the most helpful ones being adoptee-only because no one can understand an adoptee better than another adoptee. I’m in group therapy and one-on-one. I’ve been getting to know the little girl inside of me who has been holding onto my trauma and harsher emotions for me, protecting me all these years. I tell her, “It’s okay to let me feel these things. I’m ready. Thank you for what you’ve done to help me survive, but I need you to stop now. I need you to heal, too.” It feels crazy, talking to this inner self. But it helps, and it’s what I need to do to reach those emotions that have been locked away for so long. Though that, of course, threw me into a four month long bout of severe depression. Go figure.
Adoptees have been told to be grateful. We have been told that we are lucky. That at least we were given wonderful, providing parents. At least we’re loved and cared for. That we were saved. I’ve been all over the world and was put through private schools and college. I didn’t have to work two jobs or take out student loans. I grew up in a mansion-esque house with 2 acres of land and was given a brand new car at 17. Of course I’m grateful! But don’t you dare tell me to be. There is so much depression and pain and trauma under the surface that none of you see unless I write about it.
Adoptees’ feelings and thoughts are invalidated constantly by people who think they know better. People who aren’t adopted argue with us about adoption all the time. Adoptive parents argue because they feel insecure, afraid, and jealous. Birth mothers argue because they went through trauma, too, and some of them were forced. But the point is, adoptees are victims. We aren’t arguing against anyone else’s traumas or feelings. We aren’t saying that birth mothers aren’t victims of coercion or that adoptive parents aren’t victims of infant loss. We are arguing for ourselves because we are the one group in the adoption triad that isn’t listened to. We are constantly railroaded. Told to be quiet, told that we’re angry. Argued with. When, in fact, our voices are the most important of all. While the other two and their loyal friends are bickering with each other and telling us off, we’re the ones who were trafficked. We’re the ones who were abandoned and bought. We’re the ones who were torn from our mothers at an early age from circumstances we had no control of. We are the last resort for most adoptive parents.
And the kicker; without us, the adoption industry wouldn’t profit. The adoption industry is legal human trafficking.
Listen to us. Help us change adoption. Help us help other adoptees by educating yourselves instead of fighting us on our own feelings. We are all victims of society. Adoption the way it is and has been is traumatic and full of toxicity. Those phrases are vile, invalidating, insensitive, and damaging. Did you know that adoptees are four times more likely to die by suicide than people who are not adopted?
Adoption is love, sure. It is beautiful. It is also trauma, pain, joy, sadness, elation, infuriating, wonderful, fearful, hopeful, lonely, blissful, hostile, and just about every other emotion and adjective you could imagine. I am not ungrateful. I am not angry. Don’t label me as such, even though I have felt those emotions and others that adoptees are vilified for. We are so much more than that.
That said, I am beyond grateful for my life and everyone in it. Everything that has happened to me. I actually love being adopted, as a matter of fact. I used to think it was the coolest thing since sliced bread, when I was younger. I still think it’s kinda cool. It sets me apart, and I don’t like going with the status quo even though I’ve always longed to fit in somewhere. But that’s the beauty of my story. I don’t fit into a mold. I make my own mold. I march to my own drum. And anyone who is willing to march along with me is more than welcome. I love my life and my families – adoptive, biological, and chosen – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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