When I was a child, my stepmother told me I had another pair of parents who lived up a beanstalk. My mother had tried to plant her seeds in the soil, but a baby never grew, so my dad and mom climbed the stalk and asked my parents if they could spare a child. “Can I meet my beanstalk parents?” I asked her. “No,” she replied. “The beanstalk was cut down. There is no way for you to reach them.”
As an adoptee, I grappled with a sense of not belonging throughout my childhood and carried the heaviness of feeling that I was not tethered to this earth into my adulthood. Identifying what parts were innately me, passed on from my biological parents, or learned behavior further complicated connecting to my identity. Looking in the mirror, I knew I must resemble the parents I began searching for in my early 20s but encountered one dead end after another. I was born in New York state where adoption records were sealed, and mine was an adoption shrouded in secrecy.
Through my research, I learned that my adoption was orchestrated by a baby broker and that much of the information typed onto my nonidentifying birth record was falsified. My adoptive mother left when I was 12, and I had a tenuous relationship with my father who wasn’t willing to provide details surrounding my birth. I connected with adoption search boards and built potential family trees with information from third and fourth distant cousins I’d matched with on Ancestry.
If nothing else, I wanted access to my medical information. Does my family have a history of heart disease or mental illness? I couldn’t tell you. Growing up in a home of family dysfunction, I developed an anxiety disorder with acute panic attacks, blackout migraine attacks and complex-PTSD. After eight years of being told that painful periods are the norm for many women, I was diagnosed with endometriosis in my 20s. During my annual breast exams and OB-GYN appointments, I drew a giant X over the “family history” section of intake forms. Being vigilant about an increased likelihood of any disease wasn’t an option for me.
In 2019, I finally found my birth mother who lived a subway ride away from me during the many years I lived in New York City. I have seven aunts and uncles, most of whom have gray-blue eyes, some with long legs attached to their small frames, and all who gesticulate with their hands while talking and are kind beyond measure. In my 40s, I was finally seeing parts of me reflected back the way I used to trace my features in a mirror.
In the following months of many firsts for me, my mother wrote me a letter detailing our family’s medical history. She, too, got her period at a young age (I was 10; my mother was 11) and was diagnosed with endometriosis. The women in our family have dense breasts, and all of us have anxiety to varying degrees.
If I had known my mother had endometriosis, I would have had the option to preemptively investigate my fertility. It would have saved me years of begging doctors to acknowledge that I did not have a low threshold for pain but was being untreated for a serious chronic illness. I wouldn’t have suffered in silence wondering why my menstrual pain was debilitating to the point where I couldn’t walk a city block without feeling sharp knives attacking my lower abdomen. I might have frozen my eggs in my 20s and had the chance to become a mother. Endometriosis was not the only culprit that robbed me of motherhood. Denying adoptees access to their medical history did, too.
In her letter, my mother wrote about her experience not receiving treatment for endometriosis. “I had it, but they didn’t do anything for me. I’m sure it was because I didn’t have health insurance at the time. And that’s what it’s all about. Money, honey.” Even with health insurance, I wasn’t diagnosed with endometriosis until I collapsed at work and was rushed to the hospital. But she’s still right about the money, honey. Research for women’s illnesses is severely underfunded, and women’s pain is often trivialized or misdiagnosed as mental illness.
Psychologists have said I developed anxiety as a child to protect myself from trauma. I rarely talked with friends about my anxiety and muscled my way through panic attacks, some that persisted for days. Today, knowing that I’m prone to anxiety calms me. I’m also fortunate to have support from family members who experience it too. My aunt Shirley, a holistic healer, reminds me to stay present without dismissing my experiences. With knowledge, I feel a tremendous release from the blank spaces that once plagued me.
Having my medical information not only makes me eligible for annual breast exams under my insurance, it enables me to approach my health care with clarity. While I can’t relive the years I spent without that information, I no longer feel inadequate discussing my medical inheritance with doctors.
The year before I found my mother, I wrote a letter in support of the New York State bill that would unseal records for adoptees. In it, I said, “For once in my life, I’d like to check something other than ‘other’ on a form requesting my personal history. I want to write the rest of my story. I want to be able to take precautions with my health based on my family history. I want to know what every other U.S. citizen has the right to know. My adoptee brothers and sisters have fought so hard for our missing pieces. We want and deserve to be whole.”
It may have taken two decades, but I got lucky finding my birth mother. I know these things to be true. We both love vintage clothes and learned how to sew at an early age. We’re vegetarians, ardent letter writers who chase butterflies and see the rainbow at the end of a rainstorm. I’m still learning what parts of me were inherited, but the search for my mother and my medical history is over, and in a sense, I too have been discovered.
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