Identity trauma of late discovery adoptees

By Michelle Lyn Riess

Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored. –Aldous Huxley

It has already been nine months since I confirmed my adoption after being actively lied to for the first forty years of my life. As you might imagine, I have been dealing with complicated issues and have made some shocking discoveries surrounding my illegal 1976 adoption. (you can read my adoption story here.)

While the reunion with my biological family has been great, the realization that you’ve been lied to and manipulated for your entire life by the people who were supposed to be protecting you is something I hope nobody reading this will ever experience. If you are not a late discovery adoptee, I promise you have no idea how difficult it is to be in this situation. (click here to read one adoptee’s account of what it’s like to be a late discovery adoptee)

The impact of this late discovery has been devastating on so many levels. My personal identity and ethnic identities have been shattered. I walked away from the family who raised me (a necessary decision I made at the end of 2017.) My trust in others has been heavily damaged. Everything has changed, but I’m trying to find peace with my new normal and enjoying getting to know my biological family (though I’ve felt as though I’ve known them forever from the first time we met!) I’m setting new goals for myself and challenging myself in different ways, but it’s been a difficult process. 

Personality and self-identity can be the result of genetics and also shaped by our environments (for example, nature vs. nurture.) However, there are a few pieces of our genetic core that cannot be changed under any circumstances. For example, we cannot change our genetic race even if we identify as a different race. We cannot change who our genetic parents are even if we acknowledge others (non-genetic parents) as our own. Similarly, we cannot change our heritage or our ancestries (ex. German, Chinese, Irish, Nigerian, French, etc.) even if we do not identify with them. These are all pieces that make up what I loosely refer to as our genetic core (not the technical name, just a term I’ve been using in conversation.)

With all of the events, changes, happiness, disappointments, arrivals, and departures that occur in life, these core pieces are permanent. Unless I am mistaken, it is not possible to engineer the DNA of a living person to delete or change specific genes related to parentage, heritage, and race. For this reason, I say it is impossible for any of these factors to be changed (again, this has nothing to do with how an individual identifies–that is something very different.) For most, I believe, there is a primal security in the permanency of these factors because they provide us with valuable information about ourselves at the most basic level—things we learn (or should learn) in early childhood such as who we are genetically, who we come from genetically, and where we come from genetically. It is absolutely essential for people to have this accurate information about themselves from early childhood—even adoptees. Nothing that happens in life can change these core factors or take them away: unless, the truth about who you really are has been withheld from you.

Thankfully, there are very few groups of people who will ever face this type of identity trauma. After a lot of thought and research, the only two groups of people I’ve been able to identify who experience this (to varying degrees) are late discovery adoptees, and people abducted at a young age and raised to believe they are someone else (only later to find out they were abducted & lied to.) Obviously, these are two very different scenarios, but I think the loss of the core self and identity are similar on some levels. If you can think of other groups who might be subject to this type of core identity trauma, please let me know. Also, if this is a subject that you have researched (or would like to research) I would also love to hear from you.

The impact of learning as an adult that you are not the person you believed you were for your entire life (at your core) can be devastating. I don’t think there is a single word that can accurately describe what it’s like, but a few that immediately come to mind are traumatic, agonizing, and surreal. I’ve personally spoken to and read the stories of many late discovery adoptees over the past months. While our experiences are all unique, most of us share a very common thread–a shattered sense of identity.

I’ve been working with a therapist who is familiar with adoption-related issues, and it has been helpful. I’ve been able to start processing the magnitude of the situation and to really examine what has happened over the past forty years. I’ve also been able to get useful feedback which has been a great tool to help me move forward. Most of all, I understand now that what I experienced [with my former adoptive parents] was not normal and I am completely justified in all of the decisions I’ve had to make. I live my life without the burden of regrets, shame or guilt. My friends and loved ones have been a constant source of strength and security for me from day one. It’s also been particularly helpful connecting with other late discovery adoptees online. Though we are complete strangers with many different backgrounds, we are connected to each other by deep wounds that can never be fully healed, and nobody can truly understand unless they’ve experienced it themselves.

At the end of 2017, I made the decision to have no further contact with my former adoptive father (my former adoptive mother died in 2010.) This decision was made after I had time to begin processing the enormity of what occurred, to start processing the impact that four decades of lies have had, long-term issues that existed in my adoptive family, and figuring out what steps I needed to take to move forward. It was also after I  discovered more of the facts surrounding my adoption and how it was conducted. Because of all of these factors, I feel entirely justified in my decision. For me, this wasn’t just the right choice–it was the only choice I could make. I carry no regrets, guilt or shame as a result of the choices I’ve made regarding my former adoptive parents.

In life, we don’t have the privilege of lying to someone, especially on such a massive scale, for four decades and then expect the relationship to continue. It’s not even a matter of forgiveness because I don’t need to forgive my former adoptive parents to have peace and happiness in my life. It’s simply a matter of knowing that anyone who lies to you on such a massive scale for four decades is not worthy of a place in your life.

On the one hand, these are the people who raised me and provided for me, and I’m appreciative of those efforts. But on the other hand, they are the same people who manipulated me and withheld vital information from me so they could continue to live their own narrative instead of doing the right thing for the child they adopted. They are the same people who chose to ignore obvious red flags in the attorney’s adoption procedures because of their own desire to bypass the legal adoption process. They are the same people who lied to caseworkers during interviews to ensure the adoption would be legally finalized. They are the same people who used fake names to purposely conceal their identities from my biological family so they would never be able to find me in the future. I can go on… There is simply no justification for it. No amount of money spent or opportunities provided during those years can make up for what they did. They completely disregarded their moral obligation as adoptive parents and my own human need to feel connected to people I am genetically related to by choosing to lie to me every day of my life. Every single day of my life.

14,897 days, to be exact.

From the day my mother handed me to my adoptive parents until the day I confronted my adoptive father about my true origins, there were 14,897 opportunities for them to be truthful with me. 14,897 days that they could have chosen to do the right thing, but did not. Instead, they chose to be dishonest 14,897 times. Forty years! It’s simply inexcusable.

They allowed me to live my life believing a collection of lies were the truth because they weren’t comfortable with the truth. It’s not something you can brush off and then carry on with your life as usual. I am trying to find comfort with my new normal, but it’s complicated. I do feel extremely fortunate to have such an amazing and supportive biological family–that makes this difficult discovery so much more worthwhile.

If you are an adoptive parent or are considering adoption, I urge you to be honest and upfront with your child about their own origins. This should be an ongoing discussion, not a one time “you’re adopted” conversation. Children should know they are adopted from the beginning–it’s never too early to begin talking to your child about their own origins. There are obviously some adoptees who come from very bad situations, in which case those details may be best to share when they are age appropriate (and with the assistance of an adoption therapist.) But the fact that a person is adopted should never be withheld. Ever. Under any circumstances. If you are not capable of being honest with a child about their adoption status then you should not adopt. Period.

The bottom line in all of this is truth and transparency. All adoptees have an absolute human right to know the truth about their own genetic origins. I refuse to be complicit in my adoptive parent’s lies. I refuse to be their secret, or to perpetuate their facade any longer. I am not their child. I am very proud of who I am today, and the strength this unbelievable journey has given me.


Related Content: Could you be adopted? Red flags that could point to adoption


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