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It was on Tuesday, June 13, 1967 — 54 years ago yesterday — that a nineteen-year-old girl gave me the precious gift of life.
Then, from a place of love and fierce protection, my birth mother gave me the precious gift of unselfish love and made the tough choice of allowing someone else to raise me as their own, in the hopes that I’d have a better life than she believed she could provide.
That same day, a couple who was, at that time, unable to have children of their own, was given the precious gift of learning that soon, they would become my parents.
I spent the first month of my life living with nuns and other soon-to-be adoptees in a children’s home run by Catholic Charities, and then I was given the precious gift of a beautiful, loving family.
My Mom, up until the day she left this earth, never tired of telling me that I wasn’t born under her heart, I was born in it. That always made me feel so special. My Dad still calls me his baby girl. As for my four younger brothers, one of whom is also adopted, there was never a question in any of our minds about whether or not we were “real” siblings.
Yet, despite what I just shared — there was always this little something in the back of my mind (really, it was probably in my heart) that made me feel less than. Incomplete. Untethered, almost.
Yes, my birth mother loved me enough to give me up for adoption. But there’s that other little fact: she gave me up.
And while I believed that I was loved and wanted by my adoptive parents (Mom and Dad), there was still a good portion of my life where I believed (and feared) that if I did something wrong, or if they tired of me, or if I wasn’t perfect, or if I didn’t do enough to earn my place in the family, they too would give me up.
Growing up in my family was both wonderful and terribly painful. My Mom suffered from mental health issues and alcohol addiction for as long as I can remember. My Dad was a classic codependent and I followed his lead pretty early on, learning how to “keep the peace” around the house. That meant doing whatever it took to make sure Mom was happy, the boys were taken care of, the house was clean, and the bills got paid. On the surface, we looked like the perfect family. Behind the scenes, we were a hot mess.
At some point, I had become so engulfed in the dysfunction that I truly believed that what my life had become was simply the cost of being adopted — that I somehow owed my parents for taking me in; that I had somehow sinned so greatly in this (or a previous?) life that this was my penance for those sins. There were nights I would lay in bed, crying, asking G-d why He chose this family for me, and wondering what my life might otherwise look like if I’d never been given away. I questioned my purpose, and the point of it all, every day. Why did He give me an alcoholic mother who made it difficult to get through each day without losing my mind (or hers)?!
Quick interjection to share that I realized during the first year after college that I was on a pretty dangerous emotional spiral that was leading to severe depression and reckless behavior. Fortunately, with the help of a dear friend and mentor, I found the right counselor who helped me learn how to navigate the land mines that kept popping up in all the real-life messiness. It took a long time, but eventually, real healing happened on almost all fronts, and it continues to happen to this day.
In my mid-2os, when my first husband and I were planning to start our own family, I decided to search for my birth parents. I kept telling myself and others that I was doing it to find out my medical history before getting pregnant. The real truth was that I felt like I was missing little puzzle pieces of who I was, and besides, I wanted to know things: Why did she give me up? Did she regret it? What was her life like after me? Did she go on to eventually have children that she kept? Where was my birth father in all of this? Why didn’t she love me enough to keep me and figure it out? Why was I not worth keeping?
Eventually, I did meet my birth parents and they were, well, absolutely lovely. I maintained a close relationship with my birth dad until he died in 2009. My birth mother and I had a nice connection and stayed in touch for many years until we just didn’t anymore. I still send her a card on my birthday, thanking her for having the courage to give me a chance at a different life.
As I continue to make forward progress in this God-given gift that is my life, I am ever more grateful for the experiences I’ve had and the lessons I continue to learn. Perhaps the most valuable was as the child of an alcoholic and addict. That was a veritable master class that gave me the strength and resilience to face the most difficult and heartbreaking thing I’ve ever had to navigate: my son’s drug addiction.
Learning how to love and parent him when he started using at age 16, and then chose nearly a year of being homeless instead of living in our home with safety and boundaries, and who eventually served jail time for crimes he committed while under the influence… it was a lot. It is still a lot because (I believe) addiction and sobriety are both choices. He decides every day, actually hundreds (maybe thousands) times each day, whether or not to use again.
The truth is, it would be fairly easy for me to fall back into the old patterns that I had to unlearn with my Mom. Were it not for those experiences, I would not understand the importance of connection for an addict — that connection is key to their sobriety — and also that connection does not (necessarily) equal codependence. Healthy boundaries are possible. I can still love and support my son without enabling him. That’s huge, and had it not been for the gifts of what I learned with my Mom, I am certain the positive outcomes I see today in my son, nine years later, would not have been possible. His journey into the depths of addiction and back to light and life — and my journey with him — is a story that is still being written. Someday, I will have the courage to tell that story, but not today.
In the meantime, I’ll keep reminding myself that none of us is perfect, that each of us is worthy because G-d says we are, and that the healing power of His love and grace can move mountains. And I’ll keep lacing up my tennis shoes and continuing on this amazing journey every day.Published in