I was born at Fayette Regional Hospital in Connersville, Indiana in 1967. That’s what my birth certificate says – the unabridged version. The somewhat more precise sounding “amended” version – the only version I have ever actually seen, the one I used to enroll in school, to obtain passports, driver’s licenses, and other official documents – fictitiously declares Scottsburg as my birthplace, nearly two hours away.
There is always a story to tell, special circumstances, and humorous anecdotes surrounding the birth of a child, usually they are warm and joyous occasions. When you are the subject of a closed adoption, it’s different. It’s not just infant booties and baby blankets but a covert operation of furtive negotiations, redacted identities and clandestine backstories.
A half century later, any hope of learning the truth about my own backstory has faded away – disappeared altogether – like it never happened. My identity, or large portions of it, are off limits. Simply put, there are things about my identity they do not want me to know. The names of my birth parents would be chief among them. Since then, many states have loosened their grip on closed adoption records, but the state of Indiana has resisted this trend in order to hang on to the status quo. Needless to say, the status quo has put me at a serious disadvantage when navigating the story of my life without the benefit of a first chapter.
Don’t get me wrong, as far as I’m concerned, I won the Adoptive Parents Lottery. I did not want for love and attention. My adoptive parents loved me. Neither of them drank. Nobody beat me. God was always honored – so I was annoyed by neither a dark, nihilistic worldview nor the vagaries of a drug addicted parent. Mine was a house filled with purpose and meaning – and, frequently prayer. Throughout my childhood, my father worked at the Cummins engine plant in Wellsboro and on weekends would come home with a license to legally hunt deer, duck, and other fur-bearing game. Later, when he bought twenty, forested acres along the county line, I got my own 20 gauge shotgun which I used for most of my adolescence. When I was twelve he’d take me up to a tree-stand in the predawn cold of winter, nestled fifteen feet above a deer-run and, when we were fortunate, some unsuspecting buck. There we’d wait, and wait, and wait in bitter cold and dead silence, watching little clouds of fog dissipate into the frigid air with each exhaling breath.
Summers meant swimming at Hardy Lake and Wiffle ball games in the backyard. In school I was not bullied more than the next kid – and maybe even a little less. I got the bike I wanted for Christmas. I always made the honor roll.
And yet, at times I was miserable. And depressed.
I brittled bitterly at the smothering chokehold of secrecy that surrounded my past – compared to the family histories typically enjoyed by my less-well-looked-after friends. I envied them in spite of their dysfunctional and usually empty houses, their near-total lack of supervision. My friends’ parents always had other more important things on their mind, leaving their kids to run wild – free to stay up late, to smoke cigarettes out back without fear of being noticed, to view stacks of exotica stashed away in secret places. It was enticing, and a little scary but even in my witless adolescence I recognized that this kind of exposure could lead to a life of distraction – if not destruction. And this stood in stark contrast to the home of my youth, characterized by love, normalcy, and age appropriate boundaries.
But still something was missing.
I was angry about this. How come I couldn’t know about my biological parents? What did they look like? What made up my genetic background? What were the circumstances around my birth? As I saw it, no one had any right to stand between me and these unique dimensions of my identity.
I fought not to internalize the implied existential message: as an adoptee, your identity is meaningless in the grand scheme of things, one unwanted baby is just like the other. Fungible. Replaceable. Ultimately worthless.
Much later, when bouts of depression and suicidal ideations factored into my otherwise workaday existence, I wasn’t the sort of person to look back in puzzlement and regret, wondering how life might have been. I never blamed my birth parents for my less than optimal disposition. I don’t and never did refer to my bouts with depression as a “disease.” I took full responsibility for my mental health, such as it was. I was glad I was adopted, after all, from as early as I could remember. I simply felt . . . incomplete. Call it a character flaw – of which suicidal ideations were simply a manifestation, a petulant desire to rebel against a faceless bureaucracy for committing the unpardonable sin of placing me with an intact family, something my underaged progenitors were unable to offer.
At any given moment, when I’m honest with myself, I can look back at my own youth and say that, on balance, I’d probably have made the same decisions they had. I knew who was responsible for my less than stellar choices, the bad life decisions, yet more of my old patterns – I was.
Life, even in the worst of days, had been perfectly fair to me. I knew this.
Even as a child, feeling like an interloper at extended family gatherings, I knew I was pretty lucky. Lucky to be alive, given the precarious nature of unwanted pregnancies in the late ’60s America. Lucky to be in reasonably good health, given what was happening around me – my adopted, nonbiological brother afflicted by life-threatening breathing disorders. There was even light in my life, however improbable – a Christian community which, ultimately, supplanted my low self-esteem with the knowledge that I was gifted for a purpose.
And as counterintuitive to that faith as it was, there were still times when I sincerely wanted to end my life. I prayed for it. I didn’t blame God for my depression and I couldn’t blame anyone else. As I said, my mental health was my own responsibility.
Then again . . . I could blame my mom, I guess. For the guilt she caused when responding to my childish curiosity with head-shaking denials and foreboding tears. I remember thinking, “Really? No one knows anything about the day I was born?” I wasn’t convinced about that. With my brother’s adoption, the details were neither concealed nor, apparently, taboo. But parental approval always a strong motivating factor in my life, I dutifully accepted this seeming contradiction – along with its implied, yet well-defined, window of discourse. And I never brought it up again.
So an argument could be made, I guess, that obliging a kid at such an early age to be complicit in his own deception could lead one to an appetite for self-destructive behavior. Perhaps this even contributed to the poor posture and blinding migraines I’d experience later as a world-weary nine year old.
At some point I began to turn inward, hoping that someday one of my birth parents would heroically break through, fill in the pop-marked gaps of my subconscious, and end this nagging dissatisfaction.
But no . . . my curse would be absolute.
As a teen, there were times when I felt something snap and I slid quickly into a spiral of near hysterical depression. I’d find myself forgoing family outings in favor of remaining behind, heaped in a wooden rocker, sobbing uncontrollably, infusing the emptiness with no small amount of self-loathing.
I’ve never had a nervous breakdown, but I tell you from the bottom of my heart, something fell apart in my childhood and it took nothing short of the redeeming power of God’s grace to recover.
Decades later, sitting next to my mother’s empty deathbed just moments after her listless body was collected, the first words out of my father’s mouth were, “Your mom always knew the names of your birth parents.”
After years of deception and misdirection, it was, I suppose, about the only possible way for him to redeem himself – and in time, I forgave my mother.
There are no winners when playing the blame game. “It’s all your fault – you made me this way” is just the kind of automatic negative thinking that can actually perpetuate self-destruction. It’s one thing to encounter hopelessness, but a protracted preoccupation with suffering transforms feelings into moods. Those moods become entrenched cognitive distortions, and suddenly opting out of life altogether seems plausible – however uncertain or irreversible.
Consider, for instance, the children’s classic film and metaphor for life: Cinderella – a Disney story of an adoption gone wrong.
Every time we had a substitute teacher in early elementary school, they’d haul out the projector and show us this heartwarming and inspiring story of a girl and her enchanted fairy Godmother.
Just what was the meaning of Cinderella anyway?
The poor kid is impoverished and clearly unloved. She wears the same clothes every day and is forced into a life of servitude working day and night doing menial chores. She is ostracized from society, banned from public gatherings, and chastised at home. Her parents are either dead or have abandoned her. This results in an ill-conceived adoption by a begrudging stepmother and three cruel, opportunistic stepsisters who seek to destroy a beauty they don’t understand and can’t possess.
One day, the prince invited all the young ladies in the land to a royal ball. The two stepsisters gleefully planned their wardrobes for the ball, and taunted Cinderella by telling her that maids were not invited. Initially, she was crushed under the weight of despair. But as all children’s accumulated experience has taught them – everything would work out in the end. This we had come to accept as an article of faith. A contract between kids everywhere, our parents, and the fine people at Walt Disney Studios.
True to form, Cinderella made it to that ball, and what’s more, caught the eye of the charming, young prince. Sure, things looked pretty uncertain for awhile – what with that misfortunate leave-by-the-stroke-of-midnight thing. But the prince figured it out in the end and they all lived happily ever after.
What most people fail to notice is what happened back home – immediately after the ball. Cinderella graciously thanked her fairy Godmother, greeted her stepsisters, and cheerfully returned to a life of serfdom. In fact, in nearly every other scene that follows, she is depicted as dancing, singing, and celebrating life – mop in hand. Astonishingly, Cinderella returns home, resumes a life of scorn and abuse, is separated from her prince – yet re-enters her former life with irrepressible optimism.
Life is cruel, lonely, and filled with pain. Overcoming these grim realities will not be achieved by obsessing over one’s past nor fixating on present injustices. A life of bliss comes as a direct corollary to what you believe about the future and for whom you choose to live it.
A depressed Cinderella could have catastrophized her setback, telling herself “The world is against me, I finally meet my prince . . . then the clock strikes midnight. It’s so unfair. Life just isn’t worth living.”
Instead, she was buoyed by her faith in (and commitment to) the royal prince. The promise of future glory freed her to rise above her dismal and, as of yet, unchanged circumstances.
This truth, I too would come to experience for myself.
At an early age, my adoptive parents introduced me to the Prince of Peace – Jesus Christ. Before accepting His call upon my life, I felt the void that comes with being cast aside. Life was clearly a cruel joke. A place with no guarantees, built on a foundation of false assumptions if not outright untruths. But in an unexpected twist of fate – like baby Moses in the bulrushes, detached from his ancestry and unaware of his past – I had been adopted into His royal household. After that, there was less insecurity about life. I would no longer look at the whole world with suspicion. With God’s grace came an existential affirmation that even my biological parents could not provide. Realistically, my transformation didn’t happen overnight, but eventually the warmth of divine acceptance led to self-acceptance.
The past no longer mattered. I’d been redeemed. Life, now, had purpose and meaning.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Terry received his Bachelor’s in Christian Ministry from Cincinnati Christian University and a Master’s in Marriage, Family, & Child Counseling from Hope International University. He and his wife, Patty, are proud grandparents and reside in West Los Angeles.
Terry will be leading the GPS 500 Seminar: Marital & Parental Counseling at the Louisville Bible College on July 13-14, 2018.