Saturday, August 11, 2018

Finding My Other Family (Part 1)

It has been a considerable amount of time since I last posted here. Between the other blogs I write  (BP magazine, the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network’s “The Journey” and The Mighty) and life itself, this one has gotten away from me.

But enough excuses.

I’m sitting on my patio, reflecting on the course of events of the last 14 months. It began with an email from a woman named Greta, who as it turns out, is my second cousin. She had found my information on AncestrtyDNA. This was on Father’s Day, June 18, the day before my birthday. And did I happen to mention that I am adopted?

Well, let me tell you, it has been quite a journey since then. Thanks to Greta and her mother Janet, I was able to learn about my birth mother, who was still alive and living in Alaska. Her name was Sarah and went by the nickname Sally. This is beyond ironic in that my older daughter is named Sarah and my younger daughter is named Lillie (after my mother who adopted me). That’s right. Both of my daughters are named after both my mothers. You can’t make this stuff up folks. I truly believe that this is how God works. God gives us these kinds of circumstances to show us that there are just some things we cannot prove through human means.

Anyway, Greta also shared information about three half-siblings that Sally had named Sylvia, Lisa and Joad. I was able to reach out to them and they were all wonderfully accepting and welcoming. I do realize that it didn’t have to work out this way. This was all so surreal. I’ve gone well into my 50’s never knowing anything about my origins and then BAM! it hits like a ton of bricks.

Now, before Greta contacted me, I had given up looking for any “matches” on Ancestry. I had reached out, to no avail, to several people who did not reply. But after Greta contacted me I reloaded the app, and lo and behold, someone popped up as a close family member, 1st cousin. Her name was Charlotte. I immediately sent her a message and she got back to me right away. We spoke by phone and, as it turns out, she was adopted too. She was born in Syracuse, which was interesting considering that I had learned that my mother had spent time there as well when she was in college. But Charlotte was able to confirm that we didn’t have the same mother (which was proven by our Ancestry data).

In October 2017, Charlotte and I met in Rochester, roughly equidistant from where we each live. It was in a quaint restaurant called Owl House, a wonderful eatery known for its great vegetarian menu (Charlotte is vegetarian as is her husband who joined her). I had arrived early and was on edge waiting for Charlotte’s arrival. When she entered the room, she had a huge smile on her face and we gave each other an embrace that felt like it lasted forever and that we didn’t want to let go.

Charlotte, her husband Jon, and I spent the next two hours chatting and getting acquainted. We were already “friends” on Facebook but this was the real deal. We talked about all kinds of things and the connection was immediate. It just felt right.
Charlotte has her own business ( where she repurposes sweaters and other apparel to make mittens and other and other cool clothing items. She’s quite talented. She offered me three pair of mittens to me to give to my wife Suzy and my daughters for Christmas. I offered to pay and she replied, “I don’t charge family.” I thought that was so sweet.

On the flip side, I had conversations with Sylvia, Lisa and Joad. They each filled me in, based on their own unique perspectives on our mother. As it turned out, Sally lived with a severe mental illness (which was the reason she moved to Alaska many years ago and likely accounts, at least in part, to my mental health concerns). Sylvia said that Sally was known as saying, “The lower 48 can’t handle me.”

In January, Lisa came to Buffalo for a three-day visit. We went to see Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit at the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts. One thing Lisa and I have in common is our love of music. We also took a day trip to Niagara Falls and Toronto. It was so much fun spending time with each other and getting to know one another. I’ve always said that the best way to get to know someone is to travel with them.

Time went on and I continued to communicate with my newfound family members. Shortly after I had learned about Sally, my cousin Greta had discovered her address and phone number. Unfortunately, Sally was very hard of hearing and would not keep her phone on. I did try phoning and even got through to the maintenance man of the apartment complex where Sally lived.

I remember nervously dialing the number and having him answer.

“Hello, I’m trying to reach Sarah (______). I’m a distant relative who she may not know and I was just trying to contact her.”

“You mean Sarah who lives in Aurora 3?” he replied.

“Yes,” I said, playing along.

“Ok,” he responded, “Let me go try to see if she’s in.”

My heart began to race. I could even hear his breathing as he walked to her apartment.


“Sorry,” he said, “She doesn’t hear well.”

“Well, if you see her do you think you could ask her to turn her phone on?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said, “She usually takes a walk to visit her friend everyday so I can have him ask her.”

“Thanks for your help,” I responded.
I tried calling a few more times with no luck. I then decided to write her a brief letter that included my phone number, address and email. In the letter I simply stated that I wanted to thank her and that I was fortunate to have wonderful parents and a family of my own. I also shared about the work I do in the mental health field. I also included a photo of my family and a card where I wrote:

Wishing you peace and love,

And that was the end of that. I sent the letter priority mail with tracking that required a signature for confirmation that it had received its destination. I didn’t get any kind of rejection response so I can only assume that it was received. But she never called or wrote.

Flash forward to March 27, 2018. I received a text from Sylvia stating that Sally had passed away from a brain ambulism resulting from a fall she had. According to Sylvia, Sally refused the treatment that could have saved her life. This was very sad for me to hear, knowing that now, even though the chances were slim to begin with, I would never have the opportunity to speak to her.

To be continued......

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Finding Hope with Bipolar Disorder

This vlog is about the experience I had in February, 1981 of having my first major psychotic episode which resulted from my bipolar disorder condition. The song I reference in the video is by the English group The The and is called "This is the Day." The lyrics that have meant so much to me are:
"You could have done anything, if you wanted
And all your friends and family think that you're lucky
But the side of you they'll never see
Is when you're left alone with your memories
That hold your life together, like glue"
image courtesy Pixabay

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Christmas Gift

In the early years of living with bipolar disorder I had the experience of being hospitalized twice on Christmas Day. On one of these particular days I was given a day pass to come home to spend the holiday with my parents. This was particularly difficult (and even more so for my Mom and Dad, I suspect).

This same scenario has been played out countless times over the years for many individuals. The simple act of going home for the day only to have to return to the hospital can be demoralizing. In many cases, those who are in an inpatient program don’t have the supports available to help them get a coveted day pass. For others, their condition is so severe that getting out for the day wouldn’t be advisable due to their lack of stability.

Regardless, the holiday season is difficult for many people who live with a mental health condition. The feelings of isolation and disconnection make an already hard time of year even harder.

And then there are those who live with substance use disorders. The family gatherings that often times are alcohol-focused can be tremendously hard for the person in recovery who is trying to remain abstinent. And with so many living with co-occurring disorders, it’s like the classic “double whammy” that makes this time of year one of the hardest to manage. Finding others who are supportive is crucial in getting through these days.

For me, over time as I progressed in my recovery, things got better. Once I got clean and stopped using, I experienced a newfound freedom; one that I had never previously had. This didn’t happen overnight, but as time passed things improved. Being released from the bondage of drug and alcohol use that kept me incapacitated for so many years was an incredible gift.

In my personal recovery journey, I attribute this freedom to several things. First, a sincere belief in a Power greater than myself. Second, family and friends who have been supportive in so many ways. And finally, a degree of persistence and perseverance that has created in me an indomitable spirit that has proven to help me overcome so many adverse situations in my life that would have otherwise broken my spirit.

The main thing that I have come to realize is that recovery is a process that has taken both time and hard work. Yes, I believe in miracles and I consider the life that I and so many others in recovery have is nothing short of a gift from God. And yes, trust me, I have been the beneficiary of God’s grace, in more ways than I can count. But as I say in my mantram, “RECOVERY IS POSSIBLE!”

If you find yourself in a difficult place this year, know that there is a Presence that loves you. Unfortunately, our society places so much value on the holiday season. And yes, there is the belief that it should be a happy time for everyone. But true happiness comes from within. With this understanding, you can realize that you are never truly alone.

However, if you know someone who finds themselves without anyone to spend the holiday, let them know that you care. Whether it be a visit or even a phone call, reaching out can make a difference. This is a gift that cannot be wrapped in a bow and paper. It is the gift of love. This is what the Christmas season is about. God’s love becoming manifest in a baby that would transform the world. And by following his example, we can make the world a less lonely place.

Wishing you hope, peace, joy and love in this wondrous season.

Be well! 

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Giving Thanks

It’s Thanksgiving Day. This is typically when many celebrate time with family and friends, watch football and if they are fortunate, have a fulfilling meal. And while this is the case for me as well today, I am feeling especially grateful.

I was put up for adoption at the age of six months. One of the many blessings I’ve had in my life is that I was raised by a family that gave me unconditional love and support, even through my period of struggle with mental illness and addiction. I would not be here today without the care and love I received.

As an adoptee, however, I always had questions: What were my birth parents like? What did they look like? What were the circumstances of my birth?

I spent well over 50 years with these questions. For much of this time I resigned myself to believing that I would never find anything out about my biological parents.

Finally, about two years ago I decided to request information from the New York State Adoption Registry. Several months after my submission I received a document that gave very little information; simply the age of my birth parents and their ethnicity.

But about a month or so later I received more detailed non-identifying information from the adoption agency that holds my adoption records. In this document, I learned some significant things. For instance, I learned that my parents had met in college. It also gave information on their ethnicity, appearance and even their interests. It also stated that my mother had blonde hair and blue eyes! Now that flipped me out considering that I’ve got dark hair and brown eyes. Didn’t see that one coming.

As a result, I decided to search further and sent for an Ancestry DNA kit. Once it arrived, I spit into the little tube, shook it up, and sent it in for testing. About 5-6 weeks later I received an email that my results were in. The first thing I saw was that my ethnic make-up is about 2/3 Caucasian and 1/3 African.

My report also had information on “matches” – people who shared some of the same genetic background I do. I attempted to contact a couple of these individuals with no success. Dismayed, I ended up deleting the app from my phone, thinking that I would never make a connection. All of that effort for nothing.

But then came the fateful day. It was Father’s Day, 2017, one day before my birthday. That evening I received an email from a woman who claimed to be related. I was dumbstruck and astounded at the same time.

This woman, Greta, explained that she had been trying to get information on her birth father’s family and that she and her mother Jan, who was assisting her, came across my Ancestry profile and subsequent match with another family member (who ironically wanted nothing to do with finding out any information).

We agreed to communicate with each other and I was on Cloud 9. We eventually confirmed through another genealogy website that we are second cousins. Greta and her mother then took on the task of searching on my behalf to find my birth mother, who they believed may still be alive.

It was at this time that I decided to reload the Ancestry DNA app on my phone. Shortly after having done so another person appeared as a match. In this case, the person, Charlotte, was identified as a “first cousin, close family member.” I couldn’t believe my eyes. I immediately sent her a message and she responded shortly afterwards. We set up a time to talk. When we spoke, I learned that she too was adopted, and like me, her mother was white and her father was black. We determined that our fathers must be brothers. Unfortunately, she knew no more than I did about our birth fathers. But nonetheless, we were thrilled to have made a connection.

The summer went on and I continued to correspond with Greta and Jan. Eventually, on October 29 I spoke with Greta and Jan again. This time they informed me that they were pretty certain that my mother Jane (not her real name) was still alive. Unfortunately, Greta explained that it was told to her that Jane lives with a serious mental health disorder. This would account for my life experience with bipolar disorder. I can’t say I was surprised to hear this although it was still very saddening. Greta also confirmed that I have three half-siblings. I couldn’t believe my ears.

Greta said she had more information to share and would be in touch shortly thereafter. That day I had to leave for the Beaver Hollow Conference Center (referenced in my last post). That evening, after having settled in, I received several emails. One was titled, “Pictures of Jane,” another entitled “Pictures of Half Siblings,” and the final one was “Important Information.”

I quickly opened the emails with the pictures and was astounded to see a picture of my mother from 1968 holding my oldest half-sibling Tammy (name changed). Jane had the biggest smile on her face. There were also a couple of other pictures, including one of Jane when she was about ten years old.

The pictures of my siblings were great as well. There was a group photo that included Tammy, my other half-sister Carrie, and my half-brother Tom (names changed). I was absolutely awestruck by all of this information. Greta explained that Tom had agreed to correspond through Facebook.

So, there I was, at this conference center, with no phone reception. Fortunately, there was wi-fi so I could at least text and Facetime with my wife and a couple of close friends. I felt alone and separated but I felt God’s presence comforting me.

Finally, on November 1, at around 11:30 pm I decided to send a message to Tom. At that moment, I got extremely anxious. Now, I’m not prone to anxiety but I was literally shaking as I typed the message. I started by saying, “Hi Tom. It’s a bit awkward to say, but how are you?”

And that’s where it began. We messaged back and forth for the next couple of days and then agreed to speak on the following Sunday. When the day arrived, I was so excited. I called Tom and we proceeded to talk for about 1 ½ hours. We had a wide-ranging conversation, much of which was about our own lives as well as that of Tom’s knowledge of Jane. I learned that she has not been a part of Tom and is sister’s life for many years. This is due to her mental health disorder and her estrangement from the family which was something that Tom and his sisters have come to terms with.

Later that week I also spoke with Tammy and Carrie. Each one of them was very open and welcoming, as was Tom. I felt an extra sense of welcoming and acceptance which I’m extremely grateful for this considering that in so many ways it could have been different.

Carrie has made plans to visit me and my family in the end of January and I’m hoping that we will have the opportunity to all get together in the not too distant future.

This past weekend I was able to meet Charlotte in person. It was such a wonderful experience. The simple fact that I was able to look someone in the eye and see a piece of myself was something I never thought I’d be able to do. Charlotte’s beautiful countenance shone brightly and we connected immediately. Her husband Jon accompanied her and his warm demeanor made our meeting just that much better.

Please forgive me for this extra-long post. There is just so much that I need to say. When I was at Beaver Hollow with my feelings being churned in a blender I came through the experience with a newfound sense of faith in God. I can say, without hesitation, that God is at work in my life. I mean, you can’t make this stuff up folks. Looking back at my life I have come to realize that God has manifested through the people in my life. And the circumstances of the last 5 months have served to prove that to me.

So, if you believe in God or not, believe that I do.

Be well!