One out of five
(or one out of four, depending on the source) individuals live with a
diagnosable mental illness in any given year. The population of the U.S. in
2017 was 325 million people. So that means that 65 million people are dealing
with some kind of mental health disorder right now. Whether it be more common
disorders like anxiety or depression, or more serious conditions like
schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (which yours truly lives with), the numbers
are staggering. Add to this the number of people dealing with addiction and
co-occurring disorders, this figure grows. What it all boils down to is that
many of us will deal with some kind of mental health challenge in our lifetime.
A couple of
weeks ago was the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King had a
prophetic vision of a day when all people would be able to live together in
peace. I too have a dream: a day when people no longer have to suffer from
experience as a person with lived experience as well as working in the field of
addiction, mental health, and advocacy, I have heard countless stories of
struggle and triumph over conditions that at times seem to be insurmountable.
Many times its from family members who are confused, frustrated, and even angry
about their loved ones circumstance.
One thing I say
is that having a mental health condition is not the person’s fault. Would you expect
a person to ask to have a heart attack or live with cancer? I think not. Why
should mental illness be any different?
There’s a song
by the group R.E.M. called “Everybody Hurts.” There are lyrics in the piece
that speak of the struggle go through:
“When your day is long
And the night
The night is yours alone
When you're sure you've had enough
Of this life
Well hang on
Don't let yourself go
'Cause everybody cries
And everybody hurts sometimes”
These words speak to the core
of what many people deal with, whether it be individuals themselves living with
mental health conditions or their loved ones. Mental illness does not
discriminate and can leave relationships wrecked in its wake. The thing that
makes it so difficult is that often people lack information on resources as
well as having to face the stigma and shame associated with mental illness. I have
a dream that one day people will no longer suffer in the dark abyss of mental
One simple solution is
empathy, the unspoken language of unconditional regard and understanding. If people
were able to demonstrate more empathy then maybe, just maybe, those who are
affected by mental disorders could get the support that is necessary to embark
on the road to recovery.
Yes, I have a dream but this
is one that can become a reality. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the
only one.” (John Lennon)
Time passed and
periodically I would check my Ancestry app. On almost the same day that Greta
first contacted me I opened up the app and a woman named Desaree appeared as a
second cousin match. I decided to send her a message to which she responded the
same day. Much like Greta a year prior, she said that she had been constructing
her family tree to learn more about her father and that side of her family.
It was then
that the circle was closed. Desaree asked certain specifics about my birth
father from the information that I had from the birth records I had received
from Child and Family Services, the agency that held my closed adoption papers.
Based on this information and that which she had on her father’s family, she
was able to tell me who my birth father was. This man, John, lived in the
Syracuse area and his profile matched that of the person identified in my birth
records. She shared her AncestryDNA family tree that allowed me to not only see
photos of John, but also other members of my birth family. It felt like
something out of the twilight zone and as I mentioned previously, was all quite
surreal. And on top of that, I actually did little, if any, research of my own.
The detective work was all performed by others.
July, 21, Suzy and I took a road trip to visit Charlotte at her home 45 minutes
north of Syracuse. When we arrived, like the time we first met, Charlotte and I
gave each other a great big hug. We all spent the next several hours talking (but
mostly me and Charlotte) and we had a wonderful lunch that she had prepared
using primarily vegetables and potatoes from her garden. It was a meal made
with the best ingredient: Love.
Later we took a
brief drive to look at Charlotte’s plot of land where she grows a variety of
veggies. It’s located on her friend’s property where he has cows and pigs. It
was pretty cool and definitely not something that Suzy or I, the city dwellers
we are, were accustomed to. But it was so refreshing.
Charlotte and I hugged, once again like we didn’t want to let go. It was a
“I love you
too,” I replied.
On our car ride
home, Suzy commented that Charlotte and I could be siblings because of the ways
we were similar, not just in appearance but in affect and personality.
Two days later
Charlotte sent me a Facebook message saying that she had uploaded her raw
Ancestry data to GedMatch, a website for DNA nerds to determine family
connections. I went on the site and upon review, it showed that Charlotte and I
have 1846.3 shared CentoMorgans (cm’s - DNA). This is quite a high number.
notified me that she had been in touch with a family “search angel” who
indicated that we could be half-siblings.
It was then
that I happened to go to the Facebook DNA Detectives closed group that
Charlotte and I belong too. I came across a post that was from a woman who
asked about the possibility of being a half-sibling based on the high number of
cm’s she shares with someone who she thought was a cousin. A person replied
with a chart that showed the number of cm’s and how they determine
relationships. As it turned out, roughly between 1300-2100 indicated either
grandparent/grandchild, uncle-aunt/niece-nephew, double cousin (where two siblings
marry two siblings from another family and have children, who would be double
cousins) and finally half-siblings. Ruling out the first three options then I
came to the clear conclusion that Charlotte and I are half-siblings.
sharing our joy of learning this wonderful information. This is the photo that
was taken during our visit together in July.
I ended up
speaking to Desaree again and she provided me with more information about my
father’s family. They were quite esteemed, including a first African-American
mayor of a New England city as well as other men in the family who were
represented in the Smithsonian Museum.
also connected with another cousin, Alan who lives in the Albany area, whose
mother knew much about our father’s life. He and I have spoken on a couple of
occasions and he even said that I resembled the men in the family.
And that brings
me back to today. When I consider my life and the many experiences I have had
that have led me to where I am, I cannot help but believe in a Power greater
than myself. I cannot fully explain the course of events that have transpired
in my lifetime. The sheer number of people who have served as “guides” in the
course of my life have demonstrated to me that God is real. Like I said
previously, you can’t make this stuff up and it can’t be explained.
So, you can
believe me, or not. If it were you, what would you say? Would you deny the
presence of a Higher Power? Would you say that this is all made up, or just
coincidence or chance? If you’ve read any of my other posts from the various
blogs I write I think you would see a theme and that is believe, have faith, work without ceasing and never give up. And
that there is a guiding force available to all of us, not just me.
God is simply
the name I choose to call something that is infinitely powerful. And that’s my
two cents, for what it’s worth.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
her own business (handcandymittens.com) 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
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.
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,
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.
KNOCK. “Hello Sarah.” KNOCK.KNOCK. KNOCK. Nothing.
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.
said, “She usually takes a walk to visit her friend everyday so I can have him
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.
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......