A few weeks ago Vox did a piece about a 23andMe customer, who at 50 found his biological sister and his mother using the service. He’d been adopted. His sister never knew her mother had had a son that she put up for adoption. Their initial meeting was joyous, which we wrote about, but in the ensuing years their relationship soured. For adoptees using 23andMe – as well as the biological family who they may connect with – these reunions can be either joyous or fraught with anxiety. After the story in Vox ran, one of our customers wrote about her own experience complete with both the good and the bad. Her story includes the promise and pitfalls of connecting with lost family.
A year and half ago, 23andMe connected me with my maternal half-sister. This connection began as the stuff of fairytales but quickly devolved into something akin to an episode of “Mean Girls.”
We had formed an immediate bond over Facebook, Skype, texting, phone calls, and emails, communicating at a pace that over ran every other aspect of our lives. It was beautiful and exhilarating and fun, but everything is at 100 miles per hour. Until you crash. Within two months of our connection, she had cast me out of her life, showing me the rage on the flip side of her love. You rarely end up where you started, though. While my bond with her came to a heartbreaking end, I now embrace that separation as the catalyst for the amazing turn of events over the last year.
Like many adoptees, my identity has been a queasy dysphoria, a sense of separateness where connectedness was supposed to be. I grew up with a family in which no one looked, sounded, and thought like me. My identity was pockmarked with isolation and a knowledge that part of me existed in the shadows. My 30-year search for biological family was not so much a search for “family,” as a search for myself. I wondered if I would die without knowing this part of myself. I was even more terrified that, when I did find her and other family, they would dislike me.
Everyone has a story. I did, and so did my sister. She grew up with our mother, who was controlling and destructive. Although our mother had plenty when she died, my sister inherited nothing but a box of old pictures and a fear of abandonment. Our mother told my sister about me two decades earlier. She told me that, by the time we met, she had a vivid fantasy of the kind of person I would be. The problem was, her fantasy did not resemble who I am. Neither of us was really prepared for reality.
Cyberspace offers distance and deniability, even when the conversation seems never-ending. I still smile when I remember the first night we connected on Facebook, a six-hour chat with her, her husband, and my original family, while I accepted friend requests from total strangers and carried on open conversations between all of us on our pages. For five weeks, the pace was breathless. One of our aunts privately warned me later to slow down and be cautious, but I paid her no heed. I was like Sally Field clutching her Oscar — I found my sister, and she liked me. She really liked me!
When we finally met, I think I lost her at “hello.” I just was not what she expected, and the scars left behind by life with our mother became too much for her to overcome. During the week, I repeatedly begged her to open up about what was bothering her . After I returned home in another state, I called to tell her I had arrived safely. Despite the tension of the week, she told me, “I love you,” and hung up.
Within a week, I received an email from her telling me that me that we were not compatible. I begged her to give us more time, time to become family. I received two more emails, each written with blades more sharp than the last. My worst fear had been realized. I found my sister, and she hated me. She really hated me.
I grieved for my sister like she died. There was a time I would have done anything to repair the rift, but that time is long passed. There is a saying that everyone who comes into your life is there for a reason, but not everyone is supposed to stay. She may not have stayed in my life, but she did introduce me to our aunts and uncles with whom I have wonderful relationships. She also went on the painful journey of digging through that box of pictures our mother left to find some idea of who my father was. During those wonderful weeks before we met, she found his picture and name. Heartbroken after our tragic week, I turned my attention to finding the one person I had never intended to find. I found my father in a day, and I talked to him the next night.
In the last year, I have fallen in love with my father, the man who I grew up believing was heartless and cruel. Growing up, I never once pictured his face my head, but I only needed to look in the mirror. I look just like him. I have a wonderful stepmom and two younger paternal siblings, a brother who will one day conquer the world and a sister who is a rock. I traveled to meet them for the first time this summer. Being with them is home for me. I am forming an especially unique bond with my paternal sister. She is a young’un, 18 years my junior. During our hilarious talks in her living room that week, however, her old soul and my younger spirit found a common resting place in the middle somewhere. She has asked me to come back for Christmas, and I am going. I found my sister, after all, and she likes me. She really likes me!
As adoptees, we wait so long to fill this gap in our lives. It is natural for us to believe that the first relative we meet is the destination, rather than one more step in the journey. Despite how things ended with my maternal sister, I would not trade those first happy weeks for anything. And, without them, I never would have found my paternal family. In the end, it was all worth it, after all.