What it’s Like to be a Late Discovery Adoptee

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Texas Daughter, Darlene Coyne, learns at 52 that she’d been adopted as an infant.

Seven years ago, I was 52 years old, in the prime of my life, with a professional career, a stable marriage and three grown children. I was living outside Atlanta, GA and my brother and mother were living in Florida. My brother was headed out to Missouri to get his 5-year AA coin, so I asked him to bring my mother for a visit.

I loved my mother dearly and we had always been exceptionally close. I was born in Texas in 1954. After I was born, my parents adopted my Eskimo sister (Alice) and my American Indian brother (Steve) from Alaska. She had always told me that she’d spent eight years trying to have a baby, had several miscarriages and then finally had me, but she was never able to get pregnant again.

I was raised as the only “natural child.” My parents divorced when I was eight. We haven’t heard from my father since. I missed not having a father, yet we were better off without him. He was an alcoholic with an abusive nature.

My 21-year-old daughter was also home at the time of my mother’s visit. In the previous years, they had not gotten along well. My daughter had been diagnosed with Bipolar disorder and had been asking (justifiably) about our family’s mental illness history. My mother claimed that there was no possibility that the illness came from her side of the family.

That Friday night at the dinner table, my daughter kept needling my mother and my mother became nasty with her. We knew my uncle and maternal grandmother had a history of mental illness, so my mothers’ resistance to admit this was very frustrating. My daughter just wanted somebody to admit that her illness was inherited.

Their bickering got so intense that both my husband and daughter left the room. I followed my daughter upstairs. I wanted to comfort her, yet I also felt sorry for my mother. She was quite old by this time, and I repeatedly said, “She is my mother,” as if that fact would excuse her behavior. My daughter and I agreed that she had a right to know her medical history, and that my mother was wrong, but at this point in my mother’s life—I knew I couldn’t change her.

I returned to the kitchen. My mother was still sitting at the table looking dejected. “I have something to tell you,” she said. “You should sit down.” I sat.

At that moment, I worried that she was about to tell me her cancer had returned. Instead, my mother said: “I adopted you also—so she can quit blaming my family for her mental illness.”

I was stunned. Shocked. Speechless. I pulled away from the table. I just couldn’t believe her. Over the years my mother had lied about many things. Why would I believe her now when she had an ulterior motive to evade my daughter’s questioning?

I left to find my husband and started sobbing to the point that I could not even spit out the words to tell him what had transpired. Still sobbing, I returned to the kitchen and said to my mother: “How could you have done this to Alice and Steve? Pretending that I was yours all their lives.”

“Because I loved you so,” she said. My mind raced with thoughts of my childhood and how much we had all endured,
In addition to my two adopted siblings, I’d grown up knowing that my cousin Nancy was adopted. The only problem was, she didn’t know. I had always viewed adoption as a win-win situation, yet I’d been concerned that Nancy hadn’t known the truth. However, I wasn’t about to be the one to reveal the deep dark family secret. Nancy’s father (my mother’s brother) used to say he would “kill” anyone who told his daughter that she’d been adopted.

I cried so much that weekend that I lost a crown from my tooth. I initially cried for the utter sense of loss I felt. I suddenly had no family, no genealogy, no medical history, and possibly a different religion, since I was Jewish through my mother. I cried over the idea that I’d spent years missing a father and not understanding how he could have abandoned me, when really he wasn’t my birth father after all. I cried for the pain that Alice and Steve had suffered, all that time feeling so different from me. I cried for the fact that my mother was so callous, both in the delivery of her news and in her lack of understanding about why I’d be upset. She refused to apologize or accept any blame for keeping my story a secret.

On Sunday, when my brother returned to town, we told him nothing. When I was at the dentist Monday morning, my mother told him the truth. Steve was just as surprised as I was. Later that day, I sent an email to an older cousin asking if my mother’s story was true. Over the next two days, Mom kept telling me stories of how she got me, and the things she claimed to know about my birth mother. Apparently all of my adoption papers had been destroyed, and since it had been private, there was no agency to contact.

Over the course of the next several months, Amazon became my best friend. I ordered every adoption book I could get my hands on. They revealed aspects of adoption that I’d never considered before. The angst, anger, and feelings of loss, experienced by both the birthmothers and adoptees, were all new to me. During that year, I continued to cry, fueled by these many stories.

I cried for my birthmother. I cried for what I imagined she felt like being single (I assumed) and pregnant in 1954. I had worked with babies and mothers for years as a lactation consultant and cried as I imagined how my birth mother must have felt having to give her baby away. I cried for myself, and for the trauma I must have felt as an infant, when I was taken from my birth mother and handed to strangers. I cried for having been a fool when all of my cousins, aunts, and uncles knew the truth about me—but kept it secret.

I cried in frustration over the adoption and political systems that prevented me from accessing my birth records. I cried over the friends who couldn’t understand why I was sad and not able to “just get over it.”

I received a referral to a well-respected therapist. After we met, she admitted that she knew nothing about adoption, though she assumed it was like any other earth-shattering event. I did not return. I tried another respected therapist, but she was an adoptive mom and I was unable to get past that. I cried for a year—awake, asleep, in the gym, on walks—everywhere except at work. Most conversations with my mom ended with me angry and her so upset that she asked me not to call her.

I knew there had to be a name for people like me—people who learn they’re adopted as adults, but heaven help me, I couldn’t find it. Finally, about 10 months later, I came across the term “Late Discovery Adoptee” (LDA). There was little on the web, but at least now I could effectively label myself. I attended an intense adoption weekend in NY, but felt so different from the others. I had not grown up with the burden and angst of being adopted, yet suddenly I was in their world.

I accompanied my husband on his next business trip to Ft Worth, Texas, so that I could go through archived records. I found nothing. I must have called the Texas Department of Vital Statistics a dozen times that year, only to hear the same thing over and over: “You cannot have any information, unless you have your birthmother’s name.”

Later, I hired Bonnie, an intermediary from Texas, to help me with my search. She asked me to write a non-identifying letter, which she then forwarded to my potential birth mother. Apparently, another daughter intercepted the letter, and wrote to Bonnie that there’d been a mistake—that I could not be of any relation.

According to Texas law, that was the end of my case. Since then, I have petitioned the court, relaying the fact that I have a genetic disorder and need medical history for my three children. DENIED!

My adoption experience led to one positive outcome: I was convinced that my cousin Nancy deserved to know her truth. Nancy was an only child, and by that time her adoptive parents had died. Nancy was fortunate though in that her birth certificate had never been changed to reflect her adoptive mother’s place of birth. The document revealed her birth mother had been born in a small upstate New York town. When Nancy placed an ad in that town’s local paper, members of her birth family responded. Although all reunions can be fraught with issues, I was grateful Nancy had found this new family. Her birth parents had passed, but she discovered she had a full sister, a half-brother, nieces, nephews, cousins and aunts.

My adoptive mother died last year. We had made peace in the last two years of her life, but I never quite let myself love her as much as I had before. I forgave her because I knew that she truly loved me in her own way. While her love allowed me to become who I am today, I feel cheated from my genetic heritage, and denied the ability to fulfill my true potential. As Michael Crichton so eloquently once said, “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”

Image credit: Shutterstock

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About the author

Darlene Coyne

Darlene is a Georgia based family nurse practitioner and volunteers with a service-dog organization. She has also worked with mothers and babies for many years as a board-certified lactation consultant.

20 Responses

  1. Kim gullic

    I am 45 years old and just found out six months ago I am adopted. Everyone in my family knew but me and my younger brother. I have multiple health issues so I really need to get medical history. This has been overwhelming to say the least. Where do I begin? I live in Arkansas.

    Reply
    • Christine Koubek

      Kim, I’m so sorry for all that you are going through and can imagine it is quite a life upheaval. As you saw from Darlene’s story you are not alone. If you haven’t already, I suggest you read Joanne’s “The Adoption Domino Effect” as well. I’m sure one of them will weigh in here, but I’m also going to email them your comment and question directly. These are some resources to get you started:
      This is the link to the Arkansas Voluntary Consent Registry: https://dhs.arkansas.gov/dcfs/heartgallery/CFS_434_Jan_15_03.pdf. And this link is where you can find an overview of adoption laws in each state: https://www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws_policies/statutes/infoaccessap.cfm. Also, read the most recent story on our site from Rita Andrews about her use of DNA testing to locate some of her birth relatives. In the comment section that follows it you’ll find people who have used particular services. And, last but not least, this piece has some good questions you can ask when looking for an adoption competent therapist: http://secretsonsanddaughters.org/2014/02/21/adoption-therapist-leslie-pate-mackinnon-lcsw/. Best of luck with your search, Kim!

      Reply
    • Mara

      Kim, my husband learned six years ago that he was adopted. I remember those early months. There is a Facebook group for LDAs (late-discovery adoptees) that he is part of. Feel free to email me at maph88@gmail.com for more information. All my best.

      And Darlene, thank you SO much for this story.

      Reply
    • Joanne Currao

      Hi Kim,

      I am so sad to hear this. I can say that I definitely understand how you feel. I agree, get onto the mutual consent registry asap. Inquire with the state for your non-identifying information too. Are your adoptive parents passed or can you ask them for any information? I had my baptismal certificate, my order of adoption and my amended birth certificate. I used a private investigator who specialized in adoption search to find my mother and from there I got my health history for her side and the name of my father. I was then able to track down my father’s family and receive his health history. Interestingly, I had also done DNA from 23 and me, but they are not giving out health reports anymore. You can still submit a sample, and there are other companies that can run the DNA for some health information. I can help you there if you want to explore that option. I would also be happy to give you the name and contact information for my investigator. It took about 3 weeks for her to find my mom and she has a “no find-no fee” arrangement. Investigators are not cheap though. 23 and me is $99 and the additional medical information is nominal…something like $5 or $10 more from a different site if that is the way you want to go. Again, I am really sorry that you have had such a shock. I certainly understand. My suggestion as well would be to read some books and understand the journey you are finding yourself on. A few good starters are “The Primal Wound” by Nancy Verrier and “The Girls Who Went Away” by Ann Fessler. In addition, I can put you in touch with a therapist in NY who has been a wonderful resource for me for healing and knowledge. He is an adoptee himself. Let me know if I can help. Big Hugs!!!! It will be ok.

      Reply
    • Darlene Coyne

      Hi Kim, I feel for you! I really think there are no words to describe the feelings we experience when we realize our entire lives have been a lie and we are the butt of the joke. All of the suggestions you have been given by other responders are very good. I would grille your adoptive parents if still alive for ANY tidbit of info, first name, last name, profession, etc. Call the state vital records and find out if there was an agency involved, if so, contact them. Find out the court which granted your adoption and petition it to unseal your records for medical health reasons. My judge in Texas was heartless, but today I spoke with a friend who had a nice judge in Maryland who unsealed her records, you just never know. Hang in there and be kind to yourself, this is truly a shock to the soul.

      Reply
  2. Di

    Hi Darlene,
    Thank you for telling your story … so many similarities to my own … your ‘mother’s’ sense of entitlement to keep the secret of adoption even though you grew up with two adopted siblings. Telling you of your adoption could have been so natural. I am pleased that your daughter had a pivitol role in the secret being exposed.
    Take care as you search for yourself in this.
    Di

    Reply
  3. Kristi

    Oh your story just touched my heart! I found out I was adopted at age 21, the baby of a family of 5. I was supposedly the “joint baby” between my parents in their second marriages. The other 4 were from their previous marriages. (1 from mom and 3 from dad) My parents waited one afternoon when I was coming home to pick up my 1 year old, who they had been babysitting for me, told me she was napping and we needed to talk. I seriously thought someone had died in the family. Little did I know it was going to be me and the identity I had known for 21 years! My mom sat across from me and just blurted it out……my dad, when I looked at him with disbelief was crying. I think I went numb, angry, furious and hurt all at the same time. EVERYONE in my family knew, including my sisters and brother, and no one had ever said a word to me about it! It took me nearly six months before I would speak to them again. I guess now looking back, I was processing and grieving. It did dawn on me however, why am I so mad, these people are my parents with no doubt, they raised me, through their influence and guidance with me, I am who I am today! I am quite thankful for them and the life I lived…..now they are both gone from this earth and I wonder the opportunity to find my records. I live however in one of the toughest states…CA. So I will continue the plea with the courts, I don’t feel empty though, I am morbidly curious!

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    Reply
    • Darlene Coyne

      Thank you taking the time to write and share your feelings, which truly are indescribable. What i cannot figure out is why i would learn of this secret at my age and not be able to do anything about it…

      Reply
  4. Lynne

    Darlene, I totally relate to your experience. I found out I was adopted 11 years ago, after both of my adoptive parents had died. Everyone in my mother’s family knew my sister and I were adopted….everyone but us! Our parents should have told us. They took those secrets to their graves. Anyway, I managed to get my original birth certificate from the state of Illinois in 2012 and that document really opened doors. I worked with a wonderful search angel who put me in touch with a half-sister on my birth mother’s side. I did autosomal DNA testing with Family Tree DNA. You might want to check that out. I am still searching for family on my father’s side. I know some of my DNA cousins must be from his side of the family but I haven’t been able to connect the dots yet. I have no idea who bio dad is and it’s possible I’ll never find out. Thanks for sharing your story and all the best to you, Darlene.

    Reply
  5. Natalie Jones

    If you haven’t done so already, you should sign up for autosomal DNA testing, either with FTDNA or 23andMe or both. You’ll find a lot about your heritage and may even find relatives!

    I can understand how you feel. Although I found out I was adopted when I was about 9 years old, my adoptive parents hadn’t planned on telling me, and even after it slipped out, there were still a lot of secrets that were kept.

    I wish you luck with finding your biological family without the help of the state of Texas. How they can keep non identifying information from you is a mystery to me!

    If your birth mother’s daughter replied to the letter stating that the intermediary made a mistake, how could they take her word for it?

    Reply
    • Darlene

      It is all so frustrating. I have repeatedly asked the intermediary to try again, but she refuses. No one not in these shoes can appreciate the utter helplessness those of us searching feel.

      Reply
  6. Katrina

    I too know this feeling too well, I found out a couple of months before my 40th birthday, this was about 4 years ago. I’ve come a long way but the fact that so many people knew the biggest secret about me, I still struggle with…

    Reply
  7. Gaye Tannenbaum

    Oh do I know this feeling. I found out at age 31.

    Thinking about my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins…

    “YOU….ALL…KNEW!!!!”

    When all hope appears lost…there’s DNA testing. Ask me.

    Reply
    • Christine Koubek

      Thank you for taking the time to comment, Gaye. Even as an adoptee, I didn’t know the term “Late Discovery” until I met Darlene. She had told me how hard it was to find others online with this experience. So happy you connected with her story.

      We’d love to hear yours!

      Reply
      • Di Dunning

        Thank you Christine for adding in this category. In a support group I attended, other adoptees who had known for most of their lives, just shook their heads in disbelief and said “how could you not know.” I wonder if that contributes to the difficulty I have identifying my loss, grieving and moving on.

        Reply
        • Christine Koubek

          It’s an important category, and one I didn’t know there was a term for until I met Darlene Coyne (whose story is on this site) and she told me how hard it was to find other late-discovery adoptees after she discovered her adoption. While not as late as some of you folks (I found out at age 13), I can relate to some of the feelings you all have written so poignantly about, and I’m so very happy to see so many late discovery adoptees connecting with one another through their stories.

    • Katrina

      Hi Gaye – I’m interested in hearing about DNA testing and what you discovered….thanks
      Katrina

      Reply

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