I was born on Valentine’s Day, 1955, in Paddington, Sydney and grew up in country New South Wales, Australia, believing I was the third of four children, and the only daughter of Dutch immigrants. Despite being only five months younger than my older brother, I never suspected something was amiss.
I had considered myself a medical marvel to survive, but it was a lie, not only about me, but about my “almost” twin brother, too. My mother even managed to keep this secret from her family in Holland.
Decades later, when I was 43-years-old, I approached my mother to find out more information about my estranged late father. I needed to know more about our family’s medical history after my third child died from a congenital heart defect, and our next child was born with a disability.
My mother adamantly told me that the only thing I needed to know was that my father was bad (in phrases I won’t repeat). She refused to speak any further about him, so I arranged to meet with a beneficiary named in my father’s will to try to get more information.
Towards the end of the conversation with this woman, she mentioned my family’s secret adopted child, but she did not know which of the four of us it was. I knew the only way to find out if it had been me, was to write to the Department of Welfare.
In October 1998, I received a letter in response to my “Request for Confirmation of Adoption.” That moment is forever etched in my memory. I sat alone in my car and read a letter that challenged everything I had ever known or believed to be true about myself:
Our records indicate that you were adopted. Many people find it distressing to have their adoption confirmed, even when they have suspected it for many years. If you would like to discuss this with a counsellor, please do not hesitate to phone and ask to speak with a counsellor on duty.
I didn’t phone a counselor—I phoned the person whom I had known for forty-three years as my ‘mother.’ The fact that I’d discovered my adoption shocked her. She felt betrayed. Whereas our phone conversations had always ended with “I love you Diana,” after that day, she never assured me of her love again.
I cannot describe the physical and emotional pain I endured from her rejection. I found some consolation in finally understanding why it was that I had never felt a bond or deep love for her. Our relationship had always seemed to be based on what she needed from me— and I could never provide enough.
Despite this, I agonized over what to do with my newly found information. Should I let it go, or search for my true identity? I struggled with feeling responsible for her pain, though in time, I learned that this was a by-product of adoption.
Worse yet was learning my three brothers, and their wives, knew I was adopted 20 years before me. I was the last to know.
The next decade was dominated by my search. I learned that my birth mother had also moved to South Australia and lived only 40 kilometres away from me. Our relationship was respectfully distant, and I am thankful to her for that. She provided my family history, circumstances of my birth, and information about my father in the years before she passed away.
I learned that they’d decided to relinquish their parental rights prior to my birth and that my mother went home on the fourth day of her confinement. I, however, remained in the hospital for a month, then moved to another location for two more months before joining my adoptive family.
There were some gems to savor in her family history—she was the granddaughter of a knight of the realm in England— although her father, shell-shocked and dishonorably discharged from the army after serving in Gallipoli, was considered a disgrace to the family name, and eventually disowned.
As for my father, my mother told me that he was Greek. After they’d each heard their parents arguing about my impending birth, they decided it would not work to keep me. I went from being double Dutch to half Greek, which explains my dark hair, eyes, and propensity to break plates.
My birth father went on to become an orthopedic surgeon. After googling his name one night, I read his obituary in an orthopedic magazine. Apparently, he had been a wonderful doctor, husband, and father. I had written to him twice, shortly after I found out I was adopted, and again five years later. Now I knew why my letters were met with silence.
Since I discovered my adoption, the most difficult parts of my journey have been extricating the effects of adoption on my mind, body, and soul. I lacked the resilience to cope with what life had thrown at me, and my default position became one of despair, detachment, or avoidance.
As time unfolded, my preoccupation with looking after other people to the neglect of what I wanted and needed, led me to study social sciences and counseling. My post-graduate counseling theory studies gave me a scaffolding in which to understand the effects of my adoption experience, the profound effects of loss, grief, and the trauma of attachment disruption.
I am trying to reclaim my soul—my identity—and something equating to agency to live as an adult rather than reacting as an insecure child. There was no loving adult to comfort me after my birth. There was no secure adult to parent me, or teach me social skills, or how to cope well.
And I finally understand how the various forms of family abuse, separation trauma, on-going complex trauma, and neglect have caused me to react defensively to others. Often, I arm myself for a fight as if in a life or death situation, which is often out of proportion to the actual situation. It’s exhausting.
Seven years ago, when I was overwhelmed by the concurrent illnesses of my daughter and my two mothers, I began therapy. My therapist recognized my lack of essence, or presence, as I sat in his room reading my notes, unable to describe what I was feeling.
He has provided a safe space to cry years worth of pain, to speak and feel heard, and to be accepted despite my mistakes and weaknesses. It has been a place to learn the skills I need to live. Through this inner work of psychotherapy and hypnosis, I have met my demons and knit together some of the pieces of identity that were fragmented after my birth.
I continue to reclaim whom I am, but am left with the disquieting evidence that perhaps there is no way back from the life-long effects of my adoption. Every day I learn to settle my physiology and be gentle with others and myself.
Editor’s note: March 21, 2013 was a significant day in Australia’s adoption history. On that day, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard gave a moving apology on behalf of the Australian Government to people affected by forced adoption or removal policies and practices (video below). The Australian government’s “Find & Connect” website provides links and information for Australian adoptees to search for records and connect with support services.
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