Advice From the Trenches

Advice from the Trenches: 23 and Me

Dear Dr. B and C,

I don’t know what to do. I am extremely upset and agitated, and I haven’t slept since I’ve found out. In a way, I feel violated all over again. I should tell you what happened. Thirty years ago, when I was 15, something terrible happened that I don’t want to get into, but it resulted in a pregnancy. It was a horrible trauma; I would have given anything to abort the pregnancy, but no one cared – I came from a family of religious conservatives who made me have the baby against my wishes. They put it up for adoption.

The adoption agency at the time said it was a closed adoption and that was that. I would never know of the child or in any way ever have contact again. The whole thing really messed me up. No one seemed to care about what happened to me; they treated me like nothing I felt mattered. Despite them, I survived and made a future for myself. I worked hard to become educated, then successful.  I married and have two children of my own. I had finally buried the past, even found tolerance for my intolerant family. 

This was all until three weeks ago when I got a letter from my first child, whom I have not seen for 30 years! It seems they were able to track me down because at some time in the past, both my sister and my daughter had gotten the 23 and Me the gene testing done. Apparently, it’s possible to find relatives by gene matching and filling in branches to make a family tree, even if some family members, like me, have not gotten the test done themselves. And it is not illegal.

Anyway, my husband wants to meet and greet and accept this person into our family; he has a genuine urge to know. I want it all to go away. I can’t sleep. I feel torn up inside, as if I am bleeding. I really don’t know what I want. I am not even sure how to go about thinking about this.

Dr. B: Wow. There really are no secrets or privacy in our data culture. You feel violated because in a way you actually are being violated. Just as when you were 15, no one is asking your opinion and you seem to have no control over what happens. There is a difference this time though – you are an adult now and you really do have control. If you decide you don’t want to meet them, you can write to them and tell them exactly how you feel. But I personally believe that real information is always far less damaging than one’s own imagination. Both you and your first child are adults now. The past was not your fault, but this person had no choice either. You don’t owe anyone anything, but you have to act as the strong adult you have become. What would this adult do, the person you now love and respect? Do that.

C: Whatever it is that you are most afraid of, the most painless thing to do is look it square in the eye. I know that feels counter-intuitive, but you can’t back up if you want to get free; you have to go through.

A while back, I was a counselor for a Reality Cam house up in Boston where a group of 20 somethings were filmed 24 hours a day, and I did counseling sessions with them once a week. As a therapy exercise once, I asked them each what they were afraid of. One guy was sick to his stomach every time he went to a social function alone. Many of them were afraid to try for things they wanted, because they couldn’t bear failing. A woman couldn’t ask her deadbeat roommate to move out. I asked them all to rate their apprehensive fear on a scale from 1 to 10. They all chose 8 or higher. Their therapy assignment for the week was to actually DO the thing they were afraid of. No one wanted to do it, but here’s the funny thing – every one of them, when asked to rate their fear after the assignment, chose 5 or lower. Why? “When I made myself walk in there, I had to deal with something real. There wasn’t as much room to be afraid.” Their imagination always turned out to be far worse than the thing itself.

Tina, you probably never really got over that childhood trauma. This is an opportunity to face your fear. Could it be a painful, damaging collision? Maybe. We all take a chance. But you also might see that something good came of that terrible experience. You have a child who wants to find you. You have a husband who is ready to face this with you. You aren’t that 15-year-old who no one is listening to anymore. Trust yourself. You can.

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