Michelle says growing up she felt very different from her adoptive family because she looked completely different from them. When she was a teen she embarked on a voyage to reunite with her birth mother, traveling back to the UK where she was born. Seeking some of the basic answers to her identity and acceptance by her biological mother, her trip was going great, until the neighbor came over and asked who Michelle was. What happened next became a pivotal moment in Michelle’s quest to discover herself.
But the acceptance and love that Michelle was looking for were still out there and they came from a person that she didn’t even know existed. She located her half brother in Spain, and was able to he relay the final emotions of their dying father, bringing some peace to Michelle.
And climbed back as a teen. I just remembered, I don't know how to do this, but I know that these people aren't the ones to give me my truth and I'm either gonna find it myself or I'm gonna die not knowing, and I wasn't willing to live a life not knowing.
Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?
This is Who Am I Really? A podcast about adoptees that have located and connected with their biological family members. I'm Damon Davis, and today you're going to meet Michelle. She told me she grew up feeling very different from her adoptive family because she looked completely different from them. Michelle reunited with her birth mother as a teenager traveling back to the United Kingdom where she was born. She was seeking some basic answers to her identity and acceptance by her biological mother. Things were going great for them until the neighbor came over and asked who Michelle was. It became a pivotal moment in Michelle's quest to discover herself. But the acceptance and love that Michelle was looking for was still out there and it came from a person that she didn't even know existed. I asked Michelle about her journey and what adoption was like for her growing up. Michelle starts us off with the events that brought her into this world. Her parents weren't able to keep her. So Michelle was placed in foster care and it was there even in those early days where people placed judgment about her existence.
Well, I was born in England. I go back to that because it's really part of the whole journey of identity for me. Uh, I was born in England. Mother was British, father was Spanish. Um, I was a product of their affair. My mother at the time was married. She had three children and my father was single, a bachelor. They had an affair. I was the product of that and it was quite a scandal actually at the time. And I was secreted away into foster care. My birth father said he didn't want to be a father, didn't want to raise me. Birth mother had a choice to make, you know, she couldn't keep me. And she looked to keep her family intact with her husband and her three children. In foster care in the U K I was labeled because of the circumstances around me. You know, it was labeled in my foster records, illegitimate dark, because I had the coloring of my birth father peculiar looking because I was very much, you know, was identified as an ethnic child.
You saw all of this information in your records?
Yeah. Yeah. I've, I've seen it in my foster records.
And you know, it's, it's interesting because I don't know, you feel that even if you aren't given it in the, in the beginnings, you know, even if you don't see it in black and white, there's something about the judgment, um, that you feel, I think even at the youngest of ages, you know, you can feel that negativity surrounding you and you can definitely feel the weight of judgment.
You can feel how you're perceived.
You can feel yes, how you're perceived. And so a lot of that fell on my young shoulders.
Michelle was adopted by Americans and brought to this country to be raised. Her appearance made her feel different and she was often reminded of it. But her inability to share more about her heritage made her feel incomplete.
But I look like no one in my family. I had long black hair, big brown, almond shaped eyes, Mediterranean skin. My family was Caucasian, fair skin, blue eyes for the most part. And I did. I stuck out and people would ask, well, where are you from? And I just remember feeling so different. And I also remember feeling such a, uh, such an overwhelming sense of being silenced because I didn't know how to answer the questions because I really didn't know. I knew a certain amount of my history, but I didn't know all of it. And so there were pieces and holes that left me feeling disempowered and certainly far, far away from what would have been a true identity. My name was changed upon being adopted. My culture, you know, shifted, uh, my family shifted, everything changed. And in that space is quite a void.
Michelle's adopted parents had two biological sons of their own, but her mom really wanted a girl. Her American parents tried to adopt while living in Taiwan, but it wasn't until they lived in the UK that they found their daughter. Unfortunately, as Michelle grew older, her mom used some damaging language about Michelle's adoption that made Michelle feel like she always had to be at her best. To top it off, her distinctive appearance, contrast it against her family members, set her clearly apart from them, a constant reminder of her adoption.
So, there's no doubt that I was wanted, you know, um, very much so by my mother for sure. And I know by my father too. But, um, I think all of that was just expressed differently. I grew up in a family where my mother would say things to me like, I saved you from that situation. And so I had a sense of needing to be always grateful and in some ways always perfect in her eyes because I was convinced as a child and for a long time in my life that imperfect things get sent back and perfect people get sent away. So the, the quest for perfection to always be seen as perfect, grateful, always striving to make others proud, being a pleaser, those behaviors quickly I think came into, uh, into play in my life.
Wow. Can you give me an example of how that happened?
Well, I would never, you know, number one, I was always very hard on myself. I wanted to just be the best because I really felt like if I was the best and whatever that meant to me at that time would, would equal safety for me and security. And so I wanted to make the best grades. I didn't want to disappoint. I wanted to be the best in school and my ballet company or you know.
You wanted to be good enough to be kept.
I wanted to be good enough to be kept. And so that became my identity is the girl who is striving everyday in every way to be good enough. Even though deep down inside she could not figure out why she felt so unworthy of love of being adopted even life. To be quite honest with you, I just felt like, well sometimes maybe God makes mistakes and I'm just one of those mistakes and I'm just going to have to figure out how to live with that identity.
I was going to ask with regard to your mother's remarks of I saved you from that situation? Did you perceive that as her sort of saying, I'm a great person because I saved you? I've heard some people say that their parents made these offhanded comments accidentally. Uh, but some people made these comments very, very intentionally and I was kind of wondering which one you felt your mother fell into.
Well, I think sometimes it would depend on the situation. Um, I think when she made that particular comment to me, I think she very much knew what she was saying and I think it was a way of correcting me in some way or shifting me back if, if there was ever, maybe if she saw me as not acting as if she would like me to do or there was a behavior that she was not pleased with, she would remind me. And I think what that did for me, it, it, it would put a little fear into me that, okay, what she's saying is she saved me from something and in this moment I am not pleasing her. And so if she saved me from something, then there's the risk that she could send me back to that. I don't think she meant it. I don't think she ever had a clue the overriding impact that would have on me emotionally and mentally.
To live in that kind of world where you feel things are very fragile, love is fragile.
Michelle said her mother's words ultimately made her feel that her love might be conditional. Making that love fragile in Michelle's mind. She got the feeling her mother felt she had done something exceptionally altruistic for taking on another child. But her mother also expressed her love for Michelle.
I think my mother did feel that she had done something exceptional in adopting me. You know, people would say that like, what a good person you are for taking her in. Um, they would say, people would say to me, what a, what a lovely thing your parents have done. And so I do, I do remember my mother saying, well, we're, we're, we're, the ones were really blessed. I remember hearing her say that as well. So I'm, you know, I, I never point fingers of judgment. I, and I do believe that everyone does, you know, for the most part, the best that they can in the situations. But I think it's, there's a level of awareness that I'm trying to help, um, within this conversation of what it feels like to live in the skin of adoption and how we perceive things versus how others might perceive what they're saying or what they're doing.
Yeah, I could see how her comment could have been completely innocent and, um, and possibly factual to be honest with you. You know, it's entirely possible that she did save you from a very challenging situation, but the choice of words, the moment at which it said, and as you've said, the backdrop of your own emotions as an adoptee who already feels like you don't look like your family, you could see how just without the precise careful selection of certain words at the right time could go awry.
Michelle's adopted parents both passed away just a few years ago in 2016 she says she really healed a lot with them during her journey in her loving family and she knows they would want her to be open and honest in sharing her story for the benefit of other adoptees. Michelle conveyed the challenges she had feeling validated in her existence when she questioned why her first family gave her up and her adoptive father seemed to change after her arrival.
We healed a lot of things in my, uh, journey with him and in that, you know, sweet family. Um, but my father was an alcoholic for all of my growing up until, you know, my twenties, my, my dad was an alcoholic and, um, he was not really present emotionally for me. So the other side that I got was, you know, I had, um, a birth father who, who stepped away physically, you know, from being in my life in that way. And I had an adoptive father who emotionally, um, was not there for me. And his physical presence sometimes was really well all the time, actually, during that section of my life was really challenging. Um, and you know, my father would say to me things like, you know, I, we got you as a gift for your mother and however you turn out is really her responsibility, not mine. And so I think just, you know, there was the constant for me, um, constant reminders or information coming in that I was something that could be sent back, you know, re-gifted, if you will, or however you want to term it. Um, life just seemed, um, there's, there seemed to be, um, the feeling day in and day out that I was walking on eggshells. And that was hard. It was hard.
I'll bet. And especially as you go into your teenage years when any child is questioning elements of their own identity, you've got the undercurrent of being an adoptee and this feeling of, you know, there's a, there's a return policy on my life. I could go, I could go somewhere else. That's gotta be very, very challenging to deal with.
Yeah. And also, you know, just feeling that, you know, I had heard stories that before my adoption that my dad was like, like, a great dad. You know, my brothers would say he, um, played baseball with us and, and then things changed after my adoption. And so I really took in the fact that or the belief at the time that I just must have, I just must've been bad because what would make my first parents turn away and then what would make, um, my, my adoptive father not desire a relationship with me. Um, and perhaps was I, the cause of his drinking was I the cause of his misery, was I the cause of my parents discord in the house, you know, lots going on there.
Michelle decided in her teens that she wanted to search, hoping that a connection to her biological mother could help fill the emptiness she was feeling. Her adoptive mother was supportive of her reaching out and suggested Michelle write a letter. But to who?
I was about 15, I, I felt such a void. I just felt such a hole deep within me. And I remember saying to my parents, I really want to reach out to my birth mother. I'm, I'm aching and I, I want to see if I can reunite with her. And this was in my teens and my, my mother said, well, why don't you write a letter? I didn't know who to write the letter to, but I wrote a letter to my birth mother's husband who had been in the Royal Air Force. And I addressed it to him, but I addressed it to an address, um, within the RAF. And I remember saying in the letter, if you, if you've opened this letter, whoever opens this letter, please don't throw it away because I need an angel right now.
It arrived in someone's hands. That person, I'll never know who it was, was an angel. Read the letter, um, did a little research and found where my birth mother and her husband were living and forwarded the letter on and it arrived to my, my birth mother's husband, his name is Jim. And he wrote me back. I got a letter in the mail several days later and it said, if you are who I think you are, I want you to know that my wife has been hurting ever since the day I made her let you go. Before I talk to her, before I present her with this letter, I need to know. I need verification that you are who you say you are. Do you have your original birth certificate? Which I did. I sent a copy and he wrote me back and he said, I've spoken to my wife, your mother, and she desperately wants to see you. And thus began my, um, my journies back to England to reunite with my birth mother and my first reunion. Um, I had a lot packed in my head about what that would look like and it wasn't at all necessarily, um, that, but it was a huge lesson for me.
With that news, Michelle made plans to travel to England to meet her biological mother. She left America with certain ideas about what their reunion would look like, but the reality was very different and taught her some valuable lessons.
Fantasy was that I would arrive and she would embrace me and immediately claim me as her daughter and give me my identity back and answer all the questions that I was aching to have answered about her and my father and their time together. All of it. I wanted truth. That's all I asked, you know, and I wanted to feel like I wasn't a secret anymore.
You know, I just felt like I'm a secret. I'm living alive and there are people who are my parents who I, I am kept secret by, you know, I, I want to not live under the veil of secrecy because it's, you know, I felt like it was killing me, you know, and I want to know the truth and I think every adoptee deserves that. The truth.
Michelle remembers very well getting off the plane at London's Heathrow airport and immediately knowing who her mother was in the crowd. While they look very different from one another, Michelle recognized many of her own physical characteristics and mannerisms in her mother. But in those first moments, she got her first clue that the identity she sought might not be found with this reunion. Still, their visit started off strong as they sought to build a connection to one another. But the final day of Michelle's trip changed everything.
Reuniting with my mother. I can tell you that I remember distinctly meeting her in Heathrow airport and seeing her in a crowd and just knowing it was her, because our, our, our coloring is completely different, you know, I'm very Mediterranean. She's got these, you know, sort of peachy, creamy skin and blue eyes and brunette hair. She's lovely. But I, the physicality of our beings was so strikingly similar.
In your body type, the way she moves.
Body type, the way she moved, the way she laughed, the way she would throw back her head when she laughed. I mean, it was just me and it, it was stunning to me just to watch it in real time. And I remember hugging her and I remember her calling me, um, Julie, which was my birth name, the name that she'd given me after my birth father Julian. And, and then I said, well, my name is Michelle. And she goes, Oh, that's right Michelle. I'm so upset that they would change your name. That was the first thing she said to me, so there's identity, right? Well, who am I? The first few days were, you know, pretty magical and she wanted to draw my baths and she wanted to comb my hair and things. I think we were both trying to make up for lost time and I would pretend and fantasize, um, in quiet moments what it would've been like for Julie to play in, in my mother's garden and to be in that world.
And then one, one afternoon, I was sitting outside. It was actually, it was, you know, sunny day in England and, and warm. And my mother was outside and I went to sit with her and a neighbor came from across the street. This is about a day before I was leaving. And the neighbors said to my mother, Oh, who, who do we have here? And my mother had this look of panic in her eyes and I could sense it. And all of a sudden, the brightness that I had been experiencing with her, just she and I could feel the darkness closing in. I just felt it. And my mother looked at me and she looks at her neighbor. She looked back at me and then she looked back up to the neighbor and said, well, this is Michelle, she is. And she paused and I was screaming from inside, please tell her that I'm your daughter.
And she said, she's a relative from the United States.
And I remember just, it felt shattered inside. And the neighbor walked away. And I looked at my mother and I said, why couldn't you have told her the truth in that moment? And she said, I didn't think she needed to know it wasn't any of her business. And I said, but it's not the truth. I'm your daughter. And I went back, I left that place. And I think what started sort of the journey of understanding for me that no one can give me my identity but me, that that is something that it is a right, it's not a privilege. It's a right to know who you are and to discover that. But I was looking to my birth mother to do that for me. She didn't hold that power. I held the power for that and flying back as a teen, I just remembered, I don't know how to do this, but I know that these people aren't the ones to give me my truth.
And I'm either gonna find it myself or I'm gonna die not knowing. And I wasn't willing to live a life not knowing. It was actually a gift. You know how sometimes the hardest, toughest, most painful moments are gifts? I didn't know it at the time, but there was something, there was a seed that was planted inside of me in that moment when my mother denied, you know, my identity, my true identity to the neighbor, that this is something that I have to give myself. If I am looking for others to do it, I will forever feel like a victim. And I didn't want to be a victim. And I remember I became very quiet and very withdrawn. I felt so hurt and I didn't feel like I could express that to her. I just thought, I can't talk to her about this because she's not going to understand what she just did. And I know she didn't mean it. I mean she was, she was saving herself in that moment, you know? And I, and I have to have to, you know, looking back at it, I didn't see it, but looking back at it, she was innocent in that moment. She, she was trying to, to protect herself, to protect her image, her reputation, whatever was going on in her own mind. It had nothing to do with me, but at the moment it felt like it had everything to do with me.
During Michelle's visit, her biological mother was still married to her husband, the victim of the extramarital affair. He took her out for dinner so they could chat one-on-one. She said it was awkward, but it began the healing between them and launched them on a journey to forgiveness.
I know it was difficult for Jim, but one night he took me out to dinner, just he and I, um, we went to a pub and the local pub and we were eating. And it was, I felt it was a little awkward, you know, looking at the man who was, you know, probably the key reason that I was, you know, put into foster care. Um, but he looked at me and he said, I need you to know something. The moment that I literally took you from your mother's arms, the moment I put you into the arms of the foster mother, that moment is the moment where I lost my soul. And I haven't gotten it back since. Wow. And, um, I looked at him and I felt I felt a great deal of compassion for this man who in that moment knew nothing else to do but what he did. He did say to me, you know, if I had only known then what I know now, I would never have made that decision. And things happen for reasons and I tell him. I know, I tell him and I still do. You know how much I forgive him and I love him and that I understand that that was a very difficult chapter in all of our lives. Um, but that I'm healthy and whole because I've chosen to be healthy and whole and so he need not, um, feel separated from his soul or his spirit. And I have also said to him that it's not my responsibility to give him his soul. That all he has to know that he is forgiven.
That's, yeah. Wow, that's amazing.
Forgiveness is freedom. It's freedom. It may seem like the most difficult mountain to climb and in that forgiving, I even forgave myself for the self criticism for the self, you know, abused is the many ways I told myself for so long that I wasn't good enough or that something must be wrong with me or I had to also to forgive myself and set it all free. Just let it go and free yourself. And I would say that to every adoptee, you know, forgive, forgive, forgive, all because in that forgiving and that act of forgiveness, you will ultimately find your freedom and your identity. You cannot find your identity.
Right. That's very well said.
Michelle told me that after the trip she returned home and didn't really tell her family about the incident or how it made her feel. At 15 years old, she quickly returned to what she called people pleasing mode. Fast forward to Michelle in her thirties she had two sons, one biological to herself, another one who was adopted from Russia and she was in the process of adopting her daughter from Ethiopia. Her family was growing but she still had another branch on her biological family tree to explore. Something was stirring deep within her that her biological father was sick and she needed to try to find him. She contacted a friend of hers who was a private detective. Michelle was able to locate one of her biological father's friends who had lost touch with him and also wanted to help Michelle search.
He calls me and he says, I've, I've just found out that Julian just recently, not long ago, passed away, and I said, well, that's not possible because my friend who is a private detective, just sent me the photo of his home and he goes, I'm so sorry I, I'm so sorry, but he's passed. And literally within two minutes I get another phone call from my friend and she said, Michelle, your father is not alive. He's not living. And I, I just felt so many things in that moment almost like, well that's, that's the kind of abandonment, that's too final. I've not had the chance to stand face to face with him and I had anger. I was realizing that had some anger at my, at my birth father. And why, why couldn't he have reached out over the years? You know, why had, how could he just leave me in this way?
Then I got another phone call from my friend and she said, listen, you have a brother. And I go, well I don't have a brother. She goes, you have a brother and you need to call him. Cause I called him and I told him that he has a sister and he wants to talk to you and he's your father's son. And he didn't know he had a sister. And so I said, okay, okay, I'll call him. But you know, it's midnight there. I wait till tomorrow. And she said he's just learned he has a sister. Do you think he's going to sleep tonight? I said, well, maybe you've got a point. I called him and he answers the phone and he, I said, is this Andre? And he said, yes. And I said, this is Michelle, your sister. And he said, I know.
Oh my gosh.
And we started crying and we met, we reunited, Andre and I, in Spain.
And during our conversations he, you know, told me that about a month before my father died that he said, I have a daughter out there somewhere.
Yeah. And he said, I thought he was, you know, he was sick and I thought he was speaking out of his head at the moment. And I just said, yes, dad, you've got a daughter. He said, I know now that he was trying to share his truth with me, the truth that he kept secret for all of his life. That he had a daughter. And that truth was such a beautiful gift. I said to Andre, you'll never know what you gave me because the only words I know that my, I was told my father spoke of me was I don't want to know when the child is born. And so for you to tell me that, he said, I have a daughter out there somewhere tells me that he did want to know when I was born. And in fact he had found out that he had a daughter.
Mhmm, that's right.
And what, and what that speaks to me is that he loved me. And what that also says to me, suggested to me is that he thought about me over the course of his life, probably more times than I can count. And I was important to him enough to speak the truth four weeks before he passed away. And it was a beautiful gift. And it's an amazing story. It really is.
Gosh, that's, that is so powerful. That must have filled your heart. I mean, this man has basically sent you off. Another man has taken you from the arms of the woman who gave birth to you and passed you on to yet another man who is not accepting of your presence. And then it all comes back full circle when you've learned that he has breathed the words of your existence to his son. That's a, that's a deep, deep bond, you know, parents to children. And for him to say something to his child before he passed away is incredibly powerful. Wow.
It is. It is a beautiful, it's a beautiful gift. And I tell you, I think there was a lot of healing done for me in that moment because all I ever wanted honestly was just to feel claimed and the words that my birth mother couldn't speak, this is my daughter to the neighbor. My birth father spoke to his son. I have a daughter and it was such a powerful, powerful moment and I felt loved. You know, I felt loved by him in that moment.
Wow, that's incredible.
Her brother also assured Michelle that their father was a good man, that he couldn't imagine why he would turn away from her before she was born. Michelle has gotten a lot of healing from her relationship with her brother Andre, especially hearing about their father's pensive demeanor in his final days.
You know there at the end, he had gone to live with my brother Andre for the last a little bit of his life and he said, you know, Michelle, there were times when I would look at my father and his eyes would be gazing out and I could tell that there was, there was something so heavy on his mind and on his heart. He said, I don't know if, you know, I didn't know if he was just reflecting on his life or, or what. Now I know after what he said to me and after finding you, I know that in those moments he was thinking of you. It's been a journey to have long walks with Andre, arm in arm where I, I just remind him that I love our father, I forgive our father. And that I truly believe that Julian was, um, was really a big part of our finding each other. I think that he arranged that somehow. I really do.
That's really incredible.
I was curious to know more about Michelle's family today. Thinking about her identity issues when she was young. I asked her how she has prepared herself for the conversations her kids are going to want to have about their own introspection in search for identity. Michelle considers it a blessing that she's adopted, too, recognizing that her own life experiences help her to be sensitive in special ways to pick up on signals from her children. Her son raises adoption issues less frequently than her daughter, but he's proud of his Russian heritage. They visited his home land before but he says he's super happy right where he is.
He said, but I would like to go back to Russia and help kids and orphanages and I always say to him, you know, I want you to know that we will continue to go back to Russia. We will work and I will help you to assist in orphanages. We will do everything that we can to keep you connected to your culture and that the door is always open to talk about your birth parents. Her daughter talks about her own adoption more often than her brother and she explores it in healthy ways. She sometimes looks to her mother for answers that Michelle doesn't have, but Michelle reassures her that she'll help her in any way possible to obtain whatever information they can when the time comes and that she loves her no matter what. Yes, my daughter is hugely aware that she looks different from me. She talks about her birth mother, we talk about her birth mother. Sometimes she role plays in her bedroom and will talk to her birth mother. That's beautiful for, for me, I want her to know that that's okay.
And so there are times when I will come in and I will say, who are you speaking with? And she'll have a different name for her birth mother because we don't know her name. And I will say, um, please tell her hello that I hope she's doing well and that I love her very much. And she'll say, okay, there's a beautiful Ethiopian community where I live. I'm at Deanna has phones in her school who are also adopted from Ethiopia. So that's a beautiful connection. She's very proud to say I'm adopted. I say to her, I don't have a lot of answers for you, but if there's ever a moment where you want to find out and that's going to be your decision, I will, I will unturn every stone to get you the answers that you're desiring, you know, if I can help. Um, but I also remind my children that who they are is, it's, it's not determined by anyone else, you know, that they have been, and this is my belief, divinely created for a mighty purpose. And sometimes, you know, God uses our greatest pain for our greatest calling. Know that you're loved, know that you're loved.
Michelle says she tries to go back to England every few years or so. The last time she visited her mother, she had something important to share with Michelle.
The last time I was there, um, took me into her room and she gave me the original document that was the, um, with her signature to relinquish her parental rights. I had a copy of it, but you know, she wanted me to have the original and she broke down and she said, I just need you to know that I never wanted to do this. And she wept in my arms, you know, and I said, please know that I forgive you and please know that I love you. You know, and I said, the greatest gift I've been able to give to myself is to allow Julie to live again. Um, my identity. I'm Michelle, but I don't, I don't silence Julie anymore. You know, I said to her, one of the greatest things I've ever done is to let her be free too, and in that place is when I step into my true identity, where I can talk about my story scars, flaws at all, where I can forget it.
Absolutely. Well, you sound like you have reached a place of feeling true self worth, your own self identity and just having forgiven everybody along your journey, both within this particular story of your adoption. But it sounds like you're a person who takes this same measure of thoughtfulness toward everything in your life. So thank you for all that you do for your own children, but as well for others and for sharing your story here. I really appreciate your time, Michelle.
Hey, it's Damon. Michelle seems to have the mental strength, sense of self worth and capacity for forgiveness that so many of us need more of. Michelle has recovered from feeling disempowered and questioning her own worth to being a person who can proudly share her story and express love and forgiveness for everyone that has been a part of it. She expressed some real pain about the pattern of rejection from the father figures throughout her life, but after learning of her father's passing, she was unexpectedly able to bond with her brother and therefore with her father too. I'm Damon Davis and I hope you'll find something in Michelle's journey that inspires you, validates your feelings about wanting to search or motivates you to have this strength along your journey to learn, who am I really? If you would like to share your story of locating and connecting with your biological family visit, whoamireallypodcast.com/share. You can also find the show on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @waireally.