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“I Found Out I Was Adopted at 33. Here’s Why I Wish My Parents Had Told Me Earlier”

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It was one thing to learn I was adopted, but another thing to learn that many others had known my story years before me. For a long time, I felt like I had done something wrong to not deserve the truth.

I’ve often heard people say that some of the most honest conversations they’ve ever had in their lives were in a parked car in the middle of the night. It makes me chuckle now because I’d like to tell you just how one such conversation – a.k.a Armageddon – on a chilly Saturday night changed my life permanently. It’s funny to recount the story today, but finding out you’re adopted at the ripe old age of 33 – and that your actual parents are the nice couple you’ve always known as your uncle and aunt – is quite a pill to swallow.

The thing is, my adoption story isn’t uncommon in Asia. Adopting from within the family was a very normal thing people did back in the 80s, and it isn’t unheard of to find others with similar stories. Finding out about my adoption initially filled with me a sense of relief, but that quickly gave way to other damaging emotions. At that point, I was already estranged from my adoptive parents for other toxic reasons and almost suicidal over the fact that they did not consider me a good fit for them. They passed away shortly after I discovered this one crucial nugget of information about my past, and in some ways, it pushed me over the edge and made me desperately wish they had been honest with me from the beginning.

Rediscovering myself on my own terms

Our families and/or our parents are often where we form our first foundations, where we pick up our first set of beliefs and value systems. We trace our family trees, carry down traditions and pass on family heirlooms, all in a bid to connect to our roots and heritage. Where you come from defines who you are – or at least, a small part of who you are supposed to be.

Many have this luxury from birth, but I always had an inkling I didn’t quite belong with the people that were supposed to be my forever home. Family functions were always confusing because 5-year-old me could never quite put a finger on why my uncle and aunt, and their sons, felt more like home than the people that were raising me. Finding out the truth was quite literally an “Ah ha!” moment. Suddenly, my childhood observations and all the subsequent issues in my formative years made so much sense, and I didn’t feel like a crazy person anymore.

However, this revelation also did quite a number on my sense of belonging – or rather, the lack of it. I suddenly felt like I had nothing in common with my biological family, even though we had been rather close as cousins. I think we all crave fulfilling connections with our family, and seeing how similar my siblings were to each other and to our parents made me doubt my own character and identity. What was wrong with me that I didn’t have these fulfilling connections with anyone, and what did that say about me as a person? If we didn’t have anything in common, would I still be welcome? Would I fit in and would I be accepted?

My adoptive parents and I at my First Holy Communion rite in 1996

I questioned and measured everything I said and did; every joke, any decision to be made, and each thought I had. But when it came time to go back to them after the borders opened, I was welcomed with lots of cake and hugs and teasing – exactly what family does for each other anyway. Eventually (with a lot of inner work and unwavering support), I came to accept that it is okay to be different, and that love – both for yourself and from others – will smooth over those differences in time. My oddball self now knows that you don’t have to be identical to your family, have everything in common or even share interests in order to be happy with each other.

These days, it’s hilarious to observe my siblings as they enjoy their own interests. They can scream at the telly over a Manchester United match, despair over Ferrari’s lack of stamina after every F1 race and dissect Thomas Cup results in a single breath, while I sit clueless in a corner. It’s enjoyable now because I no longer overthink everything all the time – well, most of the time, at least! – and because they’re always ready to share their interests with me when I feel like a deer in headlights. If that isn’t love, then what is, right?

It made me lose trust in my loved ones

Discovering who my biological family was also made me feel further set apart from everyone; because now, I had to deal with the consequences of a past I did not pick and choices I did not make. It was one thing to learn I was adopted, but another thing to learn that many others had known my story years before me. For a long time, I felt like I had done something wrong to not deserve the truth. I accepted phone calls from almost every family member to get their POVs and explanations. I dragged out as much history as I could from them, every rumour and fact, every decision and opinion, forcing myself to sit with each fractured piece and put it together, even if I disliked the complete picture that formed afterwards.

Me at age 4 with my first dog, Jetsy

It was at this point that the many years of anger I had towards my adoptive family exploded, scalding everyone else in the process. The anger was so corrosive, and I was so enraged because I was adamant in my belief that I would’ve found a way to make things better; that I would’ve done things differently if I had been clued in at least 10 years earlier. I recall telling my late adoptive father before his passing that a large part of the hurt came from feeling like he didn’t trust me or respect me enough to give me the truth.

Initially, finding the space to forgive was a challenge, and isolating myself felt like the easier option. The pain from the truth was unbearable, and I spent months hiding away while everyone sat patiently in the wings, waiting for me to decide what it was I needed from them. However, as the pain dulled and the thought of my future sank in, I realised I had a choice. I could forgive the past and put in the effort to start afresh, or I could walk away, and stay away, for the rest of my life. But the idea of having no roots and no connection with anyone, the idea of truly flying solo in the world wasn’t appealing. I had already spent years feeling alone in rooms full of people, and I knew I loved my family far too much to lose them like that.

Hanging out with my adoptive maternal grandmother in 1995

Trust is still a work-in-progress for me – I work on it diligently with an amazing therapist – but it’s easier now to let people in without being afraid to share what I’m really thinking, whether it’s good or bad. I still keep A LOT of my thoughts and feelings to myself, and there are only a handful of people who know everything that runs through my mind, but baby steps are better than nothing at all if you ask me. All said and done, it does feel really good to have family that will catch you when you fall, and I am grateful I chose to put the anger aside and start anew.

Where we go from here

Hazel Adoption Story - Birthday
With my Barbie birthday cake at age 4

It’s been a little over a year since everything came to light, and things are now pretty solid between all of us. It almost feels like I’ve been given a second chance to have the family that confused 5-year-old used to constantly dream about. As my 35th birthday approaches, I’m pleased to say the love we have isn’t complicated, our relationships aren’t difficult, I don’t have to second-guess myself at every turn, and communication is not painful. I look forward to going home (and having people to call home), or happily telling my friends how my elder brothers take the mickey out of me. For the first time in what feels like an eternity, there isn’t an all-consuming void in the centre of my heart, and I don’t shy away from talking about my family like I used to before Armageddon. My past is rather unconventional, but I can honestly say now that I wouldn’t change a single thing. I’ve even come to love my story – you should see the reactions I get when people first hear the whole chain of events!

I’ve lost plenty, sometimes more than I think anyone should lose in a lifetime, but I’ve also gained plenty in the process. Oh, and have I mentioned how cool it is to now have three sisters? It’s a constant reminder that while my past plays a big role in who I have become, it does not define what I do with my future and it certainly does not hold me back from having meaningful relationships with my loved ones. There may still be a long way to go, but I’m confident that what lies ahead is good, and I’m plenty excited to see all that is to come.

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All images from Hazel Joanne

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