Surviving the Nightmare

The Next Family

By: Lauren Jankowski

This is one of the most difficult things I have ever written, but I felt it important to write. I believe it is a situation that many adoptees either fear or feel alone in experiencing. I was able to write it because there are people in my life who love me just the way I am and I am forever indebted to them for that. I would particularly like to thank Julie, Marco, Alex, Catherine, Robyn, and Professors Bolyanatz and Voss. They have had a profound impact on my life and writing, for which I remain forever grateful.

Normal. That was all I ever wanted.

I have often heard that many adopted children fantasize about being the sons or daughters of royalty or celebrities. Someone important, someone famous. I never held these kinds of high aspirations as I knew how exceedingly unlikely it was.

Me? I just wanted normal. I wanted the medical records to be accurate, as they told me I had nothing to worry about. No medications, disorders, diseases (psychiatric or otherwise), clean bill. Nothing to worry about.

Alas, it was not meant to be.

A little more than a year ago, my natural curiosity led to my world being turned upside down. I opened my records in the hopes of finding my mystery half-sister. Unfortunately, there was nothing in my records about her but there was another name: my biological mother’s. What happened next happened within a matter of days. A general internet search turned up a mug shot and brief criminal record. A neighbor, who was an accomplished investigative journalist, and my trusted mentor, turned up a lengthy and colorful record. An accurate medical history emerged and it was not pretty.

Bipolar paranoid schizophrenic with a history of suicide attempts and violence towards animals. Was on heavy medication, which she often didn’t take. Her mother, afflicted by the same disease, needed to be taken care of and could not live on her own as she was a danger to herself and others.

How I wish I could write that I reacted to this news with stoicism and grace. That it did not affect me in the slightest and just rolled off my back.

I cannot because I did not.

I started out fairly okay and was more annoyed than anything. Nothing changed drastically.

Until the following week, when my mentor and I had a very nasty falling out. The man that I had trusted implicitly, who had been a teacher and friend, suddenly wanted nothing to do with me. Though our falling out had nothing to do with the revelation about my biological family, the proximity of the two events linked them in my mind. Suddenly, it felt like there was a neon sign over my head declaring that I was the offspring of an animal-slaughtering nutcase. “Look! It’s the daughter of a crazy person!”

I began to isolate myself, particularly from my animal-loving friends. When attending a vegan festival in Chicago, I found myself hiding. I suddenly felt like I no longer had a place in that world. I stopped writing for fear it would somehow trip the crazy switch that had to be lurking in my brain. Schizophrenia suddenly started popping up everywhere and it was always tied to violence, murders, and suicides.

My mind, which had at one time been a safe haven and a source of pleasure, had now become an enemy. A ticking time bomb that I could not defuse. I was doomed.

Thankfully, the same curiosity that had led to this crisis proved to be a saving grace. Being a writer, I have always had the need to learn. I enjoy it, flexing my intellectual and creative muscles. In the midst of this nightmare, I decided to take a course in Abnormal Psychology. I wanted to learn all I could about the mysterious disease of the mind. This monster called Schizophrenia, which means “split mind” in Greek.

The first day of class, I sat in the front row. I was in a daze and only half-listened to the professor talk about the syllabus. He was interesting and approachable. I give him a lot of credit. I doubt many professors could have graciously handled a brand-new student coming up to them after class, on the verge of tears, sobbing, “I just found out my biological mother and grandmother are batshit insane! Am I going to be too?!” (Yes, those were basically my exact words.)

He smiled and gently explained how unlikely that was. I was already in my mid-twenties and I had never shown any signs of schizophrenia. Miraculously this brief exchange made me feel a little better. I started to see things clearly once again. Nobody was treating me any differently. My friends were still my friends. I was not untouchable and nobody saw me as the daughter of the crazy woman, the potential future schizophrenic.

I was still me. Just me.

Eventually, I transferred to an out-of-state college. I wanted to finish my undergraduate degree and I wanted to be away from home. There were too many unpleasant memories there and it no longer felt like home. Once I arrived on campus, those old fears were suddenly stirred up again. I was one of the oldest students on campus and I was the daughter of an insane person. Even though I knew no one would know, I still felt isolated and alone.

On top of these fears, I was still communicating with someone that consistently made me feel small, dumb, and less than human. No matter how much my friends told me to cut off communication, I could not bring myself to do so. Perhaps I was trying to hold on to some small part of my identity from that time before I knew anything about my biological relatives. A time when I lived in blissful ignorance.

I lucked out. I took a course in Classical Mythology and rediscovered my passion for stories. The intellectual conversations gradually brought me out of my shell and I was once again reminded that life went on. I could still connect with others. I was not going to be stigmatized and my genes did not define me.

My biological mother was not me and I did not have to suffer for her mistakes.

Since then, I completed my first semester (my junior year) at college. I ended the toxic relationship that left me feeling sub-human and made healthier connections with new friends while holding my old ones close. Over the summer, I achieved a life goal and went to Europe for the first time. To my great surprise, the self-consciousness about my biological background was not as strong as it had once been.

As I journeyed through Greece, Italy, Germany, Spain, France, and other countries, I felt freedom rushing through my veins. I was in awe of the beauty that surrounded me. I was no longer numb to the world and still had the ability to enjoy myself. I was finally learning how to be my own person instead of defining myself based on genetics. For the first time, I was someone other than what people projected on me.

I am not doomed by my genes. I am not defined by my biological background.

A friend of mine asked me some time ago why I did not give my biological mother any leniency. She was, after all, not well. Surely her illness deserves some consideration.

I do not believe it does. Perhaps that is harsh, but the fact is that she knows she is sick and she made the decision to lie about it twice. She put herself over the health of her two daughters and I find that to be unforgivable. I am grateful that she realized that she could not provide for me (or my half sister) and made the selfless decision to give us up. However, that does not excuse her selfish act of concealing her medical history. One selfless decision does not give one a free ride.

At least I know most of the medical history now. It frequently leads to some snarky responses to doctor inquiries about medical history. “Well, I don’t think there’s a history of that, but I can’t know for sure. My biological mother fabricated most of her medical history, you see.”

Sometimes this gets a laugh out of the doctor. Other times the response is a horrified look. I have not decided which is the more amusing response.

So I came out of the nightmare a stronger and better person. I closed that chapter of my life and opened another one.

My name is Lauren.

I am an adoptee. An Irish/Cherokee/German mutt, we think.

I am a writer, an aspiring novelist who has completed four novels, a novella, and a number of short stories.

I am a feminist, a liberal, a vegan, and an animal rights activist.

I am interested in the field of Classics, particularly in myths.

I am graduating from college this year.

I am my own woman, in love with life.

It is very nice to meet you.

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