I still remember my adoptive mother pulling the car over to the side of the road as she began ruthlessly scolding me. That fall I would have been starting my sophomore year at yet another new high school where my parents had moved. Many of the painful events in my childhood happened on such dark nights.
We were supposed to be picking up my brother. For an extended period of time he had been living far away at a ranch for juvenile delinquents. My parents kept so much from me that I am not sure if he was there because he’d been in trouble with the law, or if my parents had just thrown up their arms in not knowing what to do with my troubled brother. I recall hearing something at that time about him painting his face black and leaving home late at night after everyone was asleep. Apparently, that rather odd behavior was part of the last straw.
My adoptive mother’s cutting words were hurtful and harsh, but through my tears, I didn’t dare say anything. She accused me of being responsible for making my brother the way he was and that I’d better not do it again. As a sensitive teenager, I really took it to heart that it must have somehow been my fault. I know now she was looking to blame anybody but herself for not wanting to parent, and not having the answers for some serious issues. But interestingly, I believe deep down inside my mom and brother, they really did love each other. They had this connection at one time that I quite honestly never felt with her.
The other night I learned on Facebook this same brother whom I’ve been estranged from for many years has passed away. Not quite the way any of us would want to find out about the death of a relative. But perhaps it’s better than what I had always prayed would not happen—the police coming to my door.
Mental illness brings with it a lot of shame and embarrassment for family members. Some of us struggle in silence with our own fears knowing very well that our brother, sister, child, parents or grandchild could possibly harm others.
I come from a unique set of circumstances. My non-biological brother and I were only two months apart in age. We were both placed for adoption after our births and somehow we erroneously ended up as newborns in the same alcoholic adoptive home. Together, at the tender age of 6, we survived our adoptive mother’s divorce from daddy’s alcohol abuse, which resulted in domestic violence. Even after their bitter divorce in the 1960s, life just seemed to get more complicated.
Shortly thereafter, my adoptive mother, an RN, married my stepfather, a medical doctor. Both seemed to have been clueless that our impressionable young lives were marred by being children of an alcoholic adoptive father. And that you just can’t wipe out the fact that both my brother and I had already experienced the loss of our birth families. However, we had parents who obviously seemed to think it was irrelevant in the scheme of things.
My adoptive brother and I were as different as night and day in every way possible. Being forced to tell anyone who asked that we were twins but had different birth dates caused a lot of unnecessary gossip and confusion as we grew older. I still have friends from back in grade school who have asked me about him and if we were really twins. There is no simple explanation as to why I wouldn’t have been telling the truth.
Looking back, I see where there were many times that my brother and I fed off of each other’s emotions, especially during the first years of our lives. Our parents never focused on our strengths separately. Our identities were so closely meshed together that our individuality often got lost.
I remember my adoptive mother complaining that she had raised us all the same (her older biological son and the two of us) but we all turned out so differently. First of all, she didn’t raise us the same; she played favorites with blood verses adopted. From my perspective, you have only failed as adoptive parents if you try to mold us into that child you couldn’t have or somebody we are not. Our adoptive family could have certainly been a textbook case where nurture verses nature proved to not just be a fantasy.
Not a day has gone by that I haven’t blamed myself for in some way not being able to fix or rescue my brother from his demons. All we had as young children was each other and the loyalty was still there, regardless that we’d had no contact for years. This was to protect my own personal safety, as well as our daughters and my husband.
I believe that my parents eventually just passed my adopted brother off as a “bad seed” rather than trying to get him the help he desperately needed. As their other adopted child, it’s pretty telling and heartbreaking to have heard my adoptive mother say without any reservations, “I should have never adopted him knowing what I knew about his family.”
For the most part, I was the appeasing child who never wanted to make waves. While on the other hand, my mother would often belittle me by saying, “You are just jealous because your brother gets so much attention with all his negative behavior.”
Tragically, my brother struggled over the years with serious mental health issues. The brother I had once thought I was close to caused me a lot of humiliation over the years with his often off-the-wall bizarre behavior. I still remember back in elementary school grabbing him out from underneath a fight with a group of boys and pleading with them to just stop, even though I knew that he had probably provoked it from constantly antagonizing others.
What I needed from my parents was for them to have realized that not only did my brother desperately need psychological help, but that I also felt alone and confused. Regardless of whether a child is adopted or not, a sibling, especially one so close in age, can feel at fault somehow for not being able to make a family member all better. A family member they are trying to love and not hate.
The adults in our lives did not see that as young children my brother and I couldn’t always be each other’s counselor. We couldn’t process the difficult issues alone that face many families at some point.
My parents underestimated my ability to have compassion for what must have been a difficult set of circumstances not just for them, but for each of us. I would not have thought they had failed me as a parent if either of them had just communicated and said out loud that they didn’t have all the answers.
More and more I am being able to, as an adult, write what I felt then, and what I am still feeling at times. For years, there was a part of me trying to convince myself that as a teenager on a very dark night I couldn’t have possibly been responsible for how awful my brother’s life story played out. Mom’s accusations hurt just as much as the real truth—my brother was a far cry from what society accepted as “normal.” He didn’t have a fighting chance with our parents not addressing his serious mental health issues that started back when he was a young boy.
My adoptive mother wanted a quick solution like brushing us over with white-out. She needed an easy target to place blame on because her fairy-tale image of a perfect family had been blemished.
I can’t begin to explain how it made me feel to hear my brother say years ago when I saw him one last time, “I always wanted to be you, JoAnne.” Masquerading briefly as a woman, my brother started to cry as he said, “I don’t want to be a guy or a girl.” It was then I knew that his acting out and irrational behavior was much deeper than any gender issues. My brother had misplaced who he was as a human being.
As his sister, I felt alone and overwhelmed. I was angry at our parents for disowning him. I couldn’t possibly have known how to help him all by myself. My only consolation now is that he is finally at peace and not a lost soul anymore. I feel a sense of relief—my brother can’t possibly hurt anyone.
I do understand where his deepest feelings of hopelessness and rejection began. All we had for much of our childhood was each other.