Finding Identity

Discovering I didn't know, that I didn't know who I was

Posted Feb 12, 2019

What do you usually search for, keys, homework, meeting notes? I lose my cell phone at least 3 times a day and it’s now a running joke with my husband.  One day, I lost my identity, so it put my cell phone into perspective.

Several years ago I received commercial DNA results I wasn’t expecting: none of my father’s heritage showed in my profile, but 48% of someone else’s did. In all honesty I had always felt like an outsider in my father’s family—not with him, but with his parents, sister and her children who were never accepting of me.  I often shared in other people’s puzzlement when they would say, “You’re related to them? Funny, you don’t look Jewish.”  A lifetime of negotiating stories with myself about why I didn’t resemble them in any way, and people had only to look at my red curls and blue eyes amidst my family’s straight dark brown hair and dark eyes, seeing right through my hollow fabrications.

With the test results I now had hard proof, and the questions that plagued me throughout my life began to fit together like puzzle pieces: they don’t accept me because I am not part of their bloodline.  I now came to feel like an interloper in the family narrative I had embraced with the same pride they had.  The people I wanted to call family were not interested in accepting me as such.  Blood is thicker than water, and evidently some bloodlines have no room for “the family you choose”.  Strangely, I also felt relief at finally knowing why I wasn’t accepted—I could finally build something better than those hollow stories.

Kyle Glenn/Unsplash
Source: Kyle Glenn/Unsplash

The relief quickly became supplanted with a total loss in identity.  True, I was still the same genetic make up on my mother’s side but had only a superficial connection with the Italian heritage we share.  It was not something that was part our daily lives; her family lives on the other side of the country, the closest relatives had passed away many years before and culturally we lived more agnostically, regarding religion as well.

Learning I was not the biological offspring of the man who raised me threw out the part of myself I had come to understand as part of him.  He died suddenly at 50 years of age 17 years prior to this discovery, so I had already lost him physically, and now it felt like that was happening all over again.  Although he was Jewish and we didn’t observe, it was still a large part of my identity.  Judaism is a strange collection of religion, culture and ethnicity like no other heritage. I was crushed when I realized I was no longer part of that collective history.  Imagine erasing a blackboard and having no idea what to put on it next but feeling compelled to put something.  It was such a strong feeling I thought I would implode from the pressure of it.

Identity usually takes years to solidify—that’s why adolescence is so hard after all.  Mid life crises are the second time your identity takes a hit, changing and stabilizing with expected life stage transitions and assessments.  I don’t think it matters when you are faced with an identity crisis it is disorienting, undermining your very foundation.  Think about all the factors that make up the parts of your identity: family, work, culture, interests/hobbies, major life experiences (positive and traumatic), friend networks, religion, ancestry, schools, sports teams, shared meaningful experiences, to name a few.  

Tregg Mathis/Unsplash
Family is the largest source of identity
Source: Tregg Mathis/Unsplash

Now how many would you actually categorize as subcategories of family?  I consider religion, ancestry, culture, major life experiences, shared experiences and even sports teams to be under the auspices of family. In many cities, family culture is tied closely to sports teams, also creating shared experiences.  Major life experiences are often experienced together within families and become shared experiences too.  The memorable, relevant experiences of our lives become the memories that become the foundation of our identity.

I’ve talked with many people experiencing the same shocking DNA results.  Some talk about not being able to look at themselves in the mirror. Others feel they have no right to participate in family gatherings anymore.  For me, it was my names; none of them told me who I was anymore. My birth certificate has my mom’s second husband on it.  At 12 years old I was told he wasn’t my father, so changed my name when my stepfather adopted me.  At the same time, I was notified stepfather was really my biological father and believed him to be my father until the fateful DNA test.

I had shed any association with my birth name long ago and found a very natural transition to my “adopted” name. My married name was mine through choice but not through birth and I became acutely aware that I didn’t truly belong to it either.  Once I found bio dad I had yet another name, but it was strange because it was new and I felt vaguely voyeuristic. Every time I signed my name I felt detached from any of them, even my first name.  Nothing seemed representative of who I was—I was without a complete ancestry so I was without coherent identity.

Realigning identity is a turbulent experience, and many people contributed harmfully to the process. Dad’s family couldn’t understand why I would pursue any of this, “because it shouldn’t matter, it doesn’t change anything about you” - a cruel and heartless thing to say to keep any embarrassment from their fragile psyches. It changes absolutely everything about a person. My mom felt I was abandoning her heritage and my father. I had a lifetime of bonding with the Italian ancestry as much as we lived it, and learning the truth doesn’t negate the fact that my dad raised me, nor how I feel about him—only I how I feel about myself.

Identity is forged through years of experience, bonding, learning history and attaching yourself to that history.  That process occurs in a very condensed fashion when discovering shocking DNA results, so settling into a new identity felt like I had just come out of amnesia. A bit like wearing an ill-fitting dress, I had to keep trying it on and making adjustments.

Vladislav Babienko/Unsplash
On a journey without a map
Source: Vladislav Babienko/Unsplash

In the end I didn’t come back to myself full circle, but I ultimately did come back to embrace some aspects of my original self - it took a journey without a map to rediscover it.  Through persistent efforts at learning about my new biological family, (the Scottish ancestry behind my red curls) and forging new family relationships, I created a stronger sense of identity that finally fit.  I ignored hurtful and petty people; following only what I intuitively felt I needed to do.  Some called me selfish – so be it. You can call me whatever you want, and now that all my names fit again, I finally know what to call myself again.