Cherlyn always thought she had a pretty good childhood. Surrounded by family and close friends in Denver, she discovered early that she was adopted.
"A girl at school, whose grandmother was close to my mother, got angry with me one day while we were playing and blurted it out," she recalls.
When Cherlyn ran home to be consoled, her grandmother told her the truth. She was 6 years old.
Her adoptive parents had taken in foster children for years, and the community believed Cherlyn was one of them. "We didn't want you to be moved to another home because we loved you. So we just adopted you," her mother explained.
Cherlyn was 36 before she discovered the real truth. The much older sister who had helped raise her was dying of cancer and already feeling the heaviness of impending loss and sadness. One day, Cherlyn verbally scolded her mother, who she felt wasn't helping out enough. She wasn't prepared for her mom's response: "The reason you're so crazy about (her) is because she's your mother!"
Cherlyn, numb, exhausted and depressed, remembers, "Suddenly my whole life made sense. I thought maybe I actually was a member of the family before because my parents were in their late 50s when they adopted.
"I figured that they would not have been allowed to adopt me at that age unless they were blood relatives. My birth mom was 34 when she had me and had always treated me like a daughter. Toward the end, we were actually giving each other cards with 'mother' and 'daughter' on them even though the secret wasn't out yet. "
Her real mother, who she'd always thought was her sister, died three months later. "I believe she went downhill after the truth came out," Cherlyn says. "It was wrong for my grandmother to tell me that way."
Family secrets can range from the mundane to the disturbing. They are most often put in place to protect the image of the parents but also to shield a child from unnecessary stress.
Cherlyn explained, "My mother had me in the 1960s, when parents were still sending their pregnant daughters away to have their babies. She was visible in the community, visible in the church. There was a lot of shame. She was a bigger woman and hid her pregnancy. After I was born, she brought me to my grandparents' home. Then she became the 'sister' who helped her parents raise me."
Often, once the secret is put in place, it becomes difficult to undo as time passes. "The thing that causes me the most pain is the fact that my father passed away before I ever met him," Cherlyn said. "I don't even know if he knew I existed. (In that) I feel robbed."
It's been 10 years since her birth mother died, and Cherlyn misses and loves her still. She has completely forgiven her for keeping the secret and is grateful for certain aspects of her younger years, such as the fact that she grew up around her maternal family, though she didn't know their real titles until much later.
She gives this advice to secret-holding families: "In the end the truth comes out, and the people who are hurt are the children ... A person deserves to know who is responsible for their being on the planet."
If you are a victim of a family secret, try the following: Remain calm while expressing your feelings. Give yourself time to process and accept the information. Seek professional help if needed. Remember that you can adjust, and life will eventually get back to normal.
Tabi Upton, MA-lpc, is a therapist at Richmont/CBI Counseling Center. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.