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Navigating COVID-19 with Lessons Learned from Shocking 23andMe Discovery

Lessons in coping from a life-changing experience

Sitting here in this new COVID-era, I vacillate between moments of feeling like everything has changed and nothing has changed at all. I’m reminded of another time, not all that long ago, when I felt the same way. While the circumstances for those feelings were quite different then a global pandemic, similarly it shook me to my core and dramatically changed the lens in which I view the world.

For my 40th birthday, I asked my husband to get me a 23andMe test. For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with our family genealogy and searching for more information about who I am and where I came from.

In retrospect, I question whether that was just natural curiosity or what Dani Shapiro, author of the book Inheritance, describes as a “unthought known” (something I had a sense about all along without realizing it).

It was October 2018 when my results came back. Somewhere in the list of natural traits and possible conditions was a first cousin I had never heard of, but it barely hit my radar. My brain — and more importantly, what was going on in my life — caused me to hardly digest or face this potentially damaging information. I was going a million miles an hour at that point in my life with my business expanding and my father’s health seriously deteriorating with a rare heart condition. I had zero space for any new information in my life, nor did I want to believe that my current reality could change in any way.

I feel like many of us were in a similar place just a couple of months ago.

As information started to trickle out from Asia and Europe about COVID-19 and writing was on the wall that this could potentially be a huge problem for the U.S., most of us didn’t have the mental space nor desire to absorb this information as a potential new reality. But like so many things in our lives, just because we aren’t ready to face something doesn’t mean it will just go away.

Whether we like it or not, life throws us crazy curve balls. For me, that mysterious new first cousin would cause a huge ripple effect in my life even though I chose to ignore it for almost a year.

In June 2019, six months had passed since we buried my father and I’d had some time to mourn him. My business had successfully expanded to Denver and our first location in St. Louis had stabilized a bit.

So this time, when 23andMe alerted me of a second cousin I had also never heard of, it definitely caught my attention and started me down a path I never expected to be on.

This new cousin and I were curious to discover how we were related and solve the mystery of why a new and unexpected person showed up in our results. Initially, it was just a fun puzzle to solve. Never did the reality or implication of what I may discover hit my radar.

My new second cousin recruited a relative of his who was their “family tree expert” to help. The three of us analyzed the connections, hypothesized, and explored many different possibilities of how we were connected. While we were able to narrow it down quite a bit, I ended up with more questions than answers.

In September of 2019, I brought some of those questions up to my mom during one of our regular Saturday lunches. I even asked her point blank if she knew a man named Grant Stevens. That question she was able to answer honestly with a “no” but many of my other questions like, “Is there a chance my father isn’t my father?” didn’t quite get answered so honestly.

A 41-year-old secret has a way of festering and making it difficult to tell the truth.

With a background in math and a love for solving complex problems, I was undeterred by the lack of answers. Brick walls can quickly be torn down by looking at a problem in different ways or gathering new information from another source.

And new information I did get…Ancestory.com filled in the missing pieces. My life changed dramatically on October 3, 2019 when an unknown biological grandmother and half sister popped up in my results. Mysterious 1st and 2nd cousins explained: turns out the father who raised me wasn’t my biological father (and the “family tree expert” we recruited to help solve the puzzle turned out to be a second cousin too).

Now it was time to confirm who my actual father was. After a few short hours of sleuthing, I realized my next career should be as a private investigator… I was amazed at how quickly I was able to not only discover who my biological father was, but also learn that he was 23 years old attending Wash U Medical School and recently married when I was conceived, all the while my mother was 29 years old. I couldn’t wrap my head around why my mother would have done that to my father and what circumstances would have led her to meet someone in a very different phase in his life.

Interesting how our experiences in life and the phrase, “you don’t know what you don’t know” shapes our reality. The only thing that crossed my mind when I solved the “cousin mystery” was that my mom must have had an affair. Never once did artificial insemination using donor sperm ever even remotely register. I never knew that my mom had any struggles with fertility, especially as she never mentioned it as I navigated my own struggles with infertility.

But back in the 70’s, our lives weren’t being splashed across social media for the world to see. The idea of vulnerability and living with authenticity had yet to be popularized by Brené Brown (who I am very thankful for her work and hope to meet one day).

Things like infertility were considered quite taboo which sadly created a culture of shame and secrecy. So much so that when a sperm donor was needed, doctors would mix the father’s sperm with the donor’s sperm to help create the illusion that the child might belong to the father. Additionally they would encourage the parents to never talk about it again and go to a different Obgyn.

Now with genetic tests becoming so mainstream, many people, including myself, are getting the shock of their lives. The secrecy and shame of the past has created a legacy of lies that leaves important parts of someone’s identity concealed.

I am one of the lucky ones to have found and met my biological father, Grant Stevens, and other family members in November of 2019. They are incredibly welcoming and wonderful in ways I will forever be grateful.

I love that in our first correspondence Grant described himself by saying, “I’ve always been an entrepreneur and hard working risk-taker.” Explains so much…

Since then I have had the good fortune of getting to know my new biological family better. I am blown away by the immediate connection I felt with people who technically were strangers and a deep sense of completeness when pieces of myself that I’ve never had reflected back to me are now mirrored by several people I am genetically linked to.

Many strange and wonderful experiences have come from this life-changing event that in many ways knocked me on my ass. That’s the thing, I have yet to experience anything, including this crazy shock or currently the global pandemic, that didn’t have both: pain and heartache mixed with beauty and wonder.

There were times in the first couple of months of learning I was donor conceived that I wondered if things would ever feel “normal” again. I was overwhelmed by the change in my identity, consumed with uncertainty of how this new information would affect my life, and fearful that all the different emotions I was feeling would derail me from the life I had created.

A new normal did eventually emerge and I feel incredibly lucky to have more people in my life that mean the world to me. Going through this reminded me of what’s really important in life.

Having gotten on the other side of my 23andMe shocking discovery, I would have predicted calmer waters this year. Little did I know I would be processing similar feelings and emotions for a very different reason.

So now as I sit back and let the feeling of everything has changed and yet nothing has changed wash over me, luckily this time I am equipped with the knowledge and experience that I can survive unexpected, unprecedented times and surprisingly come out of it so thankful for the experience.

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