Have you ever been completely blindsided or had the rug pulled out from under you in a way that had you questioning everything you believed to be true? Maybe it was about a relationship you found out was filled with lies, or family beliefs or stories you learned weren’t true. Well, that’s what happened to me the day a secret was revealed by accident. A secret that had lasted nearly three decades in my family. The struggle that followed taught me that when the rug is pulled out from under you, how you handle the uncertainty that follows can single-handedly change the course of your life.
I had always been pretty boy-crazy growing up and had some pretty great boyfriends in high school. Even then, I never fantasized about my wedding day. I pretty much only fantasized about things that weren’t man-dependent or even man-relevant, like building an empire, how to get my girl band SOB+1 on MTV, or solving the crisis of abandoned children I saw in commercials. The only exception I can remember was when one of my high school boyfriends, Eric, and I had been dating for quite a while. See, Eric’s last name had me thinking about marriage all the time. This seems so ridiculous now, but I remember worrying what would happen if we got married because his last name was Lard. Yep, Lard. In my not-yet-fully developed teenage brain, this was a worry. Jamie Lard, I used to think to myself; it was the only time I can remember actually daydreaming about what it would be like being married. Could I confidently rock that last name? Would my kids get teased?
At its core, Lard triggered my already mounting insecurities about my body that were reinforced daily in the messages all around us, that somehow our self-worth should be tied to how we look. When I started
dating Eric, I was already a few years into taking every diet pill I could get my hands on, with the false conviction of youthful invincibility. I brought diet shakes to school, hid them in my bag, then drank them in the bathroom during lunchtime with a few of my friends who were doing the same. The older sister of one of my friends would supply us with these bottles of energy pills for weight loss from the gas station that you had to be 18 to buy. I always noticed the health warnings on the bottle, and always ignored them. And the thinner I got, the more praise I got. Which made me mad, even at that age. But praise can feel like love. And so I chose to hurt my health to get more of what felt like love.
High school years can be such a time of shaky self-esteem and new-found inclusion and exclusion—dealing with labels and perceived differences, and often struggling to decide if fitting in is worth all the effort. I loved beauty products even then, but at the time, for me it meant Bioré pore strips and tinted Clearasil—you know, the acne fluid that leaves a pink line of demarcation all around your jaw when you try to use it as your foundation.
Even though my imagination ran wild with big dreams, I went through a long bout of procrastination in my high school years, and began missing deadlines and turning work in late. I was even voted “Biggest Procrastinator” in my high school yearbook. At the time I wished I’d been voted “Most Likely to Succeed” or “Most Beautiful” or “Best Smile” or “Best Spirit,” but instead the only accolade I got was “Biggest Procrastinator.” It took me many years to get over being super ashamed of that (and, believe me, it wasn’t procrastination that made it take so long). Of course, I understood why it happened. But it did disappoint me. And it also stirred something up in me: a deep conviction to change.
I made the decision that I wouldn’t allow that label to stick to me and take root in my mind. In life, we aren’t who people say we are, we’re who we believe we are. We don’t have to accept the labels that other people put on us. We’re also not our family, for better or worse, or our past mistakes. We’re not a nickname someone gave us, or a regrettable incident we miscalculated. It’s easy to carry around old labels and mistake them for permanent ones. But they come with a light Post-it adhesive, so don’t let yourself believe they’re attached with superglue! They’re removable! Sure, sometimes there is some truth to those hurtful labels, like procrastination for me at the time, but we have the power to shake
off old labels and make new choices as we grow. We can change our minds and change our decisions about who we are and how we show up for ourselves, for others, and for the world at any moment going forward. Where we come from doesn’t have to determine who we are, or where we’re going in the future.
In my late teens and early twenties, I did a complete 180 from the procrastination days and started to become obsessed with achievement. With entering competitions to win awards and gain recognition. With getting great grades and being honored. At age twenty-two, I won the Miss Washington USA competition, and my parents were there and were so proud. I worked my butt off waiting tables at Denny’s Diner and took a second job at another grocery store, slicing meat and cheese in the deli department to pay my college tuition at Washington State University. I graduated valedictorian with a 4.0 GPA. At graduation, where I was class speaker, I was draped with honor cords and medals of achievement and ribbons all around my neck, the way one of my childhood idols, Mr. T, wore chains. When I spoke in front of the packed stadium at the university-wide commencement, my parents were there, beaming with pride and tears in their eyes. I later did the same thing in graduate school.
What I know now is that I felt like I had to achieve things to be worthy of love. I chased recognition to feel worthy of my parents showing up, to make them proud, and to show the world that I mattered. Sometimes, we express our need for love and belonging in the opposite way—for example, by acting out or through self-destructive behaviors. For me, one of the forms it took was simply not feeling worthy of love just as I was. And then when I did achieve something, and got recognition for it, it was never enough. I still never felt like I was enough. So I was on to the next big achievement. This need to achieve, and to prove my worth, is something I continue to struggle with. It feels like a cage I created in my own
head, that I am still working to break free from, even to this day.
The work addiction and overachiever and abandonment issues would all play key roles in a lot of my choices in my twenties, as I wasn’t yet fully aware of their power over me. And then something happened that would shift my perspective on everything I knew about myself and who I was.
On Christmas Eve 2004, my dad and stepmom were getting a divorce, and my dad had just moved out of their house and into an apartment. While setting up his new place, he couldn’t find the baby pictures of me and my sister Jodie. I haven’t told you about Jodie yet. For as long as I could remember, I had known that a year or so before I was born, my mom and dad had a baby girl named Jodie. At just nine days old, she died from a hole in her heart. They had me a year and a half later. Growing up, my parents in both households always had my baby picture and Jodie’s in two separate, small frames on their bedroom dressers.
Now, 27 years later, my dad couldn’t find his photos of Jodie and asked me to see if my mom had any extras he could have.Paulo and I were engaged and spending the holiday with my family. The plan was to spend Christmas Eve with my dad and sister Karly, and Christmas Day with my mom and Dennis. I called my mom to let her know I would be stopping by her place that day to pick up any extra photos she had of me and Jodie so that I could take them to my dad’s that evening. When Paulo and I arrived at my mom’s house, he stayed in the living room to play with the dog while I walked into her bedroom with her to get the photos. My mom handed me two baby photos, duplicates of the ones of me and Jodie that I had seen in frames on her dresser all my life. We were sitting on the end of the bed chatting, when I glanced at the two photos and idly turned them over to see the backs.
Mine said July 1977, which was the month I was born. Jodie’s said March 1977. My brain quickly did the math: that was only four months apart. But I knew Jodie had only lived nine days. Four months wasn’t
enough time to get pregnant and have me. Maybe someone had written Jodie’s date wrong and it should have said 1976 instead of 1977?
“Mom, why does Jodie’s photo say March 1977 on the back?” I asked. “That’s only four months before my birthday.”
A look that I had never seen before came over my mom’s face. After a long pause, she said, “There’s something I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time.” She turned to me. “Maybe you’ve suspected this, but you’re adopted.”
My world came to a screeching halt. Who was I? Was everything I knew a lie?
I was in total shock. I was sitting there with the person I was closest to in my entire world, my mom, and she had just told me something monumental that made me question everything I knew to be true. I couldn’t believe she had kept this from me. She went on to tell me that when Jodie died, she went back to her doctor for a follow-up visit. The doctor forgot what had happened to Jodie and asked my mom how breastfeeding was going. My mom starting sobbing in front of him and reminded him that her baby had died. After the doctor’s major blunder, he called my mom later that day and asked if she would be interested in adoption. (Note: this is how God’s miracles can work in our lives.) He had a young patient he was caring for who was hiding her pregnancy and planned to give her baby up for adoption. My mom and dad hadn’t even considered adoption before, but they said yes. They never met my birth mother.
In that moment I looked into the eyes of the person I loved and trusted most in my life, my mom who raised me, and all of a sudden I felt this painful confusion over everything I knew to be true about who I was. The foundation of trust I had stood upon my whole life had fallen out from beneath me. I felt hurt, betrayed, and so overwhelmed. I was torn between wanting to comfort and reassure my mom, while at the same time wondering what else I had taken as truth that wasn’t. I felt shattered and alone. All sense of peace left me. My mind took me to the dark shadows of mistrust and loneliness that you feel when someone you’re so close with pulls the rug out from beneath you.
In life it’s not our experiences that make us unique, it’s our response to those experiences. And to the uncertainty they immerse us in. Where you come from doesn’t have to determine where you’re going, but it definitely shapes the foundation you have to build on. When something hard happens, once you’re able to process it emotionally, you’re then left with choices. Do you victim-up or do you warrior-up? Do you give up or do you level up and believe? The up is up to you.
Learning that where I came from was a lie was like being thrust into one of those machines from The
Jetsons cartoon, where you enter and moments later come out a different person with an entirely new outfit on. I felt like I walked into my mom’s bedroom that day wearing comfy sweats and filled with the nostalgic cozy Christmas spirit, and walked out in tears and fully blindsided, yet knowing I was now in the midst of the biggest game of uncertainty I had ever played in. Wondering if my parents were truly on my team, and why they kept the ball from me all these years. Who was I? Who was my birth mom? If I found her, would she even want to be on my team? What if she saw me as an opponent?
How we react to times of uncertainty, and whether we make decisions based in love or fear, can change the course of our life. Champions aren’t made when the game is easy. In any area of life. I couldn’t let fear or pain decide my outcome. I knew in that moment that maybe my birth mom never planned to know me, but I needed to know her. I needed to find her. And I needed to find out who I was and where I really came from. And then I felt this strong sense of knowing come over me that in order to ever feel peace again, I would need to find all of the missing pieces.
Jamie Kern Lima appeared on the July/August cover of SUCCESS. Read her full cover story here: How Jamie Kern Lima Became Unstoppable
Adapted excerpt from Believe IT by Jamie Kern Lima. Copyright © 2021 by Jamie Kern Lima. Excerpted with permission by Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Photo courtesy of Jamie Kern Lima