Heather whenever I see a post of yours in social media it usually shows you climbing a mountain, running alongside the Brisbane river or in a complex yoga pose. You do seem to love the outdoors and enjoy physical activity. If we can start with your trekking adventures in the Nepal and Kathmandu mountains what urged you to get out into these remote regions to challenge yourself?
I’ve always been interested in mountains. As a child when watching a documentary about Everest or somewhere remote and I’d be glued to the screen. This was not an interest shared by my family so I grew up being somewhat of a ‘black sheep’.
My first serious boyfriend was a rock climber and also interested in the outdoors, so we planned out first ‘adventure’ – two weeks in Tasmania, including walking the Overland Track. All this on a budget of $200! We bussed from Brisbane to Melbourne, caught the ferry to Devonport and hitch hiked to Cradle Mountain, carrying all out own camping gear and food. I was 20 and that hooked me on outdoor adventure.
In 1984 I heard a radio ad for a Brisbane based company wanting ’15 adventurous people’ to trek to Nepal. I signed up! I scraped together the deposit and then had to save like mad to buy clothing and equipment, borrow a camera and most importantly, pay for my trip.
I was shy, introverted and lacking in confidence. This was my first overseas trip and when we arrived in Bangkok en route to Kathmandu I knew there was a big world I wanted to explore. I remember arriving home in Brisbane on the return trip being quite unhappy and depressed to be ‘home’.
You discovered late in life that you were adopted. Could you outline how you found out and at what age?
I discovered I was adopted in 2007, aged 47. I had no idea, but then again, suddenly a few things began to make sense.
I recall back in 1968, when I was in Grade 4, at Stafford State School, playing skipping with my friends in the quadrangle at big break. Laura McDade, a fellow pupil, walked up to me and said, “Do you know you’re adopted? Your grandmother lives next door to my grandmother and she told me you’re adopted”. My friends and I looked at her, laughed, and went back to skipping.
Almost 40 years later I was back in Stafford helping my brother sort out a lifetime of my families stuff because our mother had been diagnosed with dementia, we had placed her in a care facility and were preparing the house to be sold. I walked through the familiar front door and greeted my brother and his wife. He responded by saying, “here’s some photos you maybe want to keep … and here are your adoption papers”.
It is true, when you get an unexpected shock the world does move in slow motion.
I took the papers from him, walked out the door, stopped for some take-away noodles in Newmarket (the things you remember) and drove home.
Numb. Shocked. Surprised. Excited. Gutted. Abandoned. Alone. I felt all of these emotions.
I texted my friend, “Guess what? I’ve just found out I’m adopted”. Then I slowly unfolded the adoption papers and discovered my name was originally Wendy. They were signed on 7 May 1960. I was one week old. That was the last thing I looked at before going to sleep.
What about your brother, was he adopted to and how has this affected your relationship?
My brother, two years older than me, was also adopted. He’d known for 10 years. We’d always been close. We’d always been able to rely on each other.
After that day, we didn’t speak to each other for months, until one fateful call from him to say, “You’d better get to the nursing home. She hasn’t got long”.
Adoption was not mentioned.
Even at my mother’s funeral I was the dutiful daughter and insisted on writing and reading the eulogy and organising the music.
The funeral was the last time I saw my relatives. They were angry at my brother and me for putting our mother in the care facility. Maybe I should have been angry with them for hiding a secret for 47 years.
My brother hasn’t spoken to me for seven years. I’ve tried. Maybe I’ll try again one day.
Other adoptees who have learnt of their adoption status as adults talk about a betrayal of trust, highlighting a lack of honesty and integrity of those closest to them, their adoptive parents in keeping this profound secret from them. Is your experience similar and does it have any elements to it?
Yes, all those things and more. Not only my adoptive parents knew, but my teachers, my relatives, my neighbours. Since my adoptive mother’s funeral not one relative has spoken to me.
Then there’s the double shock of realising you have a birth family out there somewhere, which leads to a whole other world of shock, trauma and rejection.
How have you adjusted to dealing with this shock, trauma and rejection and have you been able to meet up with any of your birth family?
Phew that’s a tough one!
I didn’t start searching for my birth relatives until after my mother’s death. I’m sure anyone who has been through the emotional rollercoaster of attempting to obtain your own birth certificate can empathise here.
It’s one shock after another.
First your entire past turns out to be a lie, then you find out you have another name and in my case no record of my birth father.
I sent my paperwork to the Salvation Army Family Tracing Unit not expecting to hear anything perhaps ever. A few days later I was about to enter a meeting room at work when my phone rang. It was the Salvos advising they’d located my birth mother.
From there it all snowballed faster than my emotions could keep up. My birth mother sent me a letter to which I responded. She then Googled me, found my home phone number and left a message. It took me about a week to summon the strength the call her back.
I discovered I have two sisters and two brothers, my mother lives in a northern Queensland town and at the time I had a 94 year old grandmother. I flew up to meet her, she didn’t make it easy and it wasn’t a fairy tale.
I also met my grandmother, brother and Aunty Wendy (who I was named after). Since then my grandmother has died and I attended her funeral where I met my two sisters from Melbourne. Apart from occasional contact there is no ongoing relationships.
My siblings have always known about me but of course I didn’t know about them until recently. I think they were curious about me initially but aren’t interested in maintaining contact.
If we can turn to your trekking experiences. You have been a qualified mountain guide for over 30 years and have embarked on over 50 trips to the Himalayas? One journalist describes you as being, ‘tougher than a yak’. What have your trekking experiences taught you about yourself and your qualities as a leader?
Ever since being chosen as a Patrol Leader at Girl Guides I’ve embraced leadership. My mountain guiding career made me a good Project Manager, but upon reflection I think being separated from my mother at birth, without having any visual or physical contact, has made me a survivor.
In recent years you have become a qualified yoga teacher. How do you account for the dramatic change in swapping high physical exertion and environmental challenges over several months trekking through mountains at high altitude with the sedentary, short duration, slow and soothing meditative nature of yoga?
Yoga was the refuge I found when my world fell apart. It was something I’d done on and off since I was in my early 20’s, but a happy coincidence of a new studio opening in the Brisbane CBD near my work at the time I needed help was how I found myself on my yoga mat almost every day.
The time to breath and move in a safe space allowed me to make the right decisions about how to seek help dealing with the affects of being ‘LDA’. I’ve cried a river of tears on my yoga mat.
How helpful do you find yoga in bringing peace and calm to your life as a consequence of adapting to your adoptive status?
One of the best pieces of advice I can pass on about yoga (particularly for busy people) is that it doesn’t TAKE time, it GIVES you time. The discipline of moving and breathing methodically somehow makes space in your brain and allows your thoughts time to sort themselves out.
It doesn’t solve your problems but you are more able to make the right decisions about what you need.
I remember a few days after discovering my adoption status I made an appointment to see a psychologist. Whilst I was on the right track of knowing that I’d need help, I had no idea that the brain doesn’t play along the way you’d like it too. It took almost two years for the trauma to start showing up, meanwhile I thought, “no, it can’t be the adoption thing because I’ve ticked that box by seeing a psychologist”. Ahhh… the wisdom of experience!
What is your favourite mudra?
Definitely ‘Fearless Heart’. I’ve shown it to many people in my yoga classes and I’m constantly surprised & delighted by how many people resonate with it.
Can you describe it?
Mudras are physical gestures, or seals—most often using the hands and fingers—that have been used since antiquity to connect us to the subtle energy pathways of our body and to our emotions.
To form the Abhaya Hrdaya (Fearless Heart) Mudra:
- Turn both palms up and cross your right wrist in front of the left, with the back of the hands facing each other.
- Wrap the right pinkie finger around the left one, then interlace the middle fingers and index fingers.
- Bring the thumb and ring finger of each hand together to form a seal.
- Draw the base of the right thumb to the base of the sternum, to the base of your heart.
Based on your experience of being a late discoverer of your adoption what advice would you give to other late discoverers who maybe be struggling to adjust to their adoptive status or their place in the world?
Find like-minded souls ASAP. Pre-Facebook I used the Internet to discover there was a ‘thing’ called late discovery of adoption and I wasn’t totally alone. Ron Morgan administered a fantastically supportive Yahoo group which lead me to Marg Watson back in Australia and her book Surviving Secrets. The US and Australian FB groups have been amazing.
Given you have seen many beautiful places in the world, do you have a favourite that draws you back again and again.
In Asia it has to be Nepal, in Europe it’s Paris, and in Australia I have always felt connected to Tasmania.
Weirdly I grew up being told I had Irish heritage, specifically a small town called Skibbereen in County Cork. I even visited there with my parents long before I knew I was adopted as my father’s roots were there and I did actually look physically similar to the locals (although I looked nothing like my parents). When I met some of my birth family I found out one of my grandfathers was Irish and his forebears were from Skibbereen.
You seldom let grass grow under your feet, what is your next adventure?
Back to Nepal in December 2016, this time combining yoga and trekking. My two great loves!
That is a great combination, inward and outward grace and beauty to make each day worth living. Enjoy. And maybe we can speak again when we return. Many thanks for your comments about late discovery of your adoption and your outdoor and yoga pursuits. It takes courage to share one’s story. I thank you for doing so.