I'm living a lie

I made up an elaborate family that I don't really have!

Published May 16, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I have read your column religiously for the last two or three years and want to truly thank you for sharing  your insight. I'm not sure even where to start about my situation. In truth, I lied, and not a little white lie but a big compounding nine-year lie. I have never told anyone about this lie because it seems so psychotic.

For starters, I'm an orphan and grew up in the state foster-care system. I was adopted mid-childhood by a woman who adopts and fosters children as her only source of income. This being said she was never a parent but a paid caregiver to an ever-changing array of children. I lived in a town that was small enough that everyone I came into contact with knew my story. I was "The Orphan." This fact defined my life for 18 years.

I dreamed of moving away and going to college from an early age. In my mind college was the place where I could start over and no one would know that I was "The Orphan," no one would have their parents around, and I would just be a normal person. Turns out that was anything but the truth.

To say the least it was a struggle. I worked a full-time job and studied hard in high school so that I could save money and get scholarships. I didn't mind because I was determined to move away to college and start fresh. In the end I was accepted and received enough financial aid and scholarships to attend a large state university several hours away. I showed up to freshman orientation a month before the start of fall semester with the full assumption that everyone would be there alone, just like me. I never gave it a second thought.

As it turned out, I was literally the only person without parents. It was terrible. For the two-day orientation, every event was focused on student-parent activities. Students and parents asked me where my parents were and looked on me with pity. It was pretty much the opposite of everything I had dreamed of for years.

Fast-forward to dorm move-in day. By this time I have gathered plenty of anxiety about what the college experience will be like for me. I was still hopeful that this would be the first time in my life where I would just be normal. I am once again the only student that I see without parents. I'm alone trying to lug all of my things up to my dorm room. I felt like everyone was staring at me in the elevator. I walked into my dorm and my college roommate, Stacy, was setting up her side of the room with her parents, brother, and even her grandmother. Her side of the room looked perfect, everything was new and wonderfully coordinated. While I was so happy that I found a comforter at a garage sale that didn't have stains. After introductions the inevitable question arises, "Where are your parents?" I panicked. I couldn't let being "The Orphan" follow me to this new stage in my life. This is where I lied. I told them that my grandmother had fallen ill yesterday and my parents had to travel out of state to see her. This one sentence led me to lie to Stacy and her parents for the next nine years.

Stacy and I became best friends and lived together for two years. I made up elaborate lies about Christmas vacations, where in reality I spent Christmas alone in my dorm. I got a summer internship to explain why I would not be spending the summer in my hometown. The lies go on and on. I told her I have great parents, a brother and sister, even a golden retriever, each person with a distinct personality, history and quirks. I know, I sound completely crazy.

During this time I lied to a lot of people but Stacy is the only one I stayed in contact with. After two years Stacy ended up transferring to another university and I found a new group of friends. With my new group of friends I told the truth about my past. While it did make me different it did not define me as a person and I realized that I should have told the truth all along and have not lied about it since.

Stacy and I have remained good friends over the years. I was even the maid of honor at her wedding. Now I am getting married and I either can't invite her or I have to tell her. She has never even met my fiancé -- primarily because of this lie. This lie is dictating my life. I am so embarrassed because it makes me feel like there is something seriously psychologically wrong with me. I'm terrified of how she will react. I'm terrified that my fiancé will find out that I told this lie and not want to marry a crazy person. I feel like revealing this lie means risking my future happiness. I also feel like not revealing this lie means essentially writing off a friend forever. I guess my question is how in the world do I come clean after a lie of this magnitude? Or should I come clean? What should I do?

Thank you for reading my letter!

A BIG Liar

Dear BIG Liar,

You are not crazy. You are human.

That person you were, that young, motherless person, that young, fatherless person, that person just wanted to have parents like everybody else. That's not so hard to understand. You wanted what they had. And you wanted their friendship. And you didn't want to burden them with a sad tale. You just wanted love and friendship like anybody else.

Here is what you do. You send this letter to your friend Stacy. And you show it to your fiancé. You've already written it all out. You've done the hard work. You've gone through the emotions. You have encountered yourself. And you've seen how you have changed. You have finally found a group of friends that accepts you as you are, without parents. So it is time to bring these two parts of your life together. That is what having a wedding is about. You bring the people in your life together to witness you as you are, as an adult, undertaking the difficult and rewarding task of living in society as an adult.

You have changed. But what of this person who felt it a matter of life or death to tell everyone about a family she did not in fact have -- who even invented a dog? What about her? She did what she felt was necessary at the time. Do not shrink from her. She came up with a creative solution that allowed you to have the companionship and sense of belonging that you desperately needed. She solved a problem. She helped you survive. So do not look on her with horror. Regard her with loving kindness. She saved your life.

You don't have to do anything else. Just send this to your friend. Tell her you're sorry. Ask her to forgive you. Ask her to come and be in your wedding, as you were a part of hers. Close this loop. Make good on your past. Bring these parts of your life together.

By Cary Tennis

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College Family Foster Care Friendship Lying Orphans Relationships Since You Asked Wedding Weddings