I had my daughter, Erika, back in 1992. Her mom and I had moved to California from Miami in 1995, then had a very bad split. She moved back to Florida, taking our daughter with her.
My life spiraled out of control, and I got lost in addiction for the next decade. I was in and out of jail like it had a revolving door. Then I met my soul mate, Lisa, and we had a baby girl together in 2004. She soon found my addictions impossible to live with, and when I got arrested, yet again, she finally had enough. She left town with my year-old daughter in tow, and I saw history about to repeat itself.
Meanwhile, the justice department finally had enough of me and planned to send me to prison. When they gave me the option of an intensive drug treatment program called "drug court" instead, I leaped at the chance and have never looked back. I owe this program my life.
I had been four years sober when my father died in January 2010. This brought my family together for the first time in a long time. My family had never been very close. Most of my immediate family lives in different states, and we hardly ever communicated. It was the first time my brothers had laid eyes on me in 15 years.
I'm sure they were expecting some guy strung out on drugs. What they found was the power of freedom from active addiction, in all its glorious forms, manifested in me. I looked healthy. I had a job. I had a life. They didn't expect this from me, since before then I had never stayed clean for more than a year.
At that point, my older brother and his kids realized that things were drastically different, and they let me know that they had been in contact with my daughter Erika, whom I had not seen in 12 years. My niece, Chloe McKinster, told me she had talked to Erika that very day on some site called "Facebook." I honestly had never heard of it until then, but I went ahead and created a profile and sent my first friend request to Erika. She accepted. Elation followed.
We had an awkward first phone call -- as you'd expect making contact for the first time in a decade -- but it was a start, and it was all we needed.
I have been a Facebook "junkie" since that day. It helped transform my life, allowing me daily communication with a big piece of my heart. In addition to my daughter, I connected with just about every single member of my immediate family I could find.
One day, I was scrolling through my friend list and noticed my brother had a different "McKinster" in his friend list that I did not know. That sent my mental hamster into overdrive, wondering how many people were out there with "my" last name. I did a search and discovered hundreds. I was elated and mystified at the same time. I began friend-requesting every McKinster on Facebook.
First to accept was Terri McKinster, my lovely cousin. Then Jesse McKinster accepted. One of the family patriarchs, Lowell McKinster, accepted. I needed a way to organize my growing friend list so I started a Facebook Group.
As I pondered a good name, Lisa volunteered "The McKinster Clan," and it was born. When it started, I knew 31 individuals with the last name McKinster. I added my family members, and they added ones they knew. Others we didn't know found the open group through search. Now four years later, there are 266 people in the group, and we have put together the bits of information we each have, debated our origins, and puzzled out how we are all connected together.
I have witnessed first and second cousins, each unaware of the existence of the other, connect for the first time. I have connected to sixth, seventh and eight cousins. As our information store has grown, we have been able to make definitive connections between our branches of family, learning about each other and our history.
The harsh reality of economics prevents most of us from getting together often, if at all, though I did get to meet some of my distant cousins while working as a cross-country truck driver. I still haven't laid eyes on Erika since 1996. She lives in Miami, and I in Northern California, but we talk when we have time, and I get to see her photos on Facebook every day. She also has a 10 year-old half-sister that absolutely idolizes her, which she has never met. Someday...
These connections I have made have changed my life irrevocably. I grew up feeling like the black sheep of the family, with problems with the law and authority. Now I am in constant contact with hundreds of family members, from every corner of the country, including my beautiful daughter, Erika, who just turned 22 in February and has a burgeoning modeling career. Having the ability to reach out and communicate with my daughter at any time of day is a blessing in my life.
Brad McKinster lives in Kelseyville, Calif.