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Man shares story of family secret kept for 18 years: His sister was actually his mother

Steve Lickteig was raised to believe his grandparents were his parents, but when he was 18, he learned the truth.
/ Source: TODAY

Steve Lickteig spent his entire childhood believing that Don and Mary Jane Lickteig were his parents, and that he was one of the close-knit siblings that made up their nine children.

But shortly after he turned 18, he discovered that everything he thought he knew about his family was a lie. His parents were actually his grandparents, and his big sister, Joanie Lickteig, was his biological mother.

Don and Mary Jane Lickteig with Steve, years before he learned the truth about his biological mother.

"My two best friends from high school told me the night before my high school graduation," Lickteig recalled when he visited TODAY Monday.

His friends knew about it all because, while Lickteig was in the dark, his history was an open secret within his small community. And even after he learned the truth, he kept it to himself.

"I held it in for another month and a half, and then I confronted my parents — my grandparents — about it," said Lickteig, who is an employee of NBC News. "Then, being an 18-year-old and angry, I ran away. Got into a car and drove to the nearest town, which was 20 miles away, rented a motel room, got drunk with my friends."

The woman he'd long considered a sister tracked him down at that motel.

"We had a moment of, 'Yes, this happened. I'm sorry,'" he said of his conversation with Joanie that night. "I was mostly silent. And then we didn't talk about it again for another 15 years."

Steve Lickteig spent his entire childhood believes that his grandparents were his parents and that his aunts, uncles and even his mother were his siblings.

That may seem difficult to understand for someone who hasn't lived in the shadow of that kind of deception. But bringing that old secret to the surface was hard for everyone involved — much harder than keeping the secret in the first place, which is something Steve has some understanding about now.

"Part of it was the time of this, which was the early '70s, and also (it was a) small town, a tight-knit community," he said. "The community members who knew, who didn't say anything, were just trying to be good neighbors."

But according to author Dani Shapiro, who came to know Steve through her "Family Secrets" podcast and who joined him on TODAY, these kind of secrets are a growing "epidemic" in a country where DNA testing kits are one of the most popular holiday gifts. There's nothing good that comes from keeping such secrets, she said.

"Ultimately people do have a right to know, and I think also feel liberated by knowing the truth," Shapiro told TODAY. "The secret-keepers are carrying a burden, but the question is not so much whether they should share that secret, but when."

Steve Lickteig and Dani Shapiro visit the 3rd Hour of TODAY to talk about the damaging nature of long-held family secrets. Nathan Congleton/TODAY

While decades have passed since Steve and Joanie first confronted the issue, their relationship is still a work in progress.

"I would say that it's not the best, but it's not horrible, either," he shared. "In fact, we exchanged voicemail messages around (doing) this today. But we haven't talked in a while directly. She does send birthday cards to my children. We're building something over time, but it takes a long time to get to another place and we've just been trying to make that happen — but maybe a little too slowly for her."

She now wants to be a grandparent to his kids, and he wants that, too.

"It's just been hard for me. I feel like we are ultimately going to be in a good place," he said.

But his priority in speaking out now isn't about that. It's about others who are navigating similar events in their own families.

"I'm so happy to be able to help other people who have stories like this," he said, adding, "Your life doesn't have to be destroyed over something like this."