"Distant relatives of deceased mother kept it as a secret, raising me as their only child," she told ABCNews.com. "I knew I was adopted, but I didn't know I had brothers and sisters. I am still paying for it."
Her siblings sought a reunion when she was 19, but dark secrets and jealousies prevented them from bonding.
Now 53 and a disabled social worker, Wheeler has a troubled relationship with both her adoptive and biological families, who have chastised her for openly talking about the family's past in her upcoming book, "Forbidden Family."
Her identity struggle was so painful, she doesn't even believe in adoption, wishing she had been placed in foster care or a guardianship so she could have had access to her blood relatives.
"Babies are not commodities, they have lives and identities," Wheeler said.
Today, birth parents often welcome contact, but before the 1970s and 1980s closed adoptions were the norm and records were sealed tightly at birth.
Now, experts see those policies as archaic, robbing adoptees not only of vital medical records, but of their sense of identity.
Only Alaska, Kansas, New Hampshire, Maine, Oregon, Alabama, Tennessee and Delaware have broad access to original birth certificates.
"I feel like it's the last civil rights struggle," she told ABCNews.com. "There is a bias toward the adopters who are looked on as saviors. They are the ones that get attention at the expense of the adoptee and their birth relatives. We don't count."
Without her original birth certificate, Warshaw, author of "A Legitimate Life," said she feels like she has a "fake identity."
She was adopted in as an infant in 1947 after her birth mother had a "revenge affair" during a separation from her philandering husband.
"The shame forced her into secrecy," Warshaw said of her birth mother, who turned to the Cradle Adoption Agency in Chicago where wealthy parents like Bob Hope adopted.
"Her sister drove her under cover of darkness to the agency where she stayed until she gave birth to me," she said.
Warshaw began a complicated search for her birth parents that eventually led her to the Chicago adoption agency, where she was told, "Sorry, we can't tell you anything."
"It was against the law for me to find out who I was, and it just drove me insane that I wasn't allowed to find out even my name or ethnicity," she said.
"It was just cruel and many adoptees feel like we are aliens and don't belong," said Warshaw. "We're just lost."
In 1980, at the age of 33, she found her mother.
"She was ridden with shame and feared what friends, family and community would think," said Warshaw. "After several conversations with her and hearing her cold-hearted words of rejection, I ended my attempts to truly be her daughter."
Eventually, Warshaw was able to connect with her half brother, an artist like herself. And this summer, she met 12 third cousins in Iowa.
"It was like I flew home," she said. "It was so healing and wonderful. All the women had the same body style and walk and eyes. I feel totally complete."
Reunions are challenging, according to Craig Hyman, a 51-year-old adoption triad life coach from New York City who found both his biological parents 27 years ago.
""But the richness and advantages far outweigh the complications along the road."