I had planned to blog about humility tonight, and how it seems to escape me so much of the time. But then this afternoon at work I got into a conversation with a friend about family secrets. The conversation only lasted a few minutes, because work is unbelievably overwhelming right now, but it really left me thinking about my own family. So, humility will have to wait (how many times have I thought that??) for another post.
I grew up in an intact family, my parents didn’t divorce until we kids were all over 30. I’m sure that from the outside we looked normal enough. My dad was always a very hard worker and a good provider for the family, so my mom was able to stay at home with us. I have a brother – half-brother, really – that is 12 years older than me and a sister that is 2 years younger. We were mostly middle-class, but there were times that I remember financial difficulties. My dad was a mechanic and always worked at copper mines, and at least a few times when the union he belonged to went on strike, the family’s financial belt definitely had to be tightened. But, that said, we never went without the things we needed. To outsiders we looked like a normal, loving family. We did things together, my parents were active at our schools where my sister and I excelled, my mom was my Girl Scout leader, we had a lot of friends, there was never any alcohol in our home, and my parents didn’t believe in corporal punishment. But as I grew up, I learned that even though it looked good on the outside, we were a family with a lot of skeletons in the closet.
When I was about 6 or 7 years old, an older cousin cornered me when we were visiting my grandparents and told me that she and my brother had the same dad. I was so confused…how could that be possible, our moms are sisters? And her father, my uncle, had been married to my aunt for something like 15 years at that time. My childish mind tried to figure out this equation, but it just didn’t add up. So I did what any kid would do, I asked my mom. Surprisingly, she told me the truth. She had been married to my uncle, had my brother, divorced, and then her ex-husband married her sister. Even at my young age, that didn’t seem like something that happened in normal families. After she explained what had happened, she followed it up by telling me that it wasn’t something that we should ever talk about again or tell anyone outside of the family. That was the first time that I felt ashamed. It wasn’t something that I was directly involved in, I wasn’t even alive when it happened, but I still felt the shame and embarrassment.
That’s just one example of the kind of secrets that were kept in my family. There are many more that are far worse. My grandmother, my mother’s mom, was perhaps the biggest secret keeper in the family. When I was a teenager, my mother found out that she had an older brother that she never knew about. When my mom found him living in another state and he came to visit us, my grandmother still wouldn’t divulge any details about why she abandoned him. She took it to her grave. But that whole thing is a story for another post. As I got older, and became privy to more of the secrets of family members, I learned that it was important to keep anything that was wrong, unpleasant, sad, or embarrassing, to myself. “We don’t talk about that,” or “that’s not something anyone needs to know about,” or “please don’t tell,” were very common statements in our household.
What I didn’t know then, that I do now, is that hearing those words over and over set me up for a lifetime of shame. There were so many things that were off-limits. Sometimes just to people outside of the family, but often times we kept secrets from one another. There were so many conversations that started out with “don’t tell your mom,” or “don’t tell your dad.” But I also kept secrets without being told too, I was conditioned to keep my mouth shut. I learned how to stuff my emotions regarding negative things, so that no one would find out what my secrets were.
When, at fifteen, I was raped by a family member, it took me a while to tell anyone. I did finally tell my parents, and their response was to do nothing, tell no one. The whole thing was swept under the rug and I was expected to act like nothing had happened at family functions. My ex-husband was physically abusive for ten out of the twelve years we were married. No one knew, I kept it hidden and painted a pretty picture of our marriage to everyone that knew us. When I finally couldn’t take it anymore, friends and family were shocked when they found out why I was divorcing. My family’s secret keeping legacy was alive in me, for sure.
Of course, one of the biggest secrets I kept (until I couldn’t) was my drinking. I drank far more, for more often, than anyone knew. I lived a double life. I kept my normie friends and all of my family completely separate from my drinking life. I kept the horrible things that I did while drunk from everyone. I kept my feelings of depression and shame from everyone. I put on a game face and white-knuckled it through my days, weeks, months. That is until it all caught up with me. I had so many secrets, so much guilt and shame, that I there came a time that I just couldn’t keep them all contained any longer. So I started going to therapy…where I still kept secrets, this time from my therapist. I’m not sure why I thought I would get better doing that.
When I hit bottom and ended up in treatment, I shocked a lot of friends and family. They didn’t know that I was such a mess. While in treatment, I shared some, but not nearly all, of my shameful secrets. I shared just enough that I thought I might get some help, but certainly not enough that I would thoroughly embarrass myself. Any of you that have been reading my blog know that it took another trip to rehab for me to finally spill my guts, tell the truth – all of it, and begin healing.
I still struggle sometimes with not putting on that game face and just acting right, when I’m not feeling alright at all. But I do know that I am making progress. I keep far fewer things to myself these days. I don’t have nearly as many secrets anymore, and guess what? I have more friends and supporters than I ever did when I was secretive and dishonest. The AA saying that we are as sick as our secrets is so true for me. I know that when I begin keeping things from those that are close to me, I need to do something about it. It just isn’t safe for me to be secretive. When I fess up, tell the truth and am transparent, I feel more serene. Life is less chaotic, and I am able to enjoy myself. Sharing my secrets sets me free. Funny how that works.
10 thoughts on “Please don’t tell…”
This totally resonates with me. I grew up keeping secrets too, most of which were not my own. I understand what you mean about feeling shame over something that happened before you were born. I always felt responsible for my parents’ divorce and it happened when I was one. When we grow up in a family that keeps secrets, we take on the shame whether we had anything to do with it or not and we learn the rules quickly. I was abused by a family member when I was 14 and when I finally told at 17, it ripped my family apart to have “outsiders” know about it. I drank to bury the shame and of course, it only brought on more shame. I can’t keep secrets anymore because shame can’t survive once it’s spoken. Great post Jami!
“Shame can’t survive once it’s spoken”
I love that. And it’s so true. When I talk about things that feel shameful to me, it lessens the shame I feel. It sounds so contradictory to someone that has fought so hard to keep it all hidden for so long, doesn’t it? But I have learned that it works.
Thank you so much for your encouragement, Karen. I am finding that writing helps me find peace, and knowing that others are reading it and identifying with it is the icing on the cake!
Have a great weekend,
My family was good at keeping secrets as well: we had a lot of elephants in the room, to be sure. That’s why i appreciated Step 5 of the 12 steps so much; i was finally given the opportunity to unburden myself of those secrets that were hard to beat and weighed me down in my recovery process. Thanks for this!
Thanks for your comment. The 5th step was very liberating for me too, even though it was actually the third time I did one that I finally told the whole, ugly truth. In the beginning I thought that by telling all of my secrets I would feel more shame. Who knew that it would be the opposite that happened? 🙂
Very interesting post! I think that it’s great that you are learning to be honest with yourself that the people around you. When I was about 17 or 18 my own mother, who had been an alcoholic for years, decided that she was going to do something similar to what you’re doing with your blog.
I noticed however, that when my mother would speak about family secrets, she not only was not 100% honest, but she would also never write about herself. I’ve thought about this a lot over the years, and I realize now that while she thought she was being honest, and while she was getting a lot of positive attention from her peers, she was never completely honest with herself or others. It’s my belief, that to completely change yourself, to completely allow yourself to become a better person, you have to lay it all out on the table and be completely, 100%, without a doubt, truly honest.
During my mother’s alcoholism, she was fired from her job, which we all thought she loved, and was never honest about why she was really let go. She was later arrested for assault. She never spoke about these things, and to this day, I wish there was something that would have made her change what she thought her own truth was. To each her own, I suppose. Just something to think about!!
I understand your mother’s hesitance to tell the whole truth. Even though I have made a commitment to being honest on my blog, I still cringe a little bit as I hit publish. The thing that I am learning is that when I do tell the whole truth and confess my secrets, I feel better. I am able to let go of the shame and feel some honest-to-goodness peace.
Thanks for reading my blog and leaving a comment, I appreciate you. 🙂
Family secrets to rip the family apart. They leave lasting impressions on those to young to understand why. Thanks for your blog
Yes, you are so right, they do rip families apart. Thanks so much for reading my blog.