You're Only as Sick as Your Secrets

Opening the blinds dispels darkness and lets in light all at once.

Posted Mar 15, 2018 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

John-Manuel Andriote/photo
Source: John-Manuel Andriote/photo

Shame is a powerful force. It can undermine you by making you feel unlovable. It can be exploited by others to manipulate you, bend you to their will.

But shame’s power is completely dependent on secrecy. As soon as the secret is let out, the boil is lanced and the burden of shame lightens.

People who grow up in dysfunctional homes, such as alcoholic homes where one or more parent regularly drinks to the point their behavior is impaired, tend to live with secrets. 

Even if no one swears an actual vow of silence, children become expert at keeping quiet about the alcoholic’s blackouts or violent outbursts, ashamed that kids at school will find out. Spouses filter information about their home life when speaking with parents or friends. 

Everyone tacitly agrees to keep the family’s business private. Besides, who wants to look “weak” by telling an “outsider” how confusing and scary it is to live in a household with an out-of-control parent, and everyone else screaming and crying?

Shame festers in the darkness of secrecy.

I grew up in an alcoholic household. I felt the shame. I kept the secrets. I also had bullies at the bus stop to deal with on top of the regular violent flare-ups at home from my dad.

I was also gay, another secret—and a source of shame back then.

Fortunately, I had a good friend in my twenties who happened to be both a Catholic priest and psychologist. He gave me a copy of Janet Woititz’s book Adult Children of Alcoholics. It changed my life by opening my eyes to how the trauma of my growing-up years had affected and undermined me. I began to understand how I had learned to hide my fear—and my need for love.

I learned why being vulnerable felt dangerous. I learned why I had such a hard time trusting my own gut instincts, which I later realized were quite astute. My dad, the man who supposedly loved me, also put me down for being “different” from other boys, causing me to confuse love with needing to prove my lovability. Being gay meant my “differentness” was also something to be masked and hidden.

One of the most important, and continuing, lessons from my years in Al-Anon and therapy is from a slogan the group uses, adopted from Alcoholics-Anonymous: “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”

We can only be harmed to the extent that we allow a traumatic experience—a parent’s alcohol-induced violence, for example, or a boss’s unwanted sexual advance, or a hateful attack-by-text—make us feel we need to hide it, keep it secret.

Attackers, including those related by blood, count on the target of abuse or character assassination to feel so embarrassed and ashamed for having been abused or maligned that s/he will keep the exchange secret—just like my junior high school bullies, who counted on my being so ashamed I was gay that I would never tell anyone else about their name-calling and spitting on me.

Women and men who have stepped forward in the #MeToo era understand that even sexual assault loses its stigma when victims push back. By openly declaring that what happened is not about something wrong with them, but something done to them, they make it clear: The perpetrator should be ashamed, not the target.

It’s a powerful move to break the silence, shatter the secrecy, and expose abusive words and behavior rather than let them fester within you and undermine your self-esteem.

It’s also powerfully healing and a mark of resilience, which after all has everything to do with which version of our story we tell ourselves. Is it the version in which we are the hero, the one who survives and thrives in spite of abuse and insult by powerfully exposing them? Or is it the version in which the victim is warped by the shameful behavior of another person who is unable to conduct him/herself in a manner befitting a functional, rational adult?