Have you ever had someone come up to you and say, “Can I tell you a secret?” I always get a little nervous when someone asks me that. In high school, it was often an innocent secret, more like something told in confidence than a secret. It might have been something like, “I have a crush on Jean.” And what always follows a secret? “Don’t tell.”
I am not good with “Don’t tell.” Tell is what I seem to do. Secrets are usually things that flourish in the darkness of not being told. Confidences often have been exposed to the light, or will be. Perhaps that is a subtle or futile distinction on my part. But I think it is an important one.
If I had gone into counseling or pastoral work, I would have had to disclose to each person I talked to that I do not keep secrets. If someone came to me and said, “My wife is beating me,” I would be morally obligated to report that. If they came to me and said, “I just got engaged!” That is a confidence I could surely keep.
Secrets and coincidences have many things in common. After they are revealed, the people formed by each both can say, “Oh! Now that all makes sense!” If someone is planning a surprise birthday party for a friend or loved one, everyone in on the confidence may be acting a little strangely before the party. After the party, there is an explanation for everyone’s behavior.
A secret is much more insidious. No one may ever know why everyone is acting strangely. Or they may never know that the behavior is strange because it is always the way people acted and everyone involved in the secret acts as they have always acted. For example, survivors of sexual abuse learn patterns of behavior, such as don’t ever be alone with Uncle George. When the survivor has children, they never let them be alone with Uncle George, but they never say why. It becomes part of the family dynamic, but unless the secret is told, the pattern can never be changed and the story can never be told. To tell means we have to see and we have to change.
Many people do not want to see. And many more people do not want to change. And as survivors, we are taught that our actions were shameful. We are the ones who did or did not do the right thing. It is completely untrue, but it is part of the lesson we are taught in order to keep the “secret.” Sometimes, we keep the secret at all costs. We split ourselves, we medicate ourselves, we are terrified by every sound, every creak in the floor, every breath. But we do not tell.
Our health suffers. Our life suffers. Our friends, children, family and even pets. But we do not tell the secret. Sometimes we have covered it up so well, we do not even remember. People around us who know the signs of sexual abuse may suspect, but we are so good at keeping our secret that if they asked, we would laugh in their face.
It is the same if one grows up in an alcoholic home. Many people do not see the alcoholism in their own homes because they have not seen anything else. It is what they know and it is part of the secret they all keep. Keeping the secret punishes and rewards all those involved in it. By keeping it, we can all keep up the semblance of normal we have come to accept. By telling it, we are asking everyone, including ourselves, to change our behavior.
I have learned some secrets in my life. I do not like them and I really do not like keeping them. I have also come to understand that sometimes a secret must be kept, at least for a time.
And I have also come to understand that a secret isn’t always mine to tell. In that situation, I encourage the person holding the secret to keep telling it. The first time is surely the hardest, but once it has been told, life is seen with new eyes. It allows for the wound that has been covered and hidden to begin to heal.
What suggestions would you make to help people keeping secrets turn them into confidences?