You Are Only as Sick as Your Secrets

Years ago, I unexpectedly found myself responsible for a table of about 8 customers at an Advisory Board dinner. If you aren’t familiar with Ad Boards, they are exactly as they sound – a group of people brought together for the purpose of advising you. Ours usually lasted a day and a half and were typically held in 4 star hotels. Seems like this one was at a W. I’d been invited to the meeting to lead a discussion on some patient education materials my company had developed. Earlier in the day I’d done so and as we headed into the hotel ballroom for dinner, I was relieved my obligations were over. Or so I thought. No one bothered to mention until right before we sat down that oh, by the way, I would be the only one from my company at my table and it would be my great fortune to play the role of host. Yikes! My palms immediately began to sweat.

You see, I don’t have an affinity for small talk. Which is to say I pretty much suck at it. Small talk seems pointless. I mean, life is short. If you’re going to have a conversation, well then, have one. Why waste oxygen talking about the weather? Or the price of gas in Muskeegee? Sure, it’s polite to inquire about one’s job and the ages of one’s kids, but time is ticking, so why not get right down to the good stuff? Like one’s most embarrassing moment. Or the thing one prays one’s significant other never finds out. I’m just saying I’m not afraid to ask. Something to think about before you plop down beside me on an airplane and interrupt my novel.

So I wiped my sweaty hands on my dry clean only suit, heaped my plate at the buffet and made my way over to table 5 to play hostess for the evening. One by one, guests joined me; 2 doctors, 2 pharmacists, and 4 nurses, and after everyone was seated and the wine poured, I looked up from my baked chicken to discover all eyes on me. I put down my fork, wiped my mouth with my napkin and tried to say something introductory. Something small talk-ish. I opened my mouth fully intending to say, “Hi everyone. Glad you could all join us this evening. Shall we go around the table and introduce ourselves?” Truly. That was my plan. And then I’d ask, “What do you think about the meeting so far?” and scarf down my food while everyone else talked.

But that’s not what happened. Instead my brain hijacked my professional intentions and my mouth produced something very close to the following:

“So. None of us really know each other and we will likely never meet again. Feels like the perfect place to get that thing off your chest. You know, that thing you really don’t want anyone to know but you really need to tell.”

Eyes widened. Someone giggled. There was a decade-long pause during which I thought, you’ve really stepped in it this time, sister, and then a lady sitting next to me took a big ole swig of wine and said, “my son is turning himself into a pin cushion. He’s got 10 body piercings so far and he just did a nipple. I love him but I can’t hardly talk to him without laughing. He looks so ridiculous, you know?”

And then the floodgates opened.

It was freaking AWESOME. I don’t even remember what anyone said. Except for the mother of the pin cushion. It was just so great to open up the closet and expose all the skeletons. We laughed and groaned and commiserated. One of the doctors racked his brain for something to share. “I’m just too normal,” he shook his head glumly. “That’s OK. Somebody has too be.” And we all roared with laughter.

All of the other tables kept sneaking glances. They couldn’t get over how much fun we were having. Long after everyone else had gone up to their rooms, we were still sitting there, lingering. We didn’t want to leave. We started out strangers and we left there, well, still strangers but a little lighter, as if having tossed a heavy backpack overboard.

A wise friend recently said, “We are only as sick as our secrets.” I believe this, wholeheartedly. Which is why I don’t have secrets. Also because I’m just not good at keeping them and partly as a reaction to growing up in such a dysfunctional family. Putting up a good front was ingrained in me. What other people thought about our family was paramount. I kept all sorts of family secrets – I had to. It was expected. And you know how it made me feel? Ashamed. Damaged. Broken. Less than.

But after I decided to no longer keep those secrets, know how I felt? Empowered. Unencumbered. Lighter. Free.

As an adult I realize you can’t actually control what others think of you. You can try to hide the dark stuff but you will always live in fear of it surfacing. Of someone finding out. It’s actually easier to eradicate the dark stuff than to hide it. To just stop doing the things you’d be horrified if others knew about. But some of our dark stuff is out of our control – it’s not the things we have done but the things others have done to us that we’re ashamed of. We worry what others would think if they knew we were abused or our spouse cheated on us or we were bullied in school or we grew up in foster care. We feel this inexplicable need to protect the people who harmed us by keeping their secrets. We take on their secrets and make them our own. This is unhealthy for both us AND them.

This is the stuff I’ve lost tolerance for as I get older. You don’t want someone to know you’re an alcoholic? Then get sober, no matter what it takes. Don’t tell your child to cover for you. “Daddy’s a deacon at church and it would look bad if others knew he drank. Let’s just keep it in the family. OK?”

Nope. Not doing it. I wonder how many people in our lives would choose to eradicate their dark stuff if we refused to cover for them? Keeping their secret isn’t doing them a favor. It enables their sickness. It helps keep them sick.

Of course, refusing to keep the secret isn’t a walk in the park either. Whether it’s your personally owned secret or one foisted on you second hand, outing it will jeopardize relationships. Some people will judge you. Some people will likely walk away. But are those the kind of people you actually need in your life? I say, good riddance.