You have a secret you don’t want to tell anyone, right? Yeah, I know, because I have one too. More than one. The reason we don’t serve up the toxic Twinkies that our shame-filled secrets are is that we think we know how people will feel about us if we do. Because of the way we feel about ourselves.
When my husband confessed his affair to me, we didn’t sleep that night. At 2:00 a.m., too wracked with gut-wrenching guilt over what he knew he needed to tell me, he hadn’t yet been to sleep. The terror of having to tell me had wired his brain to static wake. Before he found the courage to speak, his anxious energy woke me up and when he heard me stir he said, “Jodie, I have to tell you something.”
In a fraction of a second, my body burst into fight or flight mode. My heart rocketed from zero to sixty, my breaths caught in my throat, I started to sweat, my ears rang, all before he said another word. My husband endured many of the same physical sensations as he broke the news of his infidelity.
In the wee hours of the morning, exhausted and raw, with his secret finally exposed and no longer eating its way through his intestinal wall, he looked at me and asked if I had ever done anything I was unbearably ashamed of. Without hesitation, I told him something I’d kept hidden for almost 30 years. As a teenager, I’d had a summer job that I’d stolen money from. On one occasion, I nearly got caught, but I talked my way out of it. And this was just one of the many profoundly misguided ways I slogged through being the product of a broken home and having a broken sense of self due to suffering through years of sexual abuse at the hands of a relative. There weren’t many bodies of troubled waters I didn’t dip my toes in during my up and coming years.
My husband was surprised to hear of my felonious act but the knowledge bathed his scorched and still smoking heart in welcome relief. The fact that I too had a secret I was deeply ashamed of and too afraid to tell another living soul eased his acute torment that night. I told him my secret because he’d been so broken and sincere in his plea as to whether I had ever made a big mistake, one that I regretted so much I’d never spoken of it, even to him. Despite the ground zero moment, I still felt love for my husband and I didn’t want him to feel alone in his mistake because he wasn’t. And I knew that if we were to be able to move forward from his mistake it would have to be with a clean conscious of my own. There would have to be accountability all around. I wanted to give him that gift of shared vulnerability. Somehow, in all the stabby pain and oozing anguish, the desire to continue to love is what won out. That inclination wasn’t of me, it was of God.
When we tell our truths, consequences will ensue. There’s no getting around it. But as excruciating as the consequences may be, they’re often preferable in the long run to keeping the secret. Even before the half-lives of those consequences begin to wane, something miraculous happens. We begin to heal. Keeping a secret or telling lies means we’re going to suffer sensationally, and that kind of suffering has no half-life. That kind of suffering will last as long as the secret does. Shame will make sure of it. Once our secret is told and even one other person looks at us with understanding and offers up the love they still have in their heart, shame is forced to start slinking away.
Some months ago, I sat with a friend who was in a fretful emotional state. The conversation dove to unfathomable depths and I found myself telling her another secret of mine, one I’ve kept from nearly everyone I know. I told her my secret because I knew without a doubt she was a safe repository for my regret and because I wanted to let her know she was not alone in her own grief and remorse. When my secret was told she surprised me by saying, “Me too. That’s my story too.” And then we wept.
It’s what happened next that still sits with me and will work to continue to influence how often I tell my truths and to whom. The current plan is nearly all of them to almost everyone. She told me a secret of her own that she thought was even worse. I’m nearly certain that in her mind she was recounting one of her absolute worst moments and deepest regrets. Something she’d almost sooner die than tell another soul about. But she did, she told me.
I know it was one of her worst secrets because in the telling of it she furled into herself, like a flower closing up shop to protect against the night. Her lower lip quivered and her voice shrank to just a sliver above a whisper. As she spoke, she looked away from me, unable to maintain eye contact while the words crept out. She did not want to tell me her truth. And she did want to tell me her truth. She turned her secret into spoken words and then it was done.
As tears streamed for us both I sat there silently and held open a safe space so she could come back out of the cave she’d sought refuge in during the telling. As she emerged, I knew all too well the relief she was already beginning to feel. Not necessarily at receiving absolution, as that mechanism can take time and the sharing of the secret is just the beginning of the often long and laborious process of forgiving ourselves and each other our transgressions. But relief at the too-heavy burden of secrecy being lifted off her chest. She was already getting more air, I could hear her taking it in. She was already feeling shame leave her body, where it had lodged in her heart like a troll, forever jumping out at her joy if it dared to cross his path.
I didn’t need to tell my secret that day, I’d told it before and so shame doesn’t have a foothold in that spot anymore. But she needed to hear it. She needed to use it to light the flame of rebellion against her own shame she’d been hefting around for years. We all need that revolution to happen within us. What if I hadn’t been her spark that day? Would she ever have told her secret? Would she have ever released the hurt so that she could begin to heal? I don’t know but it’s so soothing that I don’t need to wonder.
Many will caution that our stories and our secrets are not for everyone. And in many instances, this may be true. I would caution that our secrets and our stories are always for someone though and that we cannot afford not to share them. And not just because others can’t afford to not hear them.