Secrets Keep You Sick: Truth Telling Will Set You Free
Megan walked into my office, kicked off her shoes, curled her legs under herself and said, “I’ve not told you the whole truth.”
This was our third psychotherapy session.
Why, I asked, did she choose today to open up?
“Because I can’t live with these secrets anymore,” she said. “And I thought you’d judge me because I judge and hate myself so much.”
I’ve been practicing psychotherapy for more than 25 years and I feel that I am never in a position to condemn. I’ve heard it all. But experience does not make me automatically worthy of another’s trust. Trust must be earned.
Megan, who is married with two school-aged children, had talked openly about her abuse of alcohol and the sleeping pill Ambien for the last 9 years. She lied to her family doctor about her use and went to other doctors for more pills, each time telling the same untruth.
“I can’t sleep,” she’d say to them. But her primary goal was to numb out and sleep as much as possible.
I had asked her gently in other sessions, why the desire to sleep around the clock? Her answer was always the same, “I don’t know.”
But today, as the tears rolled down her face, she talked about a secret life with another man whom she thought she had loved. This affair had lasted almost a decade.
I’ve quit the drugs, the booze and the guy, but I’m still leading a double life in keeping these secrets. It’s killing me.-Megan“I’ve quit the drugs, the booze and the guy, but I’m still leading a double life in keeping these secrets. It’s killing me. I am beyond confusion. I am so lonely. I am desperate. Can you help me?” she pleaded. “I am ready to be free of this terrible burden.”
By asking for help, Megan had just taken a huge step toward freedom, not only from abusing chemicals, but also from her secret world that had become full of self-loathing, shame and pain.
When Joyce Carol Oates wrote We Were the Mulvaneys, she said: “I was just old enough to look back upon my own family life and the lies of certain individuals close to me with the detachment of time. I wanted to tell the truth about secrets: How much pain they give, yet how much relief, even happiness we may feel when the last motive for secrecy has passed.”
Secrets keep us sick, so how do we get rid of that last motive for secrecy?
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is set up perfectly for working through secrets, lies and addictions with the help of a more experienced member (a sponsor) and, when appropriate, the larger AA community. Those who choose to walk through the steps, do so with humility and reverence for the process.
The 12-step program lays out guiding principles to help those with addictions, or other dysfunctional behaviors. The American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology, (2007) summarizes the AA process this way:
- Admit that one cannot control one’s addiction or compulsion.
- Recognize that a higher power can give strength.
- Examine past errors with the help of a sponsor.
- Make amends for these errors to others.
- Learn to live a new life with a new code of behavior.
The hallmark for AA’s program is believing in a higher power, whatever that means to you, and admitting powerlessness over your addiction. But for those who are not comfortable with AA, here are some pages from the playbook.
- Tell yourself the truth. Illuminate secrets by being honest. What are you trying to hide and why?
- If a secret causes anxiety and/or depression and you are self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, it’s time to reach for help. On the surface, sharing can feel frightening, as though you are giving away power by telling another. But reaching out and conceding that you need help will open the possibility that another person may empathize and you’ll feel less alone.
- Kick your ego aside and know that there are forces bigger than you at work. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Surrendering into vulnerability will open you up to an opportunity for hope.
- Make a courageous list of all secrets, lies and untruths and ask yourself for forgiveness. Then, apologize to those you have lied to unless doing so would injure them.
- Continue to be brutally honest with yourself and when you are wrong, admit it. Ask yourself for mercy and practice self-forgiveness.
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Where is Megan now?
Megan decided that to truly love herself, she had to take care of herself. Her choice was to enter an Intensive Outpatient Program for addiction and work a 12-step program.
It’s been just over a year since that day in my office and Megan, now back in outpatient therapy, feels great relief from the past’s shame and guilt.
After ending her affair, she made the deeply personal decision not to tell her husband.
“I have a lot of remorse that I’ll carry to my grave,” she told me. “But I have made peace with myself, my disease, the transgressions and all the destruction that has left. I am learning to love myself again, one step at a time.”
Megan is a pseudonym for Polly E. Drew’s patient in Wisconsin.
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