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As Sick as Our Secrets

By Jowita Bydlowska 12/21/16

The 12 steps are designed around defusing all those bombs that secrecy plants in our lives. For someone like me, who finds refuge in the darkness, living exposed and in the light is uncomfortable.

A woman covering her eyes.
After staying in the dark, the light can seem ugly.

"I have no secrets," a woman said to me at an AA meeting years ago. I like freaks so I asked her to be my sponsor. I wanted to live my life in a way where I could say the same thing because secrets were weighing me down. At the same time, I thought it would be impossible to do that and that the woman was indeed a freak (a good freak, but still) because how could you not have them? What was there to get excited (and really nervous) about? For me, secrets were like little hiding places where I could be by myself and delight in knowing something or doing something that was entirely mine. I didn't have to explain myself to anyone. 

But secrets are heavy things. Literally. In a few recent studies, Columbia University professor Michael Slepian asked gay men to move heavy boxes of books. The men who hadn't come out as gay chose to move fewer boxes—it was as if their secrets were weighing them down. In another study, people who have had a recent affair found physical tasks more difficult than the people who were faithful. In a third study, Slepian measured people's responses to being asked how steep they thought a hill was in a picture. People who were preoccupied with secrets described the hill as being more steep. The bigger the secret and the more time spent thinking about it, the more physical exertion and stress were reported.

This is true—that secrets require a lot of effort, that they complicate things. As a child, I remember taking Christmas presents from under the tree to open them in my room by myself. I didn't want my parents witnessing my reactions whether they be positive or negative. I was afraid to show my disappointment or my joy—I decided neither was safe because it would make me vulnerable. Subconsciously, I probably liked that I was making my parents nervous. Secrecy can be a weapon of control and my parents wondering where I was and why I had left put me in the position where, for once, I was in charge. I didn't develop this behavior because of some kind of trauma. I just liked hiding. It made me feel safe and excited at the same time. My parents weren't impressed. There was always tension, and as a result till this day, I get weirded out when it comes to showing the right emotion. This informs how I see secrets today: they protect the vulnerable, ugly parts of ourselves but if we get too comfortable hiding all the time, what we end up presenting to the world is a lie. Paradoxically, secret holders often feel alone and misunderstood even though they are the ones who won't let themselves be understood. (I certainly have felt misunderstood when no one could conceive just how bad my addiction was.)

Not all secrets are bad; there are sweet secrets, too. For example, when you're falling in love and can't tell anyone yet because it's too soon; and there are situations where we get sworn to secrecy because of some serious issue. And it would be unhealthy and unreasonable to expect people to be open all the time, about everything. Secrets allow us to keep our autonomy—as long as they don't isolate us to the point where we do indeed get sick from them, as it happens in the context of addiction (secrets are addiction's main ingredient). Without secrets, it is impossible to keep addiction alive—addiction cannot exist without hiding. When active in my addiction, my universe revolved around lying—lying about how much pain I was in, lying about how much I needed to drink, how it felt compulsive and natural, like the switch of that basic biological instinct of self-preservation got turned off and I simply had to die; there was no other way. I had to keep that death wish a secret because I couldn't tell the world I didn't want to live—and had made peace with it—because then the world would be in my face, trying to make me see that was not what I wanted. Thankfully the dying was taking its time, and eventually, I had to admit that I had a lot of things to live for, mainly my son. The insidious nature of secrets, however, kept me from getting help. Where they served me before to hide my insanity, admitting to having lied seemed just too humiliating. Admitting to lying would mean being a liar; but not admitting was lying too. I was trapped. 

I knew that on admitting the truth, I would have to tell everything and it would be so ugly without the slick deceptive polish of secrecy. If I were to tell (my sponsor), it would be as Sylvia Plath wrote: "When at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter—they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long."

The 12 steps are designed around defusing all those bombs that secrecy plants in our lives. "Made a searching moral inventory of ourselves..." or "Admitted to ourselves, to God and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs," are the action steps where addicts can finally get rid of secrets and can start living their lives honestly. Honesty is difficult for addicts—it uncovers all those delicious deadly hiding spaces and exposes them to light. For someone like me who finds refuge in the darkness, living exposed and in the light is uncomfortable. It is akin to the torture of sleep deprivation when the light is always on. But unlike torture, this is not a naked lightbulb but rather sunlight. It's just hard to tell the difference in the beginning. 

When I got sober after my first major relapse, it happened because I had a very brief moment when it became obvious that my lying was the ballast weighing me down. This weight was preventing me from becoming well. My addiction was heavier to carry than whatever consequences would occur as the result of me telling the truth. Admitting to drinking could mean me becoming homeless, losing custody of my son and a divorce. The lies could hide me for a while longer and I could stave off having those things happen yet (but they would—no addict just figures out the way out of the bog of addiction and denial without suffering every consequence and taking down her loved ones with her). But whatever breakthrough I had at that moment tipped the scales in the favor of truth. So I told the truth. I got sober.

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Jowita Bydlowska is a copywriter and author living in Toronto. She is the author of Drunk Mom: A Memoir. You can find her on Linkedin.

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