I can still remember the time eight years ago that I tried to keep a secret from myself and from those closest to me. I had gone out running one day, just as I did then, and still do, on a regular basis. But during this run I experienced something I had never experienced before–a funny pain in my chest. At first the pain was faint, but soon it made it impossible for me to continue running. As soon as I stopped and walked, the pain went away. I walked home that day and told myself the pain was probably just a pulled muscle in my chest. After all, I was a runner, I couldn’t possibly have an issue related to my heart. I kept my experience a secret from my wife and family.
This same scenario repeated itself on two more occasions over the next four days. After the third incident I finally told my wife about it. Can you believe that she thought I should go right to the hospital and have the pain checked out?! Well, she did and so that’s what I did. A few hours later at the hospital a cardiac catherterization revealed that my right coronary artery was 98% blocked. Fortunately, a stent was inserted rather quickly and an almost certain heart attack was prevented. If I had kept my secret much longer, it may very well have killed me.
This incident reminded me yet again of what I have always known about how potentially destructive denial and the keeping of secrets can be. Two other recent experiences have brought to my attention again the injurys that occur when secrets are protected. The first is the tragedy we have all watched the last two weeks as the horrible secrets unfolded regarding the abuse committed by a former Penn State football coach. In this case, ignoring and minimizing the truth of what was happening, did lead to a “heart attack” that resulted in devastating damage to the hearts of numerous children, their families, fans and to the trustworthiness of a university.
“J. Edgar”, a recently released movie, also depicts the destructive effects of secrets that are kept. After leaving the theatre last weekend I felt both deeply disturbed and sad. While the exact details of J. Edgar Hoover’s life will never be fully known to the public, it seems clear that he lived with some deep secrets hidden from view. He was never able to bring his secret to light and therefore never able to resolve the pain it caused in his life. Unable to reveal his secret and resolve the secrets in his own life, it appears ironically that he then brought an overdetermined degree of intensity to discovering the secrets of others.
There is a saying in recovery circles that we are only as “sick as our secrets.” There is great truth in this saying. Secrets have the power to corrupt and destroy the hearts and souls of individuals, couples, families, and institutions. Each of us has a story, I’m sure, of how we have seen this first hand in our lives or those of others. Usually the story is not pretty.
A positive way to reframe the saying that we are as “sick as our secrets’ is to say that we also as “well as our honesty.” Facing and telling the truth is not only good for our physical health, but is absolutely essential for our spiritual, emotional and relational health as well. If you need help facing a secret in your life, seek out a trusted friend, clergy person, therapist, spiritual director or doctor and take the first step on the path to healing and recovery today.