I grew up knowing that my mom had been abused by my grandfather. I knew it, yes. But we never talked about it. In fact, we visited him every week. We hugged and kissed him hello and goodbye. We saw my mom create elaborate birthday surprises for him every single year because of how much she loved him. We grew up knowing life is complicated. Love is complicated. And most importantly, family secrets are supposed to be kept quiet.
Forty years later, I’m not so sure that’s the right approach.
My mom died at age 48 from progressive multiple sclerosis. No one really knows what causes MS, but stress—the holding on to broken wounds—settling in of pain and anger—those have all been proven to be potential causes. Now that I’m closer to her age, I’m looking to find another way to deal with family secrets—to heal them, rather than sweep them into the next room. (Which, by the way, simply means sweeping them on to the next generation—our children.) As one psychologist said, every year there is more evidence of the health risks associated with keeping dark secrets. It’s possible we could all be living healthier lives if we simply chose to shine the light on the parts of our lives that are hurting us.
What Goes Around Comes Around
My mom wasn’t the only one with father issues. From what I remember, my dad was an angry and violent person. I went more than 20 years without seeing him because of it. I hated him. I harbored resentment. I referred to him by his initials, rather than “dad.” I brought daddy issues into every single intimate relationship I had. Ever. I punished my father mightily—the way I felt my mother should have punished my grandfather.
Oh, and I developed an autoimmune disorder at age 26, just like my mom.
From the outside, it’s easy to see that holding and hiding family secrets is unhealthy for one’s family and body. But it’s far more difficult to face the truths, and the people associated with them. We worry about the discomfort. The awkwardness of bringing up painful memories. The sadness of acknowledging the truth, rather than burying it. But it’s exactly that “burying” that lodges life-taking stress into our hearts and bodies. In fact, research shows that holding onto secrets—even other people’s secrets—causes a fight or flight response within our bodies, circulating stress hormones throughout our bodies even when we’re at rest. Turns out there’s only so much stress—and secrets—a body can take. And when it comes to dirty secrets, that stress just keeps coming back around again.
Facing Our Family Skeletons Head On
Burying secrets doesn’t just cause stress. It can also cause us to do incredibly harmful things to avoid thinking about or remembering our experiences—alcoholism, drug addiction, porn addiction, infidelity. Just as bad, it prevents us from having close, authentic, intimate relationships with those we love. If you have secrets in your family that you know are causing you harm, now is the time to face them. Not when you retire—or go into assisted living—or find yourself on your death bed regretting not sharing your experiences sooner. Believe me: there are other people in your life who will benefit from your truth.
The following are a few ways to begin the laundering process:
- Say it aloud. The truth is empowering. Don’t just keep it in your head. Say it loud. Name names. Get specific. Say it over and over again until the power of the truth outweighs the power of the pain associated with it.
- Confront it. Yes, it’s hard. It was overwhelming and awkward to see my father after more than 20 years. But it’s also the fastest path to healing (not that I’m there yet). Being able to face who has hurt you—or others in your family who experienced the pain with you—will go incredibly far in healing yourself and your family members, as well. It’s possible that the person who hurt you has passed away. In that case, even more reason to face this pain. There is no reason to let a dark shadow ruin what is left of your life.
- Find help. The scars that come from family secrets—whether they be infidelity, bloodlines, abuse or something else altogether—have left emotional scars within you. Find a specialist who can help you heal those hurts so you can move forward, rather than setting up camp in the family laundry mat!
- Find others like you. One of the most powerful forces in healing is simply knowing you’re not alone. Join a support group. Find an online community. Get a mentor who has already fought and won the battle to forgiveness.
Last but not least, acknowledge the ways you’ve hurt others. Sometimes family secrets are from our own doing. The shame we feel can cause us to hide from those we love. The secrets will hurt just as much, whether you are the abuser or the victim. Allow yourself the gift of healing either way.