A secret is like a room, and as far as rooms go, it’s one of the loneliest ones to find yourself in. Some are huge, cluttered, and easy to get lost in, like a public library with all the signs removed. Others are exquisitely spartan, with only one thing like a chair or a box. Some are empty.
But if it is a true secret, the constant is that you will be alone in it.
We know secrets are dangerous. Children are taught to differentiate between good and bad kinds of touching and to tell someone if the latter happens. Abuse victims are begged to speak out or look for help. It is why we need anonymous lines to the police for crime reporting.
Because some secrets have the power to get you killed. Or worse. And yes, there is always worse.
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness month and I am grateful for the statistical updates and reminders of signs to look out for I’ve been seeing in local and other media. This information is important – we need to know more about suicide in our own communities and wider ones.
I want to talk about secrets because secrecy is very often the safe house in which our darkest impulses can really grow. The excellence of this residence cannot be overstated. It caters to all timeframes, storage needs and activation plans. Suicidal feelings are not the only inhabitants, but they are some of the scariest.
For a very long time I thought the danger of a secret lay in its very shadowiness. The sort of place for slinking, lurking, predatory behaviour and characters. They seemed to be toxic by their very existence. A bit of the poison tree-anger equation: tell someone you’re angry and you can work it out; be silent and let it grow, and someone ends up dead.
I understand now that the even more insidious thing about a secret is not simply what it is, but our preoccupation with it.
Keeping a secret is exhausting and all-consuming. We can’t slip. We can’t mis-speak. We juggle words to make sure we don’t even skirt the topic. Our anxiety increases. Our physical health may decline. Depression is likely.
All because there is this thing we must keep hidden and its burden is tremendous. It may feel fragile – like glass or a grenade¬¬ – so how can we stop thinking about it?
And we’re doing all this by ourselves in the loneliest room in the world.
We keep secrets for lots of reasons, but a great many of those circle back to shame, fear, guilt or a combination of the three. Or maybe someone simply told us we couldn’t tell anyone.
I think about this a lot. There it is: I’m not even keeping a secret and its power of preoccupation is with me. I think at the heart of it, I’ve always found it difficult to reconcile the facts of secrets’ existence.
If you are hurt, threatened, bullied, manipulated or otherwise made to feel like some pain that’s been inflicted on you is your fault, then you will hide the pain. You will protect the secret and those responsible for it.
But when you do that – never underestimate the power of stating the obvious – you are left in pain. It may be a pain you file away. Or it may be the kind you are aware of all the time no matter what you’re doing.
The secret is the hurt and the secret hurts. Why does it get to be both?
We are entitled to privacy, and when someone confides in us we do have a responsibility to honour that trust.
But when the thing hidden is dangerous and scarring, are we very often not simply enabling its power? And hasn’t it become too easy to do that?
We don’t want to betray anyone’s trust. But we don’t know what to do with it either. If it is innocuous enough, our listening may be all that’s needed.
But if it’s not, if it was the only way someone knew how to ask for help, what are we doing? What can we do?
Secrets are where abuse, fear, rejection, insecurities, uncertainties, deception, embarrassment, hopelessness, anger, transgressions, lies and shame live.
How do we stop choosing the pain of the secret over the pain of revealing it?