The trouble with secrets

Last Friday night, a friend and I played pool at a local bar. I’m telling you about it because I’m proud. I was quite distinctly not sitting in my bed reading a book and not in a mostly-empty gym. No, rather I was “out on the town,” as they say. It was all I could do not to declare “I’m out on the town!” as I waltzed up to the bartender and ordered a Diet Coke.

As we waited in line for pool, my friend asked me a question. She's one of those types who is always asking these remarkably deep, intuitive questions, and then is sort of alarmingly attentive to the answers. She’s like the anti-Tinder date. During Tinder dates, I’m quite confident that I could sheepishly admit to three counts of manslaughter, and my date would absently nod before launching into his most recent trip to Europe, which was vividly transformative in just the way that nice hotels and expensive dinners can often be. This friend, in contrast, demonstrates the full spectrum of phatic speech before asking targeted follow ups. She’s either a total psychopath, or she’s socially skilled. But then, we live in a both/and type of world; like most successful serial killers, she could almost certainly be both.

Here’s what she asked: “What is something you learned about yourself through getting sober that you never would’ve discovered if you’d kept drinking?”

It was one of the moments where the question was so interesting that I wanted to respond right away, but so novel that I didn’t have an answer fully prepared.

Here’s a bit of background: I had wondered if I was an alcoholic for the first time about six months after my first drink. My boyfriend at the time, who was of legal drinking age, would keep the booze in his freezer, and every time I’d come over I’d anxiously take note of how much liquor was left. Hmm. That can’t be normal, can it? I wonder if I have a problem. Then I drank for three more years.

I held on to this thought like a dirty secret. At first, my own worry that I was alcoholic probably came up no more than monthly, but over time it became a weekly and ultimately daily thought. I never vocalized it with anyone, but drinking was secretly the issue to which I’d attribute every unwelcome feature of my life. Alcohol was at once my biggest problem and my only solution.

Anyone who has ever held on to a secret for a long time -- whether it be a past trauma or wrongdoing, one's sexual orientation or gender identity, or perhaps a troubling diagnosis - knows that secrets preclude intimacy. It is impossible to have a deeply authentic relationship with another person while holding onto a secret about yourself. It hangs thick in the air; consciously or unconsciously, both people are aware that something has been left unsaid.

Secrets are unactualized potentials. If an undisclosed secret creates distance, a disclosed secret opens up an exciting possibility: acceptance in spite of your secret. This is more powerful than any work you could do independently. Any obsessive internal dialogue surrounding the secret - Is it true? Is it really that bad? What would people think? - is replaced by this concrete, real world evidence. Yes it’s true. No, it’s not that bad. And people can love you through it.

I carried with me the secret of being an alcoholic for a long time. And when I stopped drinking, started going to AA, and particularly when I shared my “searching and fearless moral inventory” with another person (steps 4 and 5), my secrets were quite abruptly out. Something which had been cause for guilt and shame for years had been stripped of its power. This process has only continued as I’ve continued to share little pieces of myself on this blog. There have been several moments where I come across a thought, and wondered, Can I really share this? And then, quite often, I do - and equally often, the roof doesn't cave in.

There is all sorts of theoretical support for this. In Carl Rogers’ person-centered approach, change hinges on being fully known and then accepted by another person, which in turns allows us to accept ourselves. Cognitive behavioral approaches would say that change occurs when real-world experiences force us to revise our core beliefs about ourselves. Interpersonal theory would look at the experience of sitting in a room, admitting one’s darkest secret, and seeing other people nod, smile, and agree, and call this a “corrective emotional experience.” All this to say, the twelve steps are theoretically sound.

There’s a saying in recovery meetings: “We are only as sick as our secrets.” The first time I heard this, I thought, Yes. Completely. In answer to my friend’s question - “What is something I learned in getting sober that I never would’ve discovered drunk?” - I suppose I would rephrase this familiar saying.

I learned that I do not need to hide. Once I have admitted the truth about myself to other human beings, there is nothing left - no further cause for shame. I don’t have to wonder what people would think or how they would react if they knew the real me, because many people do, and usually the answer is “neutrally.” There is nothing more empowering than speaking the truth about oneself. Sobriety has given me that opportunity. Alcohol was my my hiding place, and in removing alcohol from my life I have discovered that there is quite simply no reason to hide.

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