What secrets do you keep? Are you better at keeping secrets, or sharing them?
Most of us want to tell other’s secrets, while closely guarding our own. Not only can keeping mum be exhausting, it can be harmful to keep secrets and beneficial to share them.
The challenge is deciding if – and how.
Who “owns” a family member’s secret once he or she passes on? If the secret impacts your life, is it now your story to tell? And if so, should you tell it?
It took about eight years for me to muster the strength to discuss my mother’s death openly. After so many years spent trying to protect her legacy, hiding one of her greatest flaws and darkest secrets, I finally decided to deal with the cause of my mother’s death, instead of dancing around it when the subject (and inevitable questions) would arise.
In writing and in conversation, for the first time outside the family, I was finally able to discuss the fact that my mother died of alcoholic liver disease.
In Spring of 2012, about a month or so after I made the decision to stop hiding my mother’s reality, I happened to run into an old friend I’d known since childhood. We had lost touch decades ago, but now lived in the same general area again, and reconnected via Facebook.
My friend and I visited one afternoon, and caught up on family and the passage of time over the last 20-25 years. We talked about marriage, kids, parents, and friends.
Invariably, as it often does in conversations with friends when discussing family members, the question about how my parents died was posed. This time I was prepared to tell the truth.
As we sipped on our beers, sitting in the sun on a patio on that warm spring day, I described the effects of my mother’s excesses – her drunken anger, and her depression – the result of her beloved Manhattans, straight up, with ice on the side so as not to dilute their potency. Eventually, alcohol shut down her organs until she passed away from alcoholic liver disease. It was a story I’d only recently shared with anyone outside the family.
In the midst of chatting and reminiscing, my friend shared stories of her own, dramatic episodes she’d recently experienced that seemed to have a common theme: alcohol. As our visit drew to a close, I was beginning to worry a bit about her, though like my mother, her effervescent personality and sense of humor were magnetic. Her fun-loving energy and child-like vibe could easily convince you that everything was okay. Until it wasn’t.
I left our little reunion, glad to have reconnected, but also concerned about some patterns that seemed all too familiar to me: frequent fighting, anger, family drama, encounters with police, and other episodes, all fueled by alcohol.
I left my friend that day, knowing I probably wouldn’t see her again soon, due to our busy and very different lives. She was raising three kids while I was working three jobs. As I drove away I wished I could have done something to help, but out of the loop for so many years, I knew it wasn’t my place.
I was right. I didn’t see her again soon. Her updates on Facebook remained consistently humorous, and, as always, revealed little about the personal and family issues she had discussed with me. So I never knew how things were really going after our day together.
Then, last month, I received an unexpected message on Facebook from her, including these words:
Sometimes it takes hindsight to see how God has put angels in your path and that is certainly the case for me. You may or may not know that the day you came to visit was one of my very darkest. I didn’t want to die but I couldn’t remember how to live, how to truly laugh, most of all didn’t know how to love me anymore. I knew I had to do something different. When you came, you shared the experience of [dealing] with an alcoholic mother. I saw a lot of myself in your statements…
I realized I no longer wanted to be trapped… Turns out, yours truly is [also] an alcoholic. While that probably is no surprise to you or to anyone who has known me through the years, I could never truly concede it to my innermost self. You, my friend, were a part of a grand plan – if I could only open my eyes to see and ears to hear.
One week after we sat on the patio together, she entered a treatment program, and has been sober ever since.
Reading her note, I cried and continued to cry for twenty minutes. There were tears of joy for her and her children and husband, but something more was going on. This was a release of liability from the guilt I have felt for beginning to speak plainly about my mother’s illness, for divulging her closely guarded secret, for feeling as though I betrayed my mom’s wishes somehow.
Then, on Facebook of all places, came this proof that my mother’s death was not in vain, that writing and talking about it had saved another family from the rage, chaos, conflict, and loss caused by alcohol abuse.
My friend invited me to the ceremony marking her one year sober anniversary. I was so grateful to have been asked and was looking forward to attending. When the morning arrived, rain was pouring down outside, and I had the flu. I was chilled to the bone. Every part of my body ached. But I got up out of bed – because I could – and went. It was also pouring rain on the day my mother finally succumbed to her disease one dreary summer morning in 2004, but she was past getting up out of bed.
In her speech, my friend said that for years her husband, her friends and even the legal system had tried to tell her she was an alcoholic. She didn’t listen. It was my mother’s story that got through to her. She decided that day, one year earlier, that she didn’t want to leave her family in the same manner that my mother left hers.
And I am so grateful and thankful to have been a part of that day and that ceremony. I was honored when my mother’s life was mentioned, and a bit uncomfortable when everyone turned around to look at me. Those inquisitive glances were a small price to pay for bearing witness to a friend changing her life, and a family celebrating her year of sobriety. They would be spared the confusion, guilt, secrecy and shame that children and spouses of alcoholics endure.
I am reminded that if we are able, we must get out of bed even on the rainy days. We must be present. We must make time to connect with each other. We cannot be afraid to face reality. We must open our eyes and ears to the lessons and truths in our lives, even when it means disclosing stories that make us uncomfortable. We may touch another life, and make a difference in ways we can’t imagine.
© Andrea Clement Santiago
Andrea Clement Santiago is a career advice columnist, writer, and communications professional. Her background in medical sales, training, and healthcare recruiting led to her role as the Guide to Health Careers for About.com, an IAC company. She has contributed to books, journals, websites and has made media appearances on television and radio in her capacity as a healthcare career expert. She writes about her experience as an adult orphan on her blog, No Parents No Problem. Learn more about Andrea here. Follow Andrea on Twitter at @AndreaSantiago, or connect with her on LinkedIn.
You May Also Enjoy