To Share or Not to Share: Can Keeping Addiction Secret be a Good Thing?
We live in a world where sharing personal secrets and opening our lives completely to others without restriction or reservation has almost become routine. From social networking to texting to Twitter to reality television, everywhere you look the culture of the candid confession is flourishing. To some extent, this signals the triumph of the therapeutic model of emotional healing, which teaches us that baring our souls and sharing our deepest darkest secrets and fears is chicken soup for our fragile and wounded psyches.
Needless to say, this ethos of sharing and openness is the antithesis of what usually happens inside of families dealing with addiction or alcoholism. Substance abuse thrives in the shadows, where rather than speaking out about it everyone just stays silent in the vain hope that it will all turn out to be some kind of mirage that eventually fades away into nothingness.
In assessing these opposing dynamics from a substance abuse perspective, it would seem that dealing with the collateral damage caused by addiction and alcoholism would most likely require finding some kind of a middle ground between these two extremes. Family members who have been forced to keep an addict’s secret definitely need to find opportunities to share what they have been feeling and experiencing, without question. But talking to anyone and everyone about a family’s struggle with addiction is not likely to help the person battling against substance abuse, nor is it likely to bring comfort and relief to those who have been keeping this terrible secret bottled up inside for far too long. Helping an addict or alcoholic cover up the truth is a form of enabling, to be sure, but that does not mean that a person’s highly personal struggle with addiction should become fodder for gossip and community discussion. There is a difference between secrecy and privacy, and while the former can be destructive and dangerous everyone has a right to at least some of the latter.
Experience has shown that exposing an addict to public embarrassment is not a good way to motivate him or her to give up drugs or alcohol. In fact, open public ridicule could be the thing that finally sends an addict completely over the edge. Furthermore, when a family member chooses to start sharing a painful family secret with everyone, the motivation for this action must be called into question. Is it being done because the person revealing the truth really hopes to shame their loved one into getting help, or because keeping everything bottled up inside for so long has gotten to be too large of a burden to bear? Or, is he or she actually acting out of anger, and trying to get revenge against the addict or alcoholic who has been causing so much pain for everyone else in the family?
Finding the Middle Ground
It is absolutely beyond dispute that substance abusers cause a tremendous amount of suffering inside of their own homes. Spouses, children, parents, grandparents, and other close family members who share time or living space with addicts are emotionally traumatized by the experience, and keeping everything secret and never letting anyone know what goes on behind closed doors is toxic to the psychological health of all those involved in such a situation.
In families living with addiction, secret-keeping enables, and it also functions as a form of self-abuse. So seeking aid, comfort, and support from groups like Al-Anon or Alateen, which exist to help people adversely affected by a loved one’s substance abuse, should be considered an imperative. These groups are there to provide a safe forum where family members of addicts can share their pain and their anger, and in this context there is no such thing as too much sharing. In addition to seeking this type of peer support, consultations with a personal therapist, or school counselor in the case of children or adolescents, can also be quite helpful for anyone who is trying to cope with the twisted dynamics of a family caught in the all-encompassing web of drug addiction or alcoholism.
While it is wise to be circumspect when sharing personal information about family addiction problems with others in a non-therapeutic or self-help setting, this does not mean that family members should enable addicts or alcoholics by protecting them from the consequences of their actions. For example, if his or her boss calls because the addict failed to show up for work, no one should make up lies or excuses to explain away what has happened. Substance abusers shouldn’t have their personal issues advertised on Facebook, or shared with everyone at the local coffee shop, but no one should ever help them cover up for their irresponsible behavior simply because doing so might ultimately lead to the secret getting out.
A good rule of thumb about suppressing the truth for family members of addicts would be this: if it is about helping an addict or alcoholic preserve their privacy and sense of personal dignity, holding back on the full and unvarnished truth is usually justified, and probably the right thing to do. But on the other hand, if keeping the family secret will force the person being asked to do so to compromise their integrity in any way, or if it means repressing feelings and emotions that are causing pain just because that is what the addict or alcoholic might prefer, then keeping quiet – or worse, lying – should not be considered an option. To deal with it all in any other way will enable the substance abuser, and this is always the wrong thing to do in any context.