Every family and every individual has secrets. Don’t they? Some of them are shameful, most of them minor. If you believe in God you may have felt like you broke one of the Ten Commandments. When I was little I wondered about the commandment, Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery. I wondered if that had something to do with farming. I was raised a strict Roman Catholic so while I could recite all of the Ten Commandments I didn’t really know what some of them meant. Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Goods and Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Wife were tricky. I had to look up the word “covet” in the dictionary. I was just learning about how the dictionary worked and found it easiest to take the first definition. It meant to “wish for earnestly.” I had a lot of problems with that one. I wished I had my best friend Peggy’s new bike because I didn’t have one. I also wanted Peggy’s new skates. I was in deep trouble with those two. It sounded so unfair, like it was too much to ask someone to not do. I knew Thou Shalt Not Steal and Thou Shalt Not Kill. Maybe you stole something from the candy store when you were eight years old. Oops, there went one sinful commandment broken. Okay, if no one knew but you, you could shove it into that little room in your mind where you shove actions you felt guilty about.
If you came from a dysfunctional family, as you grew older the secrets became something akin to shame. You’re not sure when it started but you knew not to tell anyone. John Bradshaw said that if your family has any secrets you can bet they are about sex. When I was nine my dad worked for Elliott Construction Co. and we were friends with all of the kids whose father had the same occupation. One day about six of us got together in the field next to our house. I stole matches (another secret) from my house and we lit a fire as we pretended to be pioneers. Another time we got together and played doctor. That was actually more fun until my mother called my sister and I together for a lecture. Mom said she knew what we were doing in that field and she wanted it stopped. My heart dropped in to my shoes. Oh my God! My mother knew we were playing doctor. I stared at her with my mouth hanging open. Was she going to take Christmas away from us as punishment? Was she going to not let me use our dog Rusty for a pillow? My mind ran rampant with fear. She followed that statement with another. “If that lady who lived in that big house and saw what you and your friends were doing and not told me about it I would never have found out that you were playing with matches.” My knees weakened, my heart thudded in gratitude. I gratefully accepted whatever the punishment was, probably standing in the corner for awhile. In those days it was my mom’s favorite punishment.
But that “playing doctor” business was the first time I had to shove something shameful in to my “attic in my mind”. As the years went by it was the only thing in that attic. Then one night, when I was thirteen and sound asleep in my lower bunk with my rosary under my pillow, my father came into my bedroom and raped me. I screamed for my mother over and over. She was a sound sleeper and by the time she awoke and came into my bedroom my father was standing out in the hall his bathrobe clutched tightly closed. My knowledge of sex and how babies were made was limited. I described to her what had happened. “Someone was laying on top of me and they were doing something so painful and so shameful. Help me momma please help me.” My mom told me I had had a nightmare and no amount of begging and crying for help made her change her mind.
Now, the biggest of my secrets was thrown into the attic, landing with a thud against the wall to stay hidden in the corner, a young girl crying for help the only evidence. As time went on the attic became more and more crowded. Mom retreated into a catatonic state of apathy, as if she were in a stupor where she sobbed uncontrollably for long periods, followed by a condition of such deep depression, that she lay in her bed as if she were in a melancholic trance. She had me bath her, shave her legs, comb her hair; I did all as I wiped her sobs away. What had happened to my mother? I must have done something very bad that she would be in this state. I didn’t know what it was but I shoved it too, its origin unknown to me, into my attic which was beginning to fill with thundering speed. My father started a job in a town an hour’s drive away and only came home on weekends. Our whole life changed.
My family reminded me of a camp of mutilated and injured soldiers from some obsolete war, indescribable in its agony. All the figures were shadowy and disoriented, as if only half alive and that half living in a well of misery. We moved in and out of our days appearing to wait for some catastrophic happening, all of us knowing that once it did, we were ill prepared to handle it.
Decades later, while I was in recovery I journeyed back to that small Midwest town and spoke with the lady who lived across the street. I had babysat her children as she had become one of my sanctuaries. When I told her what my father had done she broke into sobs and said, “I knew something bad was happening over there but your mom always wanted to describe all of you as a loving and perfect family unit.
Secrets and the trauma that they bring must be weeded out. Only the truth, all of it, in any situation that has been painful and is affecting our life as if it we were a train that had been thrown off the tracks must be dealt with head on. Secrets, by their very nature require keeping your mouth shut period. But there are good secrets and bad secrets. If you have a gift for your wife that you are keeping as a secret, that is admirable. If a friend tells you about her problems and doesn’t want you to share, there’s another admirable secret. When a secret is about keeping a moral, sexual or physical wrongdoing to yourself, that won’t work. You need to drag it out into the sun and sort out what must be done. For anyone sexually abused, getting help is not an option. You are so covered with shame that you’d rather die than tell your parents. It takes great courage to face what happened, to look in the mirror and say, “it wasn’t my fault” so I can report it. But this is your life we’re talking about. How do you want the rest of it to look? Do you want to be depressed, suicidal, have low self-esteem, keep choosing unhealthy partners? Or do you want to feel strong emotionally, in charge of your own life, making healthy choices, setting boundaries? The choice should be easy, but the path is not easy. That’s why I wrote Repair Your Life. Get started. Check out the Repair program and the Repair Your Life book on our website at www.thelamplighters.org. I’m here if you need help. Margie@thelamplighters.org