Just days before my mother died last year, she revealed a secret to me, a secret she had kept for almost fifty years, a secret that flipped a light switch in my brain. Suddenly, I could look at events from fifty years ago and see them in a different light.
The clarity was almost blinding, and I wanted to explore the implications of what I had learned, but my mother was dying, and I needed to pay attention to what was happening right in front of me instead of examining events from the past. So, I tucked her secret away.
And then one day last fall, her secret came rushing back to me like a tidal wave.
I was overwhelmed with a truth I had never even considered, a truth that explained my father’s attitude toward me after I got divorced. I realized that my life could have gone in an entirely different direction had I known then what my mother had revealed before her death.
I was hurt and angry.
Moreover, my mother’s secret dislodged a secret that I had been keeping for more than fifty years, a secret I was not consciously aware I was keeping.
Suddenly, disparate pieces of my early twenties fell into place like cogs on a gear. I had great clarity about my early life and things that had happened to me that had shaped the rest of my life.
At family gatherings, my younger brother liked to point to my mother and then to me and say, “Tree, apple.”
My mother was great at denial and at keeping secrets. She denied anything bad that happened to her and would not risk disclosing an unattractive (or downright ugly) truth about someone, in case it might be embarrassing (or possibly illegal). She protected people who were not worthy of protection, and she taught me to do the same.
Like my mother, I am a great secret keeper, a steel trap for people’s confidences, and I have held sacred the secrets people have shared with me over the years.
What I know about secrets, though, is that the shame attached to them can turn something innocent into something sinister, and I know how shame can paralyze.
A few years ago, when I finally said the name of the man who raped me, I realized I had been protecting him by not saying his name; I was keeping it secret.
Saying his name—revealing the secret—broke the power of shame over me.
Back to the tree…apple scenario.
I have spent my adult life trying to unlearn my mother’s lessons, trying to be more honest and forthcoming. I have gone to ACOA meetings and worked the steps. I know that we are only as sick as our secrets, and I have tried to live transparently, without secrets.
And yet now I am faced with two new secrets from my past.
But those events are no longer buried, and I have begun talking about what happened to me.